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Do Misspelled Menus Matter?

Diners expect chefs to know how to make quenelles, not spell them

Grammarly Card
Source: Grammarly Card

We're told the Internet has made spelling and punctuation obsolete. Maybe, but it's also inaugurated a golden age of grammar shaming. There are memes for scolding your social-net friends on every error of spelling and usage; listicles of funny misspellings in signs and menus. Does spelling matter in the emoticon age? Purists say it does. Most others aren’t so sure. (Illustration via Grammarly.)

Restaurant menus are a battlefield of this culture war. I live near a restaurant with the slogan "Cuban Food at it’s Best!" Having been an editor, I can't unsee the misplaced apostrophe. These days, menus are typed by a sous-chef on a laptop, unmediated by an English major. We’ve all seen "Ceasar" rather than Caesar salad. Or worse, "mescaline" for mesclun.

"I don’t expect chefs to be writers," wrote the Washington Post’s Jane Black, "just as they don’t expect me to make my own puff pastry. But given the existence of spell-checkers (the writing equivalent of frozen puff pastry dough), the number of errors is surprising."

In my book Head in the Cloud, I try to measure the real-world value of knowledge, including spelling and grammar. In one experiment, I ran a national survey presenting a fictitious sandwich shop menu and asking people of all ages and educational backgrounds to answer a few questions about it: How appealing is the food selection? Would you try this place? How much would you be willing to pay for lunch here?

Unknown to the survey participants, each was randomly assigned to a group that saw one of two versions of the menu. In one version, the spelling and grammar were scrupulously correct. In the other, I packed in every common menu misspelling and error I could manage.

William Poundstone, "Head in the Cloud"
Source: William Poundstone, "Head in the Cloud"

The survey did not ask anything about spelling. I wanted to see whether bad spelling would have an effect, maybe an unconscious one, on perceptions of the sandwich shop and its food.

It didn’t. By every criterion the misspelled menu was rated the same as the correct one, to within statistical margins of error. People were as likely to try the sandwich shop, to rate its food healthy, and to judge its prices fair.

William Poundstone, "Head in the Cloud"
Source: William Poundstone, "Head in the Cloud"

The chart shows the error bars. In all cases they overlap extensively, providing not the slightest evidence that the errors made any difference. And I’m talking about big errors like Sandwhitchs! Barbaque or vegitarian!

I’m not saying that spelling doesn’t matter anywhere, in any context. But a restaurateur concerned only with the bottom line need not worry too much about it, it seems. When it comes to spelling and grammar, we’re willing to cut restaurants a good deal of slack.

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