Wilbers: Protect your credibility by avoiding three writing errors

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • November 18, 2012 - 7:02 PM

"I want you to make me a better writer, Doc," said my luncheon companion. "Hang on. Gotta take this call. Anyways, my boss says my co-worker Britney and myself gotta stop flaunting all those grammar rules."

"I think I understand the problem."

"So I want to do more than insure that our network of computers are working as proscribed, I also want to come across as educated, professional and a good writer."

"Well, we better get started," I said. "Let's begin with respecting your audience. Go beyond conveying information. Include a goodwill statement in every message you send."

"Got it. What else?"

"Level of formality is important."

"My what?"

"Don't be too formal or two informal. Use words that are appropriate to your purpose, your reader and the occasion. For example, when writing to a colleague..."

"Or to a good buddy like you, right?"

"Right. Use verbs for a natural but professional style. Rather than As per our discussion and It is my recommendation that, write As we discussed and I recommend."

"Obvious enough. What else?"

"To avoid undermining your credibility, follow the rules of language. Let's work in three areas: grammar, punctuation and word choice."

"Whatever you say, Doc."

"I have a list of the 75 most common errors. Let's begin with..."

"Oh, please, Doc. You're killing me. Couldn't we just begin with three?"

"Of course," I said, disregarding his misplaced limiting modifier just, which like even and only should be placed before the word or phrase it modifies, as in Couldn't we begin with just three?

"Let's focus on the three biggies," I said.

"I like your word choice," he said.

"Thanks. They are commas splices, subject-verb nonagreement and nonparallel structure."

"What's a comma splice?"

"It's two complete sentences spliced together with a comma rather than separated by a closing mark such as a period, a question mark or a semicolon."

"Got it, but I don't make that error."

"Actually, you do. Take a look at the third paragraph of this column."

"What about them other two?"

"All right," I said, "we'll work on pronoun case -- as in when to use them or those and when to use I, me or myself -- another time. Also setting aside incorrect word choice -- as in anyways for anyway, flaunting for flouting, insure for ensure and proscribed for prescribed -- the second common error is subject-verb nonagreement, as in I want to ensure that our network of computers is [not are] working as prescribed. Make sure your verb agrees in number with the subject, not with the nearest word."

"Now don't tell me I said something nonparallel."

"I'm afraid you did. In your list of goals, you began with two adjectives and finished with a noun phrase. That's like saying you want to be healthy, wealthy and an athlete."

"Oh, my. Well, thanks a bunch, Doc."

"You're welcome, but I still want you to google wilbers errors for that list of 75."

"Hey, what about capitalization?"

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is

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