There’s nothing like pressing the send button to immediately reveal a mistake in your email. One that you’re sure wasn’t there a minute ago. Suddenly you notice that you’ve sent 20 colleagues a tasty-sounding pasta recipe (or worse 🙂 ) instead of the monthly sales figures. Or autocorrect has changed the name of an important client to something else entirely. Your immediate reaction is probably: How can I undo what I’ve done? How can I get my email back? As you usually can’t, this article looks at how you can deal with the mistake.

Just to be clear: I’m thinking here of emails sent out to an individual or a small group of colleagues or customers (as opposed to email marketing) and the errors made are embarrassing, but pretty minor. Things like attaching the wrong file or forgetting to send the attachment, misspelling names or discovering errors in the information provided.

Really serious mistakes, for example where confidentiality is compromised or you wrote something which offended someone, are a different matter.

Be sure to …

React promptly. It may be tempting to ignore your mistake and just hope that the other person won’t notice it. But it’s much more professional to deal with it before any damage is done or inconvenience caused.

Keep a cool head. Otherwise you risk making further mistakes in your follow-up mail. And that’ll come across as careless and may well annoy the recipient.

Four steps to help you deal with mistakes professionally and appropriately:

1  Decide how serious the problem is.

This depends not only on the mistake itself, but also on the context and your relationship to the recipient. For example, spelling the recipient’s name wrongly is more embarrassing if that recipient is a member of the Board than if she’s a team member. Forgetting to attach your CV when applying for a job makes a more negative impression than forgetting an attachment in a mail to a close colleague. So while you may feel that any error is one to many, take a couple of minutes to evaluate just how serious this one actually is.

2  Choose the appropriate wording.

What you decided in Step 1 will determine the tone you aim to strike in your mail. On the one hand you don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill by apologizing profusely for what was only a very minor error. On the other hand, you do want to show that you take your mistake seriously. Most of all, it’s essential that your apology comes across as being sincere. So it needs to be appropriate and sound natural. I’ve provided some examples to give you a starting point. Adapt my suggestions to your situation. In most cases you can be led by what you would say if you were speaking to the person.

Generally speaking, the suggestions in the different categories go from more to less formal.

For the wrong attachment:

  • I’m very sorry, but I attached the wrong file in my last mail. Here’s the correct one. I hope this hasn’t caused you any inconvenience.
  • Oh no! This is really embarrassing. In our last team meeting I spoke about the need for giving PDFs an unambiguous name and now I’ve attached the wrong file. Here’s the right one. I’ll be sure to check more carefully in future.  

For missing attachments:

  • My apologies, here is the attachment.
  • Sorry! I forgot to attach the file in my last mail. My only excuse it that things are pretty frantic here in the run-up to the trade fair.
  • Oops. It might help if I sent the attachment.

For misspelled names etc.:

  • How embarrassing! I’ve just seen that I addressed you as Mr and not Ms in my last email. I should have picked up on it when I read through my mail. My apologies.
  • I know: I’ve been writing to you for months and now I’ve spelled your name wrong. I’m so sorry.
  • Oh dear! I see that I spelled your name wrongly in my last mail. Sorry about that.
  • Sorry! I’m sure I didn’t type your name like that. Autocorrect seems to have got it in for me today.

For incorrect information:

  • I’m very sorry, but I’ve just noticed a mistake in the figures I sent out this morning. I’ve provided the correct data in the table below. My apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused you.
  • Many thanks to Susan for pointing out that I gave the wrong date for next month’s team meeting. It is actually on Tuesday, 16 October at 2pm. Sorry for any confusion this has led to.  
  • Oh dear! I really messed up the table in my last mail. As you’ve probably realized, the headings for the second and third columns were the wrong way round and the last line was missing. Sorry about that. This is what it should look like:

3  Check and double-check.

Read through what you’ve written very carefully – read it out loud if possible. This mail doesn’t need to be long, but it must be good – it needs to strike the right tone and it shouldn’t contain any sloppy mistakes.

4  Write a clear subject line.

It must be obvious to the recipient at a glance that this is a correction to the original mail. Here are some ideas for clear subject lines:

  • Correction – [original subject line]
  • Mistake in [original subject line]
  • Correct attachment. [original subject line]
  • And here comes the attachment for [original subject line]
  • Oops – [original subject line]

 

And finally, remember that these mistakes are really not the end of the world – nobody’s perfect and you can be pretty sure that the recipient has made the same mistake at some time.

 

A few simple tips to help you avoid mistakes:
  • Don’t enter the recipient’s address in the To field until you’re ready to send the mail. That way you can’t send it out too soon by accident.
  • Attach the attachment before you write the message.
  • Give your attachments really clear names (not just a string of letters and numbers) so that you don’t end up sending out the wrong one.
  • Be aware of your typical mistakes, whether grammar or spelling, and look out for these in every email.
  • Take time to check that autocorrect hasn’t changed the recipient’s (or your) name.
Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too.