From my own experience in human resources I conclude that 95% of cover letters have at least a few mechanical errors, and some 30 to 40% are downright shambolic. If you’re a poor writer and you recognize that you’re a poor writer, it may pay dividends to sit down and read through a style manual. Strunk and White’s famed Elements of Style is useful to novice writers as a guide to style but deeply flawed as a guide to grammar. (Geoffrey K. Pullum usefully explains why.) Both the Grammar Handbook from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Jack Lynch’s Guide to Grammar and Style are superior.
You may not have the time to pore over a useful grammar guide, so I’m including in this post the most common mechanical mistakes that I have seen. (Common mistakes are particularly annoying by virtue of their being common, so avoid them!)
Misuse of particular words
- Ensure/Insure: To ensure is to make certain or guarantee; to insure is to limit financial liability.
- Effect/Affect: Effect is typically used as a noun meaning a result; affect is typically used as a verb meaning to change or influence.*
- Lose/Loose: To lose is to fail; loose is (usually used as) an adjective meaning the opposite of tight.
- Then/Than: Then is used to refer to the time order of something (e.g., “She took a walk and then rested.”); than is used for comparison (e.g., “I am faster than you.”).
- Who/Whom: “Who” refers to the subject of a clause; “whom” refers to the object.
- Which/That: Use “which” as part of a non-restrictive clause and “that” as part of a restrictive clause. A non-restrictive clause does not change a sentence’s essential meaning; a restrictive clause does. E.g., consider “The video, which received praise, is emotionally charged” versus “The video that received praise is emotionally charged.”
- Everyday/every day: “Everyday” is an adjective used to describe things that occur every day or things that are commonplace, e.g. “His everyday comings and goings were a mystery,” or “He can’t relate to everyday folks like us.” When the words are separated, “every” becomes an adjective modifying “day,” and together the two words usually function as an adverbial phrase. E.g., “I worked hard every day.”
- Anyday/any day: “Anyday” is not a word; always use “any day.”
- Lead/led: The past tense of the verb lead (pronounced ‘leed’) is led. As a noun, lead (pronounced ‘led’) refers to the element found on the periodic table and in mechanical pencils.
*Effect is also a verb; it means to bring about or accomplish, e.g., “She effected change in the organization with her data-driven approach.” As a verb, affect has two different meanings: it means to influence (typical use), and it also means to pretend or feign: e.g., “In an attempt to sound intelligent, she affected a false English accent.”
Misuse of classes of words
Contractions mistakenly used as possessive pronouns: It’s versus its; you’re versus your; they’re versus there and their. People mistakenly use contractions (two words combined into one with an added apostrophe, such as I’ll, let’s, it’s, he’d, etc.) as possessive pronouns (words to denote ownership, such as my, his, its, her, your, their, etc.) all the time. I can appreciate the confusion because an apostrophe is used in nouns to indicate the possessive; in pronouns, however, apostrophes are reserved for contractions. See examples below:
- Contraction: “The roller coaster is a lot of fun!” = “It’s a lot of fun!”
- Possessive: “The roller coaster’s loops are wild!” = “Its loops are wild!”
Adjectives and nouns mistakenly used as verbs:
- Shutdown/shut down: “Shutdown” is a noun meaning the shutting down of something, e.g., “The system shutdown took four minutes”; “shut down” is a verb, e.g., “The company shut down after just four months in business.”
- Setup/set up: “Setup” is a noun referring to an arrangement, e.g., “You have a nice setup in your apartment”; “set up” is a verb, e.g., “Can you please set up the laptop for the customer?”
- Should have, would have, could have/should of, could of, would of: The former (e.g., “should have”) should always be used; the latter (e.g., “should of”), never because it doesn’t make sense.
- Are/our: “Are” is an auxiliary verb; “our” is a possessive pronoun.
The misuse of semicolons, which are not designed to start lists as colons are, is common. Here is an example of what you shouldn’t do: “A combination of factors, including; an x, a y, and a z leads me to believe that I will be successful in the advertised position.” This phrase is lifted from a popular sample cover letter. When I worked in human resources, I constantly ran across it.
The misuse (and, in particular, overuse) of commas is also common. When not used in a series, commas are usually used to introduce complete clauses.
Pronouns should match their antecedents. If you use a singular noun or pronoun in a sentence’s antecedent, be sure to follow it with a singular pronoun. E.g., do not write, “If a teacher must discipline a student, they must do so consistently.” Instead, write, “If teachers must discipline a student, they must do so consistently.” Or, if you insist on retaining a singular teacher, write “If a teacher must discipline a student, he or she must do so consistently.”
Common spelling errors
As a general rule, spelling errors are even less forgivable than grammatical errors because word processors (and even many Web browsers) have a built-in spell-check function. Common spelling errors include:
- Definitely (often misspelled as “definately”)
- Separate (often misspelled as “seperate”)
- Paid (often misspelled as “payed”)
- Laid off (often misspelled as “layed off”)
Microsoft Word also has a built-in grammar checker, but its recommendations deserve no one’s trust. Never rely on Word’s grammar checker’s advice.
Finally, read aloud your cover letter! Dropped letters are extremely common (e.g., a person writes “may” when she meant to write “many”), and you’re more likely to catch these errors when reading aloud your cover letter.
Do you need a proofreader to review your cover letter or resume? Head on over to the forum to get some help!
Photo by: sure2talk via a Creative Commons attribution license