Professional writers often worry that their work is unnecessary. After all, can’t anyone with even a basic education write? The answer: no, they can’t. Even college graduates don’t seem to be learning composition basics.
Of course not everyone is going to be the next Mark Twain, but career success does depend on looking professional. Sure, some clients, coworkers, or resume readers might make some of these mistakes themselves. But it takes just one person to see just one mistake for you to be discounted.
1. Constipated Clauses
Reporting on the feats and foibles of the Red Sox, a writer for South Coast Today notes: “It goes without saying that these exploits take a tremendous amount of skill.” If it “goes without saying” then don’t say it. If it doesn’t, in fact, go without saying, then don’t say it does. “Obviously, the sky is blue.” Putting the “obviously” doesn’t suddenly make the statement insightful.
2. Comma Vomit
True or false: a comma must precede any use of the word “and”? FALSE. Commas should only precede and, but, for, or, nor, so, or yet when they introduce an independent clause. For example, “We laid out our music and snacks, and began to study.” Placing a comma after “snacks” is incorrect. The subject of the sentence has not changed, “we” still “began to study.”
An example of correct comma use: “The game was over, and the crowd began to leave.” The game and the crowd are different subjects and the clauses are independent. The crowd could still be leaving regardless of what is happening with the game. A comma can also precede “and” when it is used in a list of three or more items. However, in a list it is entirely optional and called an “oxford comma.”
While that is probably the most common overuse, others are prevalent. Just because you think you would pause at a certain point when speaking, it does not mean you need a comma. For a complete guide to using and misusing commas, check out this guide!
3. The Death of Adverbs
Once upon a time, the English language had a way to modify both nouns and verbs. Adjectives did the trick on the former and adverbs on the latter. You didn’t just have to walk, you could walk quickly! Adverbs modify verbs. For example, you accomplish a task with ease. What do you say?
WRONG: I can do that easy!
RIGHT: I can do that easily!
You accomplish a task with more ease than your colleagues. What do you say?
WRONG: I can do that easier than they can.
RIGHT: I can do that more easily than they can.
4. Less vs. Fewer
A salesperson’s skills are not on par with yours. How would you describe that: “He has less skill than I” or “He has fewer skills than I do”? You could use both! Less describes something that is not finite, like a trait. In the first case, “skill” does not refer to any particular skill, it denotes skill like “talent” or “intelligence.”
Fewer describes finite, listable items. In the second case, you have a larger skill set than the other salesperson. You could list those skills that you have and the ones he doesn’t.
Too often, people misuse “less.” They’ll say something like, “He has less skills than I do.” Say that and you’ve shown you have less intelligence and fewer brains than your competitors.
5. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Et cetera: a useful Latin-derived tool for shortening lists. However, unless you are a lawyer, using it (and especially overusing it) can make you sound unprofessional.
If you must, use it once. A second or third occurrence in the same document essentially says, “I really don’t know what I’m talking about, so I’ll just jam etc. on the end and try to pretend I do!”
Another et cetera mistake is using it when you should use “et al.” Listing a set of objects? Use etc. Listing a group of people? Use et al. It also is derived from Latin and means “and others.”
6. Prevarication Junction
“I think that I would be an ideal candidate for this position.”
“I think that my product would do wonders for your company.”
“Studies show that people like this product more.”
Draw a line through each of those sentences. As a teacher told me in high school once, “Don’t tell me what you think. Tell me what you know.” Similarly, don’t talk about studies. If you think a study is reliable—and you probably do if you rely on its results—just say what those reliable results were. If someone asks, you can always point them to the study in question. These phrases ultimately end up making your writing much longer than it needs to be. What’s worse, they make you appear afraid: not assertive enough to express your own opinion and unsure of what you are writing about. If you really don’t know what you’re talking about … don’t talk about it.
7. The Affect-Effect Divide
His affect had an effect on me and affected me so much that I had to effect a change in my work environment.
WRONG USAGE: “Our products will positively effect your business;” or “My skills will substantially effect your company.” Affect and effect can both be nouns and verbs.
Here is a rule to follow: use affect as a verb and effect as a noun. An affect (noun) is an artificial air that someone puts on. Do you pretend to have a British accent? That’s an affect. To affect something (verb) is to change it. An effect (noun) is the result of someone or something affecting something. To effect (verb) means to accomplish or make something happen.
8. Then vs Than
When one event follows another, we use then. For instance, “The clouds appeared, then it rained.” When two things are being compared, we use than. “Grandma is shorter than Grandpa.” Although most people learned this in elementary school, they seem to forget more thAn anyone would like. Just this month a news site in Santa Clara, California published a review of WALL-E. The critic said, “The film was shorter then I would’ve liked.”
9. None Is
It’s an easy trap in which to fall. “While I am certain there were many applicants for this job, none of them are as experienced as me.” WRONG! We hope you wouldn’t actually write a sentence like that even without the grammatical error, but making none plural makes it even worse. None is singular. None is always singular.
While the “them” toward the end may make you think, “A ha! Multiples!” the subject is still none, which (did we mention?) is singular. “None of them is” may sound a little off to some, but it is correct English.
10. i.e. is not e.g. is not i.e.
Some people seem to think that throwing an “i.e.” into a paragraph makes them look smarter. Unfortunately, most of those people are using i.e. to mean “for example.”
WRONG: “I have sold many products, i.e. washing machines.” This doesn’t make any sense.
i.e. is an abbreviation of the Latin words id est, literally translated as “that is.” In English, i.e. is used synonymously with “namely.” It specifies and limits.
E.g. is also a Latin abbreviation but of the words exempli gratia, meaning “for example.”
E.g. implies, “This is one of several possible options.”
11. Could Of
When speaking, certain contractions can sound like other words. “Could’ve” rolls off the tongue like “could of.” You have to be careful that does not slip into your writing.
In the past tense, could, would and should must never be followed by “of.” If you use contractions in your writing, the words are “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.” If you don’t, they are “could have, would have, should have.”
It’s an easy mistake to make. Scan any document or business email you write and make sure it’s correct.
Originally published on Excelle