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5 Annoying Errors in Business Writing and How to Avoid Them

Deborah Neyens is an attorney, educator, and freelance writer with a B.A. in political science and a J.D. from the University of Iowa.

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Written Communications Say a Lot About You

Does it seem like your career is going nowhere? Does it feel like you're stuck on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder? If so, you may want to take a hard look at your written communications. Annoying punctuation and grammar errors may be holding you back.

Good business writing is vital in today's workplace. In surveys asking employers and professional recruiters to list the qualities they look for in employees, effective business writing skills are right at the top of the list. Employers want employees who can communicate information in an organized and coherent manner, free from careless writing mistakes that get in the way of good communication. A word used incorrectly or a comma in the wrong place can communicate something other than the intended message. A lack of clarity in business documents can lead to dissatisfied customers and even litigation.

Even without dire legal consequences, a document full of grammar and punctuation errors reflects poorly on the author. Poor writing lacks credibility and persuasiveness. It does not inspire confidence. It's annoying.

In over 20 years as a corporate attorney, I've reviewed a lot of business communications. I've seen firsthand how common mistakes in grammar and punctuation resulted in garbled communications, annoyed customers, and stalled careers. Here's my list of the five most annoying errors in business writing and how you can avoid them.

1. The Misplaced Apostrophe

There may be no other writing error that can elicit the same fingernails-on-a-chalkboard response in readers as the misplaced apostrophe, the use of the possessive form to signify more than one of something. This mistake is annoying because it's so widespread, and it's not limited to business writing. You've all seen it:

  • I had pancake's for breakfast.
  • The Smith's bought a new car.
  • The 1960's were a crazy decade.

Despite an epidemic of apostrophes purporting to show plurals, only plurals that possess something need an apostrophe, and that apostrophe generally follows the letter "s":

  • The pancakes' fluffy texture
  • The Smiths' new car
  • The 1960s' social turmoil

There are only a few instances when it is acceptable to use an apostrophe to signify a plural. In those cases, the apostrophe is necessary to avoid confusion:

  • She got three A's on her report card. (Use an apostrophe to avoid confusion with the word "as.")
  • Order five #371KV's. (Use an apostrophe to show "s" is not a part of the serial number.)

2. Confusion About Me, Myself, and I

How many times have you read a business communication that concluded, "If you have any questions, please contact Jane or myself"? The author either is trying to sound sophisticated by using the more elegant-sounding "myself" in place of "me" or, with Jane in the mix, is confused about whether to use "me" or "I" and settles on "myself." The result is an annoying and all-too-common misuse of the reflexive personal pronoun.

You can avoid making the same mistake by applying a simple test. Leave Jane out of the picture and see how the sentence sounds. Would you say, "If you have any questions, please contact myself"? No, you would say, "please contact me." Right? If you would use "myself" in this instance, you need to read on for additional help with grammar.

"Me, myself, and I" are three different cases of the personal pronoun. The case changes depending on whether the pronoun functions as the subject or object of a sentence.

For the subject of a sentence (the noun that tells what the sentence is about), use "I":

  • I wrote the letter.

For the object of a sentence (the noun that gives meaning to a verb or completes a prepositional phrase), use "me":

  • If you have questions, you may ask me.
  • Questions may be directed to me.

If the subject of the action and the object of the action are the same, use the reflexive pronoun "myself":

  • I did it myself.
  • I looked at myself in the mirror.

Like you need a mirror to see yourself, a reflexive pronoun like "myself" (or yourself, himself, etc.) needs another noun or pronoun in the sentence to reflect it. If there is none, use either the subjective case (I) or the objective case (me) as appropriate.

3. Random Commas

I'm hesitant to write about commas because they can be tricky things. In fact, I could go on for a couple of paragraphs about whether a comma should appear between the words "commas" and "because" in the preceding sentence. But I won't, because my problem with commas is even more basic than whether a comma should be used before a conjunction linking two independent clauses. (In case you're wondering, my answer here is no; the clauses are short and closely related in thought.)

The most most annoying problem with commas is when they appear randomly, in sentences, where they aren't needed, and don't belong. (Yes, I'm trying to make a point here.)

I don't care if you use the serial comma in simple sentences or not. I won't fuss too much over the lack of a comma between coordinate adjectives. My British friends tell me we use far too many commas in American English, anyway. The demanding American rules of usage may be the very reason why so many business writers overuse them.

The problem with a comma is it tells the eye to stop reading for a moment. That's okay when you need a pause, like taking a breath when speaking. But unexpected commas are like hiccups. They're annoying.

There are dozens of rules about when to use them, but if you remember any of them, remember this: If you can't think of a specific reason to use a comma, don't use it.

