Not everyone in the business world studied English in college. In fact, I think it’s safe to assume most didn’t. Unless you’re a writer, editor, or just have a random passion for grammar, it’s likely that once you slogged your way through Macbeth and To Kill a Mockingbird (or at least watched the movie versions or skimmed the Sparknotes), you felt free. Because of this, the professional world is rife with grammatical errors, misspellings, and other things that make English teachers’ brains twitch.
And guess what? That’s okay! You don’t have to be a flawless writer if you’re a graphic designer, a video editor, or an accountant. No one is expecting you to be perfect, but there are some fairly common mistakes that are easy to avoid. It might be helpful to have a brief refresher course of some basic writing rules that trip people up, starting with some homophones:
Its (with no apostrophe) is possessive, as in “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!”
It’s (with an apostrophe) is a contraction of “it is,” as in “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
They’re is a contraction meaning they are, as in “They’re here.”
Their shows possession, as in “Their writer couldn’t think of a movie quote for this one.”
There designates a location, as in “There’s no place like home.”
Your shows possession, as in “I drink your milkshake.”
You’re is a contraction of you are, as in “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Run-on sentences can do lots of things in literature: establish tone, give a rhythm, add some character. But in business writing/emails, it just makes confusing sentences. The recipient may have to re-read it several times to try and figure out what you meant to say. Since you want to be clear and purposeful in your communication in the professional world, it’s best to avoid run-on sentences that may come off as unclear. It’s better to just write short, declarative sentences that are at least clearly understood. I mean, Hemingway made a career out of it.
Semicolons can be intimidating for a lot of people. It’s not a period, it’s not a comma, and it’s not a colon. So what is it? I mean, there’s a new book about nothing but the semicolon. It’s used when you want to connect two related independent clauses. For example, “I wrote my grandmother a letter; I still need to go buy stamps.” Sometimes people will just use a comma, which won’t work in the above example. If you add a conjugation like “and” or “but,” then a comma would be appropriate. If you ever feel unsure about whether or not to use a semicolon, the safest route may just be to make two separate sentences.
The Oxford Comma, which, regardless of what Vampire Weekend says, is something we should all care about. When writing a series of words, if there is a comma after the penultimate unit, that is an oxford comma. For instance, “The large, brown, hungry bear stole our picnic basket.” In this example, “large,” “brown,” and “hungry” are three separate adjectives that all describe the bear, so an Oxford comma is appropriate. So when do you not use an Oxford comma? When the last two units are linked together. For example, “He fell asleep watching the long, black and white movie.” In this case, “black and white” is actually a combined series, so there is no second comma. It would look weird as “long, black, and white” movie. A helpful way to think of it is using the “I love my parents” example. If you write, “I love my parents, Krusty the Klown, and Adele.” The Oxford comma makes this a series of three separate things the speaker loves. Without it, the sentence would read, “I love my parents, Krusty the Klown and Adele.” This appears to mean that your parents are Krusty the Klown and Adele, and you love them.
Hopefully these basic tips can help you avoid some of the common errors that plague so much of the business world. If you make a mistake, it isn’t the biggest deal in the world, so don’t beat yourself up over it! But, some people do judge when they have an email full of errors, so it’s best to try to avoid as much as possible. And don’t be the jerk that calls out other people’s grammar when they aren’t asking for help. No one likes that person.
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