by Sarah Warlick, copy editor, BBR Marketing
Writing is a basic cornerstone of business communication that most of us do every day. We’re judged on our ability to write clearly, and even though it’s not fair to gauge our professional abilities by our writing – who but a grammar geek has time to learn all the crazy rules and their exceptions? – people do. So whether you love to write or the act strikes fear deep into your core, here are some common errors you can learn to avoid without spending your life studying the nuances of grammar and punctuation.
It’s or Its? This is one that even highly educated writers often get wrong, because it doesn’t follow the usual pattern. The apostrophe we normally use to indicate possession (today’s news, the manager’s request) is handled differently with the pronoun “it.” For this word, the apostrophe is used to form the contraction of “it is” (e.g. it’s raining, it’s my turn, it’s a pain to learn all of these rules) but NOT to show possession: her client, his demand, its many ramifications. If you could substitute the separate words “it is” then use the apostrophe, but if instead you could name the item (or process or event) Elvis and refer to Elvis’s whatever, then you need “its.”
Hyphenating words is another area that invites mistakes. Some compound words like proofread and bookkeeping can be used correctly with or without the hyphen. Others, like payoff and follow-up, demand different treatment based on their usage. The main rule is that when they are adjectives describing another word, as in follow-up care or payoff opportunities, they need to be written as one word or hyphenated (either is okay – this is part of the transitioning process as new combinations become accepted words). When they are verbs, as in, “I’d like you to follow up on that, please, because I think it can pay off in new business,” they must be written as two separate words. Easy enough, right?
There’s a serious epidemic of grammatical abuse happening today, and I intend to stop it. The term “there’s” is obviously a contraction of “there is.” Almost no one would say, “There is doughnuts in the office today!” and yet it’s horrifyingly common to hear, “There’s doughnuts today!” No, no, NO! There ARE doughnuts present, if we’re lucky, but you may not have any if you announce the good news with “there’s.” There’s a policeman at the door? Awesome. Invite him in for doughnuts. If, however, there is a collection of policemen at the door, you may or may not have a legal problem but you definitely have a situation calling for “there are.” There’s only one correct way to handle this term, and the fact that the news media and your CEO use it improperly most of the time does not in any way excuse YOU from using it correctly. Check by separating the contraction into its component words, and if the sentence calls for “there are,” then you may not substitute “there’s.” See me after class if you need further help with this matter.
Don’t panic. Everyone makes writing mistakes, even the professionals (this one, anyway). It’s perfectly legitimate to run into situations that you thought you knew how to handle only to find that in this case, you don’t. Do your best, try to learn how to avoid the most common mistakes, and get a friend or colleague to check your work. If you find the whole topic frustrating, confusing or just too reminiscent of the eighth grade, feel free to call on us at BBR Marketing. We’ll be gentle.