Use Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation to Demonstrate Professionalism and Build Credibility With Your Business Writing

“Join Mary and I for a week in the Tropics,” the announcer said. And I wondered to myself how many listeners had heard the grammatical error. For that matter, how many would care? I would guess that few listeners would give it a second thought if they had heard it, and fewer still would care very much.

Bad Grammar gets a bad reactionBut in the business situation you will find many readers who do notice grammatical errors. To these readers you may look less than professional, and perhaps even less than credible, possibly to the point of making the difference between your getting the interview – or not. Or between your company or organization getting the opportunity to work with this customer or client – or not.

Using correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation not only clarifies your meaning, but also provides the more professional appearance that builds confidence in you, or in the organization you represent. So what are some of the most common errors business writers make?

1. To begin with, as you probably have already figured out, to be grammatically correct, the announcer should have said, “Join Mary and me for a week in the Tropics.” The easiest way I know to identify an error like this one is to cover up the first of the two words, e.g., “and I” so that the sentence then begins with “Join Mary…” which sounds fine. But when you block out “Mary and” the first part of that sentence becomes, “Join…I for a week in the Tropics,” you can easily hear the error

The same goes for a sentence with a prepositional phrase, e.g., “For you and I to make that decision, we’ll need more information.” Try blocking out “you and.” Then block out “and I.” Do you hear the difference?

2. Another common error is to use the plural “their” to refer to a singular subject, e.g., “Each of the staff was asked for their opinion.” In this case, “their” should be replaced with “his or her,” if there were either both men and women on the staff, or if you don’t know the gender makeup of the staff. If the staff was composed of all women, you could say “her.” If the staff was made up of all men, you could say “his.” (Note: In the above example, what we are talking about is the singular “each.” The prepositional phrase “of the staff” is used to describe, or clarify “Each.”)

3. Using an overly formal style, such as you might use for a term paper, thesis, or dissertation, can create confusion, and misunderstanding. Further, for your writing to be most effective, you will want to use an appropriate tone – the relationship the writer sets up or reinforces with the reader. How do you want the reader to think of you?

For the most part, if you want your business writing to be read, the best course for today’s reader is to write so that your business writing will be quick, comfortable reading.

4. Finally for today, there is a plethora of words that are confused, or misused. We talk about many of them in our “Quick Tips” videos each week. Words like “fewer” (when you can count them), and “less” (things that are intangible, or hard to describe, e.g., “Harry spent less time using the new process,” or things you can measure, e.g., “There is less water in that cup than in this one.”

And words like “Its” vs. “It’s”; “affect” vs. “effect”; “their,” “there,” and “they’re” – the list goes on, and on, and on….

Send along your favorites, and let’s talk about them!


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email


Tip of the Week: It’s How You Say It

It’s not always – in fact frequently not at all – what you say, but how you say it.

I got thinking about this the other day, and how much difference it makes in the way you may feel about the people you could buy products or services from. And more to the point, how our prospects, customers, and clients might feel about us, as people they could buy from, or hire.bentNail150

  • 1.      First, ask yourself how this person – especially if he or she is a prospect, customer, or client – wants to communicate with you. By phone, by fax, by text, by email, person-to-person? I recently telephoned two professional services providers, accepting their proposals, and requesting a start date. Neither returned my phone calls. When I texted them some days later, I had answers back from each in a matter of minutes, where voice mails had gone unanswered.
  • 2.      Second, the order of the words you say it in makes a difference. After you’ve selected the medium, focus on your purpose, and start with that in the first paragraph. In the above example, had the purpose of a text message, or a subsequent email been to apologize, that would be the place to start. If the focus of the communication were to move on and get the job done, that would be the place to start.
  • 3.      Third, examine the words and phrases you use to say it in. For example, compare these two sentences:
  • a. Can’t you tell whether the nail’s defect was caused by improper handling during the manufacturing process?
  • b. Can you tell whether the nail’s defect was caused by improper handling during the manufacturing process?

The dangerous duo here are the words “Can’t,” and “Can.”

 It’s a matter of tone – the relationship the writer sets up with the reader. Does it seem to you that the word “Can’t,” in this example, sets up a confrontational tone? Do you almost expect the words “you dummy” to either precede “Can’t,” or maybe end the sentence? If this sentence were addressed to you, would you feel challenged, like you had to defend yourself and explain why you could, or could not, “tell”?

In contrast, how do you feel about “Can”? Does “Can” have more of a teamwork feel to it? Which of the two sentences would make you feel more a part of the team working together to find the solution?

Just as a side note: There are also punctuation issues common to both of these sentences that will make a big difference in what your sentence says. If you said

 Can you tell whether the nail’s defect was caused by improper handling during the manufacturing process?

 In this case, “nail’s” would mean one nail with one defect. But if you said

 Can you tell whether the nails’ defect was caused by improper handling during the manufacturing process?

 In this case, “nails’” would mean more than one nail – millions, even, with the same, one defect. Serious stuff! But even more serious, what if you said

Can you tell whether the nails’ defects were caused by improper handling during the manufacturing process?

 In this case, we have multiple nails with multiple defects. What a difference that little apostrophe can make.


We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting.

© 2013 Gail Tycer •


Blogger Tip #1: Make it readable

This week, we’re welcoming blogger Marilyn Tycer. Marilyn is a graphic designer and blogger, and we’ve asked her to share some of her tips for bloggers.

Tip #1: Make it readable.

Now that you have a subject for your blog, and some ideas for posts, what comes next? Start typing! But it’s important to take care to craft your blog posts into something readable. So before you hit the “Publish” button, take a moment to revise your writing. While the subject of your blog might be popular, your blog probably won’t get a lot of followers if your writing is hard to read or bland. Continue reading