Your online credibility is sort of like the fresh (but out-of-season) strawberries at your local grocery store: warily scrutinized by many, and easily bruised.
Whether you’re promoting a law firm, a medical practice, or some other highly skilled service business, you’re essentially asking potential clients to invest their trust in you at the outset. You promise good results later on, but they must trust you first. Anything that discourages that trust will scare away customers, just as moldy spots on the strawberries will mean no sales for your grocer.
It’s essential, then, that you avoid painfully bad errors in spelling, grammar, and idiom on your website. Such mistakes tell potential clients that you’re not as clever, diligent, or professional as you have promised, and warn them that they should be wary about trusting you. One of your website’s key goals is to build trust, so it’s a supreme failure when your site drives away sales.
Among the worst mistakes you can make is to tell clients that you don’t understand the difference between one and two.
Can you spot the errors?
Consider these excerpts from web pages just like yours:
- Severe dog bites can cause the victim to lose a large portion of their skin.
- Your doctor may prescribe some type of anti-inflammatory drug to control pain and inflammation. They may also recommend regular cortisone injections.
- Has your child been complaining about pains or problems with their feet, ankles, or legs?
- An injured customer and their attorney must prove that the store owner created the hazard that led to the accident.
- Every time a driver gets behind the wheel they are taking a chance of being involved in an auto accident.
- The lawyer can get into real trouble if they do not treat what their client tells them with a healthy degree of skepticism.
In each case, we have singular nouns—victim, doctor, child, customer, driver, and lawyer—later referenced by a plural pronoun or adjective—their, them, or they.
We know why this happens, right? English does not have a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and writers don’t want to alienate some readers by saying “he” or “him” when the word may not apply. So rather than making a possible error in the gender of the reader, the writer commits to making a definite error in number.
You should note that pronouns can also trigger this same problem. The indefinite pronouns someone, anyone, nobody, everybody, each, everyone, anything, something, none, and anybody are all defined as singular, so any later word that refers to one of these pronouns must also be singular. Anyone who has been attacked by a wild animal should understand they must see a doctor immediately conveys the right idea, but the sentence is grammatically defective.
Does this matter? You bet! Although using “them” and “they” in this way is acceptable in casual spoken conversation between friends, it’s stilted in professional communications. It seems wrong to all readers, regardless of their level of literary sophistication. It fails the confidence-building test.
Escaping the trap
Now, classic standard English grammar says the right approach is to follow through with him, his, and he when referring to an earlier noun with unspecified gender.
In recent years, many people have come to believe that defaulting to his and him is sexist. Modern usage allows some other options: you can also use her, hers, and she as alternatives whenever you might like, or recast the sentence to make the original noun plural. Just make sure that you match singular terms with other singular terms—and plurals with plurals—on a consistent basis throughout your writing.
And, of course, the final stage of the website writing process is at least one level of proofreading by someone whose grammar skills you can trust. Every page you produce for your professional website should be work you are proud to claim as your own. Over time, the excellence of the information you provide and the skill with which you deliver it will earn your site as trustworthy and valuable: in grocer’s terms, a perfect, succulent strawberry.
Do you need professional editing services in a hurry—like, yesterday? We do that. Just one call to Foster Web Marketing at 888.886.0939 can get us working on proofreading your live content and working hand-in-hand with you as you build your own website. Give us a chance to help make sure embarrassing grammatical gaffes don’t show up online.