Our blog explores all aspects of writing and proofreading, and passes along effective business writing tips. Do you have questions or concerns about workplace writing? Then join our discussion!
During an interview, professional business writer Marcus Buckingham said, “I don’t think about rules at all [while writing]. Split infinitives and so forth? I split infinitives all the time. I don’t care much about that stuff. I try to write aggressively, with purpose.”
Research backs up this approach. Mike Rose, Professor of Education at UCLA, came to this conclusion about the composing process of freshmen college students:
“There lies the irony. Students that offer the least precise rules and plans have the least trouble composing. The five students who experienced blocking were all operating either with writing rules or with planning strategies that impeded rather than enhanced the composing process. The five students who were not hampered by writer’s block also utilized rules, but they were… few and functional… less rigid ones.”
Professional writers only keep a handful of pragmatic, easy-to-apply rules in their heads while writing, such as, “Is what I just wrote clear?” “Does this idea logically flow from my previous idea?” “Can I write this more simply?” You should do the same.
Digital communications are addictive, which makes it easy for them to become the primary (and in some cases the only) way to interact with your team. Here’s an excellent reminder from the chapter on email writing in the Guide to Naval Writing. While it applies to managing people on ships, this sage advice is also germane to businesses.
“Although electronic communication is a part of a job, it’s not all of it. Yes, leadership is always embodied in words… However… leadership is a contact sport, especially on board ship. Get out into the work spaces, among your people. Don’t succumb to the temptation to try to lead from your desk.”
“Each patient must be told upfront how much they will pay for an office visit.” The pronoun they refers back to patient. But patient is singular and they is plural. According to the “rules,” pronouns and their antecedents must agree in number—so what gives?
Not that long ago, this sentence would have been written: “Each patient must be told upfront how much he will pay for an office visit.” But we don’t know if the gender of the patient is a he or a she. Those in charge of the English language have never created a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a gender-neutral noun, so over the centuries, writers relied on their writer’s intuition to do what they felt was correct in a given situation.
In the last few years, however, several of the powers that be in the world of the English language chose the word they as the gender-neutral pronoun.
The American Dialect Society’s website states that 200 of its linguists “voted for they used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun as the Word of the Year for 2015. They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she…. The use of singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.”
The editors of Time magazine noted that “they is now a recognized and grammatically correct singular pronoun.”
The Washington Post style guide, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the Oxford Dictionary all recognize the singular they as a gender-neutral pronoun. Merriam-Webster points out that “the word they (with its counterparts them, their, and themselves) as a singular pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified gender has been used since at least the 16th century.”
Several gender-neutral pronouns have been invented (ne, ve, ey, ze, and xe), but they have not caught on and never will because they sound like a foreign language and look odd in an English sentence: When the student finished reading the book, ne took a long walk. (with ne taking the place of he or she)
Over the last 10 years and counting, using less punctuation has slowly become a trend. Writers will eliminate the comma before too in sentences such as, “I attended the meeting too.” The Chicago Manual of Style says, “In most … cases, commas with this short adverb are unnecessary.”
Even nonrestrictive clauses are not always set off by commas if leaving them out does not confuse a reader. For example, “California was a province of Mexico from 1821 until 1848 when Mexico ceded it to the U.S.” Because “when Mexico ceded it to the U.S.” is a nonrestrictive (or nonessential) clause that adds extra information, it would typically be set off by a comma before when.
Here’s what the GPO Style Manual, the style guide for the federal government, says about punctuation.
“Punctuation is used to clarify the meaning of written or printed language. Well-planned word order requires a minimum of punctuation. The trend toward less punctuation calls for skillful phrasing to avoid ambiguity and to ensure exact interpretation. The GPO Style Manual can offer only general rules of text treatment. A rigid design or pattern of punctuation cannot be laid down, except in broad terms. The adopted style, however, must be consistent and based on sentence structure.
The general principles governing the use of punctuation are: If it does not clarify the text it should be omitted; and, in the choice and placing of punctuation marks, the sole aim should be to bring out more clearly the author’s thought. Punctuation should aid reading and prevent misreading.”
The official name for brackets is square brackets. In business writing, brackets are primarily used as parentheses within parentheses, for example, “Acme Technology decided to locate its headquarters in New York (the CEO’s home though other executives [two senior vice presidents] also live there) instead of San Francisco.”
Brackets are also used to enclose words added by someone other than the original writer or speaker: “According to her [the sales manager] the monthly quotas have been exceeded by 10 percent.”
Use pronouns to sound personal and friendly, yet professional, in your business letters, emails, and memos. I like this explanation from plainlanguage.gov: “Pronouns help the audience picture themselves in the text and relate better to your documents. More than any other single technique, using ‘you’ pulls users into your document and makes it relevant to them. When you use ‘you’ to address users, they are more likely to understand what their responsibility is. Using ‘we’ to refer to your agency [or company] makes your agency [or company] more approachable. It also makes your sentences shorter and your document easier to read.” That’s it in a nutshell!
Here are five writing tips that professional writers use.
1. Tackle big writing jobs—and complex, frustrating ones no matter what the size—in small bites. Set a timer for 30 minutes (or 10 to begin with and increase the time as the project progresses) and start writing. Once the timer goes off, stop writing. Set a schedule: take three to five “bites” out of the project the first day and continue from there.
2. The best time to write… is right now! Don’t wait for the perfect time to write; you’ll accomplish very little if you do.
3. Write in a professional yet conversational tone. Use “you” and “we.”
4. Take time out from writing to procrastinate. It’s okay to take breaks while writing, but limit each procrastination to 5-10 minutes and don’t leave your desk. Use a timer, and when it goes off, get back to work!
5. Your first draft doesn’t have to make sense. Just start writing. Get all of your ideas down no matter how jumbled they may look on the screen/page, and clean up the draft later.
Before starting a writing project, write a brief description of your audience. Do not simply write: sales force. Write: “sales force, highly trained, most with college degrees, 50% men/50% women, overachievers, overworked, and feel left out of the loop here at headquarters.” Such a profile will allow you to write your letter or report with their point of view firmly in mind
You are your own worst proofreader. That’s a common theme in the writing world. Because we are so close to the words we write, we will often read “in our heads” what is not actually on the page. We see the word “conect” on the page, but read “connect” in our heads. That’s how typos slip through the cracks. Here are four tips to help you prevent typos.
1) Let someone else read your work.
2) Turn on the auto-correct feature on your computer.
3) Read what you write out loud.
4) Read what you write backwards. That’s right: starting with the last word you wrote, read right to left. This way, each word stands out and you will not gloss over any typos in the document.
But of course you can. Here’s what Garner’s Modern American Usage has to say on the topic: “It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with but is stylistically slipshod. In fact, doing so is highly desirable in any number of contexts, as many stylebooks have said (many correctly pointing out that but is more effective than however at the beginning of a sentence).”
The Chicago Manual of Style agrees: “There is widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.”
For example: Everyone decided to vote against Bob’s idea. But Pat disagreed.
So there you have it. If beginning a sentence with but “works” or “sounds right” for the sentence you are writing, then do it.