The English language can be confusing, partly because the rules are changing as business writing becomes less formal. No doubt, my grammar teacher would be upset that so many of her former students dangle their prepositions or fragment their sentences.
Mrs. Cardwell also did not anticipate how our reliance on spell check and auto correct would create a whole new breed of mistakes.
Although the green highlighting in Word and other grammar programs can help with some issues, they can’t replace your need to understand which rules count.
In my 30 years of business writing and editing, I keep seeing the same flubs. They can make you look unprofessional and result in misunderstandings. So pay special attention to my top three grammar, spelling and punctuation gaffes.
- The most common mistake is to confuse pronoun possessives with contractions, most commonly, “its” and “it’s” or “your” and “you’re.” Well-intentioned people remember Mrs. Cardwell’s rule about possessives using apostrophes, but forget about the exception with pronouns. They both may sound the same, but their meanings and spellings are quite distinct. There’s more in my post about aiming at the biggest, easiest grammar targets.
- Many people mix up words that sound almost the same as each other, but have different meanings and spellings. Take “except” and “accept” or “compliment” and “complement.” Here’s a list of commonly confused sound-alikes.
- You are less likely to make a mistake or look unprofessional if you use fewer apostrophes, semi-colons, colons and exclamation points. Many people want to slide an apostrophe into plural numbers, as in “hits of the 80s.” But if the apostrophe may be unnecessary or wrong, you want to avoid this much-abused mark.
Similarly, don’t throw in colons, semi-colons or exclamation points–unless you have a very good reason. Excessive or incorrect punctuation can make you look like an amateur. Punctuation marks are road signs to direct, not perplex, your readers.
I could go on about people who write “myself” when they mean “me,” or “that” when “which” or “who” would be clearer. I could explain how to avoid sexist language without sounding awkward. You can learn more through my blog Sticky Communication or book and online writing course, called Write Like You Talk Only Better.
Because people can best remember three tips, let’s focus on these common gaffes.
- Using apostrophes in pronoun possessives, such as “it’s,” which actually means “it is.”
- Confusing words that sound the same but have different meanings and spelling, as in “border” and “boarder.”
- Excessive or incorrect fancy punctuation marks.
As Kyle Wiens wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing.”
When they are writing, the people who make fewer mistakes look smart and professional. Isn’t that the impression you want to leave?
The Language Lab Guest Blogger: Based on her long and broad experience and MA in journalism, Barb Sawyers advises business people how to write more effectively, through her blog, book and online business writing course. She also provides individual business writing coaching.