Never use a comma in these situations:

  • Between a descriptive word and the noun it describes: "I read the poorly written, letter." Incorrect
  • Between the subject and the verb: "The poorly written letter, annoyed me." Incorrect
  • Between two clauses with a single subject that are joined by a conjunction: "I read the letter, and corrected all the punctuation errors." Incorrect
  • To set off a restrictive clause (one that is essential to the meaning of the sentence): "The letter, that inspired this article, was full of annoying punctuation errors." Incorrect

4. The Misuse of "As Such"

All too often in business writing the phrase "as such" is used as a fancier way to say "therefore," as if a more formal word is needed. For example, a letter may state, "This correspondence serves as notice that you are in default of our agreement. As such, you have 10 days to cure the default or the agreement will be terminated." In this example "as such" is being used in place of "therefore" to mean "for that reason" or "consequently." That is wrong.

Properly used, the phrase "as such" refers the reader to the identity, nature, or capacity of the noun or noun phrase preceding it:

  • "I'm a stickler for grammar. As such, I get annoyed when a writer dangles participles." Correct

To avoid using "as such" incorrectly, ask yourself, "as what?" If the antecedent noun fits, the usage is correct:

  • "As a stickler for grammar, I get annoyed when a writer dangles participles." Correct

If "as such" does not refer the reader to a preceding noun, the usage is incorrect:

  • "Because he did not pay attention to the rules of grammar, the writer dangled participles. As such, he annoyed his readers." Incorrect

Ask whether you can replace "such" with any nearby antecedent noun or noun phrase:

  • As rules of grammar, he annoyed his readers.
  • As the writer, he annoyed his readers.
  • As participles, he annoyed his readers.

If the substitution does not make sense or, in the case of the second example, does not fully convey the intended meaning, the use of "as such" is improper. To avoid annoying your readers, use "therefore" or replace the transitional phrase with a more meaningful word or phrase.

5. The Incorrect Use of "Verbiage"

This one isn't a matter of grammar or punctuation, but of the common but mysterious misuse of an unflattering word. As a corporate attorney, I'd receive an email nearly every day saying something like this, "Could you review the verbiage in the second paragraph of the attached document and let me know if it's okay?" Each time I had to restrain myself from shooting off a snippy reply, "If it's verbiage, why are you wasting my time?"

Verbiage doesn't mean "text," "words," "wording," "content," or any of the other words the author of the email could have used to request my legal review. "Verbiage" means speech or writing that uses too many words or excessively technical expressions. It's not a good thing. A writer should avoid verbiage, not use the term to describe his or her written work.

Bonus Tip: Simplify Your Language

This brings up one final lesson about business style writing. Don't try to impress people by using fancy words when the better choice is plain and descriptive. Business-speak is full up of made-up, fancy-sounding words. Don't fall into the trap of using them. Don't say "utilize" when "use" works just fine. You'll come off as pretentious and worse, especially if you don't understand what your fancy word means.

Business Writing Poll

Additional Help with Writing

Comments

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on May 29, 2013:

Thanks for the comment, Onlinestrategies.

Onlinestrategies on May 11, 2013:

You have covered all of them here. Business communication should be straight and free from any kind of ambiguity.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 29, 2013:

I'm so glad you found this helpful, Rasta. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Marvin Parke from Jamaica on April 22, 2013:

A lot of doubts I had were cleared up by your article. I had given up searching the internet for each individual points made. It is almost as if you had written this specifically for me.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on March 23, 2013:

Thanks for reading and commenting , Au fait. Commas are tough for me, too.

C E Clark from North Texas on March 22, 2013:

My biggest problem from your list is probably commas. It is important to write anything well that you expect will be read because anything poorly written creates a bad image. No one is likely to consider your ideas or work seriously when it is full of obvious mistakes. Good instruction to help us writers do a better job.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on February 02, 2013:

Thank you for your comments, midget and teaches. I'm glad you found this information useful.

Dianna Mendez on January 19, 2013:

I am guilty of some of these mistakes I'm sure! Thanks for the advice and this will help may writers to improve their skill. Excellent!

Michelle Liew from Singapore on January 19, 2013:

Business writing should always be simple and make its point. Many employers would really be annoyed at some of these errors, especially improperly positioned commas. Verbiage is a terror to read at times too! Sharing this, Deb.

J on December 01, 2012:

"inappropriate" is the most hideous sounding word in the english language.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on September 12, 2012:

Thanks, SkillTech. I agree completely. It seems so many people in the business world, and even here on HubPages, lack a good foundation in the basics of grammar and punctuation.

