Do you notice spelling and grammatical errors when you read someone's work? Do those errors infuriate you and make you think that the author is stupid, or lazy, or both?

Grammar Nazis tend to think that they have an objective distaste for people who treat Strunk & White like a set of suggestions instead of rules. But a new study suggests that people don't even notice "mistakes" when they think the author is white...

A study conducted by Nextions gave a number of law firm partners identical copies of a memo that contained 22 errors. Half of the partners were told that the author of the memo was white, the other were told that the memo was written by an African-American. The top-line results are posted by Victoria Pynchon on her site She Negotiates:

In Written in Black and White, selected law firm partners were asked to evaluate a single research memo into which 22 different errors were deliberately inserted - 7 spelling/grammar errors, 6 substantive writing errors, 5 errors in fact, and 4 analytic errors. Half of the partner evaluators were told that the hypothetical associate author was African American and half were told that the author was Caucasian...

On a five point scale, reviews for the exact same memo averaged a 3.2 for the "African American" author and 4.1 for the "Caucasian" author. More surprising were the findings of "objective" criteria such as spelling. The partner evaluators found an average of 2.9 spelling and grammar errors for the "Caucasian" authors and 5.8 such errors for the "African American" authors. Overall the memo presumed to have been written by a "Caucasian" was "evaluated to be better in regards to the analysis of facts and had substantively fewer critical comments."


I imagine that if they did this study with gender being the variable, you'd see similar results. Go ahead, try to be a professional woman who makes a "there/their/they're" mistake in an email. You won't have to listen closely for the "ditz" comments. The only people who think they are "objective" are people who haven't examined their own prejudices.

I posted this study on Above the Law and there have been some predictable comments. One common line from the "racism doesn't exist, stop talking about race" crowd has been: "Oh, well when I see a mistake, I don't care about the race of the person who made it." Of course you don't. The way to combat racism is to pretend that it doesn't exist.

But the fascinating thing about this study is that it suggests that you don't SEE the mistake when it's made by a white author. You don't notice it. There were seven "objective" spelling and grammar errors in the memo: the lawyers only noticed about three of them when the author was white, but noticed nearly six of them when they thought the author was black. That's double. The participants were twice as likely to notice a spelling error made by a black author than a white one. And note that the study doesn't tell us if the reviewers were white or black. I'm probably just as likely to notice additional errors from a black author as opposed to a white one as you are. I bet Bill Cosby would too. Crazypants.


And lawyers are an excellent group to do this case study with. Law firm partners are experts at reading documents and pointing out mistakes. If they can't see it, I have no hope that the random HR person at "Company You Want To Work For" is any more observant.

Now, if you are a minority, you probably already know this. You already know that if a white guy makes a spelling error, he was "inattentive," if you make one, you're "stupid" and/or "lazy." Women already know that they are expected to be excellent "typists" even if they've never held a clerical job in their life. The study isn't "news," it's just depressing.

On the positive side, grammar and spelling are things any professional can work on and get better at. Your copy just has to be cleaner than the white guy's down the hall. That might be unfair, but at least you know that. It's a hurdle that can be cleared.


Be gooder is really the only advice here.

Proof That Typos Are Racist [Above the Law]