A Word, Please: Knowing basics could spell greater success

Creators of a software program called Grammarly recently conducted a study of the grammar used in LinkedIn member profiles. They found that people with fewer grammar errors in their profiles ascended to higher positions, got more promotions and changed jobs more often.

The implication: Better grammar correlates with greater success. Without knowing more about the study it's hard to know how strong that correlation is.

For example, the idea of "grammar errors" is surprisingly fluid. Some people think it's a grammar error to use "firstly" instead of "first" to modify a sentence or that you can't start a sentence with "and." Neither is true.

Of course, Grammarly has a stake in this discussion. It sells a product that claims to fix grammar. But in general, I suspect the picture the company paints is at least somewhat accurate: Word-savvy people are often savvy in other areas of life, including in their careers. And let's face it, in any workplace there's some expectation that workers should "speak the language."

You could be the greatest banker in the world, but if you say things like "We done got us some vittles over at that thar Panera Bread," there will be a perception that you wouldn't "fit" in the upper echelons of the company. Subtle grammar errors can have a similar effect.

Though we don't know all the "errors" the study counted, it creates a good opportunity to learn about errors that regularly plague workplace communications. Here are some of the big problems I often see in business writing.

"Whomever" gets misused a lot. People who know that whomever is an object know that it belongs in a sentence like "We will support whomever you choose." But their skills usually fall short of understanding why "whomever" would be wrong in "We will support whoever chooses you." The key to getting these right is to look at the verbs and make sure each has a subject. The verb phrase "will support" has "we" for its subject. The verb "chooses" needs its own. "Whoever" is a subject pronoun, "whomever" is an object. So only "whoever" will do here.

Overreliance on adverbs is common among writers trying to sound professional. For example, many assume that "I feel badly" is correct. But in fact, because of what are called copular verbs, the correct choice is usually "I feel bad." To say you feel badly means you do a poor job of touching things.

The word "myself" is often used poorly. Look at: "The CEO and myself will hold a meeting." Here, "myself" is functioning as a subject of the verb. That's not its proper role. "Myself" is best used as an object that refers back to a subject. I taught myself. I tell myself. I assessed myself. Want a simplified guideline? Any place you could use "I" or "me," don't use "myself."

Apostrophe confusion plagues a lot of business writers. Topping the list: "it's" in place of "its." Remember that the one with the apostrophe is never possessive. It's always a contraction. The possessive one does not take an apostrophe: The dog wagged its tail. Watch out, too, for "who's" in place of "whose." The form with the apostrophe means either "who is" or "who has." But "whose" shows possession. "Who's coming to the party and whose car will they take?"

Writers trying to sound formal often use "I" as an object. "The client will join Bob and I for lunch." "Please come to headquarters to speak with Bob and I." Those are errors. "I" is a subject; its object form is "me." You can always just drop Bob. You would say "join me" instead of "join I," right? That's how you know "me" belongs there.

When in doubt, trust your ear. If something sounds right, it probably is.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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