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Editorial
15 Common Grammar Mistakes to Avoid in Work Emails
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Terri Williams

Grammar matters more than you might think.

A poll by SurveyMonkey reveals that 86% of respondents are less likely to hire an applicant who submitted a resume or cover letter that contains grammatical errors. The poll also reveals that women are 81% less likely to purchase a product if the advertisement has spelling or grammatical errors, and men agreed at slightly lower levels.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 80% of companies require good written communication skills in job applicants. Companies also consider this trait when choosing which employees to promote.

Consistently committing grammatical errors can derail your career. Below is a list of common mistakes that you should avoid in work emails and other written communication. The list includes usage errors, punctuation errors, examples from actual business emails, and other types of mistakes.    

Megan Sharma,  former high-tech  corporate communications manager, and author of 100 of Your Toughest Business Emails: Solved, tells Fairygodboss that usage mix-ups are the source of many grammar mistakes, and provides four examples:

1. Your vs. You're

“Your” is possessive, while “you’re” is a contraction of “you are.” Examples:

Your hair looks spectacular today (that hair belongs to you!).

You’re going to need to pay that bill (you are the one who made the charges).

2. Its vs. It's

“Its” is possessive, and “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.” Examples:

Coffee has lost its appeal (it is cold and bitter, after all).

It’s a beautiful day for a walk (it sure is, isn’t it?).

3. Then vs. Than

“Then” is primarily an adverb used to situate actions in time, while “than” is a conjunction used most often to make comparisons. Examples:

We went out to dinner and then we saw a movie (the movie came after dinner).

Her presentation was much better than his (we’re comparing his and her presentations).

4. Their vs. There vs. They're

Ah, the trifecta of usage mistakes. “Their” is possessive (it belongs to them), “there” is a noun (place), and “they’re” is a contraction of they are. Examples:

Their hands were tied (the hands belong to them).

Let’s go over there and take a photo (it’s the perfect location).

They’re not joining us for happy hour (because they are working).

Sharon Schweitzer, a business etiquette expert and best-selling author tells Fairygodboss, “Whether writing to a first-time client or to upper-level management, crafting an error-free email can be tricky even for the most educated professionals.” She recommends proofing your email to avoid these five grammar traps:  

5. Me vs. I

While this mistake is harder to correct, make sure to use the proper pronoun when referring to yourself. Here’s how: write down or say the sentence out loud without the other name mentioned (e.g., “Sharon and me will call you” becomes “Me will call you”). If it doesn’t sound right, rewrite the sentence with the correct pronoun (“Sharon and I will call you”).

6. I.e. vs. e.g.

The easiest way to remember the difference is that “e.g”. means “for example” or “example here” to add color to the story. However, “i.e.” translates to “in other words” or “that is” for further explanation.

7. Who vs That

Use “who” to refer to a person or individual. Use “that” to refer to objects such as tangible things. Example: Jessica is the person who is in charge of accounting. QuickBooks is the software that is used for accounting

8. Compliment vs. Complement

Another homophonic trap, the words "compliment" and "complement" have distinct meanings that should not be confused in a work email. "Compliment" is a noun or verb that refers to an expression of approval or praise, whereas “complement” refers to two entities that enhance one another.

9. Misplaced modifiers

Check the order of adjectives for an accurate description. For example, “He offered iced tea to her clients with lemon and sugar" suggests that the clients brought along the lemons and sugar. However, "He offered iced tea with lemons and sweetener to her clients" accurately describes how he offered the iced beverage with the lemons and sugar all on the same tray.

Judith Humphrey, a communications expert and author of the book, Impromptu: Leading in the Moment,” tells Fairygodboss that these are four grammar errors that can ruin a business email:

10. Confusing "like" and "as"

If you start a sentence with, “Like I was saying,” or “Like I told you when we met,” your reader might sit up and take notice that you made a grammatical error. The word “like” is an adjective and should not be used to modify a verb. Instead use the word “as” to modify a verb: “As I was saying” or “As I told you when we met.” That’s because “as” is an adverb.

11. Punctuation errors

One common punctuation error is the misuse of the apostrophe. It is used to splice together two words: as in “it’s” for “it is,” or “he’ll” for “he will,” or “they’re” for “they are,” or “I’m” for “I am.” But some people mistakenly use it for possessive nouns. They might say, “The committee met, and it’s first recommendation was accepted.” It should, instead, be “The committee met, and its first recommendation was accepted.”

12. Wrong verb tense

Verbs are the action words in a sentence, and they give you your power. Use them well, and they will show your confidence. But use them poorly and they will make you sound weaker.

