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Don’t Chip Away at Your Credibility

The other day I had lunch with an old friend at a restaurant. We both ordered tea, and our tea came in ceramic teapots. My friend's teapot had a noticeable chip on its lid. She commented to me, "They should not be using a chipped teapot!" I agreed. 

For the rest of the meal, we talked happily, but we were on our guard. We checked the silverware to be sure it was clean. We examined the lettuce to make sure it was fresh. We looked at each forkful of salad before putting it in our mouths.

The chip in the teacup lowered our confidence in the restaurant and in the quality of our meal. 

That true story was my answer to a question asked in a business writing class I led today: Does correct punctuation really matter? 

Yes, correct punctuation matters. Correct grammar and usage matter. Sentence structures must be solid. Spelling counts. 

If you let errors or inconsistencies creep into your communications, you will chip away at readers' confidence in your messages–just the way the chipped teapot eroded our confidence in the restaurant and the meal. Your readers may begin to doubt your conclusions or your data. They may reply with questions rather than action or approval.

Texts to a friend or quick back-and-forth emails to a coworker do not need to be flawless (unless they may be forwarded to people whose confidence you need to win). But when you have to meet readers' high expectations, the details matter. 

Don't chip away at your credibility. It is hard to re-establish. My friend and I will not return to that restaurant. 

Do you agree that the fine details matter? 

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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.

7 comments on “Don’t Chip Away at Your Credibility”

  • Hi Lynn

    Thanks for the great analogy. It clearly articulates the impact that errors and inconsistencies in communications have on an audience.

    Kind regards

  • Yes, it matters. Readers get distracted and start focusing more on the flaws or I can say, flaws draw more attention. The shift in the focus lead to a shift in impression of writer.

  • English is central in Europe, but not the native language of the vast majority. Most organizations thus face these questions: How good is the English in this document? Is it good enough? What should we do and how much should we spend to improve it?


  • Thank you, Lynn, for the great teapot analogy!

    I have to agree with you that small details matter. Just yesterday, I emailed several people who had applied for a job with my employer, to schedule a brief phone call with them to discuss their interest in the position. Some of them responded with warm, personal, and professional responses. But many of them responded with one-sentence emails obviously sent from their smart phones, and didn’t include an opening, refer to me by name, or even provide all of the information that I requested (such as the phone number at which I can best reach them when I call).

    I have to say that, even though this latter group of folks have impressive resumes, the extreme brevity and lack of personalization in these – their very first emails to me – left me with the wrong impression. I’m still looking forward to speaking with them about the job, but honestly, they are starting out a step or two behind the candidates who responded to me more professionally.

  • You are absolutely point on correct with your observations. I try to be very diligent about grammar, punctuation and sentence structure in all business writings. I begin all emails with a salutation and close properly as if I were writing a letter. Just because email is a faster form of communication these days I don’t believe proper writing basics should be thrown out the window.

  • Agreed. To Leigh’s point, I am afraid (yes afraid!)- that texting and mobile communications will ruin the future generation of written communications. Like Heidi, I also try very hard to perfect every one of my written communications and emails.

    Writing IS an art and a science to be able to speak clearly and to articulate one’s thoughts. Especially in business communications, it is important to convey an idea or apply for a job!
    Thank you Lynn for “chipping” away at this topic.

  • Hi, everyone. I am delighted that the blog post moved you to comment.

    Ruth, I am glad you liked the analogy and that you labeled it as one. We don’t see the word “analogy” often enough.

    Ankita, I like your statement, “Flaws draw more attention.”

    George, what an interesting comment! In fact, the individual in my class was not a native English speaker. I did not ask him, but I suspect he was from a European country. I am going to continue to think about your questions “Is it good enough? What should we do and how much should we spend to improve it?”

    Leigh, your story is very valuable. It merits a blog post of its own. I will write to you privately to ask about featuring it in another post.

    Heidi, I am delighted that you are holding firm on writing standards.

    Bob, I appreciate your enthusiastic comment. You may be interested to know that when I teach business writing, I try to focus on the “practical skill” aspects of it. If I called it “an art and a science,” some people would assume they will never be good at it.

    Thank you, everyone.


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