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Email Writing

Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Posted Feb 8, 2013, by Roy Speed

Blunders in email
Here I'll review a catalog of blunders in email that may embarrass you and undermine your professional image. Some are more obvious than others, but I'm sure you can relate to most everything on this list; it should certainly peak your interest.

Or is it "peek your interest"?

It's neither. It's "pique your interest" (from the French piquer, meaning "to prick"). Using peak or peek in this expression is literally nonsense. It suggests that you don't know what you're saying and, worse, don't much care.

That's the trouble with writing: it's infinitely more exacting than speech. Think about it -- In speech, the pique-your-interest error simply does not exist. Misspelling does not exist.

And that's not all:

  • In speech, there are no apostrophes, so you can't mix up it's and its, or you're and your. Nor can you blunder into something like We visited three country's.
  • In speech, there are no headaches with capitalization: company is identical to Company, manager to Manager, department to Department.
  • There are no commas in speech, only pauses, and therefore no comma errors.

The point is that in writing, there are thousands of ways to go wrong. And with email now so dominant in business communication, our writing is on permanent display.

Many errors in email have nothing to do with ignorance of grammar or usage; they represent sheer carelessness, which may be even more damaging than ignorance.

Want your boss to view you as someone who's conscientious, with high standards for everything you touch? Fine. But imagine that in an email to your boss, you write --

What is the client has no activity and
the term date doesn't advances as expected?

What you meant to write:

What if the client has no activity and
the term date doesn't advance as expected?

In email, such errors make it pretty difficult for the boss to see you as "conscientious," with "high standards for everything you touch." Worse, the boss may begin to wonder whether you can even be trusted with writing to customers or clients...

Another common self-inflicted wound is one mentioned above: messing up it's versus its, or you're versus your -- an error to which I myself am prone. Like me, when put to the test, you probably know the core distinctions, that it's is two words, always means it is. All it takes to correct such slips before hitting SEND is a little effort: you stop the world for a moment and look -- really look -- at what you've written. So when we consistently write things like Its Harriet's responsibility to review every order, or Your not going to like this... -- what we reveal about ourselves is that we don't care.

But anyone in business should care, must care. It's not just your personal image that's on the line; in the eyes of many readers, you're your company.

Blunders in email
Genuine ignorance

Here I'll address an entirely different kind of error -- a type that's not lethal, but readers who spot such an error in your writing immediately assume you're less well educated than they are.

Here's a brief catalog of such errors:

  • Misuse of reticent. Example: The client was reticent to sign the contract. Should be reluctant. "Reticence" is one specific type of reluctance: the reluctance to speak. So a person who is shy may be reticent, but you can't be reticent to do something.
  • Misuse of effect. Here's an example of what I mean: This price increase is unlikely to effect sales. Should be affect. When you're looking for the verb that means influence or alter or have an effect on, the verb you're looking for is "affect." (When used as a verb, effect means implement or produce: Administering the correct dosage will effect a complete cure.) These days, many of us try to dodge this affect/effect confusion by using "impact" as a verb: This price increase is unlikely to impact sales. -- Not my cup of tea, but then I'm pretty oldschool about such matters.
  • Misuse of infer. An example of what I mean: In her email to the VP, the client inferred that our process is slow. Should be implied (meaning said in an indirect manner; suggested). Infer has a specific meaning, and it's not just a sophisticated way of saying imply: it means to interpret or draw a conclusion from something someone else has said or written. Example: I think we can safely infer that the client is unhappy. Rule of thumb: If you're tempted to use infer, try substituting conclude; if the substitution doesn't work, you probably mean imply.
  • Misuse of principle. Example: Burnout was the principle reason for Kevin's departure. Should be principal, which is the adjective meaning the primary or chief aspect of something. Principle is always a noun meaning a rule or guideline, so you can never use principle to describe something.
  • Would of. This one's truly mortifying, and the same error occurs in could of and should of. What's meant of course is would have, could have, and should have. This error comes from writing the way we speak (would've).
Remember: Writing is a different version of English, one that's infinitely more exacting than speech. And email = writing.


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Useful information for all. It's exactly what I tell my corporate clients(ESL/EFL students)when doing a writing workshop. The main difficulty for us teachers, and/or educators, is when people are so convinced that their Franglais, or Germanglais, or whatever, is correct. On the other hand, the non-native speakers go nuts when bosses, or collaborators, don't write proper emails themselves.
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- Posted on Mar 20, 2014 by Shihab

Great advice. I especially appreciated the guidance you give regarding the use of infer. I don't know how many times I have misused that Word.
- Posted on Feb 15, 2013 by Michael Hoffman

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