I’m the sort of person who can’t avoid noticing spelling and grammar errors — They just shout out to me from the page/screen. I know most folks lack this curse and can simply read along, overlooking any errors — but not me.
So, I drop notes to webmasters (example) to alert them to errors, explain the corrections, and point out any broken links. Doing this redirects my annoyance, helps me stick to my principles, and (I hope) improves the web.
Most webmasters welcome this feedback because they’re so busy creating new pages that they don’t have time to review existing ones.
Perks of being a Renegade Grammarian
Way back in the dark ages when the Internet was new (circa 1994), I was reading the “Help Pages” of a people directory and kept finding errors. These mistakes weren’t just typos and wouldn’t be caught by spell check because they weren’t misspelled — they were just the wrong word.
For example, there were confusions among the words:
- to, too, and two
- there, their, and they’re
- it’s and its
- who’s and whose
- which and witch
The combination of complex sentences and these simple spelling mistakes led me to think the writer might have been a fluent but non-native English speaker.
I sent one of my error emails to the webmaster of the site. It turned out English wasn’t his primary language. He was so grateful for the help that he offered me a free webpage if I would finish proofing the Help Pages. I was just glad to feel appreciated.
Back then it was a pretty big deal to have a personal webpage. This was back before Facebook, Yahoo!, MySpace, and GeoCities — back when only corporations, colleges, and the government had webpages.
It was a pretty lame page, really just a list of cool links, so I called it Sunny’s Awesome Homepage to be ironic.
I was absolutely tickled to get a free webpage, it didn’t cost him a penny, and it improved the online experience for users of the Help Pages. Everyone was a winner!
Taking the time to contact a webmaster made me one of the few individuals to have a web presence all the way back in 1994. Since then my comments have led to several exchanges of proofing services for upgraded memberships.
If you are similarly afflicted with an error-alert brain, put it to use! (See the tips below.)
Suggestions for contacting webmasters:
1. ALWAYS begin on a positive note.
Webmasters love to learn how you found their sites. Give them this tasty morsel and tell them something positive about the site.
2. Identify the location of the error.
Paste the URL and/or the block of text so they don’t have to search all over — You are trying to help them out, right?
3. Explain the error.
Indicate if it is absolutely an error or merely a suggestion.
If it is just a typo, simply point it out.
If it is more of a grammar/word choice issue, explain the problem without insulting their intelligence.
4. Offer suggested corrections.
Provide multiple options (if possible) and the reasons to choose one over the other.
“If you are saying ____, try the word ____. If you meant ____, try ____.”
“The wording here is awkward. Consider recasting the sentence this way …”
Be sure to use language that leaves the choice to them, not commanding them to make the change.
5. Re-affirm your good intentions.
Let them know you are just trying to help, that you support what they are doing, that you want to improve a worthy project.
6. Wish them well and (possibly) provide contact info.
If you feel comfortable doing so, give them the opportunity to contact you for further explanation.
If they’re grateful, this will give them a way to thank you or, possibly, to compensate you for taking the time to help them out.
For example, many webmasters will upgrade your membership status (free user to paid user, basic member to premium member) since this doesn’t really cost them anything.
Even if they don’t thank you or offer you any compensation, take comfort in knowing you did what you could to improve the web.