The Five Most Annoying Errors in Business Writing and How to Avoid Them
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.
I reviewed a lot of business communications in my 17 years as a corporate employment attorney. I saw 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.
Annoying Mistake No. 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.)
Annoying Mistake No. 2: 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.
Annoying Mistake No. 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:
- 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
Annoying Mistake No. 4: As Such, You Annoy Me
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.
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.
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.
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.
Annoying Mistake No. 5: Eliminate 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 e-mail 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 e-mail 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.
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.
Deborah Neyens is an attorney and freelance writer who teaches Business Communication and Protocol at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business.