Words at work

– 14 min read

20 of the most common writing errors at work

Brock Imel

Brock Imel

Now that pretty much everyone is a writer at work, people generally expect polished grammar. We’re not saying that you’re expected to be a grammar perfectionist or proofreading pro — there’s no such thing as a perfect sentence or a perfect anything, for that matter. 

The most important purpose of writing at work, of course, is to communicate your thoughts effectively, and we believe that striving for “perfection” can hold you back from reaching that goal.

“Putting grammar worries first is terrible writing advice”, writes Bryan Collins in Terrible Writing Advice: 20 Common Mistakes You Must Avoid. “Fix what you can and move on. Unless it’s going into print, you can address an overlooked grammar error after publication.”

AI writing platforms like Writer help you address grammar problems quickly so that you can focus on the important stuff: getting your work done. Our mission is to help you learn how to write better so that you get your point across and make an impact without getting lost in the details. 

With that said, there are still a few faux pas that we suggest steering clear of. To help, we’ve compiled a list of the 20 most common writing errors to avoid at work.

1. Using “literally” when you don’t actually mean “literally”

We know — sometimes it’s hard not to say “literally”, and it’s a fun way to emphasize your point. But in writing, try to avoid using the word “literally” if you don’t actually mean it. This adverb has been overused to the point where it’s in danger of losing its literal meaning (see what we did there?). In other words, don’t use “literally” as a synonym for “really” or “very”.

Here’s how Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “literally”

with exact equivalence : with the meaning of each individual word given exactly

Here are two example of the correct way to use “literally”: 

The term “Mardi Gras” literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French.

Earlier this year, Ochsner got her feet wet — literally — in floods across Louisiana and North Carolina.

Nicole Blanchard, idahostatesman, “Amid historic floods, Houston put out a call for help. These Idahoans answered it.”,  27 Aug. 2017

Avoid writing something like this: 

Jim literally exploded with rage. (Hopefully, Jim didn’t actually explode; he’d no longer be with us, and we’d really miss him.)

2. Using (or not using) the Oxford comma consistently

First, find out or decide whether your organization uses the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. In general, Chicago Manual of Style suggests using the Oxford comma, but Associated Press style does not. The Oxford comma is a comma used after the final item in a list of three or more items, before “and” or “or”.

Example: Our company values are rooted in good communication, diversity, and collaboration. 

Make sure you’re consistent throughout your writing, whether you decide to use the Oxford comma or not!

3. Immigrate vs. emigrate

Even though they sound very similar, these two words have opposite meanings. “Emigrate” means to leave one’s country to live in another. “Immigrate” is to come into another country to live permanently.

4. Eager vs. anxious

Eager means “full of enthusiastic desire”. Anxious means “worried or uneasy.” In general, “anxious” has more of a negative connotation than “eager”.

Here’s an example of a correct way to use “eager” in a sentence:

Some entrepreneurs are eager to test out the new market because sales are increasing. 

Here’s an example of a correct way to use “anxious” in a sentence:

I’m anxious about my performance review because my sales numbers are down.

5. Compliment vs. complement (and complimentary vs. complementary)

Interesting how one letter can alter the meaning of a word, isn’t it? 

Compliment,” as a noun, represents the act of giving praise. And “complimentary” with an “i” is used both to give someone a compliment and when something is free.

“Complement” with an “e” means something that completes something else, such as when two things go well together. And “complementary” describes combining in a way that enhances or emphasizes the qualities of each other or another.

Here are correct usage examples of “complimentary” vs. “complementary”:

I’m suspicious about the salesperson’s overly complimentary remarks.

I’d love some complimentary samples.

Digital technology is oftentimes complementary to traditional technologies.

6. -ly adverbs that don’t need a hyphen

One of the most common writing mistakes — even among professional copywriters — is using hyphens where they’re not needed. In general, an adverb ending in -ly sufficiently modifies the word after it, so you don’t need to add a hyphen. It’s perfectly grammatically correct to say that something is “richly textured” or “easily ignored,” for example. 

Additional correct examples of using -ly ending adverbs:

Her boss fully vetted her work.
After work, let’s go to the fully stocked bar — not the wine bar.

