I’m a firm believer that rules are meant to be broken, and stringent members of the grammar police tend to be an annoying bunch. But truly bad grammar can diminish your reputation, make you appear careless, and cost you money through lost opportunities. While the Internet is awash with blog posts on avoiding basic grammar mistakes that “make you look dumb,” perhaps the most grating errors are those that come with a side of pomposity.
These days, a more conversational style of writing is often preferred, and the only thing worse than a grammar mistake is one that gives the impression you’re trying too hard. Avoid the grammar equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes by steering clear of the following grandiloquent errors:
1. A or An historic occasion?
This one is surprisingly common. The article “an” appears before words that begin with a vowel sound, and while there are many words that begin with a silent “H” (e.g., honor, hour, etc.), “historic” is not one of them. Politicians are fond of marking “an historic occasion” in their speeches, and they are wrong.
Correct: “It is an honor to speak to you to mark a historic milestone in our company’s history.”
2. Throw out the verbiage
Verbiage, often misspelled verbage, is often used as a fancy synonym for “wording” (e.g., “please help me with the verbiage of this statement”). In fact, the primary definition of verbiage is “a profusion of words usually of little or obscure content.” It means wordiness – something PR pros surely try to avoid! There is a secondary definition for verbiage that means phrasing or diction, but because of the primary definition most grammar guides suggest avoiding its use for that meaning.
3. Which instead of that
I once had a client contact tell me she didn’t like the word “that” – she felt the word “which” sounded more professional in all instances, and asked me to make this universal substitution. After I recovered from the shock, I was forced to awkwardly explain why I felt proper grammar was a better choice.
“That” is used for essential clauses, while “which” is used for non-essential (also called restrictive and non-restrictive). For example, in item #1 above we state “The article ‘an’ appears before words that begin with a vowel sound” – this is a complete thought, and substituting “which” for “that” would be inappropriate. Quick cheat: “which” often follows a comma.
4. In regards to
In attempts to sound formal, some employ the phrase “in regards to,” such as “in regards to your last email.” The correct use is “in regard to,” but an even better option is to opt for plain language and say “regarding,” “about” or “concerning” instead.
5. Misuse of “whom”
It seems some people believe using “whom” whenever possible makes them sound smart. Of course, there are only certain instances when “whom” should be used over “who” – and not knowing the difference can sound like nails on a chalkboard to your audience.
“Whom” is only used when you are referring to the object of a clause, as opposed to the subject. If you struggle with this one, check out Grammar Girl’s “trick” for keeping who vs. whom straight.
When stated correctly, “whom” is often used to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. But even though this is proper, consider whether an alternate sentence structure would work better. “To whom shall I send the email?” is grammatically correct, but sounds a bit flowery to the modern ear.
6. Using e.g. and i.e. interchangeably
“E.g.” and “i.e.” are abbreviations for Latin terms, and – though often used similarly – do not mean the same thing. “E.g.” means “for example,” while “i.e.” means “that is.” For example: “We will be targeting relevant bloggers (e.g., Joe Jones, Sue Smith, etc.) as part of our outreach, as well as traditional outlets (i.e., broadcast news and print publications).”
An easy way to remember this is to note that “example” starts with “e.” And while we’re on the topic, in each instance there should be a period after each letter, followed by a comma.
7. Are you nauseous?
Many people try to avoid the TMI of “sick to my stomach” (or worse), so they state they’re nauseous. Nauseous means you are causing nausea – and you probably don’t want to send meeting regrets by telling your client you’ll be making the attendees ill! The correct word is nauseated.
8. Don’t be passive about grammar
Though not grammatically incorrect, passive voice is definitely a mistake for PR pros. Active voice is more powerful, concise and clear.
For example, “The address will be given by the CEO at noon” is passive, while “The CEO will give the address at noon” is active. Or, “The interview was handled by the spokesperson” (vs. “The spokesperson handled the interview”).
9. Irregardless, you are wrong
Some use “irregardless” to mean “without regard,” but the correct word in this instance is “regardless.” “Regardless” is defined as having or showing no regard; heedless; without concern as to advice, warning, etc.
10. Flaunt your knowledge
Does the rebel flaunt or flout the rules? Flaunt is to parade or display oneself conspicuously, defiantly or boldly. Flout is to treat with disdain, score or contempt. Don’t flout the correct use of flaunt and flout.
11. A final factoid
The suffix –oid means resembling or having the appearance of. This would make a “factoid” something resembling a fact, or an inaccurate statement. It is better to replace “factoid” with clearer language, such as “an interesting fact.”
These are just a few of our peeves – what are yours? What grammar rules give you trouble, and which grammar mistakes send you over the edge? Let us know in the comments!