by Barbara McNichol
If you resist the effort needed for improving your writing, here’s my suggestion: Make friends with good writing. A shift in attitude—from resisting to embracing—just might make all the difference. And here’s the payoff. When you better your writing skills, you advance your career and make a positive impression.
To meet that objective, here’s a fresh resource filled with must-have skills to jumpstart your resolve: an e-guide called—ta da—Making Friends with Good Writing.
This brand new e-guide comes with a special introductory offer. You’ll save $$ when you use the Coupon code FRIENDS at checkout. Check out this e-guide now!
“Barbara’s Making Friends with Good Writing is helpful and first class—just like she is! If you want to know when and why to use or create a style guide or enhance your writing, this e-guide provides answers with clear examples. ” – Peggy Henrikson, editor
Do you know the definition of a chiasmus? It’s a phrase that mirrors itself.
Making Friends with Good Writing offers a compilation of chiasmi that are fun. After reading this e-guide, a reader sent this chiasmus by Garrison Keillor: “When it comes to finding available men in Minnesota, the odds are good, but the goods are odd.” She had a fun response, too. “I don’t take his message seriously, though. Thankfully I found a good man!”
Can you create your own chiasmus? Please write it here!
Did you know that bad grammar can ruin a good message?
You could be missing opportunities to get your point across because your readers have to wade through awkward sentences that set their teeth on edge.
Common grammar mistakes can be avoided if you take the time to learn the rules and then apply them. Pay special attention to the eight that follow.
The 8 most common grammar miscues
Here’s a list of the eight most common grammar mistakes and ways to spot and fix them.
1. Me versus I: subject pronoun (plural subjects)
“Me and Janet completed the quarterly sales report.”
“Janet and I completed the quarterly sales report.”
Rule: When the subject is more than one, you need a subject pronoun (I, she, he, we, they, who).
Clue: Say the sentence without ‘Janet’. “I finished the quarterly sales report.” Now it’s easy to tell which pronoun is correct, right?
2. Me versus I: object pronoun (verb)
“Katherine hired Dave and I to draft the sales proposal.”
“Katherine hired Dave and me to draft the sales proposal.” is correct.
Rule: “Dave and me” is the object of the verb “draft” and therefore requires an object pronoun (me, her, him, us, them, whom).
Clue: Say the sentence without Dave. “Katherine hired me to draft the sales proposal.” It’s obvious now, isn’t it?
3. Me versus I: object pronoun (preposition)
“Between you and I, we got the job done.”
“Between you and me, we got the job done.”
Rule: In this sentence, “me” is the object of the preposition “between” and therefore requires an object pronoun (me, her, him, us, them, whom).
Clue: “I” is the subject of a sentence and will be followed by a verb “ran, went, jumped, cried.” “Me” is the object of a sentence and is preceded by a preposition “with, to, between, before.”
“Irene, Lloyd and myself finished the blueprints.”
“Irene, Lloyd, and I finished the blueprints.”
Rule: You can’t use a “-self” pronoun (myself, yourself, himself, herself, themselves, ourselves) unless it refers to another noun or pronoun earlier in the sentence.
Clue: Look for the referral word that precedes the pronoun and say the sentence without “Irene, Lloyd.” “I finished the blueprints.”
How many times have you read this incorrect sentence?
“Please feel free to contact myself if you need further information.”
“Please feel free to contact me if you need further information.” is correct.
5. To versus too
“Roger was to swamped and couldn’t complete the report on time.”
“Roger was too swamped and couldn’t complete the report on time.”
This might seem like an obvious mistake. It happens most often when you’re in a hurry – but that’s no excuse. Your reader will notice the gaff.
6. Lay versus lie
“Nigel was feeling light-headed, so his manager suggested he lay down in the infirmary.” is incorrect.
“Nigel was feeling light-headed, so his manager suggested he lie down in the infirmary.” is correct.
Rule: You lie down on a bed and lay down an object.
Clue: To lay is to place something down in a resting position. A chicken lays eggs, it doesn’t lie eggs.
7. There versus their versus they’re
“It was there turn to present sales projections.”
“It was their turn to present sales projections.”
“Their looking forward to presenting this quarter’s sales projections.” is incorrect.
“They’re looking forward to presenting this quarter’s sales projections.” is correct.
