Business Writing Trait 6: Correctness
Imagine that you are getting ready for a big event and you want to look your best. You check yourself in the mirror: Does your hair look good? Are your teeth free of broccoli bits? Is your collar straight? Are your clothes pressed and spot free? What about the cat fur? You check these details because you would be embarrassed to show up in public with any of these glaring gaffes.
In the same way, checking correctness is the last step before you share your writing with another person. Just as you wouldn’t want to go out with buttons missing or hems unraveling, you wouldn’t want to publish with agreement errors, misspellings, and other embarrassing mistakes.
In this chapter
Correctness: An Overview
The conventional use of punctuation, capitalization, spelling, grammar, and sentences all converge into the error-free communication that business needs and expects. The Proofreader’s Guide at the end of this book provides detailed rules and examples for each of these important areas. In this chapter, you'll find a general overview of conventions followed by solutions for common convention problems.
Why Is Grammar Important?
Punctuation marks are like road signs, telling the reader where to pause or stop. Without them, the reader can easily get lost; and once that happens, the writing has failed to deliver its message. Click the links below to find rules and examples for these punctuation marks.
Mechanics covers capitalization, numbers, abbreviations, and spelling. The capital letter that begins a sentence serves a high purpose, signaling a new thought or idea. Capitals also highlight the importance of names—names of people, corporations, official documents, localities, and so on. Using numbers and abbreviations in a consistent way is especially important in business writing. And spelling speaks for itself.
The English language is full of words that are so close in appearance or pronunciation that you may have trouble telling them apart—your/you’re, there/their/they’re, advise/advice, and so forth. Each of these words has its own meaning, and it’s up to the writer to use each in the right way. Naturally, misusing a word creates confusion. The minute a reader says, “Does the writer really mean that, or did they mean to say this instead,” the message has been interrupted and perhaps lost. You can improve your usage by reviewing definitions and examples of commonly confused words.
Grammar involves using the eight parts of speech together in conventionally acceptable ways. One says, “The packages have arrived,” not “The packages they has arrived.” Correct, standard grammar is expected in business writing. Correctness is not a matter of being stuffy but of being understood. You can improve the grammar of your writing by reviewing the following parts of speech:
Effective sentences have style—which means that they not only express ideas well but also engage the reader and reflect well on the writer. Click on the links below to find rules and examples for constructing sentences.
Avoiding Sentence Errors
Effective sentences also are correctly created. To communicate, a sentence needs to be free of basic errors. Click the links below to see explanations and examples of the following types of sentence errors.
The following material provides an overview of the most-common problems that arise with punctuation, mechanics, usage, grammar, and sentences. Refer to the Proofreader’s Guide for more depth and coverage.
Correctness: Problems and Solutions
Correctness ensures that nothing will derail your message. It also ensures that your message reflects well on you and your company. The following material provides a quick guide to the most common correctness problems—and solutions to them.
I have trouble with end punctuation.
“This question should end with a question mark.”
“No more exclamation points.”
Match the punctuation to the kind of sentence.
We open the meeting with introductions.
If we start on time, we should be done in an hour.
Please see the attached agenda.
Does everyone agree with the main points?
Commas are confusing.
“A comma goes here.”
“You have too many commas.”
Apply four basic comma rules.
In Compound Sentences: When joining two sentences, use a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet).
The new catalog arrived, but the order form was missing.
After Introductory Phrases: Use a comma after an introductory phrase of four or more words at the beginning of a sentence.
When making travel arrangements, use the Human Resources travel service.
Around Nonessential Words: If a phrase or clause could be removed from a sentence without changing the basic meaning, set off the words with commas.
My supervisor, who enjoys chess, is a master of the boardroom.
Between Equal Adjectives: If two adjectives modify a noun equally, place a comma between them. (If the order of the adjectives can be switched, they modify equally.)
Juan submitted a thorough, thoughtful analysis of the problem.
I have trouble with capitalization.
“Your capitalization seems random.”
“You capitalize too much.”
Follow these two basic capitalization rules.
First Words: Capitalize the first word of each sentence as well as the first word of a quoted sentence.
The applicant asked, “Do you offer a flex-time schedule?”
Proper Nouns and Adjectives: Capitalize names or words used as names (such as Dad and Mom). Also capitalize the names of days, months, holidays, titles, organizations, and adjectives formed from proper nouns.
