T.S. Eliot once said, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” The English language was following that dictum centuries before Eliot was born. No fewer than 600,000 words have been used in English writing since the twelfth century. So where did they all come from? We, that is, English speakers since the dawn of the language, were very good at stealing them. For example, alcohol and alkali are from Arabic, amok from Malay, bizarre from Basque, okay from West Africa, taboo from Tahitian, and the list goes on and on and on. In 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary‘s latest update added 1,400 new words to the language, from bongga (Tagalog for impressive, excellent or stylish) to belly-bumper (a U.S. term for a head-first ride down a hill on a sled, though it was also used in the 17th century to denote a Rabelaisian womanizer). The English language is a living, constantly expanding organism—and how fun it is to watch it grow!
Even the best writers make mistakes. It’s part of the writing process. To discover your errors, read everything you write out loud. You will “hear” the mistakes. And read everything you write from your audience’s point of view; this is often difficult to do (because it’s hard to gauge what your audience knows and doesn’t know about your topic), but practice makes perfect.
When corresponding with customers and executives, keep it professional. Professional writing is formal—no clipped sentences, no jokes, no slang, etc.—yet has a friendly, conversational tone. To achieve a professional, friendly tone, role play as a journalist for a high-end publication while writing. Think of your business document as more of an article in The Wall Street Journal.
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh
Because acronyms are read and function as regular words, they are rarely preceded by an article—a, an, or the—in a sentence. However, when they are preceded by an article, choosing a, an, or the depends on how the sentence would sound when read aloud. For example:
“When NATO asked NASA to form a committee, a WHO director became chairperson.”
Because initialisms are read as a string of letters, they often take a, an, or the. For example:
“An MIT graduate was required to take a writing test at the FDA office.”
It’s actually quite simple: technical writing has technical content. That’s the bottomline. Your approach to technical writing should be the same approach you take to non-technical writing. Here is the “Checklist of the Writing Process” from the opening pages of the Handbook of Technical Writing: Establish your purpose, identify your audience, brainstorm, conduct research, outline your notes and ideas, adopt the appropriate style and tone, construct effective paragraphs. The list goes on, but it sounds familiar, right? That’s because it’s the same one you’ll find in any high school or college writing textbook. One problem with technical writing is that too many novice technical writers think that because technical subject matter is complicated, that writing about it should also be complicated. Not so. Don’t overcomplicate the skill of technical writing by thinking it’s complicated.
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.”