Grammar, punctuation and usage, oh my!

By Greg Dardis / Guest Editorial

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows an express check-out line and a bow-tie-wearing cashier standing beside the sign “10 Items Or Less.” He has crossed out the word “less” and written below it “fewer.”

“What can I say?” the caption reads. “I was an English major.”

From an early age, I recognized the power of word choice. Sitting in the pews of St. Joe’s in Farley, I would evaluate the priest’s homily. Was there a better way to convey his message?

During a college internship in Lexington, Virginia, where I sold books door-to-door, I discovered the incredible, immediate power of a well-crafted pitch: a sale. Mastering my command of language felt like a worthy goal. Today it remains a keen interest and a popular offering from Dardis Communications.

In an age of texting and tweeting, when messages are hastily compressed into 140 characters or fewer, our Business Writing seminar is one of our most popular offerings. We especially enjoy teaching on college campuses, where business students are hungry for email guidance and editing fundamentals.

Our training includes instruction in three areas: grammar, punctuation and word usage. These very words are enough to give some people nightmares about their ninth-grade English teacher and her forcefully wielded red pen. But they aren’t some elusive skill set confined to a special class of super citizens – they’re guidelines for the language we all use everyday. Why give up on speaking more properly?

To begin, I distinguish between grammar, punctuation and word usage. Many people assume that any kind of language error is a matter of grammar. “Forgive my grammar,” they say, or, “Beware of the grammar police.” But grammar is only part of the problem.

Grammar has to do with parts of speech. Do your verbs agree with your subjects? Are any modifiers misplaced? Have you grasped the difference between good and well? Well indicates a state of health, while good is used for other descriptions. “You’re looking well after your vacation,” you might say. “And you’re looking good in that purple paisley tie.”

Punctuation, meanwhile, deals with how we punctuate our writing: commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, dashes. They are guides to the reader. We can invert our meaning when we misuse punctuation marks. I realize the thought of comma usage may cause you to break into hives, but our clients come to appreciate that a few basic rules will get you far.

Lastly, word usage has to do with using the right word in the right place. This is the broadest field of the three and, to me, the most fun. We offer a range of quick tips and clear-cut distinctions. Some have to do with quantifying. If you can count items individually – like how many things are in your shopping cart – use few. If you can’t count them – say you’re dealing with something more abstract – use less. Likewise, use farther when describing a measurable distance; use further for abstractions. Your supervisor may refuse to discuss the matter further, even if you’ve made it farther through the three-session orientation.

I love the nuances that proper word choice captures. For instance, you convince a client that his campaign needs a makeover and you persuade him to hire a PR firm. Convincing brings about a certain belief; persuading results in action. Another distinction relevant to the workplace is the difference between ‘anticipate’ and ‘expect.’ When you expect something, you look forward to it as likely to happen. When you anticipate it, however, you expect it and prepare for it. You expect warm weather in August. You check the air conditioner in anticipation of an August conference.

One of the most common word-usage errors I hear is mistaking anxious for eager. Eager implies desire, when you’re happily looking forward to something. Anxious may imply desire but implies worry or anxiety. When your colleague tells you he’s anxious for his vacation, that suggests he’s worried about his upcoming trip. He probably means he’s eager for the trip.

Errors in grammar, punctuation and word usage can immediately undermine your credibility. Best of all, they are easily learned and avoided – whether or not you were an English major.



Greg Dardis is the CEO of Dardis Inc., located at 2403 Muddy Creek Lane in Coralville. For more information, visit