5 Simple Grammar Tips for Better Business Writing

December 16, 2014

better business writing tips crop

I’m an HR practitioner with a penchant for writing.  With a master’s degree in literature and nine published books behind me, I can’t quite close a blind eye to some very common errors that are pervasive at all levels of management.  And I think it’s fair to say that I’m not alone in noticing these pesky problems when they surface.  The fact is that most business people have a handful of common writing challenges that—once fixed—can strengthen their writing skills immensely.  Here are five all-too-common challenge areas and opportunities to spiff up your writing in no time and help yourself stand out among your peers in terms of communicating more effectively every time you open an email or pick up a pen.

1. Apostrophe Marks

The most common error that distinguishes well-trained writers from those who conveniently skipped high school English class can be found with apostrophe marks.  Apostrophes are generally used to show possession.  Here’s how they work:

Singular: the boy’s book

Plural: the boys’ books

The apostrophe comes after the s when plural possessive nouns are at hand, as in workers’ compensation, employees’ benefits, and unions’ collective bargaining agreements.

Okay, easy enough . . . Now here’s where it gets a little tricky: When you’re writing the plural of an abbreviation, you’ll need to use an apostrophe if the abbreviation itself contains periods.  (However, if the abbreviation doesn’t contain periods, then you can simply add an s to show the plural form.)  Therefore, you’d write plural abbreviations as follows:

 better business writing tips table

In a similarly tricky construct that confuses many business writers, the apostrophe should be omitted when referring to a decade.  Therefore, you’d write:

the 1940s

the 2000s

the ‘90s

2. Commas

Commas are used to separate items in a series.  The issue that causes the most confusion is whether you want to use “serial commas” or not.  For example:

I’ve always been interested in recruiting, employee relations, and training.

That comma between the second and third element (i.e., between employee relations and training) is highly recommended.  Newspapers have historically omitted the comma between the second and third elements to save space, while books typically include them.  As a rule in business writing, include the additional comma and become a “serial comma” enthusiast.  It will avoid confusion every time.

Next, use commas between two independent clauses (i.e., full sentences).  For example:

I like working out at the gym, and I also enjoy reading in the library.

As you can see, the compound sentence above has two independent sentences that can stand on their own.  In comparison, if you write a sentence with a dependent clause (i.e., a partial sentence), then no comma would be necessary.  For example:

I like working out at the gym and also enjoy reading in the library.

3. Semi-Colons

A semi-colon can be used to tie two sentences together that are very closely related.  As a writer, you have the discretion to create two separate sentences or to connect them via the use of a semi-colon.  If you use a semi-colon construction, however, you’ve got to get it right.  Here’s what it might look like:

I’ve always primarily voted Democrat.  However, I will go with a more conservative candidate on particular issues.

I’ve always primarily voted Democrat; however, I will go with a more conservative candidate on particular issues.


Notice that the word however can be used to begin a totally new sentence or as a connector between two very closely related sentences.  If you opt to use the connector semi-colon rather than split your ideas into two separate sentences, just remember that the semi-colon connector is constructed like this:

; however,

The semi-colon ends the first thought and precedes the word however.  Following however, a comma is used to introduce the second half of the sentence.

One more thought about semi-colons: they can be used like commas to introduce a list of items when the items themselves require commas.  For example:

We have offices in Spokane, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; and Springdale, Arkansas.

4. Hyper-Urbanisms

A hyper-urbanism is a 50-cent word for over-correcting language in order for the writer to come across as super smart or intelligent.  Here’s where you’ll find this problem most:

Our boss gave the assignment to Nina, Sam, and I.

In reality, that sentence should read:

Our boss gave the assignment to Nina, Sam, and me.

People tend to over-correct by saying I at the end of a triple series that includes them even if grammar rules would dictate otherwise.  If you break down this sentence into its component parts, here’s what it’s saying:

Our boss gave that assignment to Nina.

Our boss gave that assignment to Sam.

Our boss gave that assignment to me.


