You may think that readers expect news products to be free from grammatical errors. In other words, text is written in the best-possible language, and that anything which affects this somehow will create a subtle devaluation of the article’s authority and credibility in the reader’s mind. This interesting research, however, suggests that this is not necessarily a universal attribute, although it remains something that does impact on many readers.

The authors identify that journalists and editors have assumed this to be the case. It was driven into this writer’s mind at journalism school about the importance of clear writing. We all can make mistakes, of course, but ‘Joe reader’ can assume that if you are sloppy with writing it (the news) down, you can also have been sloppy with gathering the facts and presenting them. Arguments are abound as to whether grammatical accuracy is necessary in a changing media world, yet the authors suggest that it may even help readers distinguish professional journalism from other user-generated content. An interesting thought.

The article is primed by an interesting, but concise, literature review considering grammatical errors in the news media as well as grammatical errors and reader judgements. This helped set the scene for a three-part research hypothesis that would be tested by four related studies. This appeared to be built around a pertinent design with an acceptable research panel. Obviously, a larger or broader pool could be used for other research or when examining if explicit discrepancies may exist. Two distinct audience sources were selected by the authors, adding valuable variability. Limitations were credibly noted and valid.

Research scoring led to broad analysis which, when all the studies were analyzed, gave good indicative results about potential attitudes, at least within the interview groupings. I suggest they may, in the absence of conflicting information, be valid as possible generalisations-thus-far. The data was reasonably presented for analysis, although a little greater accessibility to the text describing the statistics would have been welcome.

Essentially, the research concluded that perception may be affected by grammar if the manipulation is strong enough, that is to say, a number of errors (‘quite large’) are present. However, the effect was not universal throughout the group and this was dependent on the level of respondent grammar concern and grammar knowledge. Clearly aiming for clean, readable text is the key although the occasional error is less likely to be viewed adversely, noted the researchers.

The article gave some valuable insight into the mind of the reader and helped underline the benefits of maintaining a quality production, irrespective of perceived changing communications norms. One area of research could be to undertake a similar experiment and make a control group with people who have English as a second language, discovering whether they react to errors and other impediments to their reading and comprehension. I’ve noticed this myself when reading certain foreign language texts, that whilst I might not pick up on advanced grammatical errors, difficult constructions, verbosity and uncommon language use can get in the way.

Appelman, A. and Schmierbach, M., 2017. Make No Mistake? Exploring Cognitive and Perceptual Effects of Grammatical Errors in News Articles. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. DOI:10.1177/1077699017736040

A post-publication review of this article appears at Publons.