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    The Sour Sixteen: Avoiding Writing Errors that are Bad for Business

    Thursday, March 24, 2011

    If you're a sports fan like me, there's no sweeter time of the year than mid-March, when the NCAA tournament treats us to hours of great college basketball, torn-up bracket sheets, and repeated references to Cinderella.

    It's also a heck of a time of the year for alliteration. "March Madness." "Bracket busters." "Buzzer beaters." "The Final Four." To an outsider it might sound like gibberish, but to college basketball fans, it's the vocabulary of March.

    Today the single-elimination tournament continues with the Round of 16, or as it more commonly called, the Sweet Sixteen. (Alliteration again.) In the spirit of this event, here are 16 errors that can make the difference between winning and losing in your business writing. Today's post will feature the first eight errors. We'll post the final eight next week.

    Naturally, we're calling them the "Sour Sixteen."

    The first four errors could also be categorized as "big-picture mistakes." These are major writing errors that are obvious to everyday readers, and which therefore can seriously jeopardize the quality of your writing.

    1. Lack of focus
      Good writing has a clear subject and purpose. Without one or the other, the writing will lack focus, leaving the reader to ask, "What's this about?" or "What's the point?" If you have trouble formulating a clear subject and purpose, "I want to say _____________ about ___________" is better than nothing at all.
    2. Misspelling important proper nouns
      This one should be obvious. While all types of spelling errors should be avoided, misspelling a client's name or a company's name could drive away business. Be cautious about relying solely on your computer's spellchecker, for it might not recognize the correct spelling of proper nouns.
    3. Using slang
      Slang makes your writing sound unprofessional. It can also undercut your message, confuse readers who are unfamiliar with the expressions, and make the writing sound dated.
      • Unprofessional: We can hook you up with a slick deal.
      • Professional: We guarantee you the best service at the best price.
    4. Forcing artificial language
      If you try too hard to make your writing sound "important," you run the risk of seeming pretentious. Most readers will see right through such writing. Plain English does a much better job of communicating your message.
      • Artificial: It has come to our knowledge that you have made an inquiry pertaining to our line of suction efficiency machines.
      • Plain English: Thank you for your question about our vacuum cleaners.

    The next group deals with smaller but still serious writing errors. These mistakes are easy to miss, so it's important to pay close attention during the revising and editing stage of the writing process.

    1. Using the wrong word
      Many of the most commonly misused words are confused with others that look the same. Make sure you can distinguish each word in the following sets: its, it's; affect, effect; complement, compliment; good, well; than, then; and there, their, they're.
    2. Missing comma after introductory phrases
      Anytime you begin a sentence with an introductory phrase of four or more words, you should place a comma after the introductory phrase (as in this sentence itself). People tend to ignore this rule, but the comma helps readers distinguish introductory material from the main part of the sentence.
    3. Faulty subject-verb agreement
      There are three basic rules to follow when dealing with subject-verb agreement:
      1. With most subjects, a singular subject takes a singular verb, and a plural subject takes a plural one.
      2. Compound subjects joined by and take a plural one, but when the compound subjects are joined by or, the verb should agree with the last subject.
      3. Some indefinite pronouns are singular, some are plural, and some can be singular or plural depending on their placement.
      You can find additional tips for subject-verb agreement of indefinite pronouns on the Write for Business blog and on pages 323-324 of the Write for Business handbook.
    4. Incorrectly joined sentences
      Take care to avoid run-ons and comma splices. A run-on results when two sentences are joined without any punctuation or conjunction. Run-ons are easier to catch than comma splices, which occur when two sentences are joined by only a comma. These errors can be fixed by joining the sentences with a semicolon, with a semicolon and a conjunctive adverb (such as however), or with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, etc.). You could also make the two independent clauses into sentences by separating them with a period.
      • Incorrect: We launched a new Web site everyone should take a look.
      • Correct: We launched a new Web site; everyone should take a look.
      • Correct: We launched a new Web site, and everyone should take a look.
      • Correct: We launched a new Web site. Everyone should take a look.

    Part II of "The Sour Sixteen, outlining the final 8 errors," will be posted next week.

    —Tim Kemper

    Photo by Neeta Lind