Mechanics (Grammar & Construction)
You know writing matters. It’s a skill at the top of every employer’s wish list. And good communicators, especially those talented in writing, generally earn more – up to three times more than those with poor writing skills (according to Shwom & Snyder in Business Communication: Polishing Your Professional Presence).
So build a strong foundation in the mechanics. If you struggle with grammar, for example, invest in a couple of good resources and conquer one new grammar skill each week. (There are 52 weeks in a year. Imagine how much your writing might improve in a year’s time if you take on this exercise.)
You should also invest in a good personal reference library on writing. (See Writing Inspiration.)
10 common mistakes in business writing
Punctuation came into being so actors knew how to interpret and deliver their lines. Punctuation still offers direction to readers and aids meaning.
If the inheritance is divided between Bob, David and Mary, does each person get a third or is it halved?
Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, says we’ve been taught that we don’t need the Oxford Comma (last in a list). But sometimes that comma makes the meaning clear.
Your goal in writing is to be so clear that you cannot be misunderstood.
Use commas when a natural pause is needed, such as to offset a clause.
Use a comma before “and” and “but” in a sentence if you have another subject and verb following. (But consider whether a sentence with “and” or “but” is too long and break it into two sentences if needed.)
Use hyphens to join words that create new meaning together.
There is a big difference in the first time-traveler and the first-time traveler.
Use a colon to introduce a list.
Use a semi-colon when you have two complete thoughts (and a period would also suffice).
Use a dash for hard breaks. (And hit space – dash – space so that your dashes elongate and are consistent throughout your document.)
Use an ellipsis for a lingering…thought.
- Lack of agreement
This is perhaps the most common grammar mistake in business.
Someone left his umbrella in my office (not their umbrella).
We want to use “their” for singular subjects like “someone” to avoid gender inequality. Being a woman I of course believe in gender equality…it just feels wordy to say “his or her” every time. The default used to be the male pronoun, but that’s not politically popular anymore.
It’s become so commonplace to use “their” with singular subjects that it doesn’t even sound wrong to our ears. Truthfully, I’ve about given up fighting this rule. Many times on this website I’ve used “their” with a singular subject, even though I know better.
Language is dynamic, meaning the rules change in response to our use of it. We have all sorts of terminology (email, texting, etc.) that wasn’t in existence a few short years ago.
This seems to be a rule in transition. But if you want to impress people, you should know that for singular subjects (someone, none, each) singular verbs and pronouns are grammatically correct.
You have spellcheck. Use it. But realize that it can’t catch misunderstandings of meaning.
For example, I’ve had several students refer to the “manor of person” they were. A manor is a large estate. A manner is a type.
I’ve had students mention their “upmost” respect for someone. Upmost is shortened for “uppermost” and would refer to something like the highest branches on a tree. But in this context you want the word “utmost,” which means “the greatest”…”the uttermost.”
Here’s another…peek (to look), peak (to summit or look ill), and pique (to irritate or arouse, such as “my interest is piqued”) all sound the same but have different meanings.
And finally, it’s incredible how many times students write “then” when they mean “than” and vice-versa.
Spellcheck will not auto-correct your selections of the wrong word.
- Weak vocabulary
Seek to eliminate “like” (and other college-speak) and “I think…feel…believe” statements from your writing.
You want to use Plain English – choose words most of your audience will clearly understand – but this doesn’t mean you can’t use strong vocabulary.
In English, you often have multiple word choices at your disposal to describe something. Pick…select…choose…sift for…hunt for…pluck a great one! Each word choice has its own nuance.
Avoid jargon, slang, clichés or current buzzwords. “Per your request”…or “utilize” when a simple “use” is more clear.
Pick the word that conveys just the right meaning and will stand the test of time.
- Prepositions at the ends of sentences – not entirely wrong, but use with caution
This is another grammatical rule in flux. Depending on how old you are and how good your high school English teachers were, you may have been taught never to end a sentence with a preposition.
