Your Work Email Grammar Makes You Look Stupid;
Simple Tips to Make You Seem Smarter
My title is a bit harsh, but I have your attention now. Nothing will fix this epidemic unless some attention-grabbing title drags you in. I know nobody wants to spend the time to learn about proper grammar usage, but that’s a big part of the problem.
The use of phones and tablets to communicate has completely destroyed people’s grasp of written grammar. Millennials are flooding into companies, raised on poor grammar by poor-speaking role models. It is essential that you sound smarter than them by writing your emails and communication in a clearer way. It could make a big difference in your professional life.
I have worked a desk job for the last ten plus years while writing on the side for the last four. I’ve seen tons of grammar errors in work related emails. From upper management to contractors, these errors do nothing but infuriate me. At the very least, they’re making you look stupid to your coworkers, bosses, and customers. I’ve comprised a short list of common mistakes you should avoid and practice avoiding if you don’t want to look like an idiot to the people you email, the people who get your email forwarded to them, and everyone CC’ed.
Please note that I don’t cover ending sentences with prepositions (with, for, at, in… etcetera) here. Using these are too commonplace, and to say “With whom did you attend the meeting?” instead of “Who did you go to the meeting with?” sounds pompous and your recipient may not understand if he’s an idiot. You should probably send this to them, though.
Pop culture has made the use of double negatives unavoidable. They are in just about every song on the radio, and people speak them fluently like there is nothing wrong. Despite how commonplace using a double negative has become, you still sound like an idiot using them to some (probably most) professionals.
“What did you do during the meeting?” Mr. Smith asks in his email to Rob.
“I didn’t do nothing,” replies Rob.
What Rob is saying here is he did something. If Rob didn’t do nothing, then he had to have done something. Right? What Rob should have said was: “I didn’t do anything”. Probably not something you want to admit to your boss, but at least you’ll sound smarter now. Keep this in mind when you’re typing your emails. You may not be able to catch yourself from saying it, but you can always edit out a double negative before you hit the send button.
The only time you should use a double negative is when you’re purposely using it to prove a point.
“Hey,” Brian says. “Let’s skip the meeting this afternoon and go get some coffee.”
“This is our quarterly meeting of business affairs,” Rob says. “I can’t not go!”
Then VS Than
Try to keep up now. This error plagues social media as well, so it’s good for you to know and master when to use “then” and when to use “than”. I know you’ll pronounce them exactly the same way when you say them out loud, but you’re doing that wrong too. Trust me.
This statement is wrong: “Brian is going to the meeting than writing his work order.”
This statement is also wrong: “Rob would rather take a sick day then go to the meeting.”
“Then” (with an “e”) is used when you’re denoting the order in which one is doing something. “Brian is going to the meeting then writing is work request.”
“Than” (with an “a”) is used when you’re comparing two items or tasks or whatever. “Rob would rather take a sick day than go to the meeting.”
Remember: practice makes perfect. You may want to look out for this word before you hit the send button on your emails to avoid looking like you don’t know the difference.
Gonna / Wanna / Dunno / I’ma
Avoid using all four of these terms (especially the fourth one) or any other variations. It’s abbreviations you probably learned when you were a kid to speed up what you were saying, but it makes you look like a fool in a professional email.
“I’m gonna meet a customer at one today,” Rob typed. “Wanna come along?”
“I dunno,” Brian emailed back. “I’ma go home early.”
How should this conversation have gone?
“I’m going to meet a customer at one today,” Rob typed. “Do you want to come along?”
“I don’t know,” Brian emailed back. “I’m going to go home early.”
Take the time to type “I’m going to” instead of “I’m gonna”, and you’ll sound much smarter. Also, for the love of all that is holy, if you actually type “I’ma” in a work email (or even say it) instead of “I’m going to”, then you deserve to be demoted as low as you can go in your company.
This also applies to “gotta”, “kinda”, “sorta”, and any shortened word ending with an “a” to substitute a complete statement.
Should of / Could of / Would of
This one is extremely common, even with the dumber way of saying these as shoulda, coulda, and woulda. There’s a lot of people who think there’s nothing wrong with these phrases. Read the following sentence aloud and see if you can figure out why it sounds so stupid:
“I could of went to the meeting,” Rob wrote, “but I had other errands. I should of made time.”
Do you get it yet? “should of”, “could of”, and “would of” are mispronunciations of “should’ve”, “would’ve”, and “could’ve”. A good tip to do away with this mistake is to just type out “should have”, “would have”, and “could have”. It wouldn’t hurt to start saying them out loud this way too.
”You and I” VS “Me and You”
Spoiler alert: “You and I” is the correct way.
This is another common mistake. “You and me” or “me and you” are almost never correct. For example:
“Me and you should go to this meeting,” Brian wrote.
Brian should have written: “You and I should go to this meeting.”