You’d never say “Our boss gave that assignment to I.”  However, in an effort to sound more educated, writers often overcompensate by saying “I” at the end of the series.  Similarly, “Our boss asked Nina, Sam, and me to help put away the tables.” is correct and proper English. Don’t assume that any time you list yourself as a third element in a series that “I” is the appropriate usage.  Ditto for “between you and me,” which is correct.   There’s no such thing as “between you and I” in the world of proper English usage!

5. That versus Which

Okay, this one confuses a lot of people too.  Master it and shine among your peers!  That is typically used with a clause that is absolutely necessary to the meaning of a sentence (known as a “restrictive clause”):

This is an assignment that will launch your career.

Which, in comparison, is used with a nonrestrictive clause, meaning that the content isn’t critical to the point you’re making—it’s just an element of clarification or a “nice-to-have.”  Further, when you use the which construct, remember that it generally needs to be set off by a comma like this:

The change control board, which meets every other Tuesday, hasn’t addressed this policy change as far as I’m aware.

True, while any one of these grammar and punctuation issues may not upend an otherwise brilliant career, collectively they can create a less favorable impression than you’d otherwise prefer to portray.  In fact, small tweaks to your written communications may go a long way in enhancing your reputation for competence and professionalism.  Whether these minor errors occur within an email text or—gasp—within a resume you’re reviewing, they paint a subtle picture of an individual’s level of sophistication and education.  No, you don’t need to be an English major to compete in the business world.  But give yourself every advantage by portraying yourself as a well written professional who’s aware of the ins and outs of business writing essentials, and let your communication skills soar.

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Communication extends well beyond using proper grammar. Perfect your writing and speaking skills with these AMA resources and seminars.

About The Author

Paul Falcone is a human resources executive in Los Angeles and has held senior-level positions with Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and Time Warner. He is the author of a number of AMACOM and SHRM bestselling books, four of which made SHRM's prestigious "Great 8" list: 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, and 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. His latest AMACOM book, 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees, was released in the spring of 2016. Follow Paul on Twitter at @PaulFalconeHR and his website and blog at


  1. avatar

    As a former teacher of English, I thank you for fighting the good fight! It has become almost a losing battle as usage is given priority over correct grammar. It seems that whatever people say is correct, no matter how ungrammatical it may be! I believe strongly that we need to retain the basics of grammar as the basis for understanding what others are saying and writing. Keep up the great work, but never begin a sentence with “However.” When you do that, you are negating what came before. You may not have meant to negate all that came before, just part of it. Thanks.

  2. avatar

    Not one of my 6 grandchildren or their friends new what the word Grammar meant . Added to that was “Why ,we have spell check ” Upstate South Carolina

  3. avatar

    Shouldn’t an article on grammar use hyphens correctly?

    The change-control board, which meets every other Tuesday, hasn’t addressed this policy change as far as I’m aware.

  4. avatar

    i may be the last fuddy duddy who uses commas to set off appositives, especially the year in a date, as in June 1[comma] 2015[comma] blahblahblah. (‘What’s an appositive?’ i hear you cry!)

  5. avatar

    I would just like to say that anything that can refresh my previous teachings from grade school to now puts a plus sign on my board, anyday. I made a copy of this article especially since I am refreshing my resume on a weekly bases. When you work for the Federal Government especially the military and then try for any kind of different position be it in the government or private sector, one must rewrite their resume’s constantly. Especially if you also had previous experience before you worked at your present job. Brain kickers are wonderful as long as they don’t hurt.

  6. avatar

    No one should vote “Democrat”. They might possibly vote Democratically or for the Democratic party, but not “vote Democrat”. You could vote for “the Democrat” in the race, but not “vote Democrat”.There ain’t no such beast as we say in NC.

  7. avatar

    How about – stop using “that” altogether. Yes, you with the lit degree and the penchant for writing. Count the improper uses of “that” in your own opening paragraph. People, just stop saying it. It’s almost always wrong.