But it’s not always wrong. Many a respected writer has broken this rule and not been charged with a misdemeanor.
Respected writers aren’t sloppy about it, though. It’s lazy to say, “Where are you at?” “What are you basing that off of?” These are irresponsible overuses of prepositions at the ends of sentences. Do not do this.
But if it’s awkward to say, “With whom are you going to the store?” rather than “Who are you going to the store with?” I don’t personally think you should be marked down for this on your annual performance evaluation.
- Contractions in formal writing
Contractions are like chewing gum. My husband recently told me that his aunt, trained in cotillion, felt it was base behavior to chew gum in public.
If you think about it, it’s not the most sophisticated thing…chewing gum.
Similarly, the use of contractions is informal. Contractions (can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, etc.) are not wrong in informal writing, but are best avoided in formal writing, such as reports, most letters, and emails sent for formal purposes or to formal audiences.
- Sentence Construction (such as fragments and run-ons)
It’s important to write so people can understand you. Again, your goal in writing (and speaking) is to be so clear that you cannot be misunderstood.
Nothing aids clarity more than conciseness. Ruthlessly edit every unnecessary word from your writing and your writing will be stronger.
Good construction also uses transition words that help your reader follow along (next, additionally, also, etc.)
Good construction avoids fragment sentences…sentences that lack both a subject and a verb…and run-on sentences…sentences lacking needed punctuation that roll along like a runaway train.
Keep sentences relatively short. When there are 8 words in a sentence, 100% of readers comprehend the sentence. When there are 28 words in a sentence, only 50% of readers comprehend the sentence. (That’s from Mary Ellen Guffey’s textbook, Essentials of Business Communication.)
Don’t slow your readers down with long sentences they have to go back and read a second time.
As you’re editing for clarity, take Will Strunk’s advice in The Elements of Style and omit every needless word (making it concise). Also note any sentences that don’t stand on their own as being complete (a fragment), or that go beyond a couple of lines of text with no punctuation (a potential run-on). Keep most sentences to one or two lines of text.
Short sentences are typically strong. So use some!
- Failure to capitalize
The rule on capitalization is formality. I live in Middle Tennessee. It’s Middle and not middle because it’s a formal region. Southern California and The Wild West and The Bronx are all formal regions but northern South Dakota might not be.
If you are working on a bachelor’s degree in business administration you wouldn’t necessarily capitalize it. But if you’re listing “Bachelor of Business Administration” or “BBA: Entrepreneurship” on your resume, it would be capitalized.
The president of the United States is capitalized if referring to him as President Obama.
- Improper citations or plagiarism
It’s so easy to cut and paste, and it’s so easy to forget where we read something or heard a statistic, that plagiarism has become a common ethical infraction in academia.
But it’s wrong.
It’s unethical to pass information off as your own if it originated with someone else.
Academic disciplines select and follow citation standards. MLA, APA, and Chicago are the most common three. Most business programs use APA (American Psychology Association). This is the common guide for knowing how to appropriately list both shorter in-text citations and longer end-of-document citations in the References or Works Cited section of a book or research paper. (See Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab – OWL – for more.)
In most workplaces, you’re not expected to follow strict citation rules like in academic programs, but you still need to cite where you got your information (such as providing the author’s name, the article title, and/or the link to the original webpage).
- Inconsistent style choices
Some things are not a matter of mechanics (grammar or punctuation) they are a choice of style.
Both “healthcare” and “health care” are correct. You can write it as one word or two. But if you switch back and forth in a single document, or in every newsletter or blog post your company produces, it looks like you can’t make up your mind.
Same with “non-profit” or “not-for-profit” or “nonprofit.” Select one and be consistent with it.
Be consistent with acronyms and the way you list titles. Use A.M. or AM or a.m. consistently when you list times. Use 06-MAR-15 or March 6, 2015 or Mar 6, 2015 consistently. (It’s best to write out dates rather than list all numbers because in some countries 3-6-15 is June 3rd.)
