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Many think of language as a fixed logical structure with timeless rules. However, this view misunderstands the nature of language. Language—human beings’ greatest invention—is a rich, rough-and-tumble, and ever-changing mix of formal rules and informal custom. In a broad sense, usage is always logical, but the logic of rhetoricians (those who traditionally base all rules for English on how Latin works) and of a living language can be quite different. Things that were once against the rules gradually win popular acceptance to the point that they become part of "standard English".  Other things, once respectable English, are gradually driven into disrepute by scholarly opinion.  Apostrophes, for instance, are probably on the way out in the judgment of most language scholars today…. but they're not gone yet. 

While there is an element of obsolescence in any list of the leading writing mistakes, it is important to know and avoid the most commonly misused words.  Some words in the English language take a constant beating in business correspondence. Be one of those writers who use them properly and pleasantly surprise your readers. Your conscientiousness may sell your next idea or product.

1.  Apostrophe Catastrophes. 

Apostrophes have two functions: to show contractions (I won't) and possession (Shakespeare's tragedy). They are not used to show the plural of a noun.  For example, it is incorrect to use an apostrophe in:  “Many have criticized the degree to which American’s revere personal freedom.”  Instead, it should read:  “Many have criticized the degree to which Americans revere personal freedom.”

Contractions are acceptable in business writing, but sometimes disputed by teachers in an academic context.  The main problem apostrophes present is when showing possession.  For the most part, the rule is simple.  Use an apostrophe followed by s for singular nouns.  For example, “The Chief Financial Officer’s budget contains numerous inaccuracies.”  Use an apostrophe alone for plurals.  For example, “The managers’ salary requests for staff are on hold for the duration.”

It’s or its.   Because apostrophes are used for possession as well as contraction, many students get confused about the distinction between it's and its. The solution here is to remember that it's is a contraction, not a possessive.  It's = it is. It, like other pronouns (he, his; she, her) doesn't take an apostrophe to show possession.  For example, “The letter’s casual tone clashes with its business topic.” 

Who or Whose.  Who's and whose have the same distinction.  Who’s = who is.

Final note about apostrophes.  Some writers use an apostrophe alone for nouns ending in s or z, especially when the next word begins with the same sound.  There are cases where it is preferable to use an apostrophe without an s for multisyllabic names ending in s or z, such as “Mr. Menendez’ presentation.” 

2.  Word Misuse.

That vs. which. Which often follows a comma and introduces a phrase that provides additional information not essential to the meaning of the sentence. That introduces a phrase that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. “The report, which is twenty pages long, is mandatory reading.” Which introduces additional, but unnecessary, information. “The report that the manager provided is mandatory reading.” That points out a characteristic of the report and distinguishes it from a report provided by someone else.

Hopefully.  “Hopefully, I'll finish the report by noon.” Does the writer mean he'll finish the report in a hopeful frame of mind by noon? Or does the writer mean he hopes to finish the report by noon?  Be clear.  “I hope to finish the report by noon.”

Very. Avoid this lukewarm, unspecific adverb. “I'm very happy that you elected me Chairman of the Commercial Real Estate Council.” Is very happy happier than just happy? Why not overjoyed or ecstatic.  Or try “I'm tickled to be the new chairman of the Commercial Real Estate Council.”

There, their and they’re.  Be particularly careful with this because spell check will not catch this mistake.  They’re is another contraction, short for they are.  “They’re going to the conference in June.”  Their indicates ownership by a group.  “This is their report.”  There is used to indicate place.  “The materials for the meeting are over there.”

Infamy and notoriety.  Infamous is not a fancy way of saying famous. It means the opposite: famously wicked or bad. Churchill was famous; Hitler was infamous.

Likewise, notoriety doesn't mean just being widely known—it means being known for being bad (though in British, as opposed to American, usage this distinction doesn't hold). Calling someone with a record of hefty contributions to charity "a notorious altruist" is a gaffe.

Cannot.  This is an easy mistake to avoid.  Cannot is one word, not two (not can not).

Affect and Effect.  Many writers confuse these two words. The common mistake is to use effect when affect should be used, typically when using it as a verb. To signify ‘having have an effect upon’, use affect.  For example, “The amount of vacancies in a building significantly affects a property owner’s ability to pay the debt service.”

Effect can be used as a verb, but its meaning is restricted, and is synonymous with produce.  For example, “She effected a change in the way the IRS conducted its audits.” 

Insure and ensure.   Many writers also confuse these two words.  In this case, the common mistake is to use insure when you should use ensure, meaning ‘to make certain.’ 

3. Other Grammar Problems. 

Nouns ending in y. 
Nouns ending in y often produce similar confusion with regard to possession.  If you want to talk about something belonging to a country, for instance, write country’s, not countries (which means more than one country).

Conjunction Confusion. 
Conjunctions like and, but and or join independent clauses.  For example, “They worked for hours on the project but could not complete it—and they did not make the sale. Often people use however, therefore, and thus as if they were also conjunctions but they are not. They're adverbs, and should not be used to connect independent clauses.  You still need a semicolon or period.  For example, it is incorrect to say “Working hard is a good thing, however, it is not the most important activity for a salesperson.”  The correct way is to say: “Working hard is a good thing; however, it is not the most important activity for a salesperson.”
It is usually more graceful to place however, therefore, and similar words right at the beginning instead of at some convenient pause later.  For example, “Though working hard is a good thing, it is not the most important activity for a salesperson.”

Plural or singular. 

It or they.  In American English, corporations and other collective entities are singular.  For example, “The Limited has been experiencing problems with its Limited Express and Lerner New York divisions.”

Criterion or criteria.  The former is singular, the latter plural.

Principal or principle.  Don't bother with that. "The principal is your pal" stuff, because that is not the usage that confuses people. In terms of what causes problems, principal is an adjective meaning "foremost" or "most important," while principle is a noun meaning "fundamental law" or "guiding idea."

Here's how to remember the difference.  Principal: a for adjective, and the first or foremost letter. 
Principle: e for ethics or elementary rule.

Remember, practice makes perfect especially when it comes to writing.  May these tips help you communicate more clearly and effectively in business and in life.


"I think some aspects of writing can be taught. Obviously, you can't teach vision or talent. But you can help with comfort." Toni Morrison

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