Rule: There is a place, their is a possessive pronoun, they’re is a contraction of “they are.” This grammar gaff is rarely due to not knowing the difference; rather, it slips through spellcheck.
Clue: This common grammar mistake can easily be avoided by proofreading your communications carefully before pressing “send”.
8. They/their versus he/his or she/her
As you probably know, the grammar convention for the use of “they” has changed. It is now acceptable to use “they” to identify an individual and allows for gender neutrality.
“They asked that their report be presented last” can refer to a single person.
Rule: In the appropriate context, “they/their” is a plural pronoun while he/his and she/her are singular. So, if you’re writing about someone who is previously identified as one male or female, “they” is no longer grammatically correct.
Clue: Are you referring to one person who identifies as either male or female? Or are you talking about a group of people or someone who wishes to remain gender-neutral? Attention to context is important with this grammar rule.
Why good grammar matters.
In the age of Twitter shorthand and texting shortcuts, good grammar and spelling are taking a beating. But according to experts in business communications, they’re still relevant.
If you take time to edit your writing – whether it’s an email to a peer or superior, a sales pitch to a potential client, or a summary of work you’ve completed – your message holds more weight when your grammar and spelling are accurate.
I always encourage my fellow writers to “make friends with good writing.” You can learn to avoid common grammar mistakes with my WordTrippers program. Sign up and have writing tips delivered to your inbox!
Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you communicate effectively:
What grammar miscues trip you up? Please share them here.
by Barbara McNichol
If you resist improving your writing skills, here’s my suggestion: Make friends with good writing. A shift in attitude—from resisting to embracing—just might make all the difference. And here’s the payoff. When you improve your writing skills, you advance your career and make a positive impression.
Here’s a fresh resource for improving your writing filled with must-have skills to jump start your resolve: an e-guide called—ta da—Making Friends with Good Writing.
This brand new e-guide comes with a special introductory offer. You’ll save $$ when you use the Coupon code FRIENDS at checkout. So check out this e-guide now!
An Inspiring Quotation for These Times
“If we can’t do what we do, we do what we can.” – Jon Bon Jovi (a song he just composed while in seclusion)
Do you recognize this quotation as being a figure of speech called a chiasmus? You’ll find a whole collection of them in Making Friends with Good Writing. Enjoy!
More words don’t always translate into more meaning.
You’ve heard me say this before…
It’s important to avoid excessive wordiness in your writing, especially when you’re in a business setting. Your colleague’s, reader’s, or customer’s time is precious. They need to know what you need, what you offer, or what you’re suggesting quickly and concisely.
If you find yourself rambling, it might be due to a lack of focus in your message, and that needs to be addressed. If you are unclear about “why” you’re writing, the “what” and “how” you’re writing will give it away.
We’ve all been hardwired to write essays that meet a certain word count – e.g., 1000 words on the merits of a new book, 600 words about the meaning of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms – but it isn’t necessary for everyday business or nonfiction writing. So, how do you chisel the point of your message?
Chisel the point!
Do you want to have precision and clarity in your writing? Then take time to do this simple exercise:
Sum up the point of your communication in one sentence.
After you’ve done that, you can take a step back and decide what supporting information you absolutely need to share to get your point across.
This might mean referring to research or someone else’s communications.
Then after you’ve finished making your case, run through this checklist:
- Did I put any unnecessary facts in the message?
- Did I add any phrases that weren’t relevant to the point?
- Did I consider what my reader was expecting from my message?
- Did I give any thought to making my sentences flow?
- Did I get straight to the point or take too many detours?
That last point – avoiding the detours – is an important one. You need to resist the urge to use “filler words” that come across as fluff. This includes dodging phrases like:
- It goes without saying…
- The fact of the matter is…
- In other words…
- Further to my point…
- To be honest with you…
Get with the formula…
If you’re writing fiction, you would definitely steer clear of following a formula. But when it comes to writing clear, concise business communication, you’ll be doing yourself – and your reader – a favor if you follow these simple guidelines to whack wordiness.
Use no more than:
- 5 paragraphs per page.
- 5 sentences per paragraph.
- 15 words per sentence.
- 3 syllables per word.
It might seem like an onerous task to edit your own writing, but the minutes it will take to shave your message, reduce wordiness, and share only the salient points will win you points with your readers.
This might feel clunky and time-consuming at first, but hang in there. Like any new routine – diet, exercise, sleep – you’ll get into a rhythm, and it will become second nature to you.
