Before You Hit Send: Grammar Mistakes to Watch for in Your Professional Emails
July 18, 2017All, English Grammar, International Business
When you’re writing a business email, you are representing your company. Like wearing a suit to an interview, you want to make sure your email is addressed to the correct person, your tone is professional, there are no misspellings or grammatical mistakes, and that you’ve signed it with your title and contact information.
Before you begin to write, there are a few things to consider. An email to the CEO of your company will sound only slightly less formal than an email to a CEO at another organization. However, if you’re writing to someone who has a similar position to yours and you’ve known them for a little while, the email can be more relaxed.
Even when you write, you have a certain “voice”; a personality that comes through to the person receiving the email. In grammar, there are voices of speech which help set the tone of an email or letter. These are passive voice and active voice. In passive voice, you are telling someone what you (the subject) is recipient of an action (verb). – A letter was written by me. In active voice, you (the subject) are completing an action (verb). – I wrote a letter.
When considering what message you want to convey (send), you also want to think about how you’re feeling. If you’re angry, take a few deep breaths before you write and especially before you hit “send”.
In speaking or reading, when you find words that are spelled the same, you can determine (learn) the meaning depending on the context of the sentence. The same is true if you hear or see, two words that sound the same, but are spelled different. One of the most confusing problems is when two words are spelled the same, but are pronounced differently and have different meanings.
These are homonyms –sound the same, but different meaning; homographs – words that are spelled the same, but sound different; and homophones – words that are spelled differently, but are pronounced the same and have different meanings. This can be very confusing, even among native English speakers.
In writing, homophones are some of the most common errors. Though there are many examples, you might easily recognize these: to (preposition), too (also), and two (number), there (location), their (group of two or more), and they’re (contraction of they are) as well as compliment (to speak kindly of or to someone) and complement (to add to or enhance). These last can get even trickier when they become adjectives: complimentary (without charge or cost) and complementary (similar to complement but within a group of things or people), stationary (in one place) and stationery (fancy paper for letters).
However, homographs and homonyms can be just as confusing and even more so when they become phrasal verbs. A well-known homonym is the word “polish”. When capitalized, “Polish” it describes people from Poland. When it’s in lowercase, it describes making something smooth and shiny. He polished his email until there were no mistakes at all.
The word “bank” is a good example of a homograph because it can mean a place where money is kept, or a bit of dirt and rocks to hold back water as in a river “bank” or an “embankment”. By adding a few words to bank, you can create the phrasal verb “bank on it”, which means guaranteed. For example, I’ll have that report to you by the end of the day. You can bank on it.
- Phrasal Verbs
Phrasal verbs, sometimes called “helping” verbs can be difficult to learn and use properly, if you’re not used to them. Unfortunately, a dictionary is little help as a phrasal verb is not listed and is constructed of two different parts: a verb and a particle or “helper”, usually a preposition such as to, on, in, etc. A few examples of phrasal verbs include: pick up (gather someone or something), put off (to not do something right away), take off (leave a place), adhere to (follow or stick to someone or something).
In the above examples, the “helper” is with the verb, but sometimes it isn’t. I’m going to pick Jane up from school early today. In this case, it looks like the “helper” is just another preposition. Because there are rules and exceptions to rules, with phrasal verbs the easiest way to learn them is to use them and memorize them. Eventually, it will become familiar. You can find a list of common phrasal verbs and learn more here.
- “A” vs. “An”
Who knew two little words could have so many meanings and usages? The quickest way to remember when and where to use the indefinite articles of “a” and “an” are these: “A” should come before singular countable nouns which begin with consonants (pens, cups, dogs). “An” should come before singular countable nouns with vowel sounds (hour, earring, instrument).
A quick trick when trying to decide if you should use “a” or “an” is this: it’s the sound that is important, not the spelling. For example, “unit” sounds like it begins with a consonant “y”, but the first letter is a vowel. So, a correct sentence would read: A liter is a unit of measure. But, to use “an” letters and numbers may sound like they begin with a vowel, but actually begin with a consonant. For example: “F” is pronounced “eff”. A correct sentence in this case might read: Does your name begin with an “F”?
Remember, “a” and “an” are used only with singular nouns such as a pen, an hour. But, there are some nouns in English which can’t be counted. There is no number for information or advice, so in this case you would leave out the “a” or “an” and simply write, I have the information you requested.
- “It’s” vs “Its”
The difference between “it’s” and “its” can be confusing and part of the problem is, in English grammar, we learn that to add an apostrophe shows possession of an object. For example: Jane’s doll or the baby’s blanket. But, in this case, the preposition “it” + s and no apostrophe is what shows possession. For example: “Its” is possessive. “It’s” is a contraction meaning “it is” or “it has”.
A quick tip for remembering when to use “it’s” and when to use “its” is this: substitute “it is” for either “its” or “it’s” in a sentence. You’ll more quickly realize which is correct. For example: It’s (it is) going to be a long meeting, please come prepared. Its (it is) location is yet to be determined.
- Comparative Adjectives:
When writing your email, and you wish to make a comparison, it’s important to use the proper comparative adjectives. If you are simply comparing one thing to another such as: We’re a bigger company than ABC Company, so we can do more for your business. Then, just add –er or –est to the end of the word. But, if you’re comparing more than one thing, it’s a superlative. A superlative is something of the highest quality. In this case, you would add the word “more” or “most” + adjective, or adjective + -er/-est. For example, He couldn’t have been more clear; when he explained the details. His explanation was clearer than ever I’d heard before. His explanation was the clearest of all.
- Accents and Spellings
Though accents aren’t exactly a grammar error, they are something to consider when you’re writing an email. There is a distinct difference between American English and British English. One of the most common differences is the British speak more formally and in grammar, often includes adding the letter “u” to familiar words such as favour, colour, and honour. Americans delete the “u”. Additionally, where Americans might use “z” in a word such as accessorize, the British will spell the same word with an “s”- accessorise. There is a long list of British vs American spellings which can be found here.
Remember when we talked about when to use “a” and “an”? The British and Americans have different opinions there as well. In the U.S., the word “herb” is pronounced “erb” and in writing a sentence might read: We added an herb to our dish that was unfamiliar to our guests. Many British speakers, however, pronounce the “h” in “herb”. So, the same sentence would read: We added a herb to our dish that was unfamiliar to our guests. In this case, both sentences are correct, depending on who is receiving the email.
As texting and instant messaging become part of our writing style, it’s important to remember there’s a time and a place for IMHO, LOL, and TIA. While business emails are not as formal as a cover letter, there are still a few things to watch out for, especially if you’re sending an email to someone for the first time. It’s the writing equivalent of wearing a suit to an interview to “put your best foot forward” (be your best self), then once you have the job being able to dress more casually or in the manner of your company culture, especially in companies like tech and social media firms.
- Keep your emails short. Busy professionals have little time and need to make quick decisions. Keeping your email short makes it easier for clear, concise information.
- Use short sentences. There is less chance for mistakes.
- Format and address your email properly. If it’s going to a CEO, then a more formal Dear CEO name. If it’s going to a colleague, then it is acceptable to write “Hi ColleagueName”. If you are replying to someone’s email, follow their example: If they begin with “Dear” and end with “Sincerely”, it’s a good practice for you to do the same in reply.
- Proofread, proofread, proofread. Read through your email several times, have a friend read through it, or use a company such as Writesaver to help you proof and polish your professional email.