Monthly Error Hunt - Business Grammar and Usage

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published August 27, 2021, updated February 20, 2024
Monthly Error Hunt - Business Grammar and Usage
Table of Contents

Quiz yourself on your business grammar and word use skills.

February 2024 - Capitalization Error

I'm sorry for my slow reply. Paula Havlicek, who leads Corporate Communications, is very knowledgeable about your concerns. You can reach her by phone at (609) 555-5555 or by email at phavlicek@acme.com.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

I'm sorry for my slow reply. Paula Havlicek, who leads corporate communications, is very knowledgeable about your concerns. You can reach her by phone at (609) 555-5555 or by email at phavlicek@acme.com. 

This contains a capitalization error. Nouns that designate a department within an organization should not be capitalized unless they are proper nouns such as Acme Company Board of Directors.
 
An easy tip to remember is to capitalize job titles when they come before a name and are official titles. Lowercase job titles when they come after a name or are merely descriptive.
 
 

January 2024 - Subordinate Clause Error

Flying over the Rockies, the scenery took our breath away. Equally as impressive were the large overhead bins.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

As we flew over the Rockies, the scenery took our breath away. Equally impressive were the large overhead bins.
 
The subject of "Flying over the Rockies" is "scenery," but even the most spectacular scenery cannot fly! The subordinate phrase "Flying over the Rockies" does not modify the subject of the sentence. Also, "equally" and "as" are synonyms here so only one of those words is needed.

 

October 2023 - Smothered Verb

The incidents this month provide an example of the risk factors presenting across the divisions.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

The incidents this month provide an example of the risk factors presenting across the divisions.
The incidents this month exemplify the risk factors presenting across the divisions.
 
Smothered verbs, also known as nominalizations, are nouns formed from verbs. While nominalizations are not grammatically wrong, they typically make sentences more complex and less concise. 

Eliminating the nominalization in this sentence is better because the revised sentence becomes more concise and direct. Unsmothering verbs is a powerful technique to bring clarity to your writing!
 

 

September 2023 - Phrasal Verbs

Erin decided to call off the team meeting because of weather concerns and other logistical challenges.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Erin decided to cancel the team meeting because of weather concerns and other logistical challenges.
 
The phrasal verb "call off" can be misinterpreted based on its individual components if someone isn't familiar with the idiomatic meaning. Here's a breakdown:
  1. Call: This verb primarily means to shout or to communicate with someone (usually by phone). If interpreted literally in the phrase "call off," someone might think it has something to do with shouting or vocalizing in some way.
  2. Off: This preposition/adverb often indicates separation, removal, or distance from a particular point.

Given these literal interpretations, "call off" could be misunderstood in the following ways:
  • Someone might think "call off" means to shout from a distance or shout in a direction away from something.
  • They might think it pertains to turning off a phone call or ending a communication abruptly.
  • In a very literal sense, if someone were unfamiliar with the idiomatic use, they might even think it involves vocalizing while moving away from something.
These misinterpretations are why it's essential to understand phrasal verbs in context and within the nuances of the English language. For someone learning English or unfamiliar with this specific phrasal verb, the idiom can be confusing.

The use of the synonymous one-word verbs (cancel) makes each sentence more straightforward and clearer for all readers.

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August 2023 - Tautological Expression

Boris was absolutely certain that accounting had approved his request for more funding.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Boris was certain that accounting had approved his request for more funding.
 

A redundant modifier weakens this sentence. The word certain is absolute by definition. "Absolutely certain" expresses the same concept twice. It's a hyperbolic and bloated phrase. Its use is so frequent that it's normalized, but it's a sloppy tautology.

In literary criticism and rhetoric, a tautology is a statement that repeats an idea using near-synonymous morphemes, words, or phrases, effectively "saying the same thing twice."

For example, "free gift" is a tautological expression because gifts are inherently free. Another example would be "a true fact" since facts are by definition true. Using such expressions makes speech or writing wordier without adding any extra meaning.

Tautologies often creep into business writing, sometimes for emphasis but usually inadvertently. Here are some examples of tautologies commonly found in business writing:
  1. Advance planning - Planning is inherently about the future, making "advance" redundant.
  2. End result - A result is something that comes at the end of a process, so "end" is unnecessary.
  3. Past history - History always refers to the past.
  4. Close proximity - Proximity already implies closeness.
  5. Added bonus - A bonus is something extra or additional, making "added" redundant.
  6. Sum total - The total is the sum, so "sum" is unnecessary.
  7. True facts - Facts are inherently true.
  8. Final conclusion - A conclusion is the final statement or result.
  9. Basic fundamentals - Fundamentals are basic principles or foundations.
  10. Join together - Joining means to bring together.

 

July 2023 - Quotation, Capitalization, and Gerund Use Error

That report about me taking "bribes" is nothing but Fake News!

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

That report about my taking bribes is nothing but fake news.
 