Take a practice run.
Not sure you can follow these guidelines? Take a practice run at reducing the wordiness in your emails and letters. Pull up something you sent last week…something that was important but hasn’t been addressed by your reader yet. Then run it through this filter:
- Count the number of paragraphs. Fewer than 5?
- Count the number of sentences in a paragraph. Fewer than 5?
- Count the number of words in a paragraph. Fewer than 15?
- Now circle the words that contain 4 syllables or more, such as dis·pro·por·tion·ate·ly.
How did you do? Be honest! Did you identify areas where you could have taken a shortcut and saved your reader time?
If you follow these four steps, you’ll gain clues about where your rambling takes you. Detours dilute your message and can affect how you’re perceived by your audience.
If you’d like to learn more about the ways you can trim the fat from your writing, contact me, or sign up for my Word Trippers Tips program and get tips delivered right to your inbox every week for a year.
Did you find this article helpful? Here are three more to help you communicate with credibility, clarity, and efficiency:
This article was originally published in 2010, but has been updated in June 2020. Feel free to comment below.
By Barbara McNichol
Now more than ever, clarity in communication is important.
We’re all adapting to more virtual meetings and a great deal more email communication. Documents that were discussed around a meeting table and then edited by a single person now make their way to multiple colleagues via email.
We’ve become accustomed to common abbreviations in text messages, such as, “C U @ 8pm @ Rogers, bring appie.” It gets the point across that your friend will show up at Roger’s house at 8:00 pm and you’ll bring an appetizer.
But what about in business interactions? Are correct spelling and grammar still relevant? I’d argue that they most certainly are…and I offer advice for professionals seeking clarity and credibility in their communication.
Here are four common grammar and spelling mistakes that undermine your credibility.
Let me be clear: we’re not going for Shakespeare. But don’t discount the possibility that your peer, manager, or potential employer has a solid grounding in the rules of English grammar and spelling. When you break those rules, you lose (not loose) credibility.
Let’s take a look at four of the most common mistakes. I call them Word Trippers…
1. Who and That.
Who refers to a person. That refers to an object.
“The person that sent you the proposal is an authority on the subject.”
“The person who sent you the proposal is an authority on the subject.”
“That proposal is worth considering. The person who wrote it is an authority on the subject.”
2. Me, myself and I.
I’ll grant you, this one is counter-intuitive. People often use “self” in a sentence, I suspect because they think it sounds more academic and authoritative. It’s “padding” in a sentence, which rarely adds meaning. So you’ll read phrases like this…
“Please contact myself if you have any questions.”
“Please contact me if you have any questions.”
“Myself and Jim will be there at 4:00 pm to discuss the proposal with yourself in person.”
“Jim and I will be there at 4:00 pm to discuss your proposal.”
Yourself is your self…no one can contact yourself. It’s a reflexive pronoun. You can talk to yourself. But nobody else can talk to yourself; he or she can only talk to you.
Consider these examples:
“Jim and me attended the meeting yesterday and it was very informative.”
“Myself and Jim attended the meeting yesterday and it was very informative.”
“Jim and I attended the meeting yesterday.”
Here’s a great way to avoid tripping on this: Test your grammar by removing the second person from the sentence. For example, say this awkward – and grammatically incorrect – sentence:
“Me went to the meeting yesterday.”
And so is this:
“Myself went to the meeting yesterday.”
3. Further or farther?
Have you ever wondered about the difference between further and farther? There’s constant debate around this – and since English is a living language, it’s ever-evolving. However, most experts agreed that further is figurative and farther is literal, referring to a measurable distance.
“Jan has traveled further than anyone else in the company to meet with clients.”
“Jan has traveled farther than anyone else in the company to meet with clients.”
“Farther to the point Jan was making about excess travel for sales meetings, I’d like to send you this report regarding our fleet mileage costs.”
“Further to the point Jan was making about excess travel for sales meetings, I’d like to send you this report regarding our fleet mileage costs.”
4. Apostrophes: the ultimate tripper.
Of all the grammar glitches I see, this is the most common. Misusing this punctuation mark rarely creates confusion in meaning, but it’s a glaring error for people who know the proper usage.
“Its likely we’ll miss our fourth-quarter revenue projections.”
“It’s likely we’ll miss our fourth-quarter revenue projections.”
