The Art of the WordPress Startup: Part 16

Founder Writing Skills

This post is part 16 of a series on how to launch your startup on WordPress. Last time I talked about not letting your hosting end up being your Achilles’ heel. This time we’ll talk about two things you likely hated in school, grammar and spelling. You might think it doesn’t matter if you have poor grammar and spelling as a founder, but trust me, it does. I’ll explain why it’s important to have good grammar and spelling as a founder as well as the most common mistakes so you can avoid looking like a fool.

Disclaimer: I don’t have a PhD in English (yes that E should be capitalized) and there are many experts out there who specialize in this sort of thing, so I’m not claiming to be one but I do know more than most. I did brush up on my grammar quite a bit before writing my application to graduate school at Harvard, otherwise I’d probably be in the same boat as you. There might be tiny grammatical errors in this post but the important thing is that 99 percent of people won’t catch them. The goal here isn’t to become a professional editor; it’s to write well enough that you don’t stand out in a bad way.

Why It Matters

You’ve graduated from school and think grammar and spelling are behind you. You’ve got spell check and other crutches you lean on when composing things in Google Docs, Microsoft Word, and even your e-mail client. However, those tools are just that, crutches, and they aren’t perfect. In fact, they’ll let more things slip by than you could ever imagine. Otherwise, we’d stop teaching grammar and spelling in schools and just let those take care of it all. Maybe some day they’ll be perfect, but until then you’d better brush up.

Let’s say you’re thinking about raising funding for your newly launched WordPress startup. You’ve met an investor at a conference and things went well. They give you their e-mail and ask that you reach out when you’re back in your home state. You’re excited. They’re excited. Your dreams are about to come true.

However, you send them an e-mail that’s littered with grammatical errors. The VC is likely well educated and probably has pretty good writing skills, even if it’s just an associate and not a partner. They see you continually use “your” when you mean “you’re”, and they use this the same way as they use the university listed on your CV; they use it as a signaling mechanism.

So the associate or partner gets to the bottom of your e-mail and now thinks you are a moron, or at least write like one. Not to point out the obvious, but this will not increase your chance of getting funded. In addition, this isn’t the only scenario where you’ll reflect poorly on yourself with mediocre writing skills. In fact, this same signaling mechanism will be used anytime you publish a blog post, send an e-mail to a prospective partner, or reply to a current client. If they’re up on their writing skills and you aren’t, it’s the same as if you use jargon incorrectly or make other mental gaffes. To be clear, we’re not worried about texting and tweeting. Savvy people understand that grammar and spelling go out the window when composing those due to the character restrictions.

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Grammar vs. Spelling

Speaking of these errors, if you use the incorrect form of a word (e.g. “your” instead of “you’re”) is that technically a spelling or grammar error? Most people don’t know the difference, because it’s kind of confusing. Grammar is the set of structural rules governing the composition of phrases, clauses, and words. Spelling is using the correct letters and diacritics in a word. Diacritics are just symbols and accents, so don’t freak out. So even knowing that, what kind of mistake is the above?

We used incorrect letters and symbols but we also used the word incorrectly in the sentence. The answer is pretty simple if you think about it. If you meant to type “you’re” and accidentally typed “your”, then that’s a spelling error, because you knew the right grammar but you accidentally misspelled the word. If you thought you were correct in using “your” and you should’ve used “you’re”, then it’s a grammatical error. The problem is that for the recipient, it doesn’t matter. It’s impossible for them to know what you intended to type, and chances are they’ll assume it was grammatical in nature.

12 Most Common Mistakes

Luckily there are some common mistakes that nearly everyone makes and just knowing these will solve quite a few of the gaffes you might be making.

1. Your vs. You’re

This one is pretty simple, but it’s the one I see most often. The word “your” is used to describe something that belongs to someone. An example use might be…. “Where is your phone?”

The word “you’re” is a contraction and is short for “you are”. It might be used as… “You’re going to be late!”

Once you understand this rule you’ll start noticing how many people e-mail you things like “Your going to be late” and it will drive you nuts.

2. Its vs. It’s

This one is very similar to the one above, and might be equally abused. The word “its” is tricky because it’s possessive but doesn’t require an apostrophe. So a correct usage would be something like… “Your phone loses its charge quickly.”

Many people would type that using “it’s” thinking they’re being correct since an apostrophe often corresponds with possessive form. The word “it’s” should only be used if you’re trying to use the contracted (shorter) version of “it is”. So a correct usage might be something like… “It’s raining outside.”

3. Too vs. To vs. Two

This one seems really obvious, but still is tricky for some and is the mistake I understand the least because it’s easy to remember. The word “two” means the number 2, and the word “too” is meant to be a substitute for “also”. The word “to” with one letter o is used as part of a verb or preposition. A correct sentence using all three might read something like… “We have two tickets to the movie tonight, and all our friends will be there too.”

4. Lose vs. Loose

The word “lose” means to have lost something whereas “loose’ means it doesn’t fit tight. So you have “loose clothing” and hate to “lose” at blackjack. Pretty easy.