  8. avatar

    Excellent article! I agree with everything you wrote. I had only one minor edit to suggest, which would be to add a hyphen to the unit modifier “well-written” in the last sentence. If you were able to add accent marks to the word “resume” in the last paragraph, that would also be good but might just be due to a limitation of the medium. I don’t typically suggest edits to those who write online articles, but I’m hoping this won’t come across as snarky based on the subject matter at hand. To the person who suggested that the author relax and not worry about being grammatically correct in Internet communications, did you read the title of the article? Rock on, Paul Falcone.

  9. avatar

    I agree with 19 and to always use a comma before the word ‘but’, a semicolon before ‘however’ and ‘therefore’ and to never begin a sentence with ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘therefore’ and ‘however’.

  10. avatar

    How about the overuse of the reflexive “myself?” It’s inserted here, there, and everywhere it doesn’t belong. “As for myself, I disagree.” “I ate one of those myself.” “I wouldn’t have done that myself.” Of course, there’s always “We could have used one of those ourselves.” Unless you want to tell me you have hit yourself with a hammer, leave it out.

  11. avatar

    1. I learned all this in fifth grade at parochial school.
    2. I was taught that a comma is not needed before “and” when listing a number of items.
    3 Re: “addressed this policy change as far as I’m aware.” I was taught to use “so far as” when this
    phrase follows a negative.

  12. avatar

    I am also ESL. Making the grammatical transition from German to English as a young boy was challenging. The use of apostrophes was especially difficult, especially learning American idioms in Oklahoma. That is probably why I have always made the extra effort to increase my vocabulary.

  13. avatar

    Well said!
    As you may notice in my writing, English is my second language. Funny enough, the use of punctuation was the hardest thing to learn; However, my writing English skills are far better than few English speaking folks I now.
    Nevertheless, I tend to over correct my writing based on my mother tongue grammar rules. Isn’t it weird?
    I have become very aware of grammatical errors, especially, on media sites such as; Facebook, Twitter, emails, texts and so on. It only confirms, to me, that all this technological advancements is so smart that is making us dumber by the minute.

  14. avatar

    Mr Falcone himself wrote the intro and actually said ‘close a blind eye’? A metaphor for this has to be in existence or readily constructable where the last word in expertise erupts in such a hiccup.

  15. avatar

    Never never begin a sentence with however. However belongs at the beginning of the second phrase of a compound sentence. She’s a pretty girl; however, her legs are too short.

  16. avatar

    This gammatical elucidation is appreciated and is certainly a trove for creators of literature.
    But, I’m one of the two men who invented the Internet and on here you can spell, or structure sentences, or communicated however you like.
    The Internet was only invented to be fun and educational not Com I, II, and III.

    So yuo can spe77, write, zay, mension, talk, or dizcuss things any way u lyke on here. There is no
    correct or incorrect way to express yourself here. Relax. Learn something. Make some friends. Have a geat day.

  17. avatar

    Paragraph 3. “always primarily…”???? I would have sent this back. However, the that/which explanation was helpful.

  18. avatar

    Boy, am I glad that someone else finally talked about this. Some of the millennials who are, naturally, public school educated and so very dumbed down, make some of the worst of offenses when it comes to the English language. Interestingly, many of these people are the same ones who insist that immigrants speak English. I often correct them, but it goes to deaf ears. My parents were so strict about my siblings and me not opening our mouths and having “toads come out”. Unfortunately, proper usage of our language in America is nearly dead. No one teaches these things anymore. Too bad, because they are such simple rules. Hopefully you will get it across, but I doubt it. Misusing our language is so common place today that some of my nieces and nephews think good English and grammar are incorrect. I really think it is a lost cause, and good reason why this old woman will stay clear of most of them. It makes me want to grit my teeth. BTW, I agree with the premise that immigrants should speak English, but many should take an adult English course themselves. Anyone know the difference in immigrant and emigrant? Even most dictionaries today do not get it right. Immigrant: Someone who migrates from one country to another. Emigrant: Someone who migrates from one place to another within his own country. So sad!

  19. avatar

    “You’ve got,” which is the same as “you have got,” isn’t correct. It should be “you have.”

    “Your writing…and help yourself stand”: This seems strange. “Yourself” is actually a reflective pronoun, so in order to use it, the word “you” must be used previously in the sentence.