SkillTech Corporate Training from Papua New Guinea on September 11, 2012:

Effective writing has many benefits in professional and person life of a person. One thing we keep emphasizing is the basics. Everything starts from foundation. That is in essence, the basics. With strong foundation basics on business writing, one can be very effective in overall business writing. I see we speak almost the same language and I appreciate it here. Great tips here and hope and let’s keep educating and leading.

SCT

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 19, 2012:

Thanks, Keith! It's funny how these little things can be so annoying. Have a great night.

KDuBarry03 on August 19, 2012:

How true, Deborah! I cannot stand majority of this (I see it all too much with my friends' writings!) Just tweeted and voted :)

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on May 19, 2012:

Thanks for all the great comments, Victoria Lynn, RTalloni, Chris Hugh, Sally's Trove, aethelthryth, theclrevercat, eatforcheaper. You are coming up with some good ones! How about "try and" instead of "try to" (as in "I will try and stop by") or "should of" instead of "should have" ("I should of known better"). Maybe I'll have to come up with a sequel! RTalloni, older English is so much better than business speak. I just hate all those made up words, usually verbs. Let's leverage our synergies, shall we?

eatforcheaper from London on May 18, 2012:

Great hub with good advice. Thanks!

Rachel Vega from Massachusetts on May 18, 2012:

Oh, man. So true! My pet peeve is when my coworker uses "degradated" instead of "degraded" when she describes a system. Or what about, "If you should have any questions, blah blah blah." Why should I have questions? Did you not tell me anything?

Voted up and funny.

aethelthryth from American Southwest on May 18, 2012:

If I may add a pet peeve - "actionable" as in "Actionable Items" when all they mean is "Fix These!"

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on May 18, 2012:

To Deb and Chris...lawyers are rockin' writers, almost without exception. They have to be. :)

Chris Hugh on May 18, 2012:

Hi Deborah, fellow lawyer here. This is a great Hub! I thought you were a teacher as I was reading this. It's so clear and understandable, one can hardly believe a lawyer wrote it. :)

My pet peeve is when people (often lawyers) write things like, "If you have any questions, ask Rosa or I." Ignorance is one thing; we are all ignorant in one way or another. It's the pretentiousness that irks me. Ah, well. It takes all kinds....

RTalloni on May 18, 2012:

It's always good to see hubs that promote better writing and this on the five most annoying errors in business writing is one of the best. Thanks!

Though not not involved in the business world I loved your closing because I lean toward a bit of an older English style simply because I like it. I need to remember that others may not like it, and may indeed find it obnoxious--not a goal I want to strive toward! :)

Because I can make so many stupid errors for a wide variety of reasons I try to give other writers the benefit of the doubt, but I appreciate that hubs like this help us all continue learning.

Victoria Lynn from Arkansas, USA on May 18, 2012:

I love these, Deb! The ones that irk me the most are the misuse of apostrophes (nails on a chalkboard is right!) and the misuse of "myself." Seriously, people? I can get on a soapbox about bad grammar, but I won't. Well done. Love this hub. Voted up and all the way across. Sharing, too!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on May 18, 2012:

Thanks, Sally's Trove. I would love for this article to be mandatory reading at my former company. It would save other grammar nerds like me a lot of aggravation (and head banging)!

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on May 18, 2012:

Excellent advice, expertly written. Up and useful, but I wish "mandatory reading" were a voting option!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on May 18, 2012:

Gus, thanks for making my coffee come out of my nose. : )

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on May 18, 2012:

By all means, Jeannie. Stuff like that makes me want to bang my head against the desk. I once made a pretty snotty comment to outside counsel for inappropriately using "verbiage" in a brief they were writing for me. But, hey, at 600 bucks an hour or whatever obscene rate they were charging, I expect better than that! Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing.

Gustave Kilthau from USA on May 18, 2012:

Howdy Deborah - I used to have a great deal of respect for my grammar; that is, until she suffered from a coma over a comma and herself up and died - putting a period to the hole deal. Other than for that sort of stuff, Grammar was a grate lady who always sawed humor into most everything that board all of we else. :)

Gus :-)))

Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on May 18, 2012:

Oh, this one really hits home with me. Recently, my company hired a marketing company and they do not understand how to correctly use plural nouns in sentences. Now, it is my new job to go behind them and fix everything they write. So yes, they are pulling in the big bucks, yet I am the one fixing the mistakes. They do not even know the difference between "its" and "it's"... I want to scream when I read their stuff. Thank you for sharing this important information. Maybe I should forward this hub to them.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on May 12, 2012:

Thanks for reading and commenting, Cyndi.

Cynthia B Turner from Georgia on May 09, 2012:

Good article to keep us on our toes. Thanks for providing this article.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on May 03, 2012:

Let's hear them, Sophia!

