Turn up for business with your flies undone or your skirt tucked into the back of your underwear and you shouldn’t expect to win any customers. Yet allowing basic and avoidable errors into your business writing is just as embarrassing and equally likely to deter prospects.
Sloppy writing suggests sloppy business practices and unfortunately the most common errors are often not spotted by programs such as Microsoft Word. So I’m going to show you some of the most common grammatical mistakes and how to get them right.
Firstly, why not see if you can spot them in the paragraph below?
The affect of the global downturn is different to the difficulties of the early nineties. Company reports passed to James and I show that less than 50 of our clients have cut their orders and my advise is to licence 5 additional providers.
Did you find all 6? If you managed to spot more than one then you’ve already done better than Word, which only highlighted one mistake as I typed it.
So, let’s consider them in turn.
Although these are often confused the difference needn’t be perplexing.
Affect = Verb Effect = Noun
So if you’re talking about the outcome then the noun is used:
There is great concern over the effect of global warming.
Poor writing has an unfortunate effect: loss of customers.
If you’re talking about the process then you need the verb:
We need to affect the outcome of the vote.
How will the change in government affect my business?
As extra clues, seeing ‘the’ or ‘an’ lets you know it is a noun (effect) whilst ‘to’ will indicate a verb (affect). These clues won’t always be there, however.
NOTE: Be aware there is also a separate meaning for ‘effect’ as a verb meaning ‘to bring about’, as in “to effect change”.
‘Different to’ is frequently heard in conversation and has actually been considered acceptable for some time. Nevertheless the correct version is ‘different from’.
This essentially stems from the logic built into the pairing ‘similar to/different from’. Here, ‘to’ suggests coming towards something, which is appropriate to convey similarity. ‘From’ suggests moving apart, which fits the sense of being different.
It should be noted that American English uses ‘different from’ but also ‘different than’, which is not an option in British English.
Great confusion emerges whenever people refer to a pairing of the speaker and someone else. Do you say ‘John and me’ or ‘John and I’? Often people assume it is more sophisticated to refer to yourself as ‘I’ and so take that as the default option. However, there is a clear rule and sticking to it will ensure grammatical sophistication. Plus, there’s also a simple trick to learn.
If the pair forms the subject then ‘I’ is used. In other words, if the people are performing the action of the main verb you choose ‘I’.
Phil and I are expecting a call today.
It was a close thing but Chloe and I managed to escape.
If the pair is the object, then use ‘me’.
It’s goodbye from Graham and me.
It was a tough choice for Maisie and me.
And the easy trick? Just take the other person out of the sentence and you’ll see immediately if your choice is wrong:
Me managed to escape.
It’s goodbye from I.
Unless you’re Tarzan this should guarantee success.
This is one of the most abused grammatical rules in English, yet it’s not hard to learn.
‘Less’ is used when referring to a single thing or concept:
A little less milk, please.
We need less talking and more doing.
‘Fewer’ is used when referring to more than one thing:
There are fewer songbirds in Britain than 20 years ago.
With fewer cooks the broth won’t be spoiled.
This can sometimes create quite a fine line of distinction because similar concepts can be conveyed by both singular and plural terms, but the rule is always clear:
With fewer hours left we have less time.
Fewer coins means less money.
It’s easier to understand the reason for this when you consider that ‘less’ is the comparative form of ‘little’.
Little – less – least
Few – fewer – fewest
So if you talked about having ‘little time’ that would make perfect sense, but ‘little coins’ means you have small coins, not that you don’t have many of them. Therefore ‘less coins’ makes no grammatical sense.
The final two errors in the opening passage come under the same area: words ending in ‘-ce’ and ‘-se’.
Again, the rule is actually simple. In British English words such as ‘advise’, ‘license’, ‘devise’ and ‘practise’ are verbs, whilst ‘advice’, ‘licence’, ‘device’ and ‘practice’ are nouns. Essentially, ‘-se’ is the verb and ‘-ce’ is the noun:
I advised him not to sign the contract but he ignored that advice.
I practised my passing right throughout the after-school football practice.
An easy way to remember is that the ‘n’ of ‘noun’ comes before the ‘v’ of ‘verb’ in the alphabet, just as ‘c’ comes before ‘s’. Noun – ‘ce’, verb – ‘se’.
Again, American English follows different rules. Advice/advise and device/devise follow the rules above, but practise and license are the spellings for both noun and verb.
So, those are some of the most common errors to plague business writing and now you should feel confident in your ability to avoid them.
There are plenty of other pitfalls awaiting the grammatically unwary, though, so be sure to come back again for further hints and tips!