For many people, grammar is something we absorb over time through reading and listening. We reflect our grammar knowledge in our writing without necessarily knowing why we're correct (or incorrect)—and oftentimes, that's enough to get by.
However, communication is key in the business world. Miscommunications slow down timelines, waste resources, and strain relationships. On the flip side, well-crafted emails, clear presentation slides, and effective business reports help you and your company succeed.
You don't have to be a grammarian to improve your business writing. Here are three strategies to better communicate in the workplace:
1. Use Active Voice
Active voice (subject + verb + object) is a common sentence structure in which the subject performs the action of the verb. In passive voice, this structure is inverted: the object becomes the subject of the sentence, meaning it receives the action of the verb. So what does this look like?
Here is an example of passive voice:
- $10 million in revenue was brought in by the team.
"$10 million" is the subject, but it does not perform the action of the sentence ("was brought in"). The revenue was brought in by the team. Active voice is preferable because we aren't searching for the "true" subject (whatever performs the verb) as we read.
Here is an example of active voice:
- The team brought in $10 million in revenue.
In small and purposeful doses, it can make sense to use passive voice. However, active voice makes your writing stronger, clearer, and more direct.
2. Check for Subject-Verb Agreement
If your subject and verb don't agree in number, this can slow the reader down or miscommunicate your message. Unfortunately, there are plenty of areas for confusion. Here are two common areas to investigate:
When the subject is separated from the verb:
- Error: The causes of this issue is being taken very seriously.
Although the singular noun "issue" occurs just before the verb "is," the true subject of the sentence is "causes," which is plural.
- Solution: The causes of this issue are being taken very seriously.
When there is a compound subject:
When multiple nouns act as a compound subject, there is room for error. When the subjects are connected by the word "and," the verb should be plural. When the subjects are connected by "or/nor," the verb should match the closer subject.
- and = plural: Sarah and Malik drop the order off on Mondays.
- or/nor = singular: Sarah or Malik drops the order off on Mondays.
Intuitively, a run-on sentence is clearly ineffective—it runs on and on. There is a difference, however, between a long but grammatically-accurate sentence and a run-on sentence, which is never grammatically accurate. There are two forms of run-on sentences: fused sentences and comma splices.
Here is an example of a fused sentence:
- We need to improve our sales our manager believes this is key.
You probably reread this sentence or at least paused in confusion. A fused sentence combines two independent clauses (or standalone "sentences" that contain a subject and a predicate, meaning a verb that indicates something about the subject).
Here is an example of a comma splice:
- We need to improve our sales, our manager believes this is key.
This sentence reads a little better, but it still gives pause (and not the right kind). Our mind wants to follow grammar rules, and this comma is a rule-breaker. "We need to improve our sales" is not an introductory phrase but a complete thought, and "our manager believes this is key" is not an appositive, or bonus information about "our sales." Plus, these clauses are not part of a list. Our brains will try to make sense of this comma but will come up short—and perhaps short circuit—in the process.
Here are some potential solutions:
- Use a period to separate these complete thoughts:
- We need to improve our sales. Our manager believes this is key.
- We need to improve our sales; our manager believes this is key.
- We need to improve our sales because our manager believes this is key.
- We need to improve our sales, and our manager believes this is key.