The year 2017 was an interesting one for language. People looked up words. People invented words. And, unfortunately, people misspelled words. The online proofreading site Grammarly, assessing the errors its users made in e-mails this year, found that spelling errors were the most common e-mail mistake of 2017. Whether they just didn’t know how to spell the word or got tripped up by a tiny phone keyboard, e-mail composers misspelled words more than they made any other error.
That’s not the only error they made, though. From most to least common, here are the other most frequent e-mail errors of 2017. Plus, check your own spelling by seeing if you can spell the most commonly misspelled word in every state in America.
Using the same word over and over
While it’s not a grammatical “error,” Grammarly still flags a lack of linguistic variety as the second most frequent e-mail gaffe of the year. Using the same word several times makes writing sound redundant: “Thanks for the fun day yesterday. I had a lot of fun. You’re so fun to be with.” If you find yourself typing the same word over and over, seek out synonyms for the word, or rephrase the sentence so that you don’t need to use it: “Thanks for the wonderful day yesterday. I really enjoyed myself. You’re so fun to be with.”
These fancy substitutes for common words will give your vocabulary an upgrade.
In addition to correcting mechanical errors, Grammarly also aims to help its users produce vibrant, readable writing. So error number three also isn’t technically incorrect, but it’s something to consider. Grammarly’s third most common error is the use of “vague,” “bland” words: words like “nice,” “good,” or “fine.” To be fair, if you’re just shooting out a quick e-mail, the eloquence of your vocabulary probably isn’t the first thing on your mind. But if you do want to work on improving your vocabulary, here are some easy ways to do it in a single day.
Now this one’s a true error. Especially if it’s the recipient’s name that is misspelled, this type of error in an e-mail can immediately decrease your credibility. This is a major pitfall on resumes and cover letters, too. Here are some other cover letter faux pas that could cost you the job.
Maybe the e-mail format makes people lazy when it comes to grammar, because Grammarly reported that not starting sentences with a capital letter was the fifth most common error of the year. While an error like this might slide in a text message, you should follow capitalization rules when e-mailing, especially in a professional setting.
Using passive voice
The general consensus among grammarians is that active voice produces stronger writing than passive voice. While the active voice uses a regular subject-verb format, the passive voice uses a form of “to be” and a past participle of a verb. For example: “These e-mail errors were made by Grammarly users” (passive) instead of “Grammarly users made these email errors” (active). Of course, sometimes using passive voice is the appropriate choice, because it just makes more sense. “A word is spelled wrong in this e-mail” just flows better than “The person who wrote this e-mail spelled a word wrong.” Learn more about when it might be OK to ignore the active voice rule (and these other grammar rules).
Omitting the Oxford comma
Grammar police debate back and forth about whether the Oxford comma is always necessary. Basically, the Oxford comma is the comma that goes after the second-to-last item in a list of three or more items, and it can occasionally change the meaning of a sentence. Oftentimes it doesn’t: “I bought pears, apples and peaches.” But sometimes it does: “I like my friends, Harry Potter and Beyoncé.” Are Harry Potter and Beyoncé your friends? If so, we’re very jealous! If not, you need that Oxford comma after “Harry Potter.” Sometimes, leaving out an Oxford comma can even cost money.
No punctuation at the end of a sentence
Raise your hand if you don’t usually use punctuation in text messages. If you raised your hand, that’s probably a good thing: science says that using punctuation in texts can actually make you seem like a jerk. But e-mailing is a different world from text messaging, especially if it’s in a professional setting, and you should make sure to punctuate! (Like that.)
Not capitalizing a proper noun
According to the rules of grammar, the first word in a sentence should be capitalized. So should proper nouns, and yet Grammarly users let this rule slide while composing e-mails as well. Keep in mind that this doesn’t just mean people’s names—names of places, days of the week, and brands are all proper nouns as well. Put that Shift key to good use. To be fair, though, it can be tricky to know exactly which nouns need capitalization. Check out our handy guide.
Filler words (and phrases)
Stuffing your sentences with words and phrases that don’t add any meaning can bog down your writing. Words like “generally” or “basically,” as well as phrases like “in a manner of speaking” or “for all intents and purposes,” tend to add fluff to your sentences. Grammarly flags these “empty phrases” as errors, and they were common among e-mailers in 2017. Here’s one filler word that could sabotage your job interview.
Incorrect use of numbers
Yes, there are rules about when you should spell out numbers and when you should use the numbers themselves. This one might seem a bit nitpicky, but sticking a numeral in the middle of a sentence can interrupt the flow of the writing. There are no set-in-stone rules about exactly when to spell out numbers, but Grammarly has a handy set of guidelines.
Unclear pronoun references
“Roger and his friend Jeremy looked at pictures of his cat.” Sentences like these create ambiguity: whose cat is it, Roger’s or Jeremy’s? Since both Roger and Jeremy use the pronoun “his,” the pronoun is not specific. According to Grammarly, 2017’s e-mails were filled with errors like these. If you’re a grammar nerd, you’ll appreciate these jokes.
Quick, is this sentence correct or incorrect? “We watched the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, it was beautiful.”
If you guessed incorrect, you’re… correct! The sentence contains two independent clauses, each with a subject and a verb, and joining them with a comma doesn’t make a grammatically correct sentence. Independent clauses should be joined with a conjunction: “We watched the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, and it was beautiful.” Another way to fix it is to use a semicolon instead of a comma. Or, simplest of all, just make it two separate sentences: “We watched the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. It was beautiful.”
Those pesky commas! Not adding commas after introductory clauses is another major error on Grammarly’s list. While this goof doesn’t usually change the meaning of a sentence, the comma breaks up the sentence, allowing it to flow better. Here’s an example: “When Melissa went to the store she forgot to bring her grocery list.” There should be a comma after “store.” Unfortunately, spell check won’t catch a missing comma—or these nine other errors.
Wordy, unnecessarily long sentences
If there’s one thing people probably don’t want to see while reading an e-mail, it’s over-the-top, flowery writing. Using fancy words doesn’t actually make you sound smarter. If you’re writing the next great American novel, that’s one thing. But an e-mail? Keep it simple.
These common e-mail habits may not be incorrect in any way, but people probably find them annoying.