This style guide clarifies some of the most common errors in English grammar, punctuation and usage. It is not a complete guide. For more information about style, see the articles on our newsletter page and the books listed on the resources page.
Just for fun, test your grammar skills by taking our short quiz (5 questions).
Many of us remember being taught to use the article "an" before a vowel (a, e, i, o, u). This rule is probably based on making the language sound pleasant when it is spoken. We don't like the sound of a apple, a ice cream, a operator. Instead, we prefer an apple, an ice cream, an operator.
But the rule we remember is not quite right. The correct rule is to use "an" before a vowel SOUND. For example, we say "an unidentified object" because the "u" in "unidentified" has a vowel sound. Yet we say "a useful idea" because the "u" in "useful" has the sound of "y" rather than the sound of "u."
"U" and "o" often have the sounds of "y" and "w." Those are not vowel SOUNDS, so they don't take "an." For example, an open door (the "o" has a vowel sound), but a one-hour seminar (the "o" has a "w" sound).
When an "h" is silent,
it usually gives us the sound of the vowel that follows.
We also use "an" before abbreviations that start with vowel sounds: an EFP, an HRC, an MD, an NCO, an SUV, an RN, an XKE. If we spell the word, we follow the conventions of a/an. An MD, but a medical doctor.
American business suffers from an epidemic of incorrectly used capital (upper case) letters. Here are examples of incorrect capitalization.
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Here are some guidelines.
CHECKLIST FOR CLEAR WRITING
Do you write for results? Do you communicate with confidence? If you answer "no" to more than two questions on this checklist, you can benefit from our Writing Courses.
Do you often have trouble being understood? Do you write "it is a matter of deep regret to us that you cast a negative vote on the appropriation of funds for construction of the new school" when you really mean "were sorry you voted against building the new school"?
What makes us write in this complicated, "official" style? Its usually the misguided belief that we are supposed to. The truth is that readers have a difficult time understanding writing that is unnecessarily complex. If the reader has to work too hard for meaning, the writing is ineffective, and the results can be miscommunication and wasted time for everyone.
Writing becomes foggy when we use too many words or use big words inappropriately: medication for medicine, utilize for use, purchase for buy.
As the writer, it is your job to make reading easy. Dont try to impress your reader with flowery writing. Write to express, not impress. Remember that the more technical or complicated something is to explain, the more simple the writing needs to be.
"Readability" is the term used to describe how difficult something is to read. It might surprise you that an appropriate level for most business writing is the eighth to tenth grade. For scientific or highly technical writing, you might write at the twelfth grade level. Anything beyond grade thirteen will be too difficult for most readers. Most major metropolitan newspapers, for example, are written at the sixth grade level. The Wall Street Journal is written at grade twelve. The IRS code is so complex it measures "unreadable."
How can you reduce your readability level? Simplify, simplify, simplify. Avoid too many big words (three syllables or more), and keep your sentences short (an average of 15 words per sentence, a maximum of 25).
To measure your readability, use the grammar check on your computer or do the math yourself. Using a passage of at least 100 words, add the average number of words per sentence to the percentage of words with three or more syllables. (Treat the percent as a whole number.) Multiply the total by .4 and round up or down.
How can you practice reducing fog? Just imagine that you are talking on the phone rather than writing. On the phone we usually speak in a clear, simple style: "Bring your umbrella because it might rain." Often when we write, we obscure the message with fog: "It is highly recommended that you take into consideration the utilization of appropriate foul weather gear due to the fact that precipitation is anticipated."
To write clearly, remember to use short sentences and simple words.
Use a colon before a list of items. Think of the colon as a substitute for the words "that is."
Remember that you NEVER punctuate words. You punctuate sentences. (So you cant say "and" takes a comma; "however" takes a semi-colon.) Also remember that every punctuation mark tells the reader to expect something. Dont use a comma unless you can cite a rule for it. When in doubt, leave it out. ("Put a comma where you pause" is not a rule of writing. Its a rule of reading.)
There are 46 uses for the comma. Here are the two most frequently asked about.
The hyphen is often used to create compound words that modify (describe) other words. Notice that numbers from 21 to 99 are compound words. When we write twenty-one, we are not writing twenty (20) and one (1), but 21.
How do the meanings differ in these phrases?
The difference is how the word "small" is used. In the first example we are describing a committee that deals with or perhaps is comprised of small businesses. (The committee itself might be large.)
In the second example the word "small" describes the size of the committee. The word "business" describes what kind of committee.
Remember that when we create
a compound modifier by using a hyphen, we are creating ONE word. For example,
a two-hundred-year-old house. We have created one hyphenated word to describe
Do not use a dash when you can use a comma. DASHES SHOUT. (Parentheses whisper.) Unfortunately, the dash is not on your keyboard (as is the hyphen). If your computer software is modern, you probably can create a dash by using the function keys or the "insert, symbol" on your tool bar. Dont use spaces before or after a dash.
If your computer doesn't have a dash, you must create one by using two hyphens.
Dont use a hyphen for a dash. They are not the same.
We are all sensitive about our writing, which is an extension of ourselves. So if you edit someone elses work, dont change his or her style unless it is inappropriate. Also be sure not to change the meaning. Sometimes changing a word or inserting or deleting punctuation can change the writers intent.
It is important to put your ego aside when you edit anothers work and not change something just because it is different; the change must be better. Try to make as few changes as possible when you edit someone elses work.
And please dont use red inkchoose purple or orange if you feel it is necessary to have the changes jump off the page.
That can be eliminated before a phrase if the meaning is clear without it.
