hen Holly Marshall wanted to sell a
pair of dangling earrings, a popular style these days, she listed
them on eBay
once, and got no takers. She tried a second time, and still no
Was it the price? The fuzzy picture? Maybe the description: a
beautiful pair of chandaleer earrings.
Such is the eBay underworld of misspellers, where the clueless —
and sometimes just careless — sell labtop computers, throwing
knifes, Art Deko vases, camras, comferters and saphires.
They do get bidders, but rarely very many. Often the buyers are
those who troll for spelling slip-ups, buying items on the cheap and
selling them all over again on eBay, but with the right spelling and
for the right price. John H. Green, a jeweler in Central Florida, is
one of them.
Mr. Green once bought a box of gers for $2. They were gears for
pocket watches, which he cleaned up and put back on the auction
block with the right spelling. They sold for $200. "I've bought and
sold stuff on eBay and Yahoo
that I bought for next to nothing" because of poor spelling or vague
descriptions, he said.
David Scroggins, who lives in Milwaukee, also searches for
misspellings. His company provides entertainment for weddings and
corporate events, and microphone systems for shows at Wisconsin's
casinos. He has bought Hubbell electrical cords for a 10th of their
usual cost by searching for Hubell and Hubbel. And he now operates
his entire business by laptop computers, having bought three Compaqs
for a pittance simply by asking for Compacts instead.
No one knows how much misspelling is out there in eBay land,
where more than $23 billion worth of goods was sold last year. The
company does flag common misspellings, but wrong spellings can also
turn up similar misspellings, so that buyers and sellers frequently
read past the Web site's slightly bashful line asking, by any
chance, "Did you mean . . . chandelier?"
One unofficial survey — an hour's search for creative spellings —
turned up dozens of items, including bycicles, telefones, dimonds,
mother of perl, cuttlery, bedroom suits and loads of antiks.
Contacted, the sellers were often surprised to hear that they had
misspelled their wares.
Ms. Marshall, who lives in Dallas, said she knew she was on shaky
ground when she set out to spell chandelier. But instead of flipping
through a dictionary, she did an Internet search for chandaleer and
came up with 85 or so listings.
She never guessed, she said, that results like that meant she was
groping in the spelling wilderness. Chandelier, spelled right, turns
up 715,000 times.
Some experts say there is no evidence that people are spelling
worse than they ever did. But with the growth of e-mail
correspondence and instant messaging, language has grown more
informal. And much as calculators did for arithmetic, spell checkers
have made good spelling seem to quite a number of people like an
Not that spell checkers are used by nearly everyone. Indeed,
experts say the Internet — with its discussion boards, blogs and
self-published articles — is a treasure trove of bad spelling.
"Before the Internet came along, poor spelling by the public was
by and large not exposed," said Paige P. Kimble, the director of the
National Spelling Bee. Now, though, "we are becoming acutely aware
of what a challenge spelling is for us."
Sandra Wilde, author of the 1992 book "You Kan Red This!:
Spelling and Punctuation for Whole Language Classrooms K-6," said
language served a variety of purposes, so that in some settings it
might make sense to skip punctuation or to speak in slang. She
likens instant messaging, for example, to notes passed at the back
of the classroom when the teacher's back is turned: there is no
premium on proper spelling.
"On something like eBay though," she said, "it matters.'
Henry Gomez, vice president for corporate communications at eBay,
said the company did not generally hear from sellers who misspell,
and had no way of gauging how many sales might have involved
But some sellers clearly bear in mind the potential for disaster
when preparing their advertisements. Warren Lieu of Houston, who was
selling hunting and fishing knives on eBay recently, covered all the
bases: his listing advertised every sort of alphabetic butchery,
including knifes and knive.
Mr. Lieu, a computer programmer, keeps a list of common
misspellings, including labtop for laptop and Cusinart for
His strategy of listing multiple spellings, he said, is based on
his experience as a buyer. "I'm a bad speller myself," he said. So
his mistakes in searching for items led him to realize that he could
buy up bargains.
"I'd go ahead and deliberately misspell it when I searched for
items," he said.
Jim Griffith, whose official title at eBay is dean of eBay
education, teaches 40 to 50 seminars a year around the country.
Although the auction house flags common misspellings online, Mr.
Griffith said, the most common question he gets is, "When will eBay
get a spell checker?" His answer? "You go to a store called a
bookstore, and you buy something called a dictionary."
Even some who have made money off misspellings have felt their
When Mr. Scroggins, who has been helping his parents sell off the
contents of his father's jewelry and watch repair store, recently
listed "a huge lot of earings," it attracted only three bids, and
sold for just $5.50.
And then there was the time he sold the family's flatwear.