Sophia Angelique on May 02, 2012:

I could add so many more!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 23, 2012:

Thanks, Business Time. Good luck with your style guide! I know how hard it is to change things in the corporate world. So often common errors become accepted usage in a company when they are repeated often enough by people at high enough levels. That's the way it was with "myself" and "verbiage" in my old company. The misused hyphen is another annoying one, for sure.

Sarah Kolb-Williams from Twin Cities on April 23, 2012:

Deborah, you are reading my mind! I've recently taken it upon myself to create a company style guide -- I have yet to unveil it, but when I do, heads will roll! (Possibly mine.)

Here's one of my personal pet peeves: misuse of dashes. In website copy, it's "easy" (or so I've been told) to use a hyphen in place of an em dash, but oh so very WRONG! There's HTML coding for every symbol. Find it and use it. Appropriately.

Thanks for a great hub! :)

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 23, 2012:

Haha, Sunshine. I'm sure you'd never make any of these annoying errors. : ) Thanks for reading and commenting!

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on April 23, 2012:

Excellent advice Deb! I have a tendency to get apostrophe happ'y, but I usually catch myself. Feel free to tell me if I missed one!:)

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 23, 2012:

Thanka, Rose. Especially when it comes to email, it seems people don't really care anymore if their writing is full of errors. I appreciate the comment.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 23, 2012:

Thanks, Angelo. I appreciate the comment and vote up.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 23, 2012:

Oh, I know, Nell. Everyone has bad writing habits. It took me a long time to write this because I was being so careful about getting all of my commas in the right place, etc.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 23, 2012:

Thanks, homesteadbound. I hope so, too!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 23, 2012:

Thnaks for the comment and vote up, deepateresa.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 23, 2012:

Thanks, Daisy. I hope they do find it. And - with face turning red - I'm afraid I've been guilty of failing to properly capitalize Hub and HubPages. Thanks for the reminder!

Angelo52 on April 22, 2012:

Great tips. Simplification of business mail would lead to clarity and much less confusion on the part of the readers. up +

Nell Rose from England on April 22, 2012:

I must admit that I probably do this sometimes. We all get into bad habits and carry them with us through life. Great tips and thanks!

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on April 22, 2012:

This is such an awesome hub with such great tip! Thanks so much! Hope lots of people find this useful!

DEEPA JOHN from Trivandrum, Kerala,India on April 22, 2012:

I do agree with few of these mistakes at times; really great hub; Voted up..

Daisy Mariposa from Orange County (Southern California) on April 22, 2012:

Deb,

This is a great list! Unfortunately, the writers who need the information the most will probably not find your article.

May I rant just a bit?...*HubPages* is spelled incorrectly in many articles published on the site. The correct spelling is one word with an uppercase H and an uppercase P. Also, the word *Hub* has an uppercase H when one is referring to the articles published on HubPages...hub is incorrect.

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 22, 2012:

I am a stickler for grammar, particularly when it comes to professional writing. There is nothing worse than getting an important e-mail with a random comma or the wrong use of a simple homophone (i.e. John's "your welcome" example). Thanks for these great tips! Hopefully the people who really need them will find this hub!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 22, 2012:

Thanks, John! "Your welcome" is another good one. There's also the whole problem with their and there. I could go on and on ...

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on April 22, 2012:

Great hub Deborah. We all make mistakes. It's good to have individuals like you writing helpful hubs like this one.

I make mistakes, but the one that gets me the most is "your welcome" - many people, including college graduates don't know how to use the apostrophe (English is the only Germanic language that uses it, I think?)

Take care and voted up and useful

John

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 22, 2012:

Thanks for the comma, Ona. It seems everyone has their own grammar pet peeves. I enjoyed being able to rant about mine. : )

Ona Wilkins on April 21, 2012:

Great article, Deb! My pet peeves are 'I had ran', 'I seen', and using 'good' as an adverb. I'll admit that I studied the apostrophe advice; I've probably made errors on that one!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 21, 2012:

Thanks for the comment and vote up, Stephanie. I'm glad you found my tips useful.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on April 21, 2012:

Thanks, DanaTeresa. That is excellent advice, also. I tend to be verbose. I cut out half of the introduction that I had in the first draft of this hub.

Stephanie Henkel from USA on April 21, 2012:

Excellent tips and refresher on some important points of grammar and punctuation. I'm sometimes guilty of using an inappropriate apostrophe in a plural (1960's) and appreciate the clarification. Good hub, voted up!

Dana Strang from Ohio on April 21, 2012:

I admit I have been guilty of a few of these. I try very hard to check rules when I am usure, but some of them have become habit: like 1960's.... One piece of writing advice I find helps me is: Go back and take out half the words. Keep it to the essentials. It really makes a difference.

GREAT advice. Thanks for putting it out there. And in a useful way.