"Fake News" is not a title and should not be capitalized, nor should it be in quotes.

The word "taking" is a gerund (a verb before a noun), so this should use the possessive "my."

 

June 2023 - Introductory Clause Comma Use

After his paternity leave Adam returned to the office with a lot of energy and motivation to finish his project. 

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

After his paternity leave, Adam returned to the office with a lot of energy and motivation to finish his project. 

A comma is required after the introductory clause of "After his paternity leave," to indicate it is an introduction to more information to come. In the above example "Adam returned to the office..." is the main point of the sentence. "After his paternity leave" is the introductory clause to that main point, and it needs to be set off with a comma.

A missing comma after an introductory clause is one of the most common business writing grammar errors.

Learn more about clauses in this video.

 

May 2023 - Overuse of clichés

Davida thought she had the committee over a barrel, but she was on thin ice, and the negotiations blew up in her face. 

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Davida thought she had the committee over a barrel, but she was on thin ice, and the negotiations blew up in her face.

Davida thought she could dictate terms, but her position was weak, and the negotiations fell apart.


Multiple clichés in one sentence are awkward, and typically multiple clichés result in conflicting and confusing imagery. This sentence has barrels, ice, and explosions, which are both dissonant and confusing. Additionally, clichés can be very problematic for non-native business writers. It's best to limit clichés in business writing.

Learn more about confusing non-native business writing issues here.

 

April 2023 - Reducing bloat

Ari tilted his head to the side as he studied the results of the operations survey.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Ari tilted his head to the side as he studied the results of the operations survey.


A tilted head moves to the side —or left/right— by definition. The extraneous words "to the side" are redundant and considered bloat and should be removed for clear and concise language, which is the goal of all business documents.

 

March 2023 - Misuse of gerunds and excessive repetition 

Georgina was moseying along, twirling her pen and considering ways of squashing the complaints from her team.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Georgina moseyed along, twirling her pen and considering ways to squash the complaints from her team.


The repetitiousness of four "-ing" endings, with another -"ng" word in the mix is distracting and feels unfocused. Also, a gerund is a word that is created with a verb but functions as a noun, always ending in -ing. Being used as a noun, a gerund can function as a subject, a subject complement, a direct object, an indirect object, or an object of a preposition. Since gerunds are not verbs, they cannot replace verbs. A sentence that contains only gerunds is actually missing a main verb. 

 

February 2023 - Unnecessary words

Thank goodness ChatGPT can resolve all my writing problems, Charlotte incorrectly thought to herself.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Thank goodness ChatGPT can resolve all my writing problems, Charlotte incorrectly thought to herself.


Of course "to herself." To whom else? This is an example of the unnecessary words that ChatGPT is prone to add. 
  

 

January 2023 - Who vs. Whom

We need to ensure that whomever leads the meeting is prepared with an agenda.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

We need to ensure that whoever leads the meeting is prepared with an agenda.


Who and whom are similar and can be confusing for even experienced writers. The difference is who is the pronoun for the subject of a sentence, while whom is the pronoun for the object. In this sentence above, the subject (the person) is doing the action or being described (leading the meeting). 
 
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December 2022 - Punctuating Bullet Lists

I recommend that the following actions be taken:

  • Create a tips sheet on the proper use of straps to be given to all warehouse staff
  • Provide safety training for staff on a regular basis
  • Replace used straps with new ones

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

I recommend that the following actions be taken:

    • Create a tips sheet on the proper use of straps to be given to all warehouse staff.
    • Provide safety training for staff on a regular basis.
    • Replace used straps with new ones.
According to AP’s style guide for bulleted lists, a period or other full stop is needed after every bullet that is a complete sentence.
 
 
 

November 2022 - Jargon

When you get back to the office, let's touch base and do a deep dive into this new software. It looks like it's going to be a game changer.

Can you spot the error? 

This sentence is full of jargon. Phrases like "deep dive" or " touch base" or game changer" are overused. While there is nothing wrong with this sentence grammatically, the excessive jargon emotes both insincerity and imprecision.
 
Learn more about jargon in this article, and review the 127 top jargon examples we see far too often in business writing.

We also created a Jargon Grader tool to help you ensure your writing is jargon-free.

 

October 2022 - It vs They

Finyo has offices in Los Angeles and the UK. They are a full-service consulting firm.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Finyo has offices in Los Angeles and the UK. It is a full-service consulting firm.

A simple way to remember whether to use "it" or "they" is to remember that people are "they" and a thing is an "it." A company or organization should always be referred to as an “it."
 

If you intend to refer to the people who work there, you could instead write,"Finyo’s team members work in Los Angeles and the UK. They are a full-service consulting firm.” 

 

September 2022 - Plural and Possessive Commas

Should we go get the cake's and cookies so we have them in time for Brenda's lunch surprise?

