Like it or not, your emails help shape how your colleagues perceive you. “Every email you send affects your professional reputation or brand,” says Shani Harmon, co-founder and Chief Delivery Officer of Stop Meeting Like This.
Although emails have become less formal, a seemingly innocent typo can hurt your reputation, says career consultant Marcelle Yeager.
To help all of us write more correct and professional emails, the text editing tool Grammarly recently analyzed its users’ data to identify the most common grammar errors. Here are the nine of the most common mistakes, along with tips for avoiding them that I’ve picked up from my years editing the Daily Briefing:
1: Misspelled words. You can’t rely on your email client (or Microsoft Word) to catch every typo. With one letter out of place, it might still be a word, but it’s not the one you meant to write there. My three easiest tips for avoiding typos: read it backwards, ask a friend to review your text, and if possible, step away from the text for a few hours so you can come back to it with fresh eyes.
2: Repeated words. Grammarly notes that using the same word several times within a few sentences can start to feel tedious for your readers. While I mostly agree with this, I’ve also seen people go too far in the opposite direction. They unleash synonym gymnastics on their poor readers and it’s awkwardly obvious that they’re just moving down the line of suggestions in the thesaurus. There’s definitely a middle ground to aim for here.
3: Vague words. Grammarly specifically calls out “nice,” “good,” “awesome,” and “greatly.” I bet you can think of a few overused phrases floating around your own office. Instead of reaching for one of these bland descriptors, reflect on the thing you’re describing and find something more concrete to say. Why was it nice? What was good about it?
4: Misspelled names. This one always gets me when I’ve recently met someone who spells their name differently than someone I’ve known for years. The muscle memory is hard to break. My best tip for avoiding this error is to copy and paste the person’s name from a place where you know it’s spelled correctly, such as the person’s email signature or LinkedIn profile.
5: Not capitalizing the first word in a sentence. Grammarly chalks this up to the rise of texting—people accidentally use the same informal spelling and grammar in their emails that they use in their texts. I wouldn’t know because I’m the nerd who uses capital letters and proper punctuation in my text messages. My best advice for avoiding this is the same as my advice for avoiding typos—ask a friend, read it backwards, step away for a while.
6: Passive voice. This one isn’t technically a grammar error, but it is frowned upon (pun intended). Subtle writers distinguish between situations where active or passive voice works best, but for most of us, active voice will work better most of the time.
7: Oxford commas. Grammar hobbyists could argue to the end of time about whether we should all use a comma before a conjunction or not. The best practice is simply to check your organization’s style guide and then follow it. You can also use the search function of your word processor to look for instances of the incorrect style in your text.
8: Ending a sentence without a punctuation mark. Again, people borrow this habit from text messages, where using a period apparently comes across as passive-aggressive. My three typo-avoidance tips work here as well.
9: Incorrect capitalization. Despite years of editing experience, I still regularly look up capitalization rules for tricky words like names of regions (I just looked up the West Coast so I could type this example). I recommend relying on your style guide for this, because guidelines can vary and you’ll probably never remember all the rules. Instead, the key is to build your “radar” for words that might need to be capitalized and ensure you’re looking them up each time (Grammarly, 12/6/17).