5. Affect vs. Effect

This is one of the easier ones as well. The word “affect” is a verb, whereas “effect” is most often used as a noun. So using them both in a sentence might read… “Having excellent writing skills will affect your net worth in a positive way, since the effect of poor grammar on a person’s income is well documented.”

Notice that the first usage (affect) is being used as a verb, as we are talking about an action (changing net worth), whereas the second usage (effect) is the result of that action (noun).

6. Everyone vs. Every One / Nobody vs. No Body

Everyone and nobody are both singular nouns, and so you use them accordingly. They mean all people and no people respectively. Correct use in a sentence might be something like… “Everyone was laughing, but nobody had tears.”

On the other hand, “every one” and “no body” mean each person and no person’s physical body respectively. A correct use in a sentence of those might be… “We wish each and every one of you congratulations on the race, and especially you Jane, as no body can take the kind of physical strain that yours can.”

7. Commas vs. Semi-Colons vs. Periods

A comma should be used to indicate that the reader should take a breath, before the end of the sentence. Many people use commas when they should be using periods. If the second half of the sentence can stand on its own, it should be separated with either a period or semicolon. So when should we use a semicolon instead of a period? There are two situations that warrant them. One is for long lists like… “My favorite places are Bangor, Maine; Hartford, Connecticut; Boston, Massachusetts; and Newport, Rhode Island.”

You can also use a semicolon when separating closely related independent clauses like… “My grandmother seldom goes to bed this early; she’s afraid she’ll miss out on something.”

8. Their vs. There vs. They’re

This one is pretty simple to keep straight. The word “their” indicates possession. So an example use might be… “Their website is amazing.”

The word “there” is a noun. Using the noun form would be something like “Manhattan is amazing; I wish I could move there.”

The final form “they’re” is short for “they are” and would be used in a sentence like… “I love powdered donuts, they’re the best.”

9. Then vs. Than

The word “than” is used to compare two things. So you might write… “X is larger than Y” whereas “then” means something that is about to happen or an element of time. You might write… “First I eat breakfast, then I take a shower.”

10. Me, Myself, and I

This one seems hard but it’s actually easy. You use “myself” only when referring back to yourself in the sentence where you have already used “I”, so a couple examples might be… “I myself hate radishes” or “I can’t live with myself.” If there’s no I present earlier in the sentence, then stay away from using “myself” and you’ll be fine.

To figure out whether to use “me” or “I”, just remove the other person/name from the sentence and see which one works. Here is an example… “Steve and I both love soccer” and if we remove Steve we see that “I love soccer” still works so it’s correct. If we had used “me” it would be “Me love soccer” after removing Steve and that doesn’t sound very good.

The word “me” is an object pronoun, which means that it refers to the person that the action of a verb is being done to, or to whom a preposition refers. So a correct usage would be… “She needs to talk to Joe or me” even though you might have thought it should have read “She needs to talk to Joe or myself”. We know the latter is wrong because “myself” usually refers back to “I”, and there’s no “I” in that sentence.

11. Complement vs. Compliment

A “compliment” is something you receive when someone tells you that your shirt looks nice. A “complement” is something that goes well with something else. Example sentence “I got a compliment from Sarah on my tie, as she said it complemented my shirt well.”

Only humans (or Siri) can give compliments. If it’s something else, then use the other version.

12. Who vs. Whom

This is everyone’s least favorite, and maybe the most challenging to get right. I still mess this up from time to time, and that’s because both of these are pronouns. Whom is used when you’re referring to the object of a sentence, and “who” is used when you’re referring to the subject. Starting to get confusing, right?

So just use the trick I learned in undergrad. When deciding between “who” and “whom”, ask yourself if the answer to your question would be “he” or “him”. If the answer is “him”, then “whom” is the word you want to use. If the answer is “he”, then “who” is the word you want to use.

Here are two examples…

Whom do you love? = Answer might be something like “I love him.”

Who stepped on the cat? = Answer might be something like “he did”.

Memorize this above list and you’ll be on your way to writing like a pro, or at least close enough!

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  1. Robby

    Hi Sean! Great article. Very well written =D

    Do you have any tips on brushing up on one’s grammar? I still always run into those edge cases where I am not quite sure if I should use a comma. Or, I am never quite sure when I should use a semi colon or just split a thought into two sentences. Apart from writing and asking someone (with more knowledge) to proofread, I find it really hard to improve my grammar. Any thoughts?


  2. Sean O'Brien
    Sean O'Brien

    Thanks for your comment Robby.

    I recommend English Grammar for Dummies (latest edition available, whatever that is). Not because the “Dummies” books are necessarily the best, but because they’re typically available in a nice electronic format for whatever device you’re using, whether it’s laptop, iPad, Kindle, Nook, or an Android tablet. You also know there was some sort of editorial review process. The last thing you want is to read a book that wasn’t proofread and learn the wrong stuff!