When you write any work-related document, assume your colleagues will catch every mistake you make. They will. (And I should know—I read your comments.)
You know to double-check for typos. You know to avoid slang and profanity. That’s the obvious stuff. But there are a couple of other things you need to keep out of your documents—subtler mistakes, but just as dangerous, because they can undermine your credibility and give your readers huge laughs at your expense.
1. The misplaced modifier
A misplaced modifier is a word or phrase separated from the word it’s supposed to modify, creating confusion. For an attentive reader, it can also make your work unintentionally hilarious. Some examples:
You: Please review the contract that is attached to this email with your supervisor.
Your attentive reader: This guy thinks my supervisor is attached to an email?
You: Our agency just rented office space for several employees with a big cafeteria.
Your attentive reader: Hmm. Your agency has some strange-looking employees.
In these examples, you can fix the unintentional silliness by moving the modifier closer to what it’s supposed to modify:
Please review with your supervisor the contract attached to this email.
Our agency just rented office space, with a big cafeteria, for several employees.
Other common misplaced modifiers are words like “almost,” “only,” “just” and “even.” If you put these words anywhere but in precisely the right spot, your sentence might read awkwardly. For example:
You: My team almost worked 60 hours last week.
Your attentive reader: So, your team came close to working a lot, huh? But it sounds like they wised up each time they got too close to starting.
What you meant: My team worked almost 60 hours last week.
The word “almost” should modify “60,” (as in “almost 60 hours”), not “worked,” because then it reads as though your team “almost worked” (which might be true, but it isn’t something you want to advertise).
Note: Also watch for the misplaced modifier’s cousin, the dangling modifier. This is a clause not clearly or logically related to the thing it modifies—usually because it’s moved to another part of the sentence. Like misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers can make your document a laugh riot in the hands of an attentive reader.
You: Coming from outer space, I’m guessing the asteroid is billions of years old.
Your attentive reader: Ha ha! You’re killing me! So, what part of outer space are you from?
What you meant: I’m guessing the asteroid, which comes from outer space, is billions of years old.
2. The passive voice (as a place to hide)
With the active voice, the sentence’s subject performsthe action. (I won the award.) But with the passive voice, the subject is the recipient of the action. (The award was won by me.)
You should generally avoid using the passive voice wherever possible (it’s boring and harder to follow). But in your work-related writing, you need to be particularly careful not to use the passive voice to obscure or dodge responsibility.
An example: A friend called me the other day to complain that she had to buy a new iPhone. Her old one just stopped working. “What happened to it?” I asked her. Her response: “It was dropped.”
Oh. I see. That damned gravity!
Obviously, she didn’t want to say, “I dropped it,” so she turned the sentence around by using the passive voice. But I’m not stupid (well, not that stupid), and my friend’s clever phrasing didn’t fool me. I knew that she was responsible for her iPhone breaking.
You’re in Washington, so you’ve heard the non-apology apology, “Mistakes were made.” (By whom, Senator? If you’ll just tell us who the culprits are, we promise to scold them for your extramarital affair.)
There’s little point in using the passive voice if your aim is to avoid responsibility. Your attentive reader will still figure out who’s to blame—and they’ll be far less forgiving because they’ll know you also tried to hide behind unclear wording.
To use another Washington analogy: It’s not the initial mistake that gets you in trouble; it’s the cover-up.
You: Projections were incorrectly calculated, resulting in a budget overrun.
Your attentive reader: Well, that faulty calculator is going in the trash!
What you meant: I incorrectly calculated the projections, which resulted in a budget overrun. I apologize for my error.
As I described in a previous article about delivering bad news, when you candidly take responsibility for a mistake, your reader will take that into account—and this simple act of honesty can undo some of the damage.