Joan Didion on words:
“Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.”
The power of good grammar and usage cannot be underestimated. In business communications, your ability to express yourself with impeccable grammar can be as important as the content you discuss or present. Good grammar creates first and lasting impressions. Here is the third edition of OnWords, a mini grammar and usage guide to give you quick, at-a-glance grammar tips for better business communications.
Similar words, different meanings
One of the most common usage errors in business communications is the use of a similarly-spelled (but incorrect) word. You’ve likely heard of homonyms – words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Homophones are spelled differently but sound the same…and have different meanings. These are not quite homophones, because there are subtle differences in pronunciation – in these cases the differences are so subtle the words are often confused. Let’s examine a couple of examples:
Principal/principle – If you’ve mixed up these words, you’re in good company. It is one of the most commonly confused pairs of words. What’s wrong with the following sentence?
The principle architect of this building plan seems unaware of the basic principals of structural engineering.
In that sentence, the words principle and principal should be switched. Principle is a noun meaning higher truth, law or standard, while principal, as a noun – means highest rank, most important; and as an adjective it means most important of a set. Here’s a trick: the only one that can be used to describe a person is the one ending in ‘pal’, as in “He was the Principal of the school”, or “She is a principal dancer in the ballet company.”
Complement/compliment – Pop quiz! Which of the following sentences is/are incorrect?
a/ “You have paid me the highest complement.”
b/ “Go ahead. Have a sandwich. It’s complimentary, so no charge.”
d/ “That order comes with a compliment of succotash.”
e/ “Blue and orange are complimentary colours.”
f/ “His critique was very complementary.”
Hint: Only one is correct. To ‘compliment’ means to give praise (or in the case of complimentary, it can mean ‘free’), while ‘complement’ is associated with enhancement. Example: Blue and orange are complementary colours because when paired they offer the strongest contrast, and reinforce each other.
Back to the quiz. Which one is the only correct sentence? Answer: b. For all others the correct words would be the opposite to the ones that appear. For example, d should be “That order comes with a complement of succotash,” since the succotash is added to enhance the dish. (Also, I picked that example because I like the word succotash!)
Don’t look now, but your participle is dangling
Before we talk about dangling participles, let’s look at them in general. Participles can be words or phrases and can be in present or past tense. The present tense always ends in ‘ing’. Walking is a verb and is the present participle of walk. A modifying participle could be, “The flying waterbirds have a nest by the river’s edge.” It identifies the type of waterbirds as flying waterbirds.
A participial phrase modifies the subject: “Walking in the room, I was stunned to hear, “Surprise!”
“Walking in the room” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “I”. This background is important when you consider the dangling participle: In a nutshell, a dangling participle hangs in the air, without a subject. The results can be comical, as in these examples excerpted from WriteTightSite.com:
“After being thoroughly beaten, the chef cooked the eggs.”
“Listening to Chopin, the truck moved gracefully through traffic.”
A dangling participle modifies an unintended subject. In the first sentence above, the participial phrase “After being thoroughly beaten” is supposed to modify the subject, eggs. It could be rewritten as, “After being thoroughly beaten, the eggs were cooked by the chef.” The proper subject, (in this case, eggs), must immediately follow the comma at the end of the phrase, since whatever appears after the comma will be read as the subject.
More on this topic in a future issue…
Continual vs. Continuous
These two words are used frequently and often incorrectly in business communications. It’s not surprising, because they are very similar in meaning. The distinction is that ‘continual’ means something that is happening all the time, but with some lapses in time, while ‘continuous’ refers to something that continues without any lapses in time. Here are examples of each word used correctly in a sentence:
“We need to get the project completed without continual interruption from the phones in the room.”
Presumably, the phones are not ringing at every second, even if they are ringing fairly constantly, so this sentence indicates there are some lapses in time.
“We’ve had a continuous discussion on the subject since 2:00 p.m.”
In this case, there is no break, or lapse of time indicated.
P.S. Language fun fact: The phrase ‘sink or swim’, often used in business when a tough challenge must be met quickly, dates back to Chaucer, and the year 1368. A version of it first appeared in Chaucer’s The Compleynte unto Pite, which contained the phrase, “flete or sinke”. The actual phrase may have appeared first in 1568, in Thomas Starkey’s Reign of Henry the Eighth, which contained this line: “They care not (as hyt ys commonly sayd), whether they synke or swyme.”