3 common writing errors that can undercut your professionalism

Be alert to these spelling, usage, and grammar mistakes so you can spot and prevent them.
By Pamela Nelson

Accountants and finance professionals have to write every day. Whether you are composing a brief email message or a long report, you have important information that needs to be communicated to clients or colleagues, so you are careful to follow the conventions of standard English. You have probably seen what happens when readers spot what they perceive as a mistake in spelling, usage, or grammar. The focus becomes the mistake and not the message.

To help you avoid mistakes that could muddle your written messages, we will review three common errors in spelling, usage, or grammar.

Word choice

Errors in word choice are sometimes spelling problems or even typing problems. We type it's with an apostrophe when we should have typed its. Most of us know the difference: it's is the contraction for it is or it has; its is the possessive pronoun. We know that possessive pronouns don't need apostrophes, but our fingers or our brains slip in an apostrophe. Errant apostrophes in plurals fall into this category.

Other word choice slip-ups might fall into the spelling error category, too, or they might be a matter of confusing sound-alike words. For example, in this sentence: Accountants are worried about how big data will effect their jobs. If a writer is alert, he or she will see the squiggly line that Microsoft Word displays under the word effect and then realize that the word needed is affect.

Here is another example that might not be flagged by the spelling checker: The wealthy widower had a horde of cash that he and his thrifty late wife had been able to save. In this instance, the writer has used the noun horde (a crowd or throng) when the word called for is hoard (a supply that has been stored up). It's important to know the difference between commonly confused homophones. You can get some homophone practice with this short quiz.

But other word choice errors may be the result of not quite understanding what a word means. Consider this sentence: The executive appeared reticent to fire the consultant even after the advice proved disastrous. Is reticent the right word? In this instance, the better word is reluctant. To be reticent is to be unwilling to communicate; to be reluctant is to be unwilling or resistant. You can practice spotting other commonly confused words with this quiz.

Subject-verb agreement

In standard English, the subject of a sentence and the verb agree in number. Singular subjects go with singular verbs; plural subjects go with plural verbs. Most of us have no problem with subject-verb agreement when the sentence is simple: The report is ready (report is singular and so is is).

But when the subject is less clear, we can sometimes become confused about the number and choose the wrong form of the verb. Subjects and verbs appear in whole sentences and in clauses (parts of sentences). The chief problem that leads to subject-verb disagreement is intervening words or phrases. Look at this sentence: The young accountant worked into the evening to make sure the details of the report was right. Do you see the subject-verb agreement problem? The last verb in the sentence should be plural, were (instead of was), because the subject in that clause is details, a plural noun.

Here is another example: The draft report, especially the parts that have to do with the firm's branding, require the senior marketing manager's approval. Again, words that appear between the subject and the verb have led the writer astray, and the wrong verb has been chosen. The subject is report (singular), so the verb that goes with it should be requires, not require.

Other constructions that can create subject-verb agreement problems stem from the use of the conjunctions or, either-or, and neither-nor. It is the convention in standard written English that when two nouns are joined by these conjunctions, the number of the closest noun (or noun equivalent) determines the number of the verb. Try this quiz for practice in subject-verb agreement.

Misplaced words or phrases

Groucho Marx had a joke that illustrates the problem of misplaced words or phrases. "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know." Misplaced words or phrases are often hard for a writer to detect. It helps to have someone else read what you have written or for you to read your work aloud.

One classic version of the misplaced word or phrase is the dangling participle. Here is an example: Walking down the street, my hat blew off in the wind. The phrase at the beginning should refer to the subject of the sentence. Obviously, a hat wasn't walking down the street. The participle walking dangles; it doesn't refer to anything in that sentence. We understand that the writer meant that he was walking and his hat blew off, but that's not what the sentence says.

Here is another common construction where a dangler can crop up. Having worked in finance for 25 years, it is clear that finance professionals need soft skills as well as technical skills. The writer has made the pronoun it the subject of the sentence, but the phrase having worked in finance for 25 years must refer to the writer herself. Here is a possible revision: Having worked in finance for 25 years, I believe it is clear that finance professionals need soft skills as well as technical skills. Now the phrase at the beginning clearly refers to I, the subject of the sentence.

A check you can perform when you are writing is to review any phrase you have at the beginning of a sentence and make sure that it goes with the subject of the sentence.

Here is an example that shows how misplaced phrases can cause misunderstanding. The partner said she talked to a young staff member who had been harassed for two hours in her office. We are fairly certain the writer doesn't mean that the staff member was harassed for two hours in the partner's office. One way to fix this sentence is to move the two phrases "for two hours" and "in her office" to be near the part they should modify. The partner said she talked for two hours in her office to a young staff member who had been harassed.

Sometimes just one word out of place can lead to a misreading. Here is an example: The partner praised the team for the sterling firm's results. Is the firm sterling or are the results sterling? Put the adjective in the right spot to make the meaning clear: The partner praised the team for the firm's sterling results.

To head off problems in your writing, take time to reread and revise. Be alert to the problems of word choice, subject-verb agreement, and misplaced words and phrases. A best practice would be to have a colleague read and edit any piece of writing.

Pamela Nelson is senior copy editor for magazines and newsletters for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. To comment on this article, email Chris Baysden, senior manager for newsletters at the Association.

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