A survey from Signs.com reminds us of something we all know but love to pretend isn’t important: Your spelling and grammar skills can change the way people look at you – for better or worse.
The survey tested 1,000 Americans from the Prolific academic community on their general education and their spelling and grammar acuity – without those squiggly red lines to warn of their written transgressions. With this safety net gone, researchers could see what words tripped up people the most and how those mishaps affected their lives at work.
The survey had some interesting findings on these matters relevant to the workplace:
Based on the survey, spelling errors seem to be viewed even more seriously in the workplace than you’d think. Here are some key points the researchers found:
Along with studying how spelling and grammar errors are perceived in the workplace, researchers tested respondents on their skills. Here’s what they found:
People who think they’re great at spelling, grammar, and reading comprehension often aren’t as strong in these realms as they think. That’s reason enough for you to check your work at least once.
Researchers found common misspellings among respondents. You might want to keep these words and phrases in mind when double-checking your work.
Some other frequently misspelled words were “hypocrisy,” “receive” and “apparently.”
You can take these steps to reduce the spelling and grammar mistakes in your work, communications, and other writing.
Automated spell-check and grammar-check tools are great for catching tiny, accidental errors – ones you already knew were wrong but just didn’t notice you’d made – but they aren’t enough to combat recurring errors or full-on misunderstandings of grammatical concepts. They often miss or even cause errors, because the software can’t always understand context or nuances. This is why it’s important to develop your own solid understanding of spelling and grammar principles: You can’t necessarily take the software’s word for it.
Right after you write something, your brain will still be familiar with what you’ve just written – so it might not identify errors, no matter how hard you look. Take a few hours (or even a day or two) away from your writing, then come back to it with fresh eyes. This way, your brain will treat your writing more like something it’s never seen before and catch errors more easily.
The best writers have editors – and the best editors have editors too. For the same “brain familiarity” reasons as above, another person reading your writing can catch errors you might never see. They can also give you tips to improve your writing in general, beyond simply avoiding errors.
You would never read a document backward, right? That’s just weird. However, that sort of strangeness can keep your brain attuned to errors, which is why proofreading your writing in reverse can be such an effective way to catch errors. Once you correct those errors, read the document normally again to make sure your final copy sings.
If your sentences often feel too long, you might be missing a comma or other punctuation somewhere. If your readers and recipients often misunderstand who or what you’re talking about in your writing, you could be dangling your modifiers, putting words in the wrong place, overusing passive voice, or even subtly misusing certain terms. Again, automatic grammar-checkers don’t always pick up on these issues – you’ll need to review specific grammar rules and the broader grammatical concepts until you understand them for yourself.
And if you’re constantly unsure whether “occasion” has the double “c” or the double “s,” it’s time to keep a dictionary on your desk … or just bookmark an online dictionary until those tricky spellings are burned into your brain.
While spelling mistakes often happen when you’re unfamiliar with a word, grammar mistakes are more systematic. This makes them easier to group, describe and correct.
Here are some common grammar rules to help you avoid future mistakes and fix recent ones. (Note that this list is just a starting point.)
A comma precedes a conjunction – including “and,” “but,” and “or” – if it separates two independent clauses, or phrases that could be sentences on their own. An example could be “Jack went to the hill, and Jill went to the mountain.” If the sentence were “Jack went to the hill and the mountain,” there would be no comma. “The mountain” can’t stand on its own as a sentence.
A semicolon is basically a replacement for a comma and a conjunction: It combines two ideas that could be sentences on their own. To continue the above example, “Jack went to the hill; Jill went to the mountain” is a grammatically correct sentence. “Jack went to the hill; the mountain” and “Jack went to the hill; and the mountain” are grammatically incorrect.
Certain publications and styles use the Oxford (serial) comma in all lists of three or more items, while others have their own rules for when it should or should not be used. For instance, the Chicago style guide “strongly recommends” it but doesn’t require it. Associated Press (AP) style uses it in lists where any confusion or change in meaning could result without it, but not in simple series, such as “fish, chicken and beef.”
In that example – “fish, chicken and beef” – you’re not seeing an Oxford comma. If the list were instead to read “fish, chicken, and beef,” you’re seeing an Oxford comma. This comma goes between the second-to-last item in the list and the conjunction in front of the final item. The right or wrong use (or non-use) of an Oxford comma depends on your company’s style guide or policies, rather than on a strict grammatical standard.
Was reading this sentence enjoyed by you? Probably not. That’s because you just read a sentence with passive voice, and such sentences are often confusing and needlessly long. Instead, you’d write, “Did you enjoy reading this sentence?”
However, passive voice can be useful in a few places. Scientists prefer it for objective descriptions of their experiments, so “the chemical was placed in the jar” is appropriate in scientific writing. It can also be useful if the person to whom someone does something is far more important than the person doing it. For example, “I was promoted last week” is better than “my boss promoted me last week” because you, not the boss, are the news.
A person works. People work. These two sentences illustrate subject-verb agreement in action: A singular noun gets a present-tense verb that ends in “s,” as do third-person singular pronouns such as “he” and “she.” A plural noun gets the verb without the “s,” as do the pronouns “I,” “you,” “we,” and “they.” In the past tense, all nouns get verbs ending in “ed” or “d,” such as “walked” or “shined.”
Reporters will often say that a source “said” something. They may also say that, previously, a source “had said” something. They may even say that, historically, the source “has said” something. These three tenses are the past, past perfect, and present perfect, respectively.
You’ll use the past tense to talk about something squarely in the past: “I ran a mile.” You’ll use the past perfect to describe something that happened before a specific event: “I had run a mile before I saw the sign.” You’ll use the present perfect to describe something in the past with no definite start or end time. You can also use it to describe something that started in the past and is still happening: “We have talked about this a few times.”
You should brush up on the other verb tenses as well: the imperfect tense, the past perfect continuous, and plenty more. Errors in choosing between these verb forms are less common, though resources for mastering them are freely available.
For now, focus on the common grammar rules above. Mastering them is the best way to avoid mistakes in the future.
Andrew Martins contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.