One misuse of verb tense is to put your verbs in the past tense, when you really mean present tense. We likely do this so as not to sound too strong. For example, a manager might soften her introduction in an email by saying, “I wanted to raise something with you” rather than “I want to raise something with you.” When you use the past tense, it is as though you are no longer committed to it.

13. Dangling modifiers

A modifier is a word or a group of words used to clarify another word. We use modifiers all the time, and they should be right next to the word they modify. But sometimes they are misplaced, and they “dangle.”  You might correctly say, “My last position was with a bank, where I was a manager.” The phrase “where I was a manager” refers to the bank, so it comes right next to the word it modifies. But let’s say you write, “My last position, where I was a manager, was with a bank.” The “where” does not refer to “position” but it refers to the “bank” so it is misplaced.

Or let’s say you are writing to a prospective employer and you say, “I am keenly interested in the position you advertised on LinkedIn, having held several senior PR roles.” This is wrong, because “having held several senior PR roles” modifies “I,” and should be placed next to it, as follows: “Having held several senior PR roles, I am keenly interested in the position you advertised on LinkedIn.”

14. Examples from actual business emails

Melissa Battista is a learning specialist in the New York Institute of Technology’s (NYIT) English Language Institute. She sent Fairygodboss several examples of sentences taken from emails, along with explanations of why each sentence is incorrect, how to fix each mistake, and the sentences written correctly.

Example 1 - The students need to be register for the summer semester by the second week of May.

Error- The verb ‘register” is not in the proper form.

Reason - This sentence is in the passive voice, so the verb ‘register’ would have to be in the past participle form. Therefore, to make it correct, change ‘register’ to ‘registered.’

Correct version: The students need to be registered for the summer semester by the second week of May.

Example 2 - I see you are currently still registered in both course.

Error - The word ‘course’ needs to be plural.

Reason - Preceding the word ‘course’ is the word ‘both,’ which is being used as a quantifier to indicate two of something, so ‘course’ should be changed to ‘courses.’

Correct version: I see you are currently still registered in both courses.

Example 3 - Certain students maybe more versed in the language than others.

Error- ‘Maybe’ is written here as one word and should be two.

Reason - A typical sentence has a subject followed by a verb.  ‘Maybe’ is an adverb and has a similar meaning to ‘perhaps.’  If we divide it into two words (may be), then it would be a verb phrase and work properly in the sentence.

Correct version: Certain students may be more versed in the language than others.

Example 4 - The intended audience for this instruction module is academic in nature and includes both undergraduate and graduate students but also includes faculty members.

Error- There is an attempt at parallel structure, but it is used incorrectly.

Reason- When it comes to parallel structure, one has to be very careful; the grammar is very specific, and we can’t mix different forms of parallel structure together. In this case, one should use the correlative conjunctions of ‘not only . . . but also.’ The grammatical units must be equal after both parts of the conjunction.

For example,

not only __[noun]_____, but also  __[noun]______

not only __adjective___, but also  _adjective_____

and so forth.

15. Other types of errors

Laurie Hollister, the associate director of NYIT Career Services, tells Fairygodboss that these are other types of errors that can mar a work-related email: 

Sending an email without a subject heading. Inboxes are precious territory, and your heading should answer at a glance the recipient’s natural question, “What is this message about?” Or more likely, “Why should I read this?”

An inappropriate greeting. Don’t address work colleagues with “Hey,” and always include a greeting (such as “Hello NAME” or “Dear NAME”) until you have established a rapport with the colleague. Always let your colleague get casual first, and even when you have a good rapport, don’t take it for granted. As a rule, include a formal greeting.

Poor language choices. Always use standard English.

  • Don’t use slang, because by definition, not everyone will understand it.
  • Don’t use sarcasm, because only someone who knows you well will be able to pick up on it.
  • Don’t use texting language, even if you’re typing on your phone, because emails don’t have a 140-character limit.

Big blobs of text. If a sentence is getting too long, break it into two sentences. If a paragraph is starting to look like the great American novel, find a natural breaking place and make two (or more) paragraphs.

Impersonal personalization. If you have to send the same email to several different people, don’t leave the wrong name in from the last time you sent the message. Be careful of the name in the greeting, but also check thoroughly that the person’s name or another identifying characteristic is not mentioned in the body of the message.

Typos. Remember, spell-check won’t pick up a typo if the misspelled word is still a word.

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Terri Williams is a business, higher ed, tech, and finance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, About.com (dotdash), Realtor.com, and Business.com. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.

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