I just returned from conducting a workshop in Chicago on Producing Professional Email Messages. The feedback I heard over and over—“thanks for the refresher on grammar and punctuation.” I’ve been delivering professional communication workshops for over twenty years, and I find that people still appreciate refreshers on English conventions.

What are Language Conventions?

“Conventions” is a catch-all term for the writing guidelines agreed upon by organizations that monitor language use, such as, the Associated Press, the University of Chicago, and  the Modern Language Association. Specifically, language conventions are a set of generally accepted standards for written English that includes grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and number usage.

Do the Rules Change?

Language is always changing, evolving, and adapting; that’s what it’s supposed to do. So, yes, the rules do change. For example, “google” is now an accepted verb, and the pronoun “them,” in some cases, can be used to refer back to a singular noun. Contractions were once considered uncouth, but no one questions them now. Remember when the rule was two spaces after a period before a new sentence? Gone. And don’t get me started on the Oxford comma debate!

Grammar, like language itself, is dynamic. Based on medium, purpose, and audience, grammar can be adapted to fit the situation or context in which language is used. In other words, conventions appropriate for a text message are not necessarily acceptable in a business proposal. 

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

In this short clip, Harvard professor Steven Pinker talks about his book, which explains how bad writing is so costly, gives advice on how to write well, and identifies what contributes to good writing. Basically, Pinker recommends replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence based in linguistics and cognitive science. Interesting concept, but not sure I totally agree with him. Opens the gate to a free-range grammar world–which may be healthy for chickens but not so much for professional communication.

(For more a more detailed explanation, check out Pinker’s presentation on Linguistics, Style and Writing in the 21st Century.)

Why Care about Conventions?

We all know we are judged by our writing, so we understand the importance of following the rules of standard English and recognize the need to polish and fine-tune our understanding of those rules. Convention errors make us look like we don’t pay attention to detail or aren’t conscientious about our work. These types of errors annoy readers.

If you think writing error free in business is overrated, think again. Sidekick recently conducted a survey asking readers to identify their biggest email pet peeve. The biggest problem? Yep, poor grammar.

Good grammar is instrumental in conveying ideas with clarity, professionalism, and precision.  Grammatical mistakes can make our writing unclear, which often translates into misinterpretation, confusion, and irritation. And worst of all, these errors may have a detrimental impact on our reputation—making us look like an unprofessional, unpolished employee.

Is Good Grammar a Predictor of Professional Success?

Understanding the basic grammar rules is essential for communicating effectively. The way you use language is part of your presentation. If you want to have influence, power, and position, you have to learn to speak and write the language of power—and that language is Standard English.

Check out this data from the Harvard Business Review, which clearly supports the premise that good grammar is a predictor of professional success.

If you think writing error free in business is overrated, think again. Sidekick recently conducted a survey asking readers to identify their biggest email pet peeve. The biggest problem? Yep, poor grammar.

Test Your Knowledge of Conventions Today

Grammar quizzes are a great tool for helping you figure out what you know and what you don’t know about English conventions. Test your skills. Can you score 25/25 on this quiz?

Select the correct pronoun:

  1. Of the five candidates we interviewed yesterday, (who/whom) do you believe is the best choice?
  2. Mr. Michaels and (I/me) will attend the presentation.
  3. It was obviously (I/me) who wrote the report.
  4. Charlotte is happy about (him/his) winning the scholarship.
  5. If you have any questions, contact Bill or (me/myself).

Mark these sentences as correct (C) or incorrect (I):

  1. At Company X they decided to start working overtime.
  2. The patients enjoy the warm days while they last.
  3. The student needs to submit her registration card before the first week of the semester. (A sentence in a brochure giving directions for registration.)

Punctuate the following sentences correctly:

    9.  We are looking for two qualities in applicants related experience and positive attitude.
   10. At the Career Services office the students we serve have successfully been hired due to the dedication of             the support staff.
   11. My interview which was scheduled at 1:00 didn’t go as planned.
   12. My interview didn’t go well because I was still recovering from my illness.
   13. Because I wasn’t feeling well my interview wasn’t successful.
   14. Several large orders arrived today John too many came in for us to process them accurately.
   15. Several large orders arrived today by the deadline and were processed accurately by our team.
   16. Our previous meetings were January 24 2018 March 3 2018 and June 15 2018.
   17. I think you’re correct however that our previous meetings were scheduled for optimal attendance.

Insert apostrophes where needed:

18. The university may have changed its mission, but its still focused on students success.
19.
Marks employee ID has three 7s.

Select the correct choice:

20. We have (less/fewer) awards to distribute this year.
21.
The (principal/principle) theory is the one that is most accepted.
22.
Where are (your/you’re) minutes of the meeting?
23.
My (advice/advise) is to proofread all written communication.
24.
Try not to (lose/loose) this key; (its/it’s) expensive to replace.
25.
Will having an advanced degree (affect/effect) my chances for promotion?

Just like your clothes, your phone, or your resumé, eventually you’re going to need to update your knowledge of the rules of the English language. Whether you are a grammar purist or progressive, know the rules, so you can make informed decisions about applying the English conventions to your written communication. Know your medium, purpose, and audience, and write from a position of knowledge. That’s what being a professional communicator is all about.

We all know that first impressions matter, so take time to learn the basics of good grammar and correct punctuation. (Check out the answers below.)

Select the correct pronoun:

1. Of the five candidates we interviewed yesterday, (who/whom) do you believe is the best choice?
2. Mr. Michaels and (I/me) will attend the presentation.
3. It was obviously (I/me) who wrote the report.
4. Charlotte is happy about (him/his) winning the scholarship.
5. If you have any questions, contact Bill or (me/myself).

Mark these sentences as correct (C) or incorrect (I):

6. At Company X they decided to start working overtime. I–Who is “they”?
7. The patients enjoy the warm days while they last. I–Does “they” refer to the patients or the days?
8. The student needs to submit her registration card before the first week of the semester. (A sentence in a brochure giving directions for registration.) I–Not all students are female.

Punctuate the following sentences correctly:

  9. We are looking for two qualities in applicants: related experience and positive attitude.
10.
At the Career Services office, the students we serve have successfully been hired due to the dedication of            the support staff.
11.
My interview, which was scheduled at 1:00, didn’t go as planned.
12.
My interview didn’t go well because I was still recovering from my illness.
13. Because I wasn’t feeling well, my interview wasn’t successful.
14. Several large orders arrived today, John; too many came in for us to process them accurately.
15.
Several large orders arrived today by the deadline and were processed accurately by our team.
16.
Our previous meetings were January 24, 2018; March 3, 2018; and June 15, 2018.
17.
I think you’re correct, however, that our previous meetings were scheduled for optimal attendance.

Insert apostrophes where needed:

18. The university may have changed its mission, but its still focused on students success.
19.
Marks employee ID has three 7s.

Select the correct choice:

20. We have (less/fewer) awards to distribute this year.
21. The (principal/principle) theory is the one that is most accepted.
22.
Where are (your/you’re) minutes of the meeting?
23.
My (advice/advise) is to proofread all written communication.
24. Try not to (lose/loose) this key; (its/it’s) expensive to replace.
25.
Will having an advanced degree (affect/effect) my chances for promotion?

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