The devil’s in the details: How to get the small things right in your writing

Earnsy Liu | July 3, 2019

You’re in the middle of emailing a client and you want to create a good impression but … niggle. Niggle niggle. That small feeling of discomfort or annoyance. You’re just not quite sure about a few words. Is it ‘Neither Bob nor I knows’, or ‘Neither Bob nor I know’? Does Tessa ‘live in Waikato’ or is she ‘living in the Waikato’?
Oh bother it, these small words don’t matter.
Or do they?

Three little things that matter

Three little things affect how easy it is to understand someone and how enjoyable that communication is: verbs, articles, and tenses. Little telltale signs that give away how good someone’s English is, whether they’re writing or speaking. Choose the wrong word and things can get confusing or be jarring, like a grain of sand in your shoe.

Image, human footprints on a sandy beach by the waterline

Don’t let your writing be the mental equivalent of sand in your shoes. Image by Roman Kraft. Unsplash licence.

If these small things are so important, why don’t we know them already?

Some of us weren’t taught these details of grammar even though we grew up speaking English. Some of us learnt English as a foreign language. Perhaps we’ve forgotten them because it’s been a while since we learnt them, or perhaps we disliked grammar lessons (I did!).

And because they’re ‘only’ little words, it’s easy to skip them when we learn a language, thinking we’ll pick them up along the way or get round to learning them later. Except they’re not easy to simply pick up, and getting around to something can be a challenge.

They’re best learnt when someone spells them out. Then you’ll probably go ‘Aha! I knew that!’ (except you didn’t really, otherwise you would have known whether Tessa lives in Waikato or is living in the Waikato). And yes, you can learn them easily — without lots of blood, sweat, or tears.

Sign up for Write Online, our subscription library of videos and microlearning, to find out how to express yourself clearly to any audience.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.