There are many great stylebooks. Sometimes larger organizations adopt one or write their own style manual.
The Associated Press has a stylebook. They shorten states, for example, to the first four letters. The U.S. Postal Service has another style guide and shortens their states to two capitalized letters.
Affect is a verb. It means to influence. Effect is a noun. It means a result.
To affect the effect you seek, or, to influence the result you want in writing, consider these 7 things…
- Choose the most appropriate medium: a.k.a. channel or document.
Each business document serves its own purpose and has its own format/formula. Here are short descriptions of each. (See the Email & Document Samples link for more.)
- Be courteous in tone.
If you want a good result, be courteous.
The immediacy of communications today makes it easy to fire back at people defensively…angrily…testily. But the permanency and easy forwarding capability of our communications should give us all pause, even when we’re mad.
You never have to apologize for a courteous tone in a written message.
Respect is appreciated in every culture, company, and workplace by every human being. We know when we are being treated with respect and when we are not.
Maya Angelou said, “People never forget how you make them feel.” Make them feel respected and you’ll get better results.
- Be specific, not generic.
A common weakness in our workplace communications is being too generic, or making assumptions that our readers know everything we know.
Put yourself in your reader’s place. As you edit your messages, ask yourself if you’ve included all the necessary details. If you anticipate the questions your reader will have and provide the answers, it will save you time – it will keep you from having to answer emails asking for clarification, or your message falling through the cracks into no-man’s land.
I love to show a clip from Phenomenon in class to illustrate the importance of being specific. When John Travolta’s character is taken into custody and given an intelligence test, he shows his interrogator that it’s important to be specific.
It’s especially important to be specific if you have deadlines or actions required as follow-up to your message.
Donald Miller says in his StoryBrand workshop that the key to being heard in today’s very crowded and loud marketplace is having a clear, easy to understand and follow message.
Being specific with needed action steps has never been more important.
- Stress benefits with a “you” view.
Again, think about your reader…your audience. What do they care about most? Rather than using “I” or “me” language in your messages, use “you”, “we” or “us” language.
If you want people to read your message and act on it then highlight how it benefits them. Do not assume they will instinctively know. Connect the dots for them.
Instead of it being about you (I need this information by 4:00 pm today or I can’t finish the report before the conference), make it about them (If your information is received by 4:00 pm today we can finish our report and get you the numbers you need for the conference).
There is a wonderful scene in Cast Away (see the movie trailer here, the scene described is not available on YouTube) where Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks’ character) is in Moscow passionately lecturing workers on increasing their time efficiency. He sent himself an egg timer before he left Memphis and holds it up and says, “What if this had been your paycheck?”
That’s a great example of putting something into terms that your audience cares about.
- Organize your information using a direct or indirect method.
In business, it’s typically best to be direct. State your purpose right away. There should be no question in your reader’s mind about why you’re sending them this email, report, proposal, memo, etc.
It’s fine to have a polite greeting, but then cut straight to the chase. Here’s why I’m emailing.
Direct method is active, not passive. Active is best. Active is more efficient. Active is more clear. To write actively means you list the subject before the verb. You don’t have the hero of your sentence or story being acted upon. That is passive.
There are only two times it’s better to be indirect in business writing: when you are trying to persuade what may be a resistant audience and you want to build your case first, or you have bad news to share and you want to deliver it sensitively. (See Bad News Messages for more on this.)
Frontloading means you list your strongest information at the top.
This is a strong strategy with documents like your resume, but it’s also good for a simple email.
Any time you have a list, put the strongest point at the top. In a report if you’re making several suggestions for a business decision, list the strongest one first.
Hook your reader at the opening. Give them a reason to read on. It’s like a great first line in a novel.
- Make needed actions clear.
Action items should be spelled out clearly…deadlines…important dates…exact times and locations.
You should also be clear about what you need and expect from the recipient of your message.
Action items are often well placed at the close of a message so the recipient cannot miss them or read on and forget about them.