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February 18th, 2009

Spelling on eBay / M. and Mr.

by Barbara Wallraff

I was wandering around eBay the other day, looking for bargains. They are there, if you’re patient. What I hadn’t counted on finding was so many typos and misspellings. After a while, I stopped shopping and started typing one spelling mistake after another into the search box. I kept getting hits.

I’m not saying this to ridicule people who can’t spell. I’m trying to be helpful. Misspelled words in listings cost sellers money, because the misspellings make it harder for shoppers to find their stuff. If, for instance, someone wanted to sell a pair of “perl earings” (yes, indeed, I found both those misspellings) and typed it that way, the listing wouldn’t turn up in searches for either pearl jewelry or earrings. EBay is a little more tolerant of searchers who can’t spell: search for “earing” and it will show you earrings. But it doesn’t perform this trick in reverse: it won’t show “earings” to people searching for “earrings.”

Some of the misspellings I found had extra letters – for instance, “irridescent.” Some were missing letters – “barel” (for “barrel”),” “choclate,” “miniture,” “pillo.” A common kind of misspelling involved transposed letters – “candel stick,” “candleabra,” “lasanga,” “mahagony,” “mapel,” “marbel,” “mosiac,” “purpel,” “sliver” (for “silver”). There were also just plain wrong spellings – “basquet” (for basket”), “burgandy,” “granate” (which sometimes meant “garnet” and sometimes “granite”), “Norwegion,” “Scandanavian,” “spaguetti.” I also found listings that included correctly spelled but wrong words – “guilt” (for “gilt”), “neckless” (for “necklace”), “suite” (for “suit”).

Most of these mistakes are easy to avoid. In fact, many of them are almost hard to make. If you type the text of a listing in Microsoft Word, the spell-checker will automatically correct some misspellings, such as “burgandy, “mosiac” and “purpel.” It will put a red line, meaning “You sure about this spelling?” under most of them, and suggest possible corrections. That’s the automatic approach. There’s also the old-fashioned human-proofreader method: If you know you’re not a good speller, ask someone who is to check your work.

In some ways, computers are making us better spellers – or more accurate typists. Type an e-mail address wrong and your message won’t go through. In other ways, they encourage us to be sloppy, as so many people are in the e-mails themselves – and in eBay listings. Computers can’t do all the work. And besides, they have no judgment. Unless we rely on our own knowledge and judgment, we’re bound to lose out.

Carlos A. Altgelt, of Martinez, Argentina, writes: “Do you know if in the mid-1800s the abbreviation for ‘Mister’ was just the letter ‘M.’ instead of ‘Mr.’?”

Dear Carlos: Well, until about the mid-1800s “M.” was one possible abbreviation for “Mister.” (From Edmund Spenser, in 1596: “The two worthie Gentlemen M. Henry Gilford, and M. William Peter, Esquyers.”) But “Mr.” was in use at the same time. (From Sir Thomas More, circa 1524: “All the lettres of Mr. Secretary sent unto your Grace.”)

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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