Those Grammar Gaffes Will Get You

People see your language as a reflection of your competence. Make lots of mistakes in your e-mails, reports, and other documents, and you’ll come across as uneducated and uninformed. Others will hesitate to trust your recommendation to launch a resource-intensive project, for example, or to buy goods or services. They’ll think you don’t know what you’re talking about. Consider pronouns. Certain errors will predictably get you in trouble: “Just keep this matter between you and I,” for instance, and “Tom and her will run the meeting.” Write instead: “Just keep this matter between you and me.” And: “She and Tom will run the meeting.” The rule, very simply, is that I, we, he, she, and they are subjects of clauses — as in “Leslie and I were delighted to work with you.” Me, us, him, her, and them are objects of either verbs or prepositions: “You might want to consult with Leslie and me.” In the compound phrasings, try leaving out Leslie and — and you’ll know the correct form immediately. Here are two other common problems to watch out for: 1. Subject-verb disagreement. A verb must agree in person and number with its subject.
I am aware of that. You are aware of that. Pat is aware of that. We are all aware of that.
But syntax can make things tricky. There is poses a problem because There appears to be the subject. It’s not. It’s what grammarians call an expletive — a word that stands in for the subject in an inverted sentence. The true subject follows the verb. So don’t write, “There is always risk and liability considerations.” Use are — your subject is considerations. 2. Double negatives. A double negative is easy to recognize in spoken dialect (“We didn’t have no choice”), but the problem can be more subtle in writing. Watch for the word not plus another word with a negative sense. Don’t write, “We couldn’t scarcely manage to keep up with the demand.” Write instead, “We could scarcely manage to keep up with the demand.” How can you brush up on your grammar? Read first-rate nonfiction — this helps you cultivate an appreciation of the skills you’re trying to acquire. Ask knowledgeable colleagues to proof your material and explain their corrections. And consult guides on grammar and usage to distinguish between the real rules and the artificial ones that plague so much writing. For example, were you told in school never to begin a sentence with a conjunction? So was I. But look at all the Ands and Buts that begin sentences in high-quality prose. They’re everywhere. As sentence-starters, these words keep readers going smoothly with the train of thought. They’re short, sharp, and fleet. They don’t break any real rules — and they never have. Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with using Additionally and However as sentence-starters. But stylistically, they’re inferior. Multisyllabic connectors don’t join as cleanly and as tightly as monosyllables do. It’s also perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. The “rule” that you shouldn’t is a misbegotten notion based on Latin syntax and expounded by a few (a very few) 19th-century writers. Grammarians have long since dismissed it as ill-founded and unnecessary. Often a sentence with a terminal preposition sounds far more natural than the same sentence forced into avoiding one. Consider: What will the new product be used for? versus For what purpose will the new product be used? Do you worry that your readers will think a sentence-starting conjunction or a sentence-ending preposition is wrong? They won’t even notice it. Good style gets readers focused on your clear, concise message. Bad style draws attention to itself. This is the fourth post in Bryan A. Garner’s blog series on business writing. The series draws on advice in Garner’s new HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. Post 1: Don’t Anesthetize Your Colleagues with Bad Writing Post 2: A Well-Crafted Letter Still Gets the Job Done Post 3: Write E-Mails That People Won’t Ignore
Scroll to Top