Tag Archives: business English

What Is Business Writing?

© Judi Birnberg

 

Somewhere, somehow, people in the business world got the idea that using everyday English for their written communications was just not professional. The simplest sentence turned into a Pronouncement From On High. It was taboo to write As we discussed yesterday. Writing As per our previous conversation/dialog yesterday…. was suddenly seen as elegant and professional. The Latin phrase and redundancy made it even weightier. Bravo for you, middle manager!

I spent over 20 years in the corporate world leading business writing seminars in which participants came to see this stilted and pretentious style of writing as an impediment to communication. I urged them to write as if they were speaking to the recipient sitting across their desk. No one speaks in that bureaucratic manner, so why write that way? Obviously, the corporations that hired me knew what I was teaching and wanted their employees to lose the jargon. I did my little part, but I am quite sure the pompous style still lives at many companies. Simple, straightforward, everyday English ensures that all recipients will understand the message. It saves time and money. Questions about intent are no longer necessary. Say what you mean, just as if you were talking to your audience face to face. Business writing is clear, direct, and concise. That’s all it takes.

 

 

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Similar Sentences, Different Outcomes

I’ve had a book for eons, Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About English (but were afraid to raise your hand), by Maxwell Nurnberg. Many of the exercises make you think. Look at these pairs of very similar sentences and answer the questions:

A. Which sounds more conspiratorial?

  1. We’d like to invite you to dessert with us tomorrow evening.
  2. We’d like to invite you to desert with us tomorrow evening.

B. Which draft board’s needs were the greatest?

  1. The medical board accepted men with perforated eardrums.
  2. The medical board excepted men with perforated eardrums.

C. Which question would an investigator ask about a specific group?

  1. Were there voices raised in protest?
  2. Were their voices raised in protest?

D. Which Joe is the eager beaver?

  1. Joe submitted to many orders.
  2. Joe submitted too many orders.

E. Which statement is concerned with ethical standards?

  1. The principles in the case are well known.
  2. The principals in the case are well known.

Remember, if you write an actual word, even if it’s wrong, your spellchecker won’t pick it up. Proofread meticulously.

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There’s a Name for It

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Have you noticed how so many politicians drone on and on and on and on, frequently using the conjunction and, as I just did, to connect clauses, phrases, and complete (and sometimes incomplete) sentences? Trust me, they do it:

“And just let me add, Ms. Reporter, that we are going to have a budget by next week, and some people have said we won’t have one until September, and I know they are skeptical, and I want to reassure you that the American people won’t be willing to wait that long, and you’ll see how efficiently Congress can work.”

Wake up, please, just long enough for me to tell you that using a conjunction repetitively is a figure of speech called polysyndeton.  You will probably forget that Greek word in about 15 seconds, as will I, but we can at least recognize that poly means many, as in many, many ands, ors, buts, fors, and yets.

Sloppy speech and writing result from lazy thinking. It really is a good idea to choose your words carefully before committing them to the screen or the airwaves.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt.”

This quotation is variously attributed to Lincoln, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson, and that most prolific of authors, Anonymous.

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Quotation Marks, Part 7 (!)

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We don’t know who made up all these punctuation rules; they are merely for convenience and ease of reading. So here goes with one more on the use of quotation marks.

You remember that periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, right? Here’s another “always” rule:

Colons and semicolons always go outside quotation marks:

The English teacher told us that tomorrow we will read “Mending Wall”; no one in the class knew the poem’s author was Robert Frost.

I needed only one thing before reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: a thesaurus.

 

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What’s Wrong With These Sentences?

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© Judi Birnberg                     Here’s a collage I made when I was 16.

There is a million different reasons why you should finish your assignments as soon as possible.

Here is/Here’s the recipes for the cookbook your are compiling for our children’s school fundraiser.

I see and hear sentences like these frequently. They contain an agreement problem. The subjects of the sentences are reasons and recipes, respectively. Both are plurals. But the introductory parts, There is and Here is, are both singular. You’re going to need There are and Here are. You can also use There’s or Here’s if the subject is singular.

Incidentally, when sentences start with There is, There are, Here is, Here are, the subject is always going to be the first noun following those introductory clauses. The subjects are never There or Here. Therefore, if you use this construction, find the subject by looking at the first noun after it and use There is or There are and Here is or Here are accordingly. Easy, right?

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Trite Expressions

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TRITE—Overused, worn out, lacking in originality

Just about anything can be trite: art, music, dance, food (think kale salads). But this blog is concerned with language, so that’s what we’ll focus on today. Read through these trite expressions and then vow to avoid them whenever possible. It will always be possible; just think of straightforward alternatives. You can do it.

  • No sooner said than done
  • By hook or by crook
  • Busy as a bee
  • A bolt from the blue
  • Few and far between
  • In this day and age
  • Words fail me
  • By leaps and bounds
  • Better late than never
  • A good time was had by all
  • Breathed a sigh of relief
  • From the ridiculous to the sublime
  • It’s a small world
  • Life and limb
  • Sticks out like a sore thumb
  • To all intents and purposes
  • In the final analysis

In the final analysis, I hope you can see why it’s better to avoid these expressions.

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Proofreading for Me, Myself, Personally, and I

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Apparently, Steve Coogan has never seen himself as a paragon of good writing, either.

Have you ever heard another person say or write something similar to the following sentence?  I myself personally am opposed to the senator’s proposal.

I myself personally find that sentence exceedingly painful. It contains a triple redundancy. Get rid of the clutter. Say what you mean. Get in, get out.

Personal and its relative personally are often redundant. Why say you have close personal friends? If they’re close friends, obviously they are people you know well. When you state, “Personally, I enjoy skiing,” that’s the way you feel. Personally adds nothing but redundant clutter.

  • Proofreading involves more than looking for typos. Proofread for spelling errors, grammar and punctuation problems, content, awkward phrasing, redundancies, clichés, parallelism, jargon and slang. If that seems too much to look for on one go-through, proofread more than once, looking for just a few problems (or even one) at a time. Your readers will thank you, and your writing will show you to be a professional.

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