The Five Most Annoying Errors in Business Writing and How to Avoid Them

Updated on September 25, 2016
DeborahNeyens profile image

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.


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.

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      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 4 years ago from Iowa

        Thanks for the comment, Onlinestrategies.

      • Onlinestrategies profile image

        Onlinestrategies 4 years ago

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

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 4 years ago from Iowa

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

      • rasta1 profile image

        Marvin Parke 4 years ago from Jamaica

        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.

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

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

      • Au fait profile image

        C E Clark 5 years ago from North Texas

        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.

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

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

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

        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!

      • midget38 profile image

        Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

        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.

      • profile image

        5 years ago

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

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        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 Pacific profile image

        SkillTech Corporate Training 5 years ago from Papua New Guinea

        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.


      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

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

      • profile image

        KDuBarry03 5 years ago

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

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        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 profile image

        eatforcheaper 5 years ago from London

        Great hub with good advice. Thanks!

      • theclevercat profile image

        Rachel Vega 5 years ago from Massachusetts

        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 profile image

        aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

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

      • Sally's Trove profile image

        Sherri 5 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

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

      • profile image

        Chris Hugh 5 years ago

        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 profile image

        RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

        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 profile image

        Victoria Lynn 5 years ago from Arkansas, USA

        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!

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        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)!

      • Sally's Trove profile image

        Sherri 5 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

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

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

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

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        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.

      • GusTheRedneck profile image

        Gustave Kilthau 5 years ago from USA

        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 :-)))

      • Jeannieinabottle profile image

        Jeannie InABottle 5 years ago from Baltimore, MD

        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.

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        Thanks for reading and commenting, Cyndi.

      • Cyndi10 profile image

        Cynthia B Turner 5 years ago from Georgia

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

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        Let's hear them, Sophia!

      • profile image

        Sophia Angelique 5 years ago

        I could add so many more!

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        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.

      • BusinessTime profile image

        Sarah Kolb-Williams 5 years ago from Twin Cities

        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! :)

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

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

      • Sunshine625 profile image

        Linda Bilyeu 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

        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!:)

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        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.

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

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

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        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.

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        Thanks, homesteadbound. I hope so, too!

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        Thnaks for the comment and vote up, deepateresa.

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        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 profile image

        Angelo52 5 years ago from Central Florida

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

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

        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!

      • homesteadbound profile image

        Cindy Murdoch 5 years ago from Texas

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

      • deepateresa profile image

        DEEPA JOHN 5 years ago from Trivandrum, Kerala,India

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

      • Daisy Mariposa profile image

        Daisy Mariposa 5 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)


        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.

      • randomcreative profile image

        Rose Clearfield 5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

        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!

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        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 profile image

        John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

        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


      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

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

      • profile image

        Ona Wilkins 5 years ago

        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!

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

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

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

        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 profile image

        Stephanie Henkel 5 years ago from USA

        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!

      • DanaTeresa profile image

        Dana Strang 5 years ago from Ohio

        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.