The expression “You’re only as good as your word” typically means that if you say you’ll do something, you will do it. Your reputation hinges on your words–and actions. The same holds true for your writing: If you want to create a positive “brand” for yourself, master the rules of grammar.
I read hundreds of job applications. Those with mangled grammar rarely make it past that first reading. To make it in the professional world, no matter your industry, you need to know the rules. So here’s a crash course in grammar.
To come across as educated and smart, avoid these five common grammatical errors in anything you write.
1. Subject-Verb Disagreement
The most basic rule for sentence structure is that verbs should agree with their subject. Sentences typically have one subject and one verb: “I am highly organized.” Subject: I; verb: am.
Things get trickier when you add another subject or a second verb. Take this sentence: “I am highly organized and are very familiar with safety rules and procedures.” The second verb (are) is plural, whereas the subject (I) is singular. You would never say “I are . . .” The problem has arisen because the second verb is at a distance from the subject, so the writer forgot that the subject is singular. Rule: Test each verb against the common subject.
2. Dangling Modifier
Phrases at the beginning of sentences sometimes are disconnected from the word they are meant to modify. That’s called “dangling.” Suppose you tell a customer, “As our client, we will support you in every possible way.” The phrase “as our client” dangles, because it is not placed up against the word it is supposed to modify (you). The correct wording is: “As our client, you will be supported in every possible way.” Rule: Put that opening phrase right up against the word it modifies.
3. Faulty Pronoun
Pronouns (I, our, you, he, her, him) are slippery critters, especially when there is more than one pronoun. Take this example: “The conversation needs to be with her and I.” To test whether “her” and “I” are correct, try them out one at a time. Would you say, “The conversation needs to be with her”? Yes. Would you say, “The conversation needs to be with I?” No. You would say “with me.” Rule: With double pronouns, test each one separately against the context words.
4. Poor Parallel Structure
Parallel structure allows you to line up items in a series. For example, I once received a job application that contained the following nicely balanced parallel structure: “I planned and coordinated a 12-month training program.” The same letter had another set of parallels: “I have strong problem-solving, communication, and decision-making skills.” The impression created by these two sentences is that the writer is accomplished and describes those achievements in a polished way.
How does a lack of parallelism sound? “I organized two conferences and rebranding the company newsletter earned me commendations.” The two ideas don’t line up. Much better would be to stack the two ideas as follows: “I organized two conferences and successfully rebranded the company newsletter.” Rule: Line up your ideas, using the same type of verbs.
5. Abandoning the Apostrophe
The apostrophe has two purposes: It shows ownership (“Peter’s book was published”), and it replaces missing letters (“you’re invited”). Leave it out, and your reader will think that you are either careless or never learned these rules. So what do we as individuals need to do to fix our use of the apostrophe?
Mostly, we need to include the apostrophe when we are collapsing two words. For example, one might say, “I am glad to hear your feeling better,” when actually the word “your” is short for “you are,” and hence it requires the apostrophe: “I am glad you’re feeling better.”
Even in text messages, resist the temptation to leave the apostrophe out. “Whats up?” or “Hows it going?” makes the sender look too relaxed, indifferent, or ignorant. Rule: Use an apostrophe when you are combining two words and leaving out one or more letters.
Grammar is an important marker of how you view yourself–and how others will view you. If you see yourself as bright, educated, and polished, then play by the grammatical rules. Others will notice these things, as much as they’d notice whether you use a napkin when eating or talk while chewing. These little things do matter.