7. Redundant terms

Redundancies are another conversational language habit that are hard to break, but why use extra words if one does the job?

Examples of redundant phrases:

Incorrect: We’re excited to introduce the very first winner of the competition.

Correct: We’re excited to introduce the first winner of the competition.

Incorrect: Are you ready to add an additional option?

Correct: Are you ready to add an option for dinner? 

Incorrect: Let’s collaborate together.

Correct: Let’s collaborate.

8. To vs. too

“To” is one of the most common words in the English language. “To” can indicate a direction or destination, or a relationship, such as “That report belongs to me”. It can also be used with a period of time, such as “It’s ten to noon.” You can also use “to” to imply a state of consciousness or awareness, such as “He was unconscious for several minutes, but then he came to.”

Add one more letter and you have “too,” which means either “also” or “to a higher degree”.

Here are some examples of correct ways to use “too”:

She’s an excellent employee, and a smart one too.

That’s just too much to ask for.

9. Your vs. you’re

“Your” is a possessive adjective, used to describe something as belonging to you. “Your” is always followed by a noun or gerund (these are verbs that act like nouns).

Examples of correct ways to use “your” in a sentence:

What’s your favorite style?

This is your best work since last year.

Your insights are invaluable.

“You’re” is a contraction of two words” “you” and “are”.

Examples of correct ways to use “you’re” in a sentence:

Sorry, you’re not going to get a raise this year.

You’re the most highly skilled candidate for the position.

10. Its vs. it’s

Let’s cover the easier one first. “It’s” is a contraction of the words “it is” or “it has”. 

“Its” is a possessive form of the pronoun “it”, meaning belonging to it.

Examples of using “it’s” correctly:

We need to clean the office as soon as possible — it’s got to be done today. (in this example, “it’s” is a contraction for “it has”)

The corporation left little doubt that it’s ready to launch new technology in the next few months. (Here, “it’s” is a contraction for “it is”)

The business started in February, and since then, it’s been booming.

Examples of using “its” correctly:

What is its country of origin?
The plant is growing nicely in its pot.

Bonus tip:
Also as a general rule of thumb, avoid using the word “It’s” as a subject. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid using “it’s,” but usually your readers will appreciate that you tell them what you’re referring to instead of using “it’s”. For example, instead of saying “It’s a good idea”, say “Riding bikes is a good idea.”

11. They’re vs. their vs. there

“They’re” is a contraction of two words: “they” and “are”.

Correct example of using “they’re” in a sentence:
They’re off to a great start with their latest business initiative.

“Their” means belonging to or associated with the people or things previously mentioned.

Correct example of using “their” in a sentence:
Please upload their resumes into the hiring system.

“There” is the most versatile of the three. “There” means in, at, or to that place or position and is used when pointing or gesturing to indicate a place in mind. You can also use “there” to attract someone’s attention or call attention to someone or something (for example, “Hi there!”).

Correct examples of using “there” in a sentence:
Look! There it is!
Don’t worry. We’ll be there soon.
There are plenty of resources available for finding qualified candidates.

12. Me vs. I

“I” and “me” refer to the same person, so they’re commonly confused and often misused — especially when there’s a compound subject or object in a sentence.

“I” refers to the person performing the action of a verb (the subject), whereas “me” refers to the person whom the action of a verb is being done to (the object).

Here’s a good way to remember whether to use “I” or “me”: when you have two people in the subject, remove the other person and read the sentence aloud (or in your head).

Let’s use this sentence as an example, which uses “me” incorrectly:

Jack and me went to the concert.

If you remove “Jack” from the sentence and read it aloud now, which one sounds less silly?

“Me went to the concert” or “I went to the concert”?

The correct answer is “I went to the store”, because “I” is the subject. You would want to avoid saying, “Jack and me went to the concert”.

13. i.e. vs. e.g.

“I.e.” and “e.g.” are not interchangeable — they have different meanings. “I.e.” is an abbreviation for “that is to say”, which we know is weird. It’s Latin for “id est”, which translates to ‘that is’. Use “i.e.” to add explanatory information or to state something in different words (it works a lot like an equals sign!).

Here’s a correct example of using “i.e.” in a sentence:

Gerunds, i.e. verbs that function like nouns, are a perfectly good way to start a sentence.