I asked Sandy Novak if she could work Sunday, March 6, to benefit the Young Reader’s Association. This year’s fund-raiser has an Olympic theme.
Note: Do not type in ALL CAPS unless you are typing a WARNING.
I always get it wrong when adding s, ing, or ed.
“Drop the e before adding that.”
“Double the last letter.”
Learn and apply three spelling rules.
Forming Plurals: Form the plurals of most nouns by adding s to the singular form. If the noun ends in ch, s, sh, x, or z, form plurals by adding es. If the noun ends in a y that follows a consonant, change the y to i and add es.
The ladies from the churches tell stories to children.
Note: Words such as child or mouse have special plural forms—children, mice.
Doubling Final Consonants: If a word ends in a consonant after a single vowel and the syllable is accented, double the consonant before adding a suffix that starts with a vowel.
Oh, I was planning to remove the price tag before I wrapped the present.
Using the Silent e: If a word ends in a silent e, keep the e when adding a suffix beginning with a consonant. Drop the e when adding a suffix beginning with a vowel.
I’m hopeful that I won’t be driving in a snowstorm tomorrow. Hoping may not change the forecast, however.
I get words mixed up.
Learn these differences.
bring, takeBring refers to movement toward the writer or speaker; take refers to movement away from the writer or speaker.
Please take this note to President Jones and bring back her rely.
Fewer refers to countable units; less refers to quantity, value, or degree.
Fewer complaints mean less customer dissatisfaction.
It’s is the contraction of “it is” or “it has.” Its is the possessive form of “it.”
It’s too bad this printer leaves streaks on its printouts.
As verbs, lay means “to put or place something” while lie means “to rest or recline.” (However, the past tense of lie is lay.)
You lay your coat on the chair and lie down to rest.
Lend means “to give the use of temporarily”; borrow means “to obtain for temporary use.”
You can borrow my pencil if you will lend me a pen.
real, very, really
Real is usually an adjective meaning “authentic.” Do not use it in place of the adverbs really or very.
Real cheese is really delicious.
Than (conjunction) indicates a comparison; then (usually an adverb) refers to time.
The work environment is more relaxed now than it was back then.
there, their, they're
Their is a possessive pronoun. There is an adverb indicating place; there is also an expletive used to introduce a sentence. They’re is the contraction of “they are.”
There is the hall where they’re giving their presentation.
to, too, two
To is a preposition indicating direction; to also is used to form an infinitive. Too is an adverb that means “also,” “very,” or “excessively.” Two is the number 2.
Two of my friends are too busy to go to the concert.
Your is a possessive pronoun showing ownership. You’re is the contraction of “you are.”
You’re right. This is your coat.
Note: See the complete list of commonly confused words.
Using the Right Word
I struggle with subject-verb agreement.
“Your subjects and verbs don’t agree.”
Follow basic subject-verb agreement rules.
With Most Subjects: A singular subject takes a singular verb, and a plural subject takes a plural verb.
President Mitchell plans to speak. The three vice presidents plan to take notes.
With Compound Subjects: Compound subjects joined by and take a plural verb. When compound subjects are joined by or, the verb should agree with the subject closer to it.
Lupita and Jacob work the day shift.
Either Ted or Lynne works the night shift.
New employees or a temp agency helps during crunch periods.
With Indefinite Pronouns: Some indefinite pronouns are singular, some are plural, and some can be singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition that follows it.
anybody, anyone, anything, everybody, everyone, everything, nobody, no one, nothing, somebody, someone, something
both, few, many, others, several
Singular or Plural
all, any, more, most, none, some
All of the pie is gone. (singular)
All of the pies are gone. (plural)
Sometimes a subject is separated from the verb by other words. Make sure to match the number of the actual subject:
The president (singular), who works with all departments, is (singular) very busy.
Your goal is to create a document that uses correct punctuation, mechanics, usage, and grammar and includes correctly constructed sentences.
Have I used end punctuation correctly?
Have I used commas in compound sentences?
Have I used commas after introductory phrases?
Have I used commas to set off nonessential words?
Have I used commas between equal adjectives?
Have I capitalized first words?
Have I capitalized proper nouns (names) and proper adjectives?
Have I formed plurals by adding es to nouns ending in ch, s, sh, x, or z?
Have I followed the rules for doubling final consonants and using the silent e?
Have I checked use of commonly confused words?
real, very, really
there, their, they’re
to, too, two
Do my subjects and verbs agree?
“Bad spellers of the world, untie.”