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A Word, Please: Knowing basics could spell greater success

April 26, 2013|By June Casagrande

Creators of a software program called Grammarly recently conducted a study of the grammar used in LinkedIn member profiles. They found that people with fewer grammar errors in their profiles ascended to higher positions, got more promotions and changed jobs more often.

The implication: Better grammar correlates with greater success. Without knowing more about the study it's hard to know how strong that correlation is.

For example, the idea of "grammar errors" is surprisingly fluid. Some people think it's a grammar error to use "firstly" instead of "first" to modify a sentence or that you can't start a sentence with "and." Neither is true.

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Of course, Grammarly has a stake in this discussion. It sells a product that claims to fix grammar. But in general, I suspect the picture the company paints is at least somewhat accurate: Word-savvy people are often savvy in other areas of life, including in their careers. And let's face it, in any workplace there's some expectation that workers should "speak the language."

You could be the greatest banker in the world, but if you say things like "We done got us some vittles over at that thar Panera Bread," there will be a perception that you wouldn't "fit" in the upper echelons of the company. Subtle grammar errors can have a similar effect.

Though we don't know all the "errors" the study counted, it creates a good opportunity to learn about errors that regularly plague workplace communications. Here are some of the big problems I often see in business writing.

"Whomever" gets misused a lot. People who know that whomever is an object know that it belongs in a sentence like "We will support whomever you choose." But their skills usually fall short of understanding why "whomever" would be wrong in "We will support whoever chooses you." The key to getting these right is to look at the verbs and make sure each has a subject. The verb phrase "will support" has "we" for its subject. The verb "chooses" needs its own. "Whoever" is a subject pronoun, "whomever" is an object. So only "whoever" will do here.

Overreliance on adverbs is common among writers trying to sound professional. For example, many assume that "I feel badly" is correct. But in fact, because of what are called copular verbs, the correct choice is usually "I feel bad." To say you feel badly means you do a poor job of touching things.

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