“E.g.” is an abbreviation that means “for example”; it’s Latin for “exempli gratia,” which translates to “for the sake of example”.

Here’s an example of using “e.g.” correctly in a sentence:

Please let us know what A/V equipment you will need for your presentation next week (e.g., a projector, an extension cord, a microphone, or a speaker).  

14. Who vs. whom vs. whose vs. who’s

Using “who” vs. “whom” correctly is one of the hardest grammar rules to remember, so don’t beat yourself up over it. Just like “I”, “Who” is always the subject of a verb; “Whom” is always working as an object in a sentence, similar to “me”. Keep in mind that “whom” also 

Examples of “who” used correctly in a sentence:

Who is that person wearing the red mask?

Waseem is the person who got the job.

Examples of “whom” used correctly in a sentence:

He saw someone whom he presumed to be the director, and asked her questions about next steps.

They were surprised to see three people inside, none of whom looked like they were happy to be there.

15. Than vs. then

Here’s another pair that only differs by one letter. That one letter makes a big difference for where and how both of them are used. “Than” is used when you’re comparing two things. “Then” is used in lots of different situations, like to talk about time.

Here’s an example of how to use “than”:

The updated version of the software is faster than older versions.

Here’s an example of when to use “then”:

If 3 pm works well for you, let’s start then.

16. “I could care less” vs. “I couldn’t care less”

You could care less? Exactly how much less could you care? If you want to show that you’re indifferent, what you probably mean to write is, “I couldn’t care less”.

Here’s an example of a correct way to use the phrase “I couldn’t care less”:

I couldn’t care less whether we travel to Europe this year. I’d rather stay in Canada as long as possible.

17. Too many prepositions

Using too many prepositions makes sentences wordier than they need to be. Improve your sentence flow by removing extra prepositions whenever possible, which will help you get to the point as quickly as possible. 

One way to lighten your writing is to change how you show possession. Instead of writing “the records of the company”, write “the company’s records”. 

Of course, lots of prepositions can mean that your sentence is wordy in other ways, too. Here’s an example of a sentence that overdoes it on prepositions (with the prepositions underlined):

We have no estimate of the number of boxes of records in the possession of the company.

See how wordy that is? Shorten up that sentence by writing:

We have no estimate of how many boxes of records the company has.

18. Dangling modifiers

Sometimes you want to give extra information about something or someone in your writing. Modifiers are phrases that do exactly that. A lot of the time, these will involve verbs ending in -ing at the beginning of the sentence, for example “Singing softly,…”. 

Modifiers should be placed right next to what they’re describing. If they aren’t, you’ve got a dangling modifier, like in this sentence:

Singing softly, the newborn was comforted by her father.

I don’t know of many newborns who can sing, but I do know plenty of dads who calm their kids by singing. Fix the sentence by bringing dad closer to the start of the sentence, like so: 

Singing softly, the father comforted his newborn.

19. Squinting modifiers

Modifiers don’t always come at the start of the sentence, however. Sometimes they end up in the middle of the sentence, where some confusion can happen, like in this example:

Staying in touch with your friends often improves your relationship with them.

Here, the modifier is “often”, and it’s anybody’s guess whether we’re talking about staying in touch often or frequent improvements to your friendship. You can get rid of this confusion by placing the modifier somewhere else in the sentence, like at the beginning:

Often, staying in touch with your friends improves your relationship with them.

20. Less vs. fewer

“15 items or less”. We’ve all seen this written above the express checkouts at the grocery store as we approach, nervously counting the items in our baskets to see whether we make the cut. What if I told you that this common phrase actually contained a grammar mistake?

That’s right, it should actually read “15 items or fewer”. No, your whole life has not been a lie. 

So, what’s the difference between “less” and “fewer”? “Fewer” gets used with nouns that you can count, like apples, oranges, or items (1 item, 2 items… 15 items). “Less” gets used with mass nouns, which you can’t count, like flour, sugar, or water (1 flour, 2…flours? 😬 It doesn’t quite work).

I don’t recommend that you ask to speak to a manager over this common mistake, but, knowing the difference you can certainly smile to yourself every time you go to the store (and every time you write it, too!).