Writing for Business

by Steve Roche

Some common mistakes

We all make grammatical mistakes from time to time, both in our everyday speech and in our writing. Writing that is littered with glaring mistakes in grammar and punctuation, however, gives the impression that the writer can’t be bothered and is lazy, sloppy and, perhaps, too stupid to master a few basic rules.

The use of the apostrophe

A surprisingly large number of people appear to leave school without learning the correct uses of the apostrophe. If you are one of these, you need to become aware that an equal number of people are driven wild by its misuse.

The apostrophe is used either to indicate possession (Jane’s briefcase) or to show that certain letters have been omitted when words have been elided (I don’t like to open it; it’s hers...).

  • There are no apostrophes after the possessive pronouns – yours, its and theirs.
  • When used with a single noun, the apostrophe comes before the ‘s’: John’s computer, Michael’s report.
  • If a word is made plural by adding an ‘s’, the apostrophe comes after the ‘s’: the Smiths’ house.
  • If the word is already plural without the additional ‘s’, then the apostrophe comes before the ‘s’: the people’s war, the children’s toys and so on.

Avoid irritating readers with unnecessary apostrophes, especially in simple plurals (the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ – banana’s and apple’s).

A common error is to write it’s (it is) for its (the things belonging to it), or vice versa. Remember:

It’s a wise dog that scratches its own fleas.

Similar confusions often occur with who’s/whose, you’re/your and there’s/theirs.

If nothing is omitted (and there is no cause to indicate possession), there is no need for an apostrophe: therefore it is 1990s, not 1990’s.

Abbreviations

If letters are omitted from the end of a word, this has been indicated traditionally by a full stop: e.g. or i.e. and so on. It would be incorrect, therefore, to write Mr. or Mrs. or St. (street or saint). In all these cases, the letters are missing not from the end of the word but from the middle. However, because of the open punctuation style of business letter writing (where no full stops are used at all in addresses and salutations, only in the general punctuation in the body of the letter), general confusion and use of the internet, email and texting, the tendency these days is not to put any full stops in at all. Latin abbreviations are not always clear to an international audience. Try to use ‘and so on’ instead of ‘etc’; ‘for example’ or ‘for instance’ instead of ‘eg’; ‘that is’ or ‘in other words’ or ‘for instance’ rather than ‘ie’.

Colons and semicolons

As a general rule, a colon is used when you could substitute it with the word ‘namely’. ‘He liked Mediterranean flavours: oregano, mint, parsley, olive oil and garlic.’

A semicolon is used, often in place of ‘and’ or ‘but’, to link two independent but closely related sentences. ‘The flight was short; the taxi drive took longer.’ It is also used in lists within a sentence when the use of commas could cause confusion. ‘We have outlets in Cardiff, Wales; Leeds, the North of England; Aberdeen, Scotland; Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Birmingham, the Midlands.’

Dangling modifiers

Definitely something to avoid, the dangling modifier is a word or phrase that is used in such a way that it could apply to either the subject or object of the clause, thus creating ambiguity. ‘Being in a weak market position, we should be able to buy the company at a low price.’ This type of mistake is more common in speech, and is therefore a pitfall for those who write as they speak.

Verbs

Make sure that verbs are in agreement with their subjects: a plural subject should have a plural verb and so on. Also check that tenses are consistent – it can be easy to leap from the past to the present tense without good reason.

Grammar checkers will automatically query sentences in the passive tense. Sometimes, the passive tense is the best option, but it may be unnecessarily ambiguous or vague. Check whether it would be better to re-phrase the sentence.

Pronouns

Make sure that the subjects and objects of sentences are not confused (for example: ‘he went with Sarah and I‘ instead of ’he went with Sarah and me’).

Common confusions

An alternative is one of two choices. If there are more than two choices, they are options.

To infer is to deduce or draw a conclusion: ‘From what he said yesterday, I infer that he will go ahead anyway.’ To imply is to suggest: ‘If we were to close the plant, this might imply that we are having problems.’

Less is often used incorrectly. If what you are describing can be counted, fewer should be used: ‘After the re-organisation, there seemed to be less space in the office, although there were fewer people working in it.’

Common spelling mistakes

Some of the most common spelling mistakes are:

Words that sound the same but which are spelt differently

  • They’re, their and there
  • Its and it’s
  • A lot and allot
  • Which and witch
  • Affect and effect
  • Where, wear and were
  • By, buy and bye
  • Here and hear
  • Too, two and to
  • Sight, cite and site
  • Complimentary and complementary
  • Stationery and stationary

Words that are commonly confused

Writers often confuse the following pairs of words:

  • Accept and except
  • Adverse and averse
  • Advice and advise
  • Aisle and isle
  • All together and altogether
  • Censure and censor
  • Discreet and discrete
  • Elicit and illicit
  • Foreword and forward
  • Imply and infer
  • Loose and lose
  • Pair and pear
  • Pour and pore
  • Practice and practise
  • Principal and principle
  • Storey and story
  • Tortuous and torturous

Words that contain double letters

Words that contain double letters are frequently misspelt. Some of the most common misspelt words include accommodation, address, apparent, commemorate, committee, embarrassment, omission, occurrence, parallel, possession, recommend and tomorrow.

Words that end in ‘ence’, ‘ant’ and ‘ate’

Look out for commonly misspelled words such as correspondence, independence, descendant, exhilarate, and irrelevant.

-ise or –ize?

Most English writers prefer to use the ‘-ise’ spelling for verbs such as organise/organize, criticise/criticize and realise/realize. Americans, on the other hand, use the ‘-ize’ spelling, which is also preferred by the Oxford English Dictionary. If you are writing for an international or American readership, it may therefore be preferable to use the ‘-ize’ spelling.

There are some verbs that are always spelt ‘ise’, however, the most common being advertise, advise, compromise, devise, enterprise, exercise, franchise, merchandise, practise, revise, supervise and televise.

The following are spelt ‘-yse’ in English (including the Oxford English Dictionary) and ‘-yze’ by American writers: analyse, catalyse, dialyse, electrolyse, hydrolyse and paralyse.

Common errors in typography, style and formatting

Some of the most common typographical, style and formatting mistakes include the following:

  • Double spaces between characters, especially after a full stop
  • Incorrect headings, subheadings, or captions
  • Misaligned columns or rows in a table
  • Misaligned margins
  • Incorrect text references
  • Inconsistent bullet formatting
  • Incorrect fonts/font sizes
  • Incorrect capitalisation
  • Footnotes or endnotes that don’t match references
  • Incorrect use of trademarks
  • Missing numbers in a numbered sequence/list
  • Incorrect page numbers
  • Incorrect dates
  • Inconsistent use of abbreviations
  • Incorrect/inconsistent dashes