As a business owner or an entrepreneur, grammar should matter to you. No matter where you work or what you do, everyone needs to know how to write effectively for business these days. And yes, that includes paying attention to grammar.
“But wait,” you protest. “I’m not a stodgy English professor. Who cares if I mix up ‘their’ and ‘there’?”
You should care, because good grammar is tantamount to credibility. It’s likely that you spend a lot of time communicating with others, especially in writing, at your job. Your written words are an extension of you, and there’s no quicker way to look sloppy and careless than to send professional correspondence riddled with grammatical errors.
Why Grammar Matters
Here are six reasons these seemingly antiquated rules are still important in the digital age:
- Credibility: Press materials with grammatical errors indicate ignorance or carelessness on the part of the writer, which may cause journalists to question the accuracy of the content.
- Professionalism: Similarly, sloppily written materials can create a negative impression on clients and corporate higher-ups.
- Respect: Underpaid and overworked journalists may resent receiving a document filled with errors that would earn them a stern rebuke from the copy desk.
- Clarity: Grammar and punctuation errors can result in ambiguities or misunderstandings.
- Convenience: Harried journalists often opt to copy whole sentences or even paragraphs of PR materials verbatim. If your grammatical gaffe slips through, it makes them look bad.
- Posterity: Press materials distributed across the Internet live on forever—along with any mistakes they contain.
Mignon Fogarty, creator of Grammar Girl and author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, shared some tips about five common mistakes to avoid in business writing:
1. “I” vs. “me”
These types of sentences are often seen in business e-mails, but they’re wrong:
- Thanks for meeting Steven and I for lunch yesterday.
- Please send the latest files to John and I.
Me is such a tiny word, yet people seem terrified to use it.
“As children, we’re often corrected when we say something like, ‘Guerline and me are going the store.’ And mom will remind us for the hundredth time that it should be ‘Guerline and I,’” says Fogarty. “Some people think that those corrections cause us to internalize the message that ‘and me’ is always wrong. Remember: there’s nothing wrong with ‘me.’ It’s the pronoun you want in the object position or after a preposition.”
Here’s a fast, simple trick to always get it right: just take out the other person in the sentence and see how it sounds. Would you ever say, “Thanks for meeting I for lunch yesterday”? Nope! You’d say, “Thanks for meeting me for lunch yesterday,” so you should use “me.”
- Thanks for meeting Steven and me for lunch yesterday.
- Please send the latest files to John and me.
2. i.e. vs. e.g.
i.e. and e.g. are both abbreviations for Latin terms that are confused with each other. Many people think they mean the same thing and are interchangeable, but they’re actually different.
i.e. is Latin for id est, which means “that is.” You can think of it as meaning “in essence,” or “in other words.” It either offers more information or paraphrases the idea in a clearer way.
On the other hand, e.g. stands for exempli gratia, which means “for example” in Latin. Use this when you want to provide a list of examples.
Here are sentences that illustrate the difference:
- Our bounce rate is pretty high, i.e., visitors are exiting our website quickly and don’t seem interested in our content.
- We use several important marketing metrics, e.g., bounce rate, time on site, and number of unique visitors.
3. Dangling participles
“You can think of a participle as simply an ‘-ing’ phrase, and they’re usually caught dangling at the beginning of a sentence. They should apply to the word that comes next,” says Fogarty. However, when they modify the wrong noun in the sentence, you can end up with some awkward and confusing sentences.
- Bubbling quickly on the countertop, the investors were impressed by the new coffee machine.
This sentence says that the investors were bubbling quickly on the countertop, which makes no sense.
Instead you would want to say:
- Bubbling quickly on the countertop, the new coffee machine impressed the investors.
4. “Use” vs. “utilize”
Good writing means that you shouldn’t use a long word where a short, simple one will do. Many people write “utilize” in business emails and memos because they think it sounds fancy, impressive, and intelligent. But it’s actually needless, overblown jargon. “Use” is a perfectly good word and works just as well.
According to Fogarty, “‘Utilize’ has some specific, appropriate uses. Biological organisms are properly said to ‘utilize’ nutrients. If you’re a general writer, however, it’s usually best to stick with ‘use.’”
5. Unnecessary apostrophes
Many people often add unnecessary apostrophes to sentences. This sentence, for example, is chock-full of them:
- That company’s presentation is full of great idea’s, and it get’s right to the point of it’s strategy — you’ll love it.
Apostrophes should be used to show possession (company’s presentation) and contractions (you’ll). But don’t use the apostrophe with an “s” to make regular nouns plural (ideas, not idea’s), and don’t use it with verbs (gets, not get’s).
“I suspect we’re tempted to use apostrophes when we shouldn’t because we’re programmed in elementary school to link apostrophes with possessives. It’s more complicated than that though,” says Fogarty. “You only use apostrophes to make nouns possessive. Pronouns, such as ‘it’ and ‘they,’ don’t take apostrophes to become possessive. Instead, they have different forms: ‘its’ and ‘their.’”
Everything you write, no matter how mundane, creates an impression of you to the reader. Small details do make a difference. Poor writing not only hurts your credibility, but it also signals negative communication abilities to your investors, employees, vendors, and customers.
By avoiding these five common grammatical mistakes in your business writing — whether it’s in emails, letters, presentations, proposals, or memos — you’ll bolster your credibility and become a much more effective communicator.