July 25, 2012
Good grammar: Don't communicate without it
In college I was required to take an editing course as part of my major. It so happened that the professor who taught the course that year was known far and wide as the most strict, fearsome and unsympathetic editor who had ever walked the halls of our department.
During the semester I was in her class, half the students dropped the course, a quarter flunked, and of those left all but three cried. I made it through, and I have this witch of a woman to thank for instilling in me a deep respect for the proper written word.
Grammar might seem like a strange topic for a jobs blog. But it amazes me how many people are easily confused around basic grammar and language rules. If you aren't impressing people with your communications (including cover letters, resumes, networking emails and presentations), this might be why.
Correct grammar and punctuation are things everyone can learn. Sometimes we don't even realize that we are making the same easily avoidable error over and over again. Are you hurting your employment or advancement opportunities with basic mistakes?
Here are some of the most common errors. Following these rules, and proofreading your writing carefully -- especially in important documents, including any communications having to do with job searching or advancement -- will ensure that you are presenting yourself well.
Getting pronouns right: You should use the pronoun I, along with other subjective pronouns such as we, he, she, you and they, when the pronoun is acting as the subject of a verb:
He went to the store.
We waited for the bus.
Jeff and I are going for coffee.
Because I, together with Jeff, forms the subject of the last sentence above, you use the pronoun I rather than the pronoun me.
You should use the pronoun me, along with other objective pronouns such as us, him, her, you and them, when the pronoun is acting as the object of a verb or preposition:
Danny thanked them.
The dog followed us.
Jake spent the day with Dave and me.
Because me, together with Dave, forms the object of the last sentence above, you use the pronoun me rather than the pronoun I.
An easy way of choosing the correct pronoun is to see if the sentence reads grammatically without the additional noun: Jake spent the day with me, not Jake spent the day with I.
It's vs. its: Its is the possessive pronoun form. This form is used to express that it has a specific quality, or to express belonging. Example:
The dog chases its tail all day long.
It's is the contracted form of it is. Example:
It's a warm, sunny day today.
There are other similar mistakes that are common yet easy to solve, including their vs. they're (and there) and your vs. you're. The distinctions are outlined in many online tutorials.
That vs. which: That is a restrictive clause: part of a sentence that you can't get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence. A restrictive clause is needed. Here's an example:
Pens that bleed are annoying.
Note that you don't need commas around the words that bleed.
Which is a nonrestrictive clause: something that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. You can think of a nonrestrictive clause as simply additional information. A nonrestrictive clause is expendable. Here's an example:
Photocopiers, which can be finicky, are quickly becoming obsolete.
Note that the clause is typically surrounded or preceded by commas.
Apostrophes: In general, you use the apostrophe for three reasons. One is to form possessive nouns. Two is to stand for the omission of letters or the contractions of phrases. Three is to show the plural forms of single letters. Here are examples of these uses:
Possessive of a noun: Elisa's boss is in a bad mood.
Contraction of a phrase: It's the day of your performance review and you're late for work.
Plural form of a single letter: There are two t's in that word.
Remember to add "'s" to a singular noun when showing its possession, even if it already ends in "s". One example is writing the boss's goals instead of the boss' goals.
Affect vs. effect: Affect is a verb. Example:
Your ability to communicate clearly will affect your career success.
Effect is a noun. Example:
The effect of an employee-friendly vacation policy is a happier staff.
While some people do use effect as a verb (a strategy to effect higher visitor traffic), it's tricky to do so and usually doesn't make your communication more clear.
Finally, always err on the side of caution and check yourself if you're unsure about something. A good online resource for grammar and usage questions is always a good idea.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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