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Ban These Five Grammar “Gotchas” From Your Writing

Let’s face it: One of the most difficult aspects of English writing is the misuse and abuse of words. For nearly every rule, there’s an exception. But that doesn’t excuse business writers from proper use of commonly confused words.

Let’s look at five of the worst gotchas in business writing:

Who/that: It has become common in popular writing to see “who” applied to inanimate objects and organizations. There’s already a pronoun for that, and it’s… that! Reserve who for references to people and try to avoid use of “that” as a stand-in for customers and employees. “We are an organization of people who are dedicated to improving the health of children in our community.” And: “XXX is an organization that cares about improving the health of children in our community.”

Who’s/whose: As with the word who, “whose” often is written as a possessive pronoun for objects instead of people. That’s one misuse of the word. The other is to use it in place of “who is.” It is correct to say: “Who’s (who is) speaking at the meeting this afternoon?” and “Whose (the owner of) car is parked in the CEO’s designated space?”

Lay/lie: This can be a tougher one to remember if you try to recall parts of speech. Use of “lay” requires a direct object, but “lie” needs no object for its action. I have an easier way to remember: “Lay” means to place something, and “lie” refers to reclining. So you can lay a report on your desk, and you can lie on your bed.

Loose/lose: A boss might lose her mind when she sees loose grammar rules applied to the use of these two words. Your shoestrings can come loose, but you can lose money, or motivation.

Hung/hanged: If you still play loosely with some of these words, are you hung up on grammar rules? It’s unlikely you would be hanged for your misuse, but you might be looked over for a promotion or project lead. “Hanged” always refers to execution with a rope. “Hung” is the past tense of hang, as in “We hung all of our hopes on the new marketing brochure, but it was so full of grammatical errors that people ignored the important sales points.”

For more help with grammar gotchas, take our Grammar That Counts! online course (

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