“Being a grammarian is never going to make you a social butterfly at a party,” a wise writing professor once told me. “But at least no one will ever doubt your intelligence.”
Having come from a newswriting background, reading online content makes me cringe. Wait a minute, did you just use the wrong kind of “to” on your company homepage? Oh, boy. When I see this blatant disregard for the English language, not only does it make my inner nerd sad, but it makes me question the competency of said company.
Landing on your homepage is often my first interaction with your brand. If it’s riddled with juvenile writing errors, I’m going to doubt if you can be trusted with my money. Relaxed writing style may be acceptable in personal emails and text messages, but it has no place in customer-facing content.
Here are some of the most glaring (and most sadness-inducing) grammar errors I am constantly horrified to find on Web pages:
1. It’s vs Its
This one can be a little confusing when you’re writing in a hurry. We’re used to an apostrophe followed by an “s” indicating possession. In this case, however, the apostrophe is being used as a contraction to mean it is.
Example: When it’s (it is) gone, it’s (it is) gone.
Ah, hyphens. Contrary to popular Internet writing practice, there are actual guidelines on when to use them. The general rule is to go to the dictionary. Otherwise, follow this:
Compound adjectives + noun = hyphenate when the adjectives appear before the noun (but not if used after).
Example A: They were in a long-term relationship. (long-term is a compound adjective that modifies the noun, relationship.)
Example B: The relationship was long term. (long term comes after the noun.)
This one is surprisingly simple. Read your content out loud. Anytime you naturally pause, insert a comma. The most common uses of commas are:
- To separate words in a list (pens, pencils, and paper clips). While the comma before the and is hugely debated in grammar circles, I’m a personal advocate of the Oxford comma.
- Introductory phrases. Meanwhile, they went to the store.
- To separate compound sentences. This means that each part of the sentence is a complete thought on its own, complete with a subject and predicate. (They went to the store, and he bought a bag of chips.)
4. The Dangling Participle
After rotting in the basement for weeks, my mother threw away the strawberries.
This is getting a bit advanced, yet makes your content a million times more user friendly. The participle phrase introduces a sentence. Writers go wrong when this phrase is not modifying the sentence that follows. Readers expect it to work this way, and when it doesn’t, your participle is left hanging.
After rotting for weeks is the participle phrase introducing the sentence. Both mother and strawberries are nouns in the sentence that follows. So what was rotting- your mother or the berries?
5. Subject-verb agreement
This is another rule that sounds entirely more complicated than it is in reality. A verb in a sentence needs to agree with its subject in number: meaning that the verb changes depending on whether the subject is singular or plural.
Example: He was one of the designers who were fired.
Who refers to the designers, meaning the verb fired must be plural.
While it can be tedious and boring, combing through your online content for grammar errors ensures that your company puts its best foot forward to your clients. In a space as competitive as the Internet, every little bit helps.
When in doubt about grammar rules, you can always turn to Schoolhouse Rock. If nothing else, at least you’ll have a catchy tune stuck in your head for the rest of the day.