To help figure out if you’re using this tip correctly, take the other person out. Would you say “Me should go to the meeting”?
I once had an email from a contractor that said “Lucy and I’s opinion is that your company should repair the damage.” “I’s” is never acceptable. This dummy should have said “My and Lucy’s opinion”.
There is a correct way to use “you and me”, but most people don’t know it.
It’s VS its
Confusing “it’s” with “its” is another extremely common error. The easiest way to remember is that the “it’s” means “it is” or “it has”. “Its” denotes ownership of a genderless item. Note the examples below:
“It’s a good day to meet on site.” — It is
“Congratulations to the shipping department and its team members.” — Ownership
See the difference? If “it’s” and “its” were reversed, then your sentences wouldn’t make any sense.
Speaking of Apostrophes
Apostrophes are your friends. Basically, an apostrophe is there to take the place of missing letters and/or spaces. I’m only going to go over possessives and possessive plurals here.
“The customer’s concerns were taken into consideration.”
The apostrophe comes before the ‘s’, meaning you’re talking about one customer.
“The customers’ concerns were taken into consideration.”
The apostrophe comes after the ‘s’, meaning your’e talking about multiple customers.
Here’s an handy guide for double-s letters:
“Bosses” is the plural of “Boss”.
“Boss’s” is the possessive of “Boss”.
“Bosses’” is the possessive plural of “Boss”.
Note that “Boss’” is also acceptable as a possessive of “Boss” for some reason.
Do not use an apostrophe with the words “yours”, “ours,” or “theirs”. Just don’t.
Don’t VS Doesn’t
Don’t use “don’t” when you mean “doesn’t” – as in: “The product don’t work”. Don’t means “do not”, and doesn’t means “does not”. Would you say, “The product do not work”? No. You’d sound ridiculous. So why does “don’t” get used so much when “doesn’t” is what is needed? “The product doesn’t work”. It does not work. See my point? “The products don’t work” is acceptable since you’re referring to multiple products.
A helpful hint to help you if you have this problem is to read the sentence aloud, substituting the words for the abbreviation to ensure you’ve used the right one. It takes an extra ten seconds, but at least you won’t look so stupid.
If you don’t know how to properly use a semicolon: Don’t. Unless you work for the literature professor of a prestigious college, you don’t need it. You’re better off losing it and keeping your sentences short and concise.
LOL and smileys
The phrases “LOL”, “OMG”, “ROFL”, “OMFG”, or any other acronym should leave your mind when you’re typing an email that will go to other people in your company. If you’re sending email to a friend about something not work related, then you’re okay (but your boss may want to chat with you about using your company’s electronic communication for such foolishness). Lose the colon and parenthesis smiley alone too. Save it for texts. 😦
Note: This section is more to go over commas vs periods. This does not include the trusty Oxford comma.
If a period is a full stop (which it is), then a comma is a slight pause. I won’t get into the many uses of the versatile and trusty comma, but it is commonly both underused and overused. Use it only when you need it, separating your words if you want to keep a sentence going longer. Use shorter sentences if using commas confuses you too much. I’d stick with the latter. Consider your audience too.
I once had a boss who ended every sentence in his emails with “…”. This is commonly used when writing dialogue in fiction, denoting that your character trailed off, possible distracted by a fluttering bird or a squirrel running across the power lines. In an email, it’s the equivalent of saying “um”, “er”, or “doy” after your sentence. Don’t use this.
Voice to Text
Don’t use this either, unless you’re going to take the time to edit what the tiny robots inside your phone think you said. It’s a busy world, and you want save time by not typing your email, but you’re wasting other peoples’ time by making them figure out whatever you meant.
An vs And
I wasn’t aware this was an issue, but it was sent to me to be added by my beta-reader. The full word is “and” as in: “Brian and Rob are on break right now.” One would think this was first grade stuff, but apparently some professionals were home with head lice the day it was taught.
Your vs You’re
I chose to end with Your vs You’re, because there’s no reason you should be confusing these two. I’ll make it simple: you’re = you are. There. That’s it. Remember our talk about apostrophes and their abilities? “Your” has no apostrophe, so there’s no way it could mean something else. All it does is denote ownership.
“It’s your pencil.” — Ownership.
“You’re fired.” — You are fired… sorry.
Here’s some more examples. Because you need to master this at all costs, I won’t confuse you by giving wrong ones here.
Rob: “Brian, I can’t make it to your meeting today at two.”
Brian: “That’s okay, but you’re going to have to set up the next one.”
See? It’s that simple. Rob and Brian might not be lost causes after all.
Those tips should be a good start to your road to smarter-sounding emails. There’s plenty more to cover, but I’m not a middle-school English teacher. There are plenty of books out there to help you with grammar on a larger scale, but this should be enough to get you through your eight-hour desk-jockeying job.