    “I” or “me” actually have to do with nominative and accusative cases, not necessarily overuse of the word “I.” “Between you and me” is used because “me” is the object of the preposition “between,” where “you” and “me” could be converted to “us.”

    I also notice that you’re hyphenating “hyper,” “over,” “semi.” These prefixes aren’t necessarily hyphenated any more, along with many other prefixes.

    I’m not blasting you. I’m merely stating that even professional writers who write about grammar AND punctuation sometimes get it wrong. I’m not a professional writer, just a secretary who went to court reporting school and had a former Marine as an English teacher. We used Gregg’s Reference Manual; One Word, Two Words, Hyphenated? by Mary Louise Gillman; and 6,000 Soundalikes, Look-Alikes, and Other Words Often Confused, also by Mary Louise Gillman. Court reporters have a much more difficult task at hand with spelling, grammar, and punctuation since they are transcribing verbatim. Most of the time, grammar definitely goes out the window. Thank you for your article.

  20. avatar

    As important and as misused are contractions. Your instead of you’re.

  21. avatar

    I love these clarifications! My largest worry is adopting these corrections and someone thinking they are incorrect because they’re so commonly misused. :/

  22. avatar

    Very interesting. I like to use commas for separation. Ancient legal rules frowned on commas, they might introduce a second meaning.
    My favorite gripe is the use of like and as. I suggest that the use of like is correct only ten percent of the time, whereas, the use of as will cause the writer to be incorrect only ten percent of the time.

  23. avatar

    I learned those things in the 5Th GRADE!!!

  24. avatar

    A few additional notes on these rules:

    Hyper-urbanisms: the easiest way to determine whether a compound subject or object should be ‘me’ or ‘I’ is to remove the other objects and let the personal pronoun stand alone in the sentence:
    ‘He is going to the movies with John and …(me)/(I)’ …. just leave out the other person; thus, you’ll see that it should be ‘He is going to the movies with me’ is correct and now you can add John back into the phrase. This usually happens when the phrase is the object of a preposition.

    In your ‘That vs. Which’ comment… if there is more than one change control board, then:
    ‘The change control board THAT meets every other Tuesday hasn’t addressed this policy change as far as I’m aware’ would be correct, as ‘that’ is defining which board is being referred to.

    Finally, Mr. Herz’s comment about the use of the possessive apostrophe is correct, but only when it’s a formal name ending in a final ‘s’. His first example of the boys’s sneakers is awkward, as the pronunciation would be ‘ the boyzez sneakers’, whereas the pronunciation of ‘Mosses shotgun is euphonic and correct.

  25. avatar

    Laura and Lu, I believe the proper expression is “turn” a blind eye.

  26. avatar

    Who made the rule about apostrophes and plurals of abbreviations, and who decided an apostrophe should signify something besides ownership or be used to stand for letters in contractions?

  27. avatar

    Just goes to show how imperative it is that teachers K-12 be more creative and make grammar classes fun to make the material easier to learn so kids get it right at young ages.

  28. avatar

    @ David R. Herz: from what I have heard: yes, it is appropriate with proper names to use the apostrophe s, but this is not the case with plurals. I’d consider Moss’s shotgun an appropriate use of the apostrophe and boys’s sneakers an inappropriate use.

    I’ve definitely changed my mind on the serial comma question. My impulse is to avoid it, but I’ve encountered too many editing situations where I’ve had to reorder the terms to make it clear which items were meant as phrases – I wish we’d all agree on the serial comma to avoid such confusion. Sometimes the order of terms is deliberate – the author might not want the compound item moved higher in the list in the pursuit of clarity.

    Some of the examples are insanely wordy and should be entirely rewritten.

  29. avatar

    Super informative. Thank you for posting. Hoping to get clarification on hyphens the next go around.

