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The High Cost of Poor Writing Skills

Columnist: Jane Straus
February, 2007 Issue

BIZTIPS_Straus.jpgIf you’re making grammatical errors in your written communications, you’re probably losing business. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an entrepreneur, a manager in a large organization or a not-so-starving artist: grammar counts.  If you have a solid grasp of proper business English, you’re already leaps and bounds ahead of your grammatically challenged competitors. Clear, concise and correct writing skills are a critical component of success.

Typically, we don’t assign a dollar value to the cost of overlooking grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes. Yet common sense tells us the price is high. Whether you’re composing advertising copy, a proposal or even an email solicitation, you’re either building customer confidence in your product or service or eroding it—perhaps turning away potential customers and profits. Call it the credibility factor. Whom would you trust, a company that says, “Come to our weekend sales event,” or one that says, “Come to our weekend sale’s event”?  Knowing the difference between a plural and a possessive may mean hundreds, thousands or even millions of dollars in revenue. Such is the power of a mere “detail,” and such is the cost of not attending to it.

Here is my list of the top 10 most damaging English usage mistakes. (What I mean by “damaging” is that these errors signal a writer’s basic insecurity or incompetence with the language.) Avoid these mistakes in your business documents at all costs

1. It’s vs. its.
This one is easier than you think. If you mean “it is,” use “it’s.” Otherwise, leave out the apostrophe.
Example: It’s a good thing you are taking a vacation.
Example: A long vacation is its own reward.

2. Agreement between your subject and your verb.
Some words, when used as subjects, are tricky to figure out if they are singular or plural. But if you don’t match your verb with your subject, your reader may notice intuitively.
Wrong: Every one of our phone lines are busy. “One” is the subject here, not “lines.” So you need to use the singular verb “is.”
Wrong: Each of the calls take about five minutes. “Each” is the subject and is singular. Now why would “take” be a problem? Isn’t it also singular? Here’s the trick: Verbs don’t form plurals by adding an “s” the way nouns do. Verbs become singular or plural according to the form you’d use with “she” or “they.” You’d say, “She takes,” so “takes” is the singular verb and should be used with “each.”

3. Possessives being used for plurals.
When you mean more than one of something, don’t use an apostrophe.
Wrong: We petted three rabbit’s.
Right: We petted three rabbits.

4. Run-on sentences.
Sure, you’ve heard this term, but do you know what it means and, more important, how to correct the problem? Here’s an example of a run-on: “We will offer her the job she is the best candidate.” It’s a run-on sentence, because it’s composed of two complete sentences, and we have no conjunction (and, or, but, for, nor) or punctuation to connect them. The solutions are numerous. You can add a conjunction, use a period between the two sentences, or you can even use a semicolon. Example: We will offer her the job; she is the best candidate. The semicolon can take the place of a period or a conjunction while showing more of a connection between two sentences than a period.

5. Misuse of commas.
Commas are your friends if you use them judiciously. Don’t put them wherever you pause or you will use more of them after climbing a flight of stairs, right? For example, never use just one comma between a subject and a verb.
Wrong: Karen, who is my friend calls me every Friday night.
Right: Karen, who is my friend, calls me every Friday night.
See, you can use two commas between “Karen,” the subject, and “calls,” the verb. If I hadn’t named Karen by name, I wouldn’t need any commas around the descriptive phrase.
Right: The woman who is my friend calls me every Friday night.

6. Misplacement of punctuation with quotation marks.
Regardless of the illogic, the rule is that both commas and periods always go inside quotation marks.
Wrong: “Well”, she said, “you have some nerve.”
Right: “Well,” she said, “you have some nerve.”
Wrong: Brian stated, “This is my territory”.
Right: Brian stated, “This is my territory.”
Question marks still follow logic. If the quote itself is a question, place the question mark inside the quotation mark.
Right: Dottie asked, “Is this all you have done so far?”
If the question is not part of the quoted material, place the question mark outside the quote and don’t use any other ending punctuation marks.
Right: Did Dottie say, “I can’t believe this is all you have done”?

7. Overusing hyphens.
There are just too many confusing hyphen rules for anyone to remember. So just try to remember two that will help you bypass a lot of potential blunders.

  1. Hyphenate a group of words when they act as one idea in front of a noun but not when they follow a noun.
    Example: This is a one-of-a-kind dress. This dress is one of a kind.
    Example: That is a healthy-looking baby. That baby is healthy looking.
  2. Generally, if the first word of the modifier ends in ly, don’t use a hyphen after it.
    Right: perfectly written essay 
    Wrong: perfectly-written essay

8. Mixing up words that sound alike.
This is the kind of error that really stands out to those in the know. You can use tricks to distinguish between there (answers the question Where?), they’re (contraction for “they are”), and their (shows ownership, as in their hats), and your (shows ownership, as in your hat) and you’re (contraction for “you are”).

9. Confusing good with well.
Good is an adjective, meaning that it describes nouns. Well is an adverb, meaning that it answers the question “How?” Let’s say you are asked, “How did you do on that project?” Your answer should be, “I did very well” not “I did very good.”

10. Relying on your computer’s spellcheck or grammarcheck program.
Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of having others look at our work, and we’ve come to rely on our computer program’s green and red squiggly lines. However, these programs cannot think. They don’t know whether you mean there or their, it’s or its. The article you’re reading proves my point. I’ve been making mistakes on purpose to show you what not to do . . . but does my computer know that? Alas, no.
If you’re worried that brushing up on your pronouns is too much trouble, think about this: In the time it takes you to ponder if you should say, “With whom am I speaking?” or “Who am I speaking to?” you could probably have written an entire memo.  The solution:  “who” is like “he” and “whom” is like “him.” Just substitute “he” or “him” into the sentence and you’ll know, with about 80 percent accuracy, which is correct. That wasn’t so painful, was it? Who/whom knows? A little brush up might make you rich—or at least a lot more confident and credible.

San Rafael-based Jane Straus is the author and publisher of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. You can find it online at You can contact Jane at (800) 644-3222 or send her an email at


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