Back to basics: the grammar every writer really should know

[Image courtesy of stockimages at]

When you write for a living, you can’t help but notice all the little mistakes out there. Each one is like an itch that you’ve got to scratch. And sometimes, it seems as if I spend my life scratching. You may not think these little things matter, but they do when it comes to corporate communication. Sloppiness or lack of attention to detail in writing can be symptomatic of bigger problems. And even if they’re not, they send out a negative message to people who pick up on these things. And though those people are few and far between, all it takes is one tweet or post, and the word is out. Your company can’t spell, can’t write a decent email, can’t even be bothered to get a slogan right. So here, in the first of an occasional series, I’m going going back to basics: scratching a couple of those itches that keep me awake at night.

Me or I?

When you’ve had a chance to review the PowerPoint presentation, please let John and I know what you think.
Does that look right to you? I’m thinking specifically of John and I. Would it sound better if you said John and me? Many of us nowadays would hesitate. For some reason, John and I sounds more ‘correct’. The reason is simple. Think back to when you were a kid. You said something like:
Me and John went to the swimming pool on Saturday.
And your teacher/parent said ‘Not me and John – it’s John and I.’ And so it is, in this particular instance, because you and John are the subject of the sentence: in other words, you’re the people who are carrying out the action. The trouble is, this correct version has sneaked its way into other areas, where you and John are no longer the subject of the sentence, but the object. The PowerPoint sentence above is a perfect example. The person you’re writing to is the subject, and you’re telling them to let you and John know. So you and John are the object of the sentence. In that case, you have to say John and me. There’s a simple test to see whether it’s me or I: just omit the first person (John), and what do you get?
Please let I know what you think.
Which is clearly wrong. So the rule is: if in doubt, take the other person out. If I sounds wrong, it’s wrong in all instances, not just when it’s on its own. Add one person or a dozen, it’s still me that you need. This phenomenon is what linguists call hypercorrection: correcting something that sounds wrong, but which is actually right. Another very common example of this is between you and I.

It’s or Its?

Does this sentence contain a mistake?
Each department should review its budget and see if if there’s further room for savings.
Yes it does. But it’s not the its. Instead, it’s the repetition of if (at the end of the first line, and the start of the second one – a sneaky trick, I grant you, but one that shows how essential proofreading is). Its and it’s cause endless difficulties, but there’s a very good reason for it. You see, we’re used to the idea that when a thing belongs to somebody or something, we put an apostrophe before the s. So it’s the department’s budget or the manager’s PA or the campaign’s ROI. So when we see it, and want to make it possessive, we add an apostrophe and an s. Which is completely logical. Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong. It is one of those words that defy logic: the possessive is its. It looks wrong, but it’s actually right. Adding an apostrophe is yet another example of hypercorrection. And what about it’s? Well that’s simply a contraction of it is.


Neither of these errors is serious in itself. It’s really what they say about the bigger picture that matters, especially in a corporate context.

If it’s a personal tweet, email, or IM, who really cares? But if you’re tweeting from a corporate account, you’re making a bad impression in 140 characters. Repeatedly.

Which is an itch that you really need to scratch. And right now.