  30. avatar

    Mr. Falcone did a good job of writing a brief lesson on grammar. In his section on using an apostrophe to pluralize what he called “abbreviations” (his examples are actually initialisms, not abbreviations, especially “MD”), he stated that the apostrophe gets employed if the “abbreviation” contains periods. However, in the case of academic initialisms (e.g., MD, PhD), the Chicago Manual of Style has for many years authorized omitting the periods that were traditionally used in those initialisms. In other words, an apostrophe would not be used to pluralize them.To correct another instance of what Mr. Falcone wrote, he should have placed a hyphen between “well” and “written” in the final sentence of his lesson: a well-written professional. Still, his lesson was fantastic!

  31. avatar

    Commas. semi-colons and colons


    “We have offices in Spokane, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; and Springdale, Arkansas.”

    How about this:
    (or is it “How about this?”)

    “We have offices in Spokane, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; Springdale, Arkansas; Atlanta [; or ,] New Orleans [; or ,] and Miami.

  32. avatar

    This was helpful. Thanks. I have seen many of these mistakes used in business. Hopefully I didn’t make many of them, but I have made other mistakes in grammar that were noticed. I am thankful for the basic grammar instruction I received in school, most of which I have retained.

    Has anyone observed the following in the business world? We use a lot of acronyms in our work, which is with computer systems. Many times I see an apostrophe used at the end of an acronym, for only the plural form of the acronym, where there is no actual possession intended. For example, DSN’s to denote more than 1 DSN, where DSN stands for Data Source Name.

    It is an attempt, I think, to indicate the plural form of an acronym or abbreviation by using an “s” together with an apostrophe. Possibly this is done to avoid the misinterpretation of the “s” as the final letter of the acronym, instead of as the indicator of plurality. But to me it seems to be a mistake because it implies possession where none exists.

    I believe my question was not covered in your point #1. I think even Strunk never saw this one.

    Thank you.

  33. avatar

    The phrase is not “close a blind eye”. The phrase is “turn a blind eye”. That jumped out at me as it did for some other people.
    Also the comma before the last in a list of three has nothing to do with newspapers or books, it is a fundamental of grammar. No comma.
    And the responder that said “boys’s sneakers” was what made me jump up and start typing! More prevalent where? My autocorrect won’t even let me type it.

  34. avatar

    Laura, ‘closing a blind eye’ is a well
    known saying that dates back to 1801.
    Most people understand what he
    means by that statement. You really
    should consider reading the full article
    as it contains some good information.

  35. avatar

    But first the masses need to learn orthography, rhetoric, and the difference between various homonyms such as there, their, and they’re. We live in a basically illiterate society where texting English passes as the acceptable norm.

  36. avatar

    OK, now I’m hooked, what about colons and apostrophies in contractions?
    Thanks much; very enlightening.

  37. avatar

    I appreciate Mr. Falcone’s review of English grammar. Sadly, this demonstrates how many of us slept through our high school years, giving nary a thought to the consequences of our slumber.

  38. avatar

    “… can’t quite close a blind eye”? I stopped reading after that. I too like precise writing. Yeah, let’s cover our deaf ears too …

  39. avatar

    I agree with everything that was presented in this article. However, I believe I have found one error. In the example used for Grammar Tip 5, That versus Which, your sentence begins with “The change control board, which…”. This is the name of a group of people that is in charge of an organization, and as such is a proper noun. As a proper noun, the name of the board should be capitalized, unless the legal name it was created under is not capitalized.

  40. avatar

    Good tips, I agree with most of them. I do have a problem with serial commas and always will. I was taught to NEVER use a comma between ‘and’ and the last item. As a result it looks like an error to me. I also think that commas are overused and try to pare them from my writing as much as possible.
    My final thought; the last illustrative sentence is extremely awkward. There is surely a better way to express that thought!

  41. avatar

    I was so happy to read this! I just finished developing a grammar course for our employees, as I received many requests late last year. The use of proper grammar has been overlooked for far too long, and I’m happy to see that others are bringing it to light!

  42. avatar

    While I favor the approach that you take to apostrophes, it is entirely acceptable in today’s world – and I believe more prevalent – to create the possessive of a word ending in s with an apostraphe s, thus the boys’s sneakers, or Moss’s shotgun are entirely acceptable.

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