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Most Common Writing Error of 2011

Although today is only November 15, I can already tell you the most common error in people's business writing this year. It is the use of this word:


When people sign up for my writing courses, I ask them, among other things, what kinds of business messages they write. Their responses reveal the error: 

I write email, reports, memo's, and presentations.

I write memo's requesting funds for capital purchases.

The plural of memo is memos–not memo's. We should all write memos.

The word memo's can be a correct possessive form. Examples:

I could not understand the memo's intent.

The memo's format was unconventional.

Grammar purists might frown at the possessive form used with an inanimate object, which my two examples directly above use. They would prefer these constructions:

I could not understand the intent of the memo. [OR] I could not understand the writer's intent.

The format of the memo was unconventional.

Despite the preferences of purists, possessive forms with inanimate objects are fine unless the resulting expression is awkward. For example, "the bottom of the barrel" and "the foot of the bed" are common phrases. "The barrel's bottom" and "the bed's foot" would be awkward replacements.

If you are someone who mistakenly uses memo's, set your software to automatically correct it to memos. If everyone does that, I will be able to report a new most common error in 2012.

What is the most common error you have seen in business messages this year?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

16 comments on “Most Common Writing Error of 2011”

  • This may not be a true error, but it bugs me and seems to be redundant, so please advise. Often I see memos written on letterhead which reads something to the effect of “From the desk of Golly Gee, Assistant Redundancy Clerk.” I hold that there is no need to include a “From:” line when using stationery with such a heading. The “To:,” “Date,” and “Re:” lines should be all that is included, I believe. Am I just being too analytical, Lynn?

  • I would suggest that the apostrophe used in plurals is an extremely widespread problem. You apparently encounter it more with the word “memo” than with others, but it plagues writing in general. It also happens to be right at the top of my pet peeve list. A neighbor named her business “Photo’s by xxx.” We’re not good enough friends that I can correct her, so it will continue to bother me. But I will seek other professionals to meet my photography needs.

  • Apostrophes in all their guises are responsible for many of the most annoying errors in English today.

    your for you’re
    where or were(other than in wolves) for we’re
    their or there for they’re
    should/could/would of for should/could/would’ve

    and what I’ve just seen beautifully described elsewhere as Gratuitous Capitalisation.

    Finally, I do like Kay’s response re memos. Very, very good.

  • [note to self: proofread more thoroughly before posting.]

    Of course the poor apostrophes have nothing whatsoever to do with Gratuitous Capitalisation and I retract that slur unreservedly.

  • What a fine list of errors! Thank you, Karla, Fran, Kay, Randy, Kara, and Terry.

    Karla, I too see plenty of examples of the “myself” error.

    Fran, if the letterhead lists the writer’s name and title–and no one else’s–I think it would be fine to omit the “From” line. Perhaps the writer hasn’t considered that efficient step.

    Kay, thanks for your instructive comment. I don’t believe any of my clients would say they write memoranda or memorandums. They write memos (or memo’s if they make the mistake described here).

    Randy, yikes! What an unfortunate mistake in a business name. I wish she had asked your advice before naming her company.

    Kara, “your welcome” IS unfortunate. I haven’t see that error much lately. People may be dropping the use of the unnecessary “you’re welcome” email.

    Terry, thank you for your list–and for your amusing note to yourself.


  • Lynn,
    I dropped by to thank you very much for all your blogs here. They are generously informative. I am looking forward to attend one of your training sessions very soon!

  • Agree with the above comment. It should be memoranda as that is the plural form of the Latin, memorandum. However, memo’s is not incorrect as it is a contraction of the (still) incorrect memorandums – thus the apostrophe denotes the missing letters (as one would do in words, such as won’t; can’t; etc.).

  • I agree that the word used to be ‘memorandum’ but language is not static. I, for years, tried to insist that the plural of ‘index’ was ‘indices’ and never ‘indexes’, but even Webster’s is again’ me now 🙂

    I am still holding onto that the past tense of ‘to enter a plea’ is ‘pled’ not ‘pleaded’. I can be sometimes heard to say to the announcer on my radio that ‘pleated is something done to a skirt’!

  • Hi, Andrew. I want to recommend to you “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” by language and legal writing expert Bryan A. Garner.

    I believe you would be interested in his detailed discussion of the past tense forms “pled,” “plead,” and “pleaded.” In summary, he writes, “‘Pleaded’ is the predominant form in both American English and British English and always the best choice.”

    Thanks for sharing your passion for language.


  • Hi, Lynn.

    In Australia, I would say that incorrect capitalization is the most common error in business writing. People tend to overuse capitals. For example, “We offer Business Writing, Copywriting and Editing services” and “She has taught Business Writing at several Universities during her career.”

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