Writing for Business and Pleasure
In a column recommending that companies develop one-page style sheets as a means of creating more consistency regarding format, punctuation, and numbers usage, I mentioned that Jeff Pope, before his retirement as a partner at Custom Research Incorporated, had compiled a list of 10 common errors he wanted his report writers to avoid. For emphasis, he called his list “The No Excuse 10.”
I concluded the column by writing, “When new staff members were hired, they were given a copy. You can imagine how such a sharply focused list got their attention.”
In response, a number of readers wrote asking me to post his list. Here it is, reproduced with Jeff Pope’s permission, and in slightly shortened form:
1. Use commas appropriately.
a. Do NOT use a comma before and in a sentence with two verbs sharing the same subject.
The product is too thick and tastes too sour.
b. DO use a comma before the words but, or, nor, for, and yet when they join main clauses.
The soup is too thick, but it is about right in color.
Few consumers have tried the product, yet most of them are aware of it.
2. A semicolon is essentially equivalent to a period. Don’t use it as a comma.
A semicolon can be used to connect two short, complete sentences.
The product looks strong; it should be a winner.
Wherever a semicolon is used, the sentence can also be written as two sentences separated by a period.
The product looks strong. It should be a winner.
3. As a rule, don’t draw attention to colloquialisms, slang, or jargon by enclosing them in quotations marks.
If the word isn’t appropriate, don’t use it. If it is the right word, don’t wink at it by enclosing it in quotes.
4. Use me – not I – after a preposition or as the object of a verb.
Wrong: Thanks for talking with Bob and I last Friday.
I hope you’ll take Joe and I with you on the trip.
Right: Thanks for talking with Bob and me last Friday.
I hope you’ll take Joe and me with you on the trip.
This mistake is most often made when the object is compound. To check out your grammar, take out the other person and see how it sounds. (You wouldn’t say, “Thanks for talking with I last Friday.” So that isn’t correct for “Bob and I,” either.)
5. Make sure your modifiers (and their possessives) agree with the singular or plural form of the word they modify.
We asked for each respondent’s name.
We asked for the respondents’ names.
It is incorrect to write about the “respondents’ name” or “consumer’s names.” Respondents have names and consumers have opinions.
6. None is usually a singular word and takes a singular verb.
None of the concepts is a winner.
None of the products meets CRI’s target levels.
7. Data is a plural word and takes a plural verb.
The data suggest the product will be successful.
The data are clear on this point.
You’ll sometimes see this word written with a singular verb, a form which is gaining some usage. But numbers are our business, so let’s be purists on this one and use it correctly. (The same goes for media. It’s the plural of medium.)
8. Use dash to indicate a break in thought that you want to emphasize.
A dash is not the same as a hyphen. Type two hyphens to make a dash, with one space before and after the hyphens. Your software will convert the hyphens into a solid dash.
Wrong: The product is very unique - one of the strongest we’ve seen on that dimension.
Right: The product is very unique – one of the strongest we’ve seen on that dimension.
9. Don’t confuse or misuse these pairs of words.
Principal means “main” or “primary.”
Principle means “law” or “rule.”
Its is the possessive of it.
It’s is a contraction of it is.
Affect is a verb meaning “to influence.”
Effect as a noun means “result.”
Farther serves best as a distance word.
Further describes time and quality dimensions.
10. There are no such words as alot and alright.
Both are correctly written as two words: a lot and all right.
There are esoteric exceptions to most of these rules. But they occur so rarely they only cause confusion. By working on not making these ten errors, we can make our already good writing even better.