By Georgia Wells, Oct. 1, 2015
Courtesy of Wall Street Journal

When Jeff Cohen was getting ready to meet his OkCupid date for drinks in Manhattan, he started to have second thoughts as he reread the glaring grammatical error in her last message: “I will see you their.”

The date flopped for a couple of reasons, but bad grammar bothers Mr. Cohen. Learning a potential mate doesn’t know the difference between “there,” “they’re” and “their” is like discovering she loves cats, he says. Mr. Cohen is allergic to cats. “It’s like learning I’m going to sneeze every time I see her,” he says.

With crimes against grammar rising in the age of social media, some people are beginning to take action. The online dating world is a prime battleground.

Mr. Cohen joins a number of singles picky about the grammar gaffes they’re seeing on dating sites. For love, these folks say written communications matter, from the correct use of semicolons, to understanding the difference between its and it’s, and sentences built on proper parallel construction.

“Grammar snobbery is one of the last permissible prejudices,” says John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University. “The energy that used to go into open classism and racism now goes into disparaging people’s grammar.”

Mr. Cohen now uses an app that ranks the message quality of prospective dates. Called the Grade, the app checks messages for typos and grammar errors and assigns each user a letter grade from A+ to F.

The Grade demotes people whose messages contain certain abbreviations, like “wassup” and “YOLO,” short for “You Only Live Once,” popular among young people who want to justify doing something risky or indulgent. Clifford Lerner, chief executive of SNAP Interactive Inc., the company that makes the Grade, says the app downgrades these types of phrases in an effort to promote “meaningful conversations.”

Dating site Match asked more than 5,000 singles in the U.S. what criteria they used most in assessing dates. Beyond personal hygiene—which 96% of women valued most, as compared with 91% of men—singles said they judged a date foremost by the person’s grammar. The survey found 88% of women and 75% of men said they cared about grammar most, putting it ahead of a person’s confidence and teeth.

“When you get a message that is grammatically correct and has a voice and is put together, it is very attractive, it definitely adds hotness points,” says New Yorker Grace Gold. “People who send me text-type messages, and horrific grammatical errors? I just delete them.” She recalls the red flag raised by one potential suitor who had written his entire dating profile in lowercase.

Language has always played a part in how people judge others, but it has become amplified in recent years with increasing informal and colloquial usage, says Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer and chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Mr. Zimmer also writes a column about language for The Wall Street Journal.

“Before, we just heard informal language in spoken contexts, but now it surrounds us all the time” on email, text, instant message and social media, he says. “Whenever there are enough young people using language in a new way, you get hand-wringing about how language is falling apart. We saw it in the ’20s, then the ’50s, and we see this cycle happening again.”

One reason people judge grammar and spelling snafus so harshly is that they can reflect the level of effort, or lack thereof, that folks put into their bio. “People use quality of writing as an indication of work ethic,” says Max Lytvyn, co-founder of automated-proofreading company Grammarly.

Grammarly analyzed spelling errors on dating site eHarmony. A man with two spelling errors on the site was 14% less likely to receive a positive response compared with a man with zero spelling errors. Poor spelling by a woman, on the other hand, didn’t seem to affect her chances of a positive match.

It isn’t just about errors. Superior writing skills can also improve one’s chances of standing out. Sam von Kühn, living with his parents in Connecticut, thought well-crafted sentences would be key to wooing the amazing woman he found on Match. He sent the nanny in New York a message about the Seattle Seahawks, the football team she indicated she liked in her profile.

Despite receiving roughly 300 messages from potential suitors, his note caught his now-wife Katy von Kühn’s attention. “The whole reason I responded to Sam was the way he formulated his email. So many guys on the site used long, run-on sentences!” she says.

“It showed he was intelligent and trying to make a good first impression. He didn’t even have to say anything that thoughtful,” Ms. von Kühn says. “A lot of people put themselves in last place without realizing it.”

Some people hire others to help choose their words. Laurie Davis, CEO of eFlirt, has a team of English grads and former journalists who rewrite online dating profiles for clients. “Most people read the profiles we write for them and say ‘Oh, my God, you sound exactly like me,’ ” Ms. Davis says.

There are also more practical reasons why people are wary of misspellings. Jason Tan, CEO of Sift Science, a fraud-detection company that uses big data, says certain types of typos are associated with fraud. If the misspelled word “happend” appears in the text of a message, the person sending it is 22 times as likely to be a fraudster than if they had spelled the word correctly, according to a study Mr. Tan conducted. The spelling “ur” marks a message as 3.8 times as likely to be fraud than the average message. And fraudsters dislike capital letters.

Misspellings aside, Joel Simkhai, CEO of gay dating-app Grindr, doesn’t think everyone cares about the text on dating-app bios. The profile pages for users on Grindr used to include a paragraph of text; now they just show the user’s photo, username and age. The text is still there, but hidden in the menu.

“It’s the visual. I don’t think anybody reads these things,” says Mr. Simkhai. “If you’re hot and attractive to the other person, you’ll meet them. Grammar? Are you kidding?”