In this week’s lesson, we’re going to look at three common errors that both native and non-native English speakers make when writing and speaking. Because these errors are extremely common, they are generally considered acceptable in casual speech and writing. However, in business writing and other situations where precision language is important, they can give the impression that the writer has a poor grasp of English.
Confusing Similarly Spelled Words
English contains a lot of words with similar spellings but different meanings and uses. Because of this, even native speakers make the occasional error in word choice. If you are trying to choose between “affect” and “effect,” “ensure” and “insure,” or another pair of commonly-confused words, make sure you look up the difference before sending that email. A good place to start is our lessons on commonly-confused words, which include many words used in business writing.
Overuse of slang words and other informal language
Maintain a formal, professional tone in all business correspondence. Informal language is sometimes acceptable when speaking and texting with coworkers, but rarely, if ever, in emails and similar forms of written communication. While it might be tempting to respond to an informally-written business email in the same manner, erring on the side of sounding overly formal is better than risking coming across as overly casual.
Using Plurals with Group Nouns
Grammatically-speaking, nouns that refer to whole groups are singular things. This holds true even when a group is made up of people. A committee, company, school, or team is technically an “it.”
Because native speakers tend to have a strong aversion to calling people “it,” you will often hear whole groups treated as plurals in speech and informal writing. Furthermore, some native English speakers switch deliberately between singular and plural verbs and pronouns to emphasize either the group itself or the individual members:
After a tense meeting, the committee was finally able to reach a compromise. (This emphasizes the group finding a middle ground.)
Despite meeting for over three hours, the committee were unable to reach a consensus. (Now the emphasis is on the divisions within the group.)
Obviously, this “case by case basis” method of handling group nouns can be confusing for non-native speakers. If you are having difficulty with when it is and is not acceptable to “bend” the rules for group nouns, use the following to emphasize individuals within a group instead:
The members of the committee were unable to reach a compromise.
By placing the group noun in an interrupting phrase, the group noun no longer affects subject-verb agreement. This method of highlighting individuals with a group has the virtue of being both easier to remember and consistently grammatically correct.