13 Punctuation and Grammar Tips To Up Your Email Etiquette Game

Like it or not, you’re being judged. Every day, the people you work with – whether it’s your colleagues, managers, clients, prospects or stakeholders – are silently judging. They’ve each formed (or are forming) an opinion of you, and it’s largely based on how you communicate. Your email etiquette matters.

As business evolves through technology, the need to meet in person has become less and less important. It comes as no surprise that most of our interactions happen via email.

But the onslaught of social media has brought about a different type of prose to professional correspondence than business communications of years past. We’ve started importing abbreviated language of text and tweets, gotten a tad too liberal with our use of the exclamation point and some have even used emoticons – in professional emails. (Seriously, why?!)

The way you write in your email says more about you than you may realize. It’s worth understanding the impact of the words you write, as how you’re perceived, based on these contacts, can either build your reputation or kill it.

Here are 13 ways to perfect to your email etiquette to avoid sloppy sends:  

Sure, proper sentence structure may sound overrated – better suited for formal essays in freshman English. But, think about it: After someone reads our email, do we want them to focus in on the message or the way we misused (or overused) an ellipsis? Here are 13 very specific lessons focused only on your punctuation and grammar in email.


1. Ellipses

An ellipsis is totally cool to use in your email to show a pause or break in your train of thought, according to several style guides. But just because it’s allowable doesn’t mean it’s always good email etiquette. Most people who use ellipses in email tend to overdo it – a lot. It shouldn’t replace normal punctuation. To quote the Grammar girl, Mignon Fogarty, “You should not allow the sweet lure of ellipses to muddle your ability to write a complete sentence.”

2. Parentheses

Parentheses are used to clarify a thought or as a side note. Periods and commas typically go on the outside of the parentheses, expect for when the parenthetical sentence stands alone. For instance: “Check out the report (you’ll be shocked)!” and “Check out the report. (You’ll be amazed!)” Also, commas are much more likely to follow parentheses than precede them.

3. Exclamation Points

Using an exclamation point can convey excitement, but overusing them can make you look cheap. Adding exclamation points too liberally is like putting lipstick on your prose. It’s cheap, fast and everyone knows it isn’t real. Instead, try to use a more vivid language and tone to get your point across.

4. Emoticons

As social media grows (and character count shrinks) these little pictorial representations of feelings are playing a pretty hefty role in communication. If your brand is using them in your social media that’s great! But the verdict is still out on if they meet email etiquette standards. If your brand is a little more casual, feel free to use them sparingly. Science shows no one really seems to mind. In fact, it may even strengthen their perception of you.

5. Colons

A colon can connect two independent sentences or statements, but should not be used as a substitute for a comma. Both the sentence leading into the colon and the one following should be capitalized in Sentence case. For instance: “She got what she deserved: She really earned that raise.” Note that you should never use more than one colon in a sentence, though you can tag in a semicolon and keep your Email Etiquette Master status.

6. Semicolons

Semicolons separate things. They break apart two main clauses that are closely related to each other, that could stand on their own as sentences if you wanted them to. Basically, they nix the pause between two statements without using words like “and,” “but,” “nor,” or “yet.”

7. Dashes

Like colons, dashes can be used to introduce the next part of a sentence, although they also have other uses. But a dash is stronger and more informal than a colon. A dash interrupts the flow of a sentence and tells your reader to get ready for some important or dramatic statement. It’s the Barney “Wait-for-it” Stinson of punctuation. A dash also brings extra or defining information into play, though it’s a rather dramatic marking, and should be used as such for proper email etiquette.

8. Commas

They’re everywhere – they’re rampant! And they’re so often wrong. Commas are like people on the subway: Just when you think you know them, they turn around and startle you with their complexity. Because they have so many different uses and those uses can differ depending on which style guide you’re writing from, comma rules are tough to pin down. Conventional wisdom has (wrongly) advised that we should add commas wherever our readers should pause. But that’s just bad advice. If you have a main clause – something that can stand alone as a sentence – put a comma after it. What comes after that comma, though, should not be able to also stand alone as its own sentence. If you want to join two independent, but related, clauses, try using a semicolon instead.


9. Acronyms & Abbreviations

OMG! LOL! Btw… In our text-speak language of acronyms, we’ve become a touch lazy and let proper grammar fall to the wayside. As a rule for proper email etiquette, don’t use acronyms when you’re emailing external contacts or, say, your CEO. But, there are a number of acronyms and abbreviations that are A-Okay to use in the office. Those are: FYI, JK, EOD, EOW, ASAP, OOO.

10. Their, There, They’re (and other homophones)

Homophones are words that sound the same, despite their meaning or spelling. The most common offenders are: their, there, they’re; your, you’re; two, to, too; its, it’s; let’s & lets; peak, peek and pique; alot, a lot and allot. Here’s the difference between them:

     Their: Describes something that’s owned by a group

     There: A place away from here.

     They’re: A contraction of the words “they are.”


     Your: Describes something that belongs to you.

     You’re: A contraction of the words “you are.”


     To: Typically describes a destination, recipient or action

     Too: Also.

     Two: A number (2).


     Its: The possessive of “it.”

     It’s: A contraction of the words “it is.”


     Let’s: A contraction of the words “let us.”

     Lets: To allow or permit


     Peak: A sharp point, like the peak of a mountain.

     Peek: A quick look.

     Pique: To stimulate or provoke – you know, like your interest.


     Alot: A non-word that makes you look like an email etiquette fool.

     A lot: A vast quantity.

     Allot: Set a certain quantity (say, of money) aside.


11. Incomplete comparisons

One of my greatest pet peeves, incomplete comparisons drive me absolutely mad. When I see it in the wild, I immediately assume the person emailing me is incompetent. Sure, they may just have poor email etiquette, but I’m judging you when I see it. Can you see what’s wrong here?

Our product is bigger, faster and smarter!

Bigger, faster and smarter …than what? Your last model? Other products? A competitor? If you’re asserting a comparison, make sure you always clarify what you’re comparing to.

12. Me & I

Though most of your email etiquette should focus on your reader – therefore not necessitating the use of “me” or “I,” sometimes it’s simply unavoidable to mention yourself. But you should be careful how you do it. For instance:

When you get a chance, can you send the new deck to Michelle and I?

But that’s wrong. As a rule of thumb, I always try removing the other person and saying the sentence to see how it sounds. That’d be:

When you get a chance, can you send the new deck to I?

Doesn’t work. Here “I” is the object of the sentence, and “I” should never be used in objects. Instead use “me.”

13. Referring to your brand as “They”

I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this. I make this mistake all the time. And it’s wrong. So I need to work on my email etiquette. But a business is not plural, so the business is not they. It’s “it.” We don’t identify our brands as “he” or “she,” so “they” feels right. But it’s inaccurate. Our brand is singular and inanimate. It’s an it.

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