11 Ways to Tune up Grammar and Punctuation

Grammar slips in application letters sink jobs. Many employers see language skills as an important aspect of potential job performance, and nothing says language skills like attention to grammar and punctuation. Here’s a brief overview of frequently made mistakes and how to correct them.

Sentence fragments

Sentence fragments signal incomplete thoughts. They neglect essential components. For example,

Although I work in Detroit, making $200 an hour.

This fragment is missing the subsequent subject and verb needed to finish the introductory clause.

Although I work in Detroit, making $200 an hour, I would prefer to work in Atlanta to be near my family.

To test your sentences, speak each one aloud, out of context. Imagine walking up to someone and saying that sentence. Would the sentence make sense, or is something missing?

Run-on sentences

Run-on sentences are two complete sentences written as one. For example,

I finished writing my cover letter, it’s great!

This should read:

I finished writing my cover letter. It’s great!

Each sentence contains a complete thought and stands on its own.

Dangling participles

Dangling participles are words ending in -ing that modify the wrong subject. For example,

Running across the water, we saw a huge water beetle.

This sentence literally means that we saw a water beetle while we were running across the water. Try this instead:

We saw a huge water beetle running across the water.

Misplaced modifiers

Like dangling participles, misplaced modifiers modify the wrong subject, often resulting in hilarious miscommunications. For example,

Ben taught the dog, an inveterate womanizer, to bark at all blonde women.

Revised, this sentence makes more sense:

Ben, an inveterate womanizer, taught the dog to bark at all blonde women.

Semicolons

Semicolons can be tricky, so avoid them if you don’t feel comfortable using them. In essence, semicolons are weak periods; they indicate a separation between two complete sentences that are so closely related they shouldn’t be separated by a period.

Instead of using semicolons, you may simply use periods between every sentence. You won’t break any rules, and you’ll avoid using semicolons incorrectly.

The only rule for semicolons is as follows: When you introduce a list of complete sentences by using a colon, separate each sentence with a semicolon. For example:

I accomplished the following: I networked all the computers, company-wide; I designed a new system for scheduling; and I broke the world record in typing speed.

Again, you can avoid this use of semicolons in your cover letter by placing each item on a separate line set off by bullets. No punctuation is necessary at the end of each line. For example,

I accomplished the following:
  • I networked all the computers, company-wide

  • I designed a new system for scheduling

  • I broke the world record in typing speed

Punctuation in parenthetical expressions

If a parenthetical expression occurs in the middle or at the end of a sentence, place the punctuation outside the parentheses. Some examples include the following:

Cover letters are essential.
Cover letters (and resumes) are essential.
Cover letters (and resumes), essential to the job search, are important.

Question marks and exclamation points, when part of a parenthetical expression occurring in the middle of a sentence, are the exception to this rule. Some examples include the following:

The interview (or was it an inquisition?) was a disaster.
My cover letter (a masterpiece!) took four hours to write.

Hyphens

When you use two words together as a description of another word, such as next-to-last job, use a hyphen. To test whether you should use a hyphen, take out one of the descriptive terms and see if the description still makes sense. For example,

next-to-last job

without one descriptive term, becomes

to last job

Because the three words “next to last” cannot be used individually as a description and still make sense, you need hyphens between them.

The same rule applies for two nouns used together to express a single idea, such as light-year.

For greatest accuracy, check a dictionary.

Abbreviations

Use abbreviations only if you have previously written out what the abbreviation stands for. Never assume that your reader knows or will be able to figure out what an abbreviation stands for.

Exceptions: Abbreviations such as AIDS and DNA are so well known that they do not have to be defined. Also, some technical jargons commonly use abbreviations. In that case, write to your reader. If your reader will understand the abbreviation, use it.

Numbers

When you use two numbers in a row, avoid confusion by writing out the shorter of the two numbers:

six 9-person teams

Or revise your sentence to separate the numbers:

six teams of nine people

Whenever a sentence begins with a number, write out the number instead of using numerals. Better yet, revise the sentence so that the number does not appear at the beginning.

Commas

In general, use commas anywhere you would pause if you read the sentence aloud. If you’re a person who pauses often while speaking, this quick tip probably won’t work for you. Ask several people to read your letter for punctuation and grammar, and follow their suggestions. Or get a good punctuation guide and follow it.

Whenever you have a series of terms separated by commas, use a comma after the next-to-last term for clarity. Some examples include the following:

Dear Mr. Barnes, Ms. Collins, and Ms. Schultz:

This technique is called the serial comma. Newspapers don’t use serial commas because they slow down reading. Be consistent in your use of commas. Don’t use a serial comma in one paragraph and no serial comma in another that calls for one.

Capitalization

Any official name of a company, department, agency, division, or organization, such as the U.S. Department of Labor, should be capitalized.

Don’t capitalize words such as department, company, or organization when used as a general word rather than as part of a specific title. For example,

I work for a division of Toyota.
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