What’s My Email Saying Behind My Back?

Your Highness:

Like many marcom professionals, I spend most of my day communicating via e-mail. And that’s when I’m not texting, or attending meetings. (I admit it: sometimes I send emails and texts during meetings. Is that so bad? Don’t answer that.) Many of my business contacts and coworkers know me primarily through email; the impression I make is almost entirely via the written word. What can I do to avoid embarrassing myself in writing?

My dear Subject,

I admire your desire for self-improvement. You are correct; it is frightfully easy to embarrass oneself in writing. Even I occasionally allow an error to make its way into the world—in casual exchanges only, of course. For example, last week in a text I dashed off on my way out the door, I inadvertently typed “1 lb. caviar” as “11 lb. caviar.” Typos such as this, though unfortunate, are simple missteps. You can be sure that Cook and I had a good laugh about it later.

In contrast, more serious errors can cast one as uneducated, unprofessional, or insensitive. To avoid such pitfalls, do review the list below. Though far from exhaustive, it contains the four major errors of style and content I see most frequently in my subjects’ email.

Yours precisely,

The Grammar Queen

1. Keep to the middle way. Complete sentences are good; Jamesian essays with multiple nested dependent clauses and more than three semicolons, whatever their other merits, can be a bit wearing on the eyes. Friendly is good; overfamiliar, in the absence of associated body language, is dangerous. Checking your spelling and grammar is essential; laboring over each line, when you’re merely confirming a meeting location, could keep you at the office well past midnight. Avoid excess on one side and rudeness on the other, and you’ll go far.

2. Beware of commonly confused words. If you are at all vague on use of any of the following, simply note them on a “cheat sheet” posted over your writing desk, or made easily accessible on your computer.  (For more on this topic, see the excellent resources at Purdue Online Writing Lab.)

its—Belonging to it. Mother’s 36-carat solitaire has retained its value. (Note that though its is a possessive, it has no apostrophe.)

it’s—Contraction of “it is.” It’s a lovely little piece of jewelry. (The apostrophe here signals a contraction.)

its’—This is not a word.

your—Belonging to you. Madam, your gown is lovely.

you’re—Contraction of “you are.” Sir, you’re standing on my train.


there—In or at that place. Put the kid gloves over there by the silk fan.

their—Belonging to them. Their portraits hang in the grand hall.

they’re— Contraction of “they are.” They’re 200 years old, but still look fabulous next to the antique tapestry.

who’s—Contraction of “who is.” Who’s coming to my fête, Beatrice?

whose—The possessive of “who.” Attending are the eighty-four couples whose parties you enjoyed last year, Your Majesty.

than—Conjunction used in unequal comparisons. The King drank more champagne than was prudent.

then—Adverb denoting the next item in a list: First champagne, then port. Also, as a consequence: If he opens a third bottle, then things might get interesting.

3. Keep your enthusiasm in check. If you’re over 18, please don’t use more than one exclamation point per email. In informal business email, a (very) occasional exclamation point can relieve the medium of its inherent coldness; overuse, however, paints you as a ditz or bully. Smiley faces should be used even more judiciously, and only among friends. All caps should be reserved for events on the level of a Pulitzer Prize, massive inheritance, or act of God.

4. Finally, move more slowly than the speed of light. It’s been said many a time, but bears repeating: Email in haste, repent at leisure. If an email is important, don’t touch the Send button until you’ve spent at least ten minutes away from it—ten hours if it’s also emotionally charged. (I enjoy a nice cup of tea at such times; something about my personal Limoges pattern is especially soothing to a vexed mind.) When you return to your message, first check the To: and Cc: fields to make sure it will be seen by no one other than its intended recipients. Be especially wary of the inadvertent Reply All or the sneaky Bcc:. Then read your message for clarity, word choice, and spelling and grammar. Read it again for emotional tone, and edit accordingly. Spell-check, take a deep breath, and send. Your life and career will benefit greatly.

By Lisa Stonestreet