8 Grammatical Errors That Could Scare Away Readers

By Kaitlyn Smeland Dhanaliwala | Jan 13, 2010
More Articles by Kaitlyn

Grammar can be a touchy subject, even in the arena of business writing.

People usually fall into one of two categories on the issue. There are the people who look at the laws of grammar as, shall we say, suggestions rather than hard and fast rules. These people usually claim that the English language is fluid and constantly evolving .  (Yeah, I know- it’s such a cop-out!)

As you can guess, I subscribe to the second philosophy about grammar: that it is a necessary set of guidelines that helps us communicate with clarity.  Do we really want to live in a free-for-all world with dangling participles just loitering on street corners, corrupting our youth??  (That’s a rhetorical question. Please don’t send me mean tweets).

So yes, I’ll admit it.  I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to grammar.  Usually, I manage to keep it under control.  (For example, I discovered very early in life that grocery store cashiers do not generally share my interest in the little-known fact that signs for the express line should actually read “Fifteen items or fewer.”  Can you believe that?!)

But today, I decided to wave my freak flag and list the common grammatical errors that always make me cringe.  Here’s why it matters: If you make spelling and grammatical mistakes in your business writing, at least some of your readers will notice.  And they may question your expertise because of it.

Since social media as a business tool has become a more important part of any online marketing strategy, communicating with your customer base (through articles, blog posts, and Tweets) is widely considered a necessity.  Of course, it’s nice to sound like a human being rather than a spam bot in social media- and humans do sometimes make mistakes!  But in general, it’s always good to brush up on our writing skills.

So here is my list of the Top 8 Grammar Mistakes to Avoid:

1.  You’re/Your Yes, Ross.  I feel your pain.  “You’re” is a contraction that means “you are.”  “Your” just shows ownership.  Get it through your head, Rachel.  Geez.

2.  It’s/Its I do understand the confusion here.  If coffee is Rachel’s favorite drink (with an apostrophe + s showing ownership), then why can’t Rachel’s dog have it’s favorite toy?  Well, unfortunately the word “it’s” is already taken.  “It’s” stands for “it is.”  The word “its” shows ownership.

3.  There/Their/They’re “There” refers to a place or point.  “Their” shows ownership.  “They’re” means “they are.”

4.  Then/Than This one is common among marketers, who are often performing A/B tests.  If you are comparing the conversion rates of two landing pages, one will have better results than another.  “Then” should be used for just about everything else.

5.  Less/Fewer My favorite!  This is a really picky rule that is guaranteed to annoy your friends and loved ones.  If you can count a quantity of units, then use “fewer.”  If you have to measure a proportion of something, use “less.”  For example:

  • While out at lunch, Chandler orders a sandwich.  Joey orders three.  Sandwiches are things you can count in whole numbers, so you’d say that Chandler has fewer sandwiches than Joey.
  • On the other hand, food in general is a concept that is measured in amounts, not quantity.  No one ever says they have “five food” in their fridge.  They have “some” food.  Or “a little bit of” food.  So therefore, you’d say that Joey has less food than the girls across the hall.

6.  Affect/Effect In general, “affect” is the verb and “effect” is the noun.

  • “I am conducting an A/B test to find the effect of form length on conversion rate.”
  • “I found that form length will definitely affect conversion rate.”
  • NOTE:  One of the joys of the English language is the myriad of exceptions.  “Affect” can be a noun when it refers to someone’s facial display of emotion.  For example, I can just imagine my reader’s blank affect as he is slowly bored to death.
  • Likewise, “effect” can be used as a verb when it means “to bring about” or “to achieve.”  For example, Phoebe hopes to effect social change through the lyrics of her original songs.

7.  To/Two/Too “Two” is the number.  “Too” means “also.”  And feel free to use “to” in all other cases.

8.  Could have v. Could of Please don’t write “could of.”  It doesn’t make sense to say, “I of gone on my lunch break.”  Instead, you’d say, “I have gone on my lunch break.”  The same goes when you change the tense around a little.  You’d say, “I could have gone to lunch an hour ago if it hadn’t taken so long to edit the grammar in my post.”

Correction (January 15, 2010): Oops! Laura Ford kindly pointed out to me that the word “you’re” is a contraction for “you are.”  It is not, as I originally misspoke, a conjunction. As we know from School House Rock, a conjunction’s function is hooking up words and phrases (e.g., “and,” “or,” “but,”).  This highlights another lesson in writing; your grammar can be perfect, but it does not guarantee that you’re making any sense.  Thanks, Laura!

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  • http://www.spiderwritingseo.co.uk billmarshall

    Absolutely agree – if you can’t use basic grammar and spelling then you can’t communicate effectively.

    My most hated mistake, which I see everywhere at the moment, is lose/loose. This never used to be a problem so I’m wondering why it should have become one – perhaps phonetic teaching or something similar? Whatever the cause it jars me out of the sense of what the person is saying straight away, and reduces any trust I may have had it their opinion.

  • http://www.search-mojo.com Kaitlyn Smeland Dhanaliwala

    Bill- I agree; mistakes like these can distract readers from the main point the author is trying to make. Lose/Loose would be a great one to add. I agree, it’s pretty common. The comic “The Oatmeal” actually featured a funny little grammar reference guide recently that included the lose/loose mix-up at the top of the list!


  • lisafeg

    Fantastic! Although grammar was never my strong point, I’ve noticed the decline. I also pet peeve on “as” being used instead of “because” — maybe it’s an Australian thing. “I can’t come to work to today as my child is very sick.”
    Thx for your article! ;-)

  • http://www.search-mojo.com Kaitlyn Smeland Dhanaliwala

    I’m glad you liked the article, Lisafeg. It seems like there are many more closeted grammar enthusiasts out there than I thought! :)