We constantly remind our clients that perception plays a huge role in whether presenters succeed or fail with their audiences. Using the wrong word while speaking, or inserting bad grammar into written communications, can lead to poor impressions, distractions and occasionally lasting headaches.
Since there aren’t always proofreaders to help with every email, letter or slide, most of us need to become familiar with common errors that trip up even the most fastidious linguists and spell-check programs.
(In the interest of full disclosure, we’re not claiming to be perfect ourselves, but rather trying to be helpful to our readers!)
So, readers, here’s our gift to you—a quick guide to the mistakes we notice most often in written and verbal communications.
The misuse of punctuation causes problems for professional and amateur communicators alike.
Its vs. It’s. Its is about possession, as in “The lion feeds its cubs.” It’s should be used as a contraction for “It is” or “It has.”
Your vs. you’re. Similar to its: your is about possession, as in “Is that your dog, Seth?” You’re is a contraction of “you are.” As the great Stevie Wonder might sing if he was pressed for time, “You’re the sunshine of my life…”
There, their and they’re. There relates to location, as in “there’s my dog.” Their relates to possession, as in “that’s their dog.” They’re is a contraction of “they are.” For an advanced lesson, figure this sentence out: They’re in their house over there.
Word choices/Similar words
Do you run into trouble with any of these confusing word choices?
Affect or effect. This is a big mistake people make. Affect is a verb, effect is a noun.
Than or then. This is another common one. Than is about relationships, often related to numerics, as in more than, less than, fewer than. Then is usually about time, as in “first Josh picked me up, then we went to the Sox game.”
Which or that. This one is commonly misunderstood. Use which at the beginning of a clause that, if removed from the sentence, wouldn’t hurt the structure of the sentence, as in “the collection, which she keeps in her room, takes up a lot of space.” Phrases beginning with that (restrictive clauses) are crucial and cannot be taken out without changing the meaning, as in “Baseballs that are scuffed are removed from the game.”
Two, to or too. Two is a number. To is most frequently a preposition, as in “Where does the lone ranger take his garbage? To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump!” Too is a synonym for also, or for as well. It also refers to excess: “You know too much to live, Van Helsing.”
Further and farther. Remember that farther relates to physical distance, as in “I think we should drive a little farther down the road. Is there anything further you want to say about that?”
And a pet peeve…
Couldn’t care less. More often than not, people will say “I could care less,” but mean the opposite. This implies that they DO care to some extent. When you couldn’t care less, the implication is that you do not care at all. That’s most likely what you MEANT to say.
Certainly, there are other grammar issues that come up for you. Please share your thoughts and we’ll include them in a future article.
Recommended resources for more grammar help:
- Test your knowledge with this online quiz sponsored by Staples
- The Purdue OWL (Online writing lab)
- Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the story of a Panda who walks into a bar, shoots the bartender, and walks out, all because of a misplaced comma. Both funny and insightful.