No matter what type of work you do, good grammar is relevant for all organizations, and it can make a big difference in your career path.
As Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, an online repair manual company, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article, “if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too,’ their applications go into the bin.”
A bit harsh? Sure, but he’s not alone. Again and again, we’ve heard managers complain about employees not knowing how to write a correct English sentence.
Here’s a look at 11 of the most common grammar mistakes — the ones we, as word experts and podcast hosts of NPR’s “You’re Saying it Wrong,” have heard about the most:
- Wrong: We need to get our sale’s numbers up.
- Right: We need to get our sales numbers up.
This is an example of the all-too-frequent attack of the unnecessary apostrophe. People see an “s” at the end of a word and think: Add an apostrophe!
But often they shouldn’t. You use an apostrophe in a contraction (e.g., “there is” to “there’s”) or to show possession (e.g., “the manager’s pet peeve”). You don’t use one if the “s” is there simply to make a word a plural.
- everyday/every day
- Wrong: He starts work everyday at 8 a.m.
- Right: He starts work every day at 8 a.m.
“Everyday” (one word, no space) is an adjective describing something that’s very common, like an everyday occurrence. “Every day” (with the space) is an adverbial phrase that means each day.
A quick test to tell which is right: If you can use a day of the week, say Monday, in the sentence, you should use “every day.”
- Wrong: The marketing manager told Riley and I to talk with her.
- Right: The marketing manager told Riley and me to talk with her.
The general rule: Use “I” when it’s the subject of a verb (e.g., “I walked to the store”). Use “me” when the pronoun is the object of the verb, or when the verb is doing something to someone or something (e.g., “the dog followed me to the store”).
- Wrong: The company just celebrated it’s eighth year since it went public.
- Right: The company just celebrated its eighth year since it went public.
We’ve seen a lot of people write “it’s” when they want to show possession. But that’s the incorrect usage! Problem is, of course, as we mentioned before, we normallydo use the apostrophe to show ownership, as in “the CEO’s email.” But you don’t when it comes to the word “it.”
Only do so when you’re writing a contraction of “it is.” That said, it’s sometimes hard to understand English and all of its weird rules and exceptions!
- Wrong:Less than 50 people showed up for the presentation.
- Right: Fewer than 50 people showed up for the presentation.
This doesn’t bother us, but we’ve heard a lot of complaints from managers. So here are the (kind of picky, but technically correct) rules about “less” and “fewer”:
- Use “fewer” for numbered, countable things (e.g., “100 fewer purchases”).
- Use “less” for things that can’t be counted … at least reasonably (e.g., “there’s less sand at this beach”).
- Use “less” with numbers when they are a single or total unit that measures distance, amount or time (e.g., “less than 30% of us bothered learning these rules”).
- Wrong: I could just lay down and go to sleep.
- Right: I could just lie down and go to sleep.
To “lie” is intransitive, which means it doesn’t have an object and doesn’t do anything to anyone or anything else (e.g., “I lie down”). To “lay” is transitive, which means it does have an object, as in something or someone the verb is doing something to (e.g., “I lay down my head”).
To be technical, you can say “I lay myself down” — where “myself” is put in as the object of the verb. (We’re not lying when we say it can be a little confusing.)
- Wrong: If we stay on this track, we can’t loose.
- Right: If we stay on this track, we can’t lose.
This is a pair of so-called “confusables” that have only one letter differentiating them — that extra “o” in loose. That’s probably why so many managers complain about getting emails and reports that talk about things like “loosing” ground in sales.
Just remember that “loose” is almost always used as an adjective meaning “not tight,” and “lose” is a verb meaning to suffer a loss.
- Wrong: The people that reach their sales target will get a reward.
- Right: The people who reach their sales target will get a reward.
This is a bit nitpicky, but it was mentioned as a pet peeve by many of the managers we’ve spoken with. How to avoid it? Use “that” when you’re talking about things, and “who” when you’re talking about people.
But it can get a little more complicated. A sales team or another group of people could be both a “that” or a “who,” since it’s a thing made of people. And animals? Technically, they’re “that” — in spite of how we feel about our furry pals.
- Wrong: That presentation was better then the first one.
- Right: That presentation was better than the first one.
This is such an easy mistake to make (and one that autocorrect might not catch). So remember this: You use “then” when you’re talking about time (e.g., “I’m going to go to the meeting, then to lunch”), and use “than” when you’re comparing things (e.g., “I’m older than he is”).
Interestingly, there’s a very good reason these two words look so alike: They were originally the same word in Middle English, used interchangeably with both meanings.
- Wrong: There going to they’re office over their.
- Right: They’re going to their office over there.
Three words that sound alike, but with completely different meanings — and a surprising number of people mixing them up in emails and memos.
“There”is a location, as in “not here. Sometimes it’s also used as an exclamation (e.g. “So there!”). “They’re” is a contraction of “they are.” And “their” is a possessive, meaning ownership by more than one person.
- Wrong:Your my favorite supervisor.
- Right: You’re my favorite supervisor.
Here’s another one that autocorrect often doesn’t catch because it’s spelled right even if it’s grammatically wrong.
But be careful! “You’re” is a contraction, only used to mean “you are.” “Your” is a possessive of “you,” used when you want to show possession. Remember this: You’re going to be just fine if you watch your grammar.
About the authors: Kathy and Ross Petras are the brother-and-sister co-authors of “Awkword Moments,” “You’re Saying It Wrong” and “That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means.” Their work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Harvard Business Review. Follow them on Twitter @kandrpetras.