We’ve all been there before – caught up in writing that last-minute email before rushing off to tackle something else on the work to-do list. Hit SEND and move on, right? Not so fast. Writers and editors know that those last minutes are the best time to fix potentially embarrassing, simple grammatical errors.
In the rush of finishing that email, or whatever you’re writing to represent your business or company, sit back and take a deep breath. Do a spell check, of course. Then read it again. Look for the following common grammatical bugaboos before sending your written communications out into the world.
1. It’s always means it is
A common mistake is the use of it’s as a possessive pronoun. After all, singular nouns take possession with an apostrophe and an s, as in the company’s employees or the computer’s knack for crashing. So, it makes sense that the writer would be tempted to write it’s knack for crashing is a problem.
However, it’s is actually a contraction and always means it is. Its without the apostrophe is the possessive pronoun. For example: It’s a profitable company overall, but its sales have declined in the fourth quarter.
2. Who’s there?
It can be confusing to know when to use their, they’re or there in a sentence. However, each word has its specific purpose.
Their is always a possessive pronoun, never any other part of speech. For example: Their business model is cutting edge.
They’re is a contraction of they are. They’re scheduling interviews for the new position is the same as they are scheduling interviews for the new position.
There can be an adjective, a noun or an adverb. If their or they’re doesn’t work in your sentence based on the above rules, then use there. For example: On their lunch break, the staff members are going there for a quick bite.
3. If, then, other than
The difference between then and than is a matter of time and comparison, literally. Then is only used when you’re writing about something relating to time, often in an if/then construction. For example: If profits don’t climb considerably by the end of the budget year, then the company will have to consider cutting costs. When writing about comparisons, then than is the correct word. For example: That product is selling better than all the others combined.
4. Effect vs. affect
Effect is most often used as a noun, whereas affect is most often used as a verb. (Even more confusing, effect can be a verb and affect can be a noun, but again, not most commonly.)
Think of effect as the result, as in the effect of company policy changes can be positive or negative. On the other hand, affect, as a verb, produces change. For example: One employee’s actions can affect a company’s reputation.
5. I’d like to go to the meeting, too
These two little words, to and too, don’t look so tricky, but the truth is, they’re easy to read over and miss the difference.
To is either part of an infinitive verb: to go, to meet, to bargain, to work, etc. Or to is a preposition, with a noun following it. Although the CEO has been working diligently to forward the company’s goals, she is looking forward to her vacation.
Too is an adverb. It works as a synonym for also and in this case should be set off with a comma: The manager wanted to ask for clarification, too. It also is a synonym for excessively: There are too many projects to cover in one meeting.
6. Who vs. whom, and who’s everyone else?
Compared to who, whom may sound old-fashioned, but it definitely has its place.
Who most often is used as a subject or a subject complement. For example: Who led the meeting? I’m not sure who led the meeting because I didn’t attend. Does Missy know who led the meeting? A surefire trick is to replace who with he or she, and if the sentence still makes sense, then who is correct.
Whom most often is used as an indirect object of a preposition or a verb: The meeting will be attended by whom? The project manager doesn’t recall whom he invited to the meeting. Whom should we email first? To make sure you’re correct, recast the sentence using him or her, and if the sentence still makes sense, then whom is correct. For example: The meeting will be attended by him and her. The project manager recalls he invited him. We should email her first.
7. Active voice, not passive voice
Writing in the active voice makes the subject of the sentence the driver of the action and engages the reader. For example, the marketing firm produced an award-winning ad campaign for its client. The marketing firm is the actor creating ads for its client.
Passive voice moves what should be the driver in the sentence to the back seat, so to speak. The award-winning ad campaign was produced by the marketing firm. Recast that sentence in active voice and the marketing firm, once again, is in the driver’s seat: The marketing firm delivers what the client wants.
8. The comma goes where?
More than any other punctuation mark, a comma will bring a writer to tears, if for no other reason than the many, many rules that dictate its usage – too many rules to cover here, of course. A few basic uses for the comma, however, will get business writers through most sentence constructions.
Use a comma:
- Between all elements in a simple series, or not: Fans of what’s called the Oxford comma add a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: Our sales team focuses on positivity, ingenuity, responsiveness, and productivity. However, many style guides, including that of The Associated Press, call for that final comma to be left out: Our sales team focuses on positivity, ingenuity, responsiveness and productivity.
- After an introductory clause or phrase: Leading the company since January 2020, the CEO has made many positive changes.
- To separate independent clauses: The company’s sales are growing, and the sales department staff has doubled in the past year.
- To indicate direct address: I think, David, that your numbers are not calculated correctly.
- To set off direct quotations: In his email, David wrote, “I am basing my projections on our sales performance from the previous year.” I, however, disagree with his premise.
- To set off clauses that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence: The Turell Group, which is located in downtown Eugene, has more than 20 employees.
- To set off nouns or noun phrases that refer to a nearby noun: Market of Choice, the Oregon-based grocery, has 11 stores throughout the state.
- With dates, addresses, titles, and numbers: By January 1, 2021, more than 5,000 people had visited the visual arts exhibit inside 555 Willamette St., Eugene. John Smith, curator, said the exhibit has been a great success.
9. Subjects and verbs should agree
Simply put, if a subject is singular, then its verb also must be singular. The same for plural subject and verbs.
None of the sales team members is going to the conference this year. None is singular, so the verb should be is, not are. However, all the staff members are going to brainstorm ideas for the client’s new logo.
10. Avoid misplaced modifiers
When writing a clause to describe something, make sure it modifies the correct word or phrase in the sentence to avoid confusion. For example: Hoping to impress the client, the pitch was given at the downtown club. The pitch can’t actually hope to impress the client, but the folks giving the pitch sure can. The correct sentence would be: Hoping to impress the client, the marketing team invited him to the downtown club to hear the pitch. Now the marketing team is definitely hoping to impress!