BASIC WRITING AND GRAMMAR SKILLS: FIXING COMMON MISTAKES IN YOUR EVERYDAY CONTENT

By Janine Ordman (Thinkroom Consulting)

Writing is often a daunting task, especially when constructing content to be presented to and scrutinised by a client. I have identified a few common mistakes made in the texts I have come to edit in the last year - mistakes that were highlighted to me in my own writing when I first started my professional career. This article provides an overview of these common errors, provides guidance on how to correct them and briefly discusses why it is important to pay just a little bit more attention to what and how you write.

Writing in contracted form

While compiling formal content such as a report, it is considered good practice to write words out in full, instead of making use of their contracted forms. A contraction is formed when two words are combined, where an apostrophe (’) takes the place of missing letters, e.g. “you’re“ instead of “you are”, “we’re” instead of “we are”, “there’s” instead of “there is”, “we’ve” instead of “we have”, to name but a few examples. Contracted forms are perfectly acceptable in everyday communication, or when addressing a more informal audience in a relaxed manner, but should be avoided in formal documents, and perhaps also in posh country clubs.

The difference between “there”, “their” & “they’re”, “your” & “you’re” and “its” & “it’s”

Hardly anything irks a grammar critic more, than the incorrect use of the words “there”, “their”, “they’re”, “your”, “you’re” or “its” and “it’s”, therefore I deemed it useful to discuss their differences in this article. Here are the distinguishing characteristics as well as some easy examples to explain the difference between these homophones:


  • There” is used to refer to a place or location, e.g. “Shall I meet you there at 7 p.m.?”
  • Their” is either used to show ownership, or to replace a singular (non-gender) or plural noun, e.g.
      “This is their working space,” or “Their office is located in Centurion”.
  • They’re” is a contraction of the words “they” and “are”, so instead of saying
      “They are going to be ten minutes late”, you would say “They’re going to be ten minutes late”, typically used in a more informal context, as already discussed.
  • You'reis used as a contraction of the words “you” and “are”, e.g. saying “You’re great at your job”, instead of “You are great at your job”.
  • Your” is the possessive form of “you” and reflects ownership ("yours, mine, and ours"), e.g. “Have you remembered to bring your lunch to work today?”
    • It’s” is a contraction of “it is” or “it has”, e.g. saying, “It’s been a long day” instead of “It has been a long day”, or “It’s my pleasure to assist you”, instead of saying, “It is my pleasure to assist you”.
    • Its” is the possessive form of “it”, e.g. “The board has made its decision.” A good rule to remember which of the two (“It’s” or “Its”) to use, is to replace “it” with “his” or “her”, and if your sentence makes sense, there is no apostrophe before the “s”.
Shorthand and Emoticons

We live in a time where “text speak” is at the order of the day. Texting is currently one of the primary ways in which we directly communicate with one another and many social media sites require posts containing limited characters. This often gives rise to shorthand, to fit in everything we want to say and to speed up the time it would take to construct a message on a device with a teeny tiny keyboard. As such, it is rather easy for shorthand to infiltrate our everyday style of writing. While compiling content that will be seen or used in the context of one’s work, remain extra vigilant when writing words one would typically shorten or contort into vague remnants of their original form, just to fit in to 140 characters on Twitter. Only make use of abbreviations if they have been documented by a credible dictionary (thus not the Urban Dictionary, lol), and double check your outgoing emails before clicking on ‘send’, to ensure that the little gremlins such as “thx”, “thru” “u” and “knd rgrds” did not slip through the cracks.

This is further related to the use of emoticons. While it is perfectly acceptable, on occasion, to use a smiley face in your internal communication with a colleague, ensure that you never do this with a client. Here is some sound advice: Use your words! In doing so, you will avoid accidentally sending one of those yellow, round-faced, hearts-for-eyes emoticons, instead of the yellow, round-faced, smiling emoticons to a client/married colleague. 

Exclamation Marks 

Exclamation marks should be used in moderation. Even when making use of it to show excitement about something, its function in a sentence could potentially be misconstrued by someone who does not have experience with your style of writing. When in doubt, use a full stop! (For clarification, the exclamation mark I inserted here was purposeful and for humorous effect *Smiley face*).

Numbers

Although all writers have their own preferences around spelling out numbers or using figures, there are a few useful rules to bear in mind when making use of numbers in a report.

  • In Thinkroom, the rule of thumb is to write out any numbers that are smaller than twenty (20), however, there is no agreed-upon general rule on the matter. According to The Blue Book of Punctuation, two of the most influential guidebooks in a writer, publisher, or editor’s library are the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, and they both implement different approaches. While the Associated Press Stylebook recommends spelling out the numbers one through nine and using figures thereafter, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends spelling out the numbers one through ninety-nine and using figures thereafter. The key here is to choose a rule-of-thumb and to remain consistent in all your content, especially when using many numbers in the context of a large document.
  • Spell out all numbers at the beginning of a sentence (e.g. "Fifty people attended the seminar."), with the exception for years ("2015 has been a great year thus far.").

Aside from taking some grammar courses online, here are some handy hints for everyday writing:

  • Turn your spelling AND grammar checker on. If you use Windows 8, go to “File”, “Options”, then “Proofing”, and select Grammar & Style from the “Writing Style” drop-down menu. This will ensure that your spelling is checked (indicated with red underlining), along with your grammar (indicated with blue underlining). This is a nifty tool, as I have learned a great deal by reading up on grammar rules in the tab that opens to provide suitable alternatives, each time I affront the grammar gods at Microsoft.
  • ALWAYS! Conduct a final spell check (on Windows 8, select “Review” and “Spelling & Grammar”) before sending content out to a client. It is normal to overlook a couple of spelling mistakes while proofreading, but it is unprofessional to have your client point out a spelling mistake that could have been avoided. It is consequently important to leave sufficient time to revise your written work.

Using proper grammar matters for a great number of reasons, but in a professional environment, it matters because:

  • Clear, concise content, written with correct grammar, allows the intended message to come across to the reader, thereby curbing misunderstandings.
  • It means that the author took the time and made the effort to ensure that their work adheres to the best possible standards.
  • It lends credibility to the author’s competence and professionalism, thereby impacting on the view of the organisation.

Although the rules emphasised in this article do not cover all common mistakes, they highlight a couple of rules to, hopefully, make content writers more cognisant of what and how they write, especially in a space where good writing is not a nice-to-have, but a requirement to conduct business in a professional manner.