“Since our sales teams travel expenses have been so high, we’ll take a loss on our fourth-quarter revenue.”
“Since our sales team’s travel expenses have been so high, we’ll take a loss on our fourth-quarter revenue.”
An apostrophe plays two roles in the English language. It signals an abbreviation – “it’s” instead of “it is” – and possession – “the sales team’s travel expenses.”
Pay attention to these common missteps in written communication. There are many others.
Don’t get let poor grammar and spelling prevent you from showing clients and colleagues you’re knowledgeable about your product or service. Contact me for more information.
Did these tips help you? Are you interested in improving your writing? I am offering a $29 discount on my Word Trippers program until the end of May.
Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you communicate effectively:
One of my favorite resources, Dictionary.com, gives us a host of word meanings that have been essential (or at least useful) during this coronavirus period. Words matter; that’s why we should dig into their accurate meanings.
This link opens a meaningful door to terms we’re hearing every day.
When you go there, you’ll also see a number of relevant “word trippers” such as “epidemic” vs. “pandemic”; “respirator” vs. “ventilater”; “quarantine” vs. “isolation.”
Take a few moments to study word meanings that matter the most these days!
In The Elements of Style, iconic authors William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White called word clutter “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood out of words.”
Yes, the same E.B. White who gave us beloved children’s stories like Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web also gave us that visceral description…
What is word clutter? Word clutter refers to unnecessary words in a sentence. Why – and how – do you eliminate them? If Strunk and White’s metaphor doesn’t make a believer out of you, then read on, because voiding word clutter in your writing will help you become a better, more effective communicator.
To clutter or not to clutter – that is the question.
When writing poetry, descriptive words are acceptable – even expected – because you’re trying to paint a picture with words. The art is in the rhyme, the imagery, the emotions you want to invoke in your audience.
But in business communication, it’s imperative that you trim the excess fat. Your readers are busy like you – they don’t need to wade through extra words to get the meaning of your message.
No one in business wants to think of themselves as a “cog in the wheel,” but Strunk Jr. summed up the importance of brevity beautifully:
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
Your business is like a piece of machinery, and efficiency matters. So, do your reader a favor: tune up your writing and whack out the extra phrases.
“Word clutter” refers to unnecessary words that don’t add meaning to a sentence. When you’re writing a non-fiction book or an email, whack them out. This often means choosing an active, rather than the passive verb.
Take time to fine-tune your message by whacking these phrases:
- “is intended to” or “is meant to” or “is designed to”
Example: “He gives a workshop that is designed to teach writing skills.”
Fine-tune it: “He gives a workshop that teaches writing skills.”
- “it is all about” or “the fact of the matter is” or “it’s important to remember that”
Example: “It’s important to remember that it’s unwise to drive during a blizzard.”
Fine-tune it: “It’s unwise to drive during a blizzard.”
- “is going to”
Example: “She is going to be a key contributor.”
Fine-tune it: “She will be a key contributor.”
- “In order to…”
Example: “Add keywords in order to describe the new position.”
Fine-tune it: “Add keywords to describe the new position.”
- “there is” or “there will be”
Example: “There will be several managers attending the meeting.”
Fine-tune it: “Several managers will attend the meeting.”
- “The reason why is that”
Example: “The meeting has been moved to the 2nd-floor conference room. The reason why is that we need more seating capacity.”
Fine-tune it: “The meeting was moved to the 2nd-floor conference room because we need more seating capacity.”
- “at this time”
Example: “We’re not accepting any more registrations for the conference at this time.”
Fine-tune it: We’re not accepting registrations for the conference now.”
Never forget: more words don’t necessarily give more meaning, especially in business communication. Your time is valuable. Show respect to your colleagues by trimming your emails, memos and reports – whack wordiness! You’ll be doing your colleagues a favor.
Now, do yourself a favor: get a red pen and take time to read over a recent email or letter you wrote. Ask, “Did I really need that word/phrase?” Circle all the unnecessary words. Then think about the time you could have saved yourself and your reader if you’d left them out! A little investment in time at the beginning of your writing project will save you and your readers time in the long run.
Do you have any “pet peeves” when it comes to word clutter? I’d love to know about them. If you’d like more helpful tips, you can sign up for Word Trippers Tips or book a WordShop for your whole team to strengthen your business writing skills.
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This article was originally published on March 26th, 2015, and has since been updated.