Texts, emails, memos, whitepapers, creative briefs: even if we’re not trained journalists, we spend a lot of time writing. And while we’re at it, we could be making some common grammar, word usage or punctuation mistakes. When communicating with friends, not a problem. But if we’re pitching a potential client or responding to an e-mail from a superior, even a minor gaffe could hurt our credibility or distract the reader from our main message. To that end, here are some common errors that tend to crop up in typical business communications.
#1 Your/You’re, Their/They’re, Its/It’s
When you mean “you are,” the contraction is “you’re,” not “your,” which is to designate something a person owns, as in “your car.” Sometimes this mistakes happens because of quick typing, but it crops up so often that it seems as if many people don’t know the difference between the contraction for “they are” (they’re) and the possessive adjective (their). “Its” is another possessive adjective (“Its relevance is substantial”), different from the contraction (It’s) for “It is.”
This word has been admitted into some dictionaries but is noted as being nonstandard, like the word “ain’t,” which is also in dictionaries but not considered proper to use in business communications. People use it to say things like “Irregardless of the Q4 numbers, we expect to see positive trends in Q1.” What people usually mean to say when they use “irregardless” is actually the standard word “regardless,” which means “without regard” and is most often used in sentences like, “Regardless of the consequences, Harold ate the heavily spiced food that he knew would cause him heartburn.” It means the same as “despite.” So in the context of the Q4 numbers, the correct words to use would be “regardless” or “despite.”
This is not a word. “Learning” is a gerund, a verb form that names the action of the verb, in this case, the action of the verb “to learn.” While a gerund can be a noun, as in “Learning Portuguese is fun,” it still refers to the act of learning, not what you learned. So if you’re talking about what you learned from a particular campaign, those are lessons, not learnings.
This is not a word. The correct phrase is “all right,” as in “I hope you’re all right.” This may come up in more informal communications with clients or superiors, so it’s helpful to get it right, all right?
#5 Literally vs. Figuratively
Literally means something that is actually happening, in real life, as opposed to figuratively happening. For example, when someone says, “Work is killing Juan,” this is figurative, a colorful way to say that work is overwhelming Juan or taking up all of his energy. But if Juan has a fatal heart attack while in a stressful situation at work, you could say “Work literally killed Juan.” It’s a way of pointing out that what is described by a colorful expression actually happened.
As such, don’t use “literally” unless you are describing something that actually happened AND refers to a commonly known expression. In other words, don’t say it’s “literally raining cats and dogs” unless actual cats and dogs are falling from the sky. Another point: incorrect use of “literally” can literally make you sound like one of the Kardashians, who, despite a marketing acumen that has delivered massive success with a valueless product, constantly abuse the word and are not exactly revered as great business communicators.
#6 Using Clichés
Technically, using a cliché is not the same as a grammatical or word usage mistake. It’s not demonstrably wrong. But using business clichés can make your writing sound weak or unoriginal. Or worse, clichés can make an original argument sound as hackneyed as the terms used to convey it. Here’s a few that need to be put to rest, forever, plus alternatives:
- Think outside of the box (try “be creative,” “be ingenious,” “be inventive” or “be imaginative”)
- The next level (“the next tier,” “a higher grade,” “a notch upwards” are less common)
- Bleeding edge, cutting edge or leading edge (just say “innovatory,” a variant of “innovative,” and you’ll still stand out in terms of language while avoiding a cliché)
- Move the needle (“get results” or “get a strong response” can work instead)
- Obtain buy-in (“obtain agreement,” “achieve consensus,” “reach an accord”)
- It is what it is (Really? As opposed to what it isn’t? Amazing something this nonsensical caught on, but if you really need a substitute, try “It’s immutable”)
- It’s a game-changer (“it will transform,” “be transformative” or “it will upend the industry”)
- KISS or Keep it simple, stupid (it was cute in 2003, but let’s forget we ever wrote or said this, the same way we can forget if we bought a Dr. Phil book or wore MC Hammer pants)
- Get my ducks in a row (“plan,” “organize”)
- This is paradigm-shifting (“transformative” can also work here)
- It’s a turnkey product (try “ready-made,” “ready to go”)
- Lots of moving parts (“complex,” “complicated,” “involved” and “intricate” are better)
- Best practices (how about “what works” or “what’s effective”)
I know that the alternatives don’t have the metaphoric power of the clichés, but so what? In fiction and in certain types of non-fiction, vivid imagery conveyed by metaphors stirs the reader. But is that really your goal in a business email, a proposal, presentation or whitepaper? No. You’re trying to get across an idea, so what’s wrong with doing it simply and clearly? Rely on the strength of your ideas, not on phrases.
#7 Affect versus effect
People get these mixed up quite often, saying that “Distribution issues effected profitability.” Generally, “affect” means to influence an outcome or result. So sleeping for only two hours before going to work can affect your job performance. On the other hand, lack of sleep can cause a negative effect on your job performance.
The best course is using “affect” as a verb and “effect” as a noun. So if explaining how weather caused a problem with shipments, you’d say “Inclement weather affected our fulfillment capabilities during February 2014.” While it’s true that effect can also be a verb that means to cause, bring about or achieve (“Brad effected significant positive changes in his department”), it’s less common.
This is a noun and means the action of a lever, power or the use of credit to improve your ability to speculate in the stock market. It’s not a verb, so you can’t leverage your assets or your team members or capabilities or anything else. What you can do is exploit, take advantage of or use for your own ends.
#9 Everyday vs. Every day
Every day you brush your teeth (presumably), as in each and every day. But everyday errors are common errors, kind of like this one, and an adjective.
This one always shocks me when I see it in business writing, but it still pops up. Instead of teachers, some people will write teacher’s, using the apostrophe to denote a plural form of a noun. Apostrophes are for contractions (he’s, it’s, I’ve) or to show possession: “John’s yacht is spectacular.” To denote plurality, usually you just add an “s” to the end, unless you have a collective noun (deer), which is written without the “s” in both singular and plural forms. Those types of nouns are fairly rare, so adding the “s” should work fine in most cases.
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