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Grammar Foundation: Mechanics

Lesson One:

Grammar Foundation: Mechanics

When all other means of communication fail, try words.

Words are the fundamental elements of any piece of writing, whether it is being done for professional or personal reasons. The overall effect of your work can be diminished if you misuse language or don’t use it correctly. In this session, we will go through the correct spelling of words, problems with grammar, which are also referred to as the mechanics of writing, and how to avoid both of these problems by developing a cheat sheet.

Warm-Up Exercise

The purpose of this exercise is to get you thinking about the Business Writing strategies that you are already using and where they need to improve.

Think of written output you are required to do at work; write down at most 3 examples.

Once you’ve listed the responses, state one thing you found easy and one thing you found difficult in the process of writing these documents. You can use a table similar to the one below to organize your responses.

Examples of written output I’m required to do at work What I find easy about writing this document What I find difficult about writing this document

Review your responses and keep the answers in mind during this course, as it will help you identify practical applications for tools and techniques that will be discussed.


The use of correctly spelled words is important in all business writing because you are presenting a professional document. A misspelled word can reflect negatively on your image. It may also result in confusion in meaning.

Here are some tips to improve spelling issues when writing:

  1. Familiarize yourself with commonly misused words, particularly sets of words often mistaken for each other.

Example: Affects. Effect

Affect is to influence or change. (Our income has been affected by the global recession.)

The effect is the impression, and result. It can also mean ‘to cause’. (The global recession has a dramatic effect on our income.)

This problem also happens with pronouns or pronoun-linking verb contractions, which sound alike. Examples: who’s vs. whose, their vs. they’re, and your vs. you’re.

  1. Make sure you pronounce words properly. Colloquial pronunciations can cause people to omit certain letters in writing. Example: writing ‘difference’ instead of ‘difference’ because one pronounces this word with a silent first e.
  2. Note some friendly rules on spelling. Example: i before e, except after c (e.g. receive, belief)
  3. If you’re writing for an international audience, note that there are acceptable spelling variations in the different kinds of English. For example, American and British English tend to have many differences in the spelling of the same words. Notable is the use of –ou instead of –o, as in color vs. color; –re instead of –er, as incentre vs. center; –use instead of –size, as in realize vs. realize.
  4. Lastly, use spelling resources! These days, spell checking is as easy as running a spell check command on your word processing software. If you’re still uncertain after an electronic spell check, consult a dictionary.

NOTE: Discussions on spelling liberties people take when sending emails would be discussed in a later module.


Grammar details rules of language syntax. Like spelling issues, grammar violations in a business document can reflect negatively on a professional or a company. Care should be given that all business documents are grammatically correct.

Here are two grammar issues most business writers have trouble with.

NOTE: All grammatical rules discussed here have exceptions and complex forms.

  1. Subject-verb agreement: Singular subjects go with singular verbs, and plural subjects go with plural verbs. The singular form of most subjects contains the suffix –s or –es. The opposite is true for verbs; it’s the singular verbs that end with –s.

Note though that some subjects have unusual plural forms (e.g. medium- media, man-men, etc.)

  1. Verb tenses: Modern English has six tenses, each of which has a corresponding continuous tense. The first three: present, past, and future are less problematic.

The other three tenses, perfect, past perfect, and future perfect, are formed with the helping verbs have, has, and had.

The perfect tense is used to express an event that happened in the past, but still has an effect on the present. Example: Mr. Michael Johnson has managed this company for the past 5 years.

The past perfect tense is used to express an event that took place before another action, also in the past. Example: Mr. Myers had been sitting on a meeting when the client called.

The future perfect tense is used to express an event that will have taken place at some time in the future. Example: I will have finished by 10 pm.

Brief check

In business writing, there are standard tenses used depending on the type of document you are writing. Business cases (to be discussed in a later module) may be written in past or future tense depending on whether the purpose is to discuss how a project was executed, or propose how it would be executed.

Verb tenses can also vary within the same business document. The Organization Overview section of a proposal may be written in the perfect tense, while the Financial Projection Section is written in the present tense.

Use the passive voice for specific reasons

The use of active or passive voice in business writing is a matter of personal preference. The majority of books advise using active voice. There is, however, an exception to this rule.

Passive voice can be useful when you want to sound more diplomatic or when you don’t want to emphasize the subject of the sentence.
When should you use the passive voice?

The passive voice should be used in the following situations:

  1. When you don’t want to identify who performed the action, use the passive voice.


  • Smoking is prohibited.
  • A new safety policy was introduced after the accident.
  • The new offices were decorated last week.
  • The error has been corrected.
  1. To avoid blaming anyone in particular, describe a mistake in the passive voice.


  • Profits are down by 2%.
  • Computer sales dropped by 10 % during the summer.
  • The monthly report was submitted late.
  1. When you don’t know who performed the action, use the passive voice.


  • The training room was left unlocked.
  • The briefcase was stolen at the airport terminal.
  • The photocopier is broken.

Avoid turning verbs into nouns

It takes more words to use the noun form of the verb than to use a strong verb. It is more effective, for example, to say “decide” rather than “make a decision.”

Noun Form Verb Form
give instructions to instruct
make a classification classify
carry out an investigation of investigate
perform an assessment assess
make an observation observe
conduct a review of review
make adjustments adjust

Notice how much more straightforward and simple the sentences are when presented with a strong verb form in the examples below.

Instead of Use this
The police conducted an investigation into the matter. The police investigated the matter.
Our intention is to perform an audit of the records of the program. We intend to audit the program.
My boss has an expectation that I will attend the Power and Gas Exhibition. My boss expects me to attend the Power and Gas Exhibition.
Authorization was given by the Planning manager to purchase new computers. The Planning manager authorized the purchase of new computers.
We hope you’re willing to

undertake a serious reconsideration of your position.

We hope you will reconsider your position.
The function of this handout is the improvement of wordy writing. This handout improves wordy writing.
The committee made the decision to reward all employees in the Production section. The committee decided to reward all employees in the Production section.
The implementation of the plan was successful. The plan was implemented successfully.

Creating a Cheat Sheet

The number of spelling and grammar rules can feel daunting, but you don’t have to memorize everything. What you can do is create a cheat sheet.

Brief check

A cheat sheet is a ready reference of rules you need to remember, written in a brief, simple and easy-to-understand fashion. Tables and bullet points can make a cheat sheet more effective. Some cheat sheets are poems, alliterations, and songs.

For best results, make your cheat sheets personalized, targeted to spelling and grammar issues that you often have problems with.

The following is a sample template for a cheat sheet:

Issue Rule Example


Here is a sample accomplished cheat sheet:

Issue Rule Example
Its vs. It’s ‘Its’ is the possessive, third person, singular adjective, typically referring to something other than a person.

‘It’s’, short for ‘It is’, refers to something that ‘it’ possesses.

The machine spread its claws.

It’s the fastest engine for this job.

Practical Application

Jacob was making preparations to prepare a significant paper for one of his business partners. He put a lot of effort into it, and when he was finished, he requested that his colleague read through the content for him after he had run a spell check on it. Jacob was informed of the errors that were discovered by the colleague after he conducted a thorough investigation.

One of those was spelling. Even while spell-check identified the majority of the errors, it did not catch many of the errors that had to do with the context, such as “its” and “it’s.” The spell checker missed a few of his phrases’ typos, such as incorrect use of verb tenses and other similar problems. Following a thorough review of the document, the coworker crafted some “cheat sheets” for Jacob, which were intended to assist him in remembering the guidelines that he had omitted to address. After that, Jacob was able to make some progress.