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Should we go get the cakes and cookies so we have them in time for Brenda's lunch surprise?

Adding an apostrophe and an "s" to a word shows ownership, but it doesn't make a word plural. In the case above, "cake's" is written to show ownership when is actually plural, so no apostrophe is needed.
 
There is, however, an apostrophe in "Brenda's" because Brenda has ownership over the lunch surprise (and there is only one of Brenda).
 
 

July 2022 - Commas after introductory elements

Let’s offer a rewards program so our every day customers feel valued.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Let’s offer a rewards program so our everyday customers feel valued.

The correct usage is everyday, not every day. Everyday is an adjective to describe a noun that is common, routine, or typical. 
 
 
 
 
 

June 2022 - Commas after introductory elements

Before she had time to think about it Kelly hit send on the email before removing the CEO. 

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Before she had time to think about it, Kelly hit send on the email before removing the CEO. 

comma comes after an introductory word, phrase, or clause. A comma separates this from the rest of the sentence, giving the reader a pause that can often help avoid confusion.
 

 

April 2022 - Possessives modifying possessives

An independent research company polled hundreds of our customers, and the results are currently being calculated. We should receive the report by next Wednesday.

I have not yet seen any of the research company’s statistician’s data, but until I have the opportunity to review this, we need to defer all pricing changes.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

I have not yet seen the data from the research company’s statistician, but until I have the opportunity to review this, we need to defer all pricing changes.
 
Simply change the wording if possible to avoid the awkward construction. This is an example of attaching a possessive form to another possessive form. Most style guides do not recommend this.
 
 

March 2022 - Consistent subjects

If one is to be a good neighbor, you must be considerate of the space and environment that we all live in.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

If one is to be a good neighbor, one must be considerate of the space and environment that we all live in.
 
Subjects must be used consistently. If you choose to use the impersonal "one" as a subject, you must continue to use the impersonal "one" throughout the sentence. 

 

February 2022 - Comma splices

Diane has stepped down from the remainder of this project, who wants to fill her spot?

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Diane has stepped down from the project. Who wants to fill her spot?
 

If you didn't see the comma splice error, don't feel bad! This is the most common error we see.

 
 

January 2022 - Hyphens in business documents

Five year-olds looked overjoyed on the first day of preschool, but disillusionment soon set in.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Five-year-olds looked overjoyed on the first day of preschool, but disillusionment soon set in.
 
Are there five year-olds? Or, are all the children five years old? If so, a hyphen is needed for all of the modifiers in that phrase:
  • Five-year-olds indicates the group of children are all five years old

  • Five year-olds indicates there are five year-old children. Those five children would be very precocious year-olds to be attending preschool!

 

September 2021 - Flaunted vs. Flouted

Hunter's colleagues were outraged when he flaunted the department rules by publishing his article with no editorial review.

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

Hunter's colleagues were outraged when he flouted the department rules by publishing his article with no editorial review.

Flaunted and flouted are common word choice errors.

  • Flaunted means "to display or obtrude oneself to public notice."
  • Flouted means "to treat with contemptuous disregard."

August 2021 - Thing or Think

The proposal is rambling and fails to reflect our real value. If Caleb thinks the board will accept this proposal he has another thing coming!

Can you spot the error? If not, here is the correction:

The proposal is unclear and fails to reflect our real value. If Caleb thinks the board will accept this proposal he has another think coming!

This is a word use error. "Thing" should be "think" in that example.

Historically, the correct phrase was "...he has another think coming." 

Thing is acceptable usage now if the phrase stood alone, but with think proceeding thing directly in the sentence, it's unclear and sloppy because the first think doesn't relate syntactically if thing ends the sentence.

July 2021 - Bullet List Punctuation

Thank you so much for the follow-up details. As a final step, can you please:

  • enter the updated information on page three of your Vendor Application
  • update your company's information in the Vendor Portal
  • fill out the attached Banking Verification Form PDF
  • send me a copy of your W-9

We look forward to working with you!

Can you spot the error? If not, learn how to correct the mistake here.

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June 2021 - Fewer or Less

I stopped at Staples yesterday before a meeting, knowing my boss would be annoyed with me if I were late. I picked up the five items I needed and headed to the checkout lane that indicated "10 Items or Less." The person in front of me had 17 items. I counted them. I was late for my meeting because of that person's thoughtlessness.

Can you spot the error? If not, learn how to correct the mistake here.

May 2021 - Comma Use with Appositives

I'm sorry for the delay shipping your order! My assistant, Carrie, will call you tomorrow to resolve this problem. She and I will continue working through the holiday until everything ships.

Can you spot the error? If not, learn how to correct the mistake here.

April 2021 - Bear or Bare

Thanks for baring with me. The final report will be uploaded in 15 minutes.

Can you spot the error? If not, learn how to correct the mistake here.

 

 

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published August 27, 2021, updated February 20, 2024
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.

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