The most engaging, persuasive business writing is also the most conversational. So, you can, and often should, violate some stuffy grammatical rules.
That’s right, despite what your stodgy, yard stick-wielding English teacher said (apologies to stodgy English teachers), you can end sentences with a proposition, split the occasional infinitive, and begin sentences with a conjunction. After all, that is how we speak.
However, breaking other grammatical rules can make you look…well…dumb. They can hurt your organization’s credibility and affect the conscious and unconscious purchasing decisions of your customers. Really. According to a recent survey, 94 percent of business service buyers report that grammar, punctuation, and spelling affect their purchasing decisions to some extent.
So let’s clean up your copy. Following are ten of the most common grammatical mistakes we see in business and marketing writing, along with the skinny on how to avoid them in the future. Have some others? Let us know.
1. Compose and Comprise
People tend to use compose or comprise when they want to sound impressive. The result is often quite the opposite. Compose means “to create or put together.” Comprise means “to contain.” Nothing is ever comprised of anything!
The alphabet is composed of 26 letters.
The alphabet comprises 26 letters.
2. Ensure, Assure, and Insure
The problem here is that all three words are interchangeable in contexts where they indicate the making certain of an outcome. Make things easy: use ensure when implying a virtual guarantee, assure when implying the removal of doubt from someone’s mind, and insure when making references to insurance.
Caveat: Some style guides say that insure can be used when stressing the taking of necessary measures beforehand (e.g., “Careful planning should insure project success.”). We prefer to use ensure, leaving insure for use only when related to insurance. Simple and easy.
We edited the white paper to ensure there were no errors.
We assure you that nothing will go wrong with the project.
The policy insures the business.
3. Principal and Principle
This one is especially common in business writing. Principal is a noun and adjective meaning “someone or something first in rank, authority, or importance.” Principle is a noun that means “a fundamental truth, law, or doctrine.” Most people don’t passionately fight for a principal, at least not for the principals we’ve met (apologies to principals).
Poor scheduling was the principal problem.
They fought for the principle of fair labor.
Stretch the muscles in your hand. Go ahead, give a good stretch. Now give yourself a nice slap every time you use irregardless. It’s not a word. Use regardless or irrespective. Moving on…
5. It’s and Its
The best way to avoid this mistake is to remember that contractions always have apostrophes. It’s is a contraction of it is or it has; therefore, it has an apostrophe. Its is a possessive pronoun. Forget already? We understand.
It’s the best training program I have attended.
Its training services are outstanding.
6. Affect and Effect
With the possible exception of who and whom, affect and effect are the two most common words we see misused. In most conversational writing, affect will serve as a verb (meaning “to influence”), while effect will serve as a noun (meaning “result”).
Effect can serve as a verb, meaning “to cause.” However, this use is less familiar and in some instances may be perceived as jargon or legalese (e.g., “to effect change”). Affect, as a noun, rarely appears in business writing.
Having error-free sales documents can positively affect the bottom line.
Opinions vary about the effect of clear messaging on proposal win rates.
7. Imply and Infer
This mistake tends to happen when people aren’t taking the time to think through their word choices. Writers or speakers imply in the words they use. A listener or reader infers something from the words. Capiche?
Are you implying that my writing skills are poor?
When the CEO retired, the workers inferred that someone would be promoted.
8. That and Which
Choosing between the two may seem confusing, but it’s not. When referring to objects, the use of that or which depends on whether the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
Use that to introduce an essential clause. For example, in the following sentence, the clause that Freestyle served is essential to telling which specific client declared bankruptcy: “The client that Freestyle served has declared bankruptcy.” Use which to introduce a nonessential clause, a group of words that give additional information about something that has already been identified in the context. Nonessential clauses are always preceded by a comma.
Here’s the quick test: Remove the clause. Has the meaning of the sentence changed? If yes, use that. If no, use which.
It is the only company that offers that combination of services.
We worked with Freestyle Editorial, which offers writing, editing, and training services.
9. Who and Whom
Much like that and which, people tend to make this one more confusing than it is. When referring to people, use who when referring to the subject of a sentence, clause, or phrase. Use whom when the person is the object of a verb or preposition.
If you’re having trouble, just ask yourself: is the person doing the action (who) or having the action done to them (whom)?
It was the editor who forgot to track changes in the document.
You accused whom of not tracking changes in the document?
10. Their, There, and They’re
Last one. Most people are good with they’re, but their and there are frequently misplaced. Their is a possessive pronoun, while there is an adverb indicating direction. They’re is a contraction for they are. We’ve never seen a good tip for remembering these three; you just have to do it—or write it on your hand.
They went to their meeting.
We went there for the meeting.
They‘re meeting at 3 p.m.
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