Help for Grammarphobia

Sometimes “grammar” becomes overwhelming – fear of making a grammatical error can block out everything else, and get in the way of saying what we really want to say – if only we could remember what that was! What was that rule again?  And how many grammar rules can any of us quote from memory?

Interestingly enough, in my workshops across the country, there is one grammar rule that just about everyone can remember. I’ll bet you know that exact rule that most people remember. Ready? All together now: “i before e…”

Why do we remember that one? As many adverting copywriters will tell you, a catchy rhyme, one that becomes memorable, works! But while it may work on our memory muscles in day-to-day activity, writing in rhyme is not exactly what we are looking for in day-to-day business writing that must be sharp, clear, and to the point. As well as accurate, correct, and professional.

So here’s what I propose: Forget the grammar rules! Instead of trying to remember the rules, focus on recognizing an error.

Your word processing program’s grammar checker can be a helpful starting point. You can find grammar guidelines in your paper or (sometimes) online dictionary, or your grammar checker will likely make suggestions. Verify grammar checker recommendations with another resource unless you are absolutely certain that the grammar checker “fix” is correct.

What if you have identified the error, but do not know how to fix it? Then it’s time for a workaround. Rewrite it in a way you know is correct. Productivity on the job – getting the work out, correctly – is the point here.

What you say on the one hand, how you say it on the other: content and grammar. Each is critical. Both are necessary to build your credibility; to prove your professionalism; to demonstrate your knowledge.

Now, how about a few more of those words that create mix-ups?

Affect and effect are two good ones to start with. Think of them in alphabetical order: You can affect an effect. Affecting is doing. An effect is the result.

So you might say, “We believe our new policy will affect the outcome to a significant degree. The effect of the required changes should be critical to our success in 2016.”

Here are two more frequently misused words: infer and imply. “Infer” is something one does inwardly. “Imply” is something one does outwardly. “Infer” is what you think you understand from what someone says; “imply” is what someone almost says.

For example, “The implication of his words is unmistakable. We can confidently infer that he will be stepping down within the next few months.”

Two final words that create mix-ups: compliment; and complement. We all love compliments – those nice things people say about us.

But what about “complement”? A totally different thing. A complement completes.

As in, “Your silk scarf beautifully complements that outfit.”

A complement could also be the complete number.

As in, “The store advertises 58 flavors, and sure enough, it has the full complement of 58 different flavors ready to serve at all times.”

For this week, instead of trying to remember the grammar rules we’ve all forgotten, focus on identifying grammatical errors you may not have been aware of – in your writing, and in what you are reading – as a practical first step to confident, correct, comfortable writing.


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email to learn more.

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