That should be used when two phrases could create ambiguity. This sentence can have two interpretations.
Which is the correct meaning?
Notice how that clarifies the meaning.
Ellipses are used to indicate that a word, phrase, line or paragraph has been omitted. The correct way to punctuate the dots is with a space before each one. Ellipses can be at the beginning, the middle or the end of a sentence.
When the omission is at the end of a sentence, you will need a fourth dot for the period. In that case, there is no space before the first dot.
The word ellipses is plural. The dots are also referred to as ellipsis (singular) points.
Don't use those little dots
indiscriminately instead of commas, dashes or colons. Remember that the
number is three (sometimes plus one), not two or five or whatever strikes
HUMOR IN BUSINESS WRITING
A client recently asked about using humor in business writing. Humor is extremely subjective, so it should be used cautiously in business correspondence. What is funny to you might not be to someone else.
If you use humor, you risk offending the reader or creating a misunderstanding. However, if you know your reader especially well, a dash of humor can be refreshing. Just be certain that the humor is obvious as well as appropriate for the reader and the topic.
Writing "its" when we mean "its" is probably the most common grammar error American writers make. Memorize that ITS is a contraction for IT IS. And then learn that ITS is a possessive pronounand a possessive pronoun NEVER takes an apostrophe. Think of his, hers, yours, ours, its.
Fewer is a word that has almost disappeared from our language. We hear about less dollars, less employees, less commitments. Wrong!
Part of the problem no doubt stems from an inconsistency in English usage. After all, when we have more, one word is correct in all situations. We have, for example, more money and more dollars.
But when we have the opposite of more, we must distinguish between two words: fewer for things that can be counted, less for uncountable items.
For example, less money, fewer dollars. Less stress, fewer mistakes. Less water, fewer gallons of water.
Here are two words that are often used incorrectly, especially in speech.
"To lie" means to recline. Notice the various verb forms.
" To lay" means to place or put down. Notice the various verb forms.
Most of the "mistakes" we make in English grammar (as well as punctuation, and ESPECIALLY in spelling) have some basis in logic. Our errors are seldom just random.
So why do we confuse lie with lay? Because the infinitive for placing is "lay," and the past tense for reclining is "lay." Same word, different uses.
The most common error we make with the lie/lay combination is to use "lay" when we mean "lie." Here is an example of incorrect usage:
"I like to lay in bed late on holidays because I don't have to go to work."
So the next time you have a holiday, remember to LIE in bed late and review your grammar.
Parallel structure is a grammatical technique for creating a uniform pattern when two or more items are being compared or listed. The technique requires that each item begin with the same grammatical structure:
Remember that parentheses whisper. DASHES SHOUT.
Use parentheses to set off explanatory elements.
Imagine Tony Bennett selling a million records with a song that goes like this: My heart was left in San Francisco by me. It sounds awkward and passive. Thats because it is written in passive voice.
I left my heart in San Francisco says the same thing, but in active voice. Same message, different sentence structure.
Active voice means that at the beginning of the sentence you have an actor who is responsible for the verb. Jean opened the door. Jean is the actor. (Notice that I am using actor, not actress, to avoid sexism.)
Reverse the word order: The door was opened by Jean. Jean is still the actor, but she is at the end of the sentence. The door isnt an actor because it isnt doing anything. Something is being done to it. The door is being passive.
You dont always have an actor when you use passive voice. You can just say the door was opened, and not say who did it.
There are three ways to recognize passive voice:
Active voice has three strengths:
Passive voice gets a bad rap. Many people say not to use it; they say its bad writing. That isnt necessarily so. Passive voice can be a very good choice if used for one of these three reasons:
To hide the actors identity. "A mistake was made." We dont mean hide in a furtive sense necessarily. You might want to be diplomatic, sensitive or confidential.
When the actor is unknown, obvious or unimportant. "A telephone is often called a phone." Who calls it that? Do we care?
To emphasize who or what was acted upon. "My mom was kissed by a killer whale." The sentence is about the mom; she is more important than the whale.
Most technical, medical and scientific writing uses passive voice because there is no actor, or because the actor is obvious or unimportant. For example, the specs were written; the keyboard was redesigned; the wiring was installed.
Changing passive to active is simple: put the actor in front of the verb. My heart was left; I left my heart.
Use passive voice only for one of the three reasons above. Otherwise, use active voice. Your writing will have more force and energy--and be much more interesting to read.
If you use grammar checker on your computer, you will often be flagged for using passive voice. Now that you know when to use passive voice effectively, you can tell grammar checker to stop bothering you.
There are two very different past tenses in English. Use them correctly.
PROVERBS FOR PROOFREADING
Note: These "proverbs" play with language. For example, "Mistakery loves company" is a play on the cliché "Misery loves company." There is no such word as "mistakery."
Every sentence must have a subject, verb and a complete idea.
Dont separate two sentences (independent clauses) with a comma. Separate them with a semi-colon or use a period and a capital letter.
Style means putting words together in a way that is unique to you. When you like a certain writers work, you usually mean that his or her style appeals to you.
Style is not quite the same thing as tone, which you can change, depending on your message. Its hard to change your style, which is much like your signature or personality. Think of your style as your "voice."
We all have our own style, and we are entitled to sound like ourselves as long as the style is appropriate for the topic and audience. There is no ideal style; some people are terse, others expansive. Although some uniformity in a company or department is desirable, people should not be expected to sound alike.
Are you confused about when to use "if I WERE" vs. "if I WAS"? Why is it correct to say "I WAS working at 4 a.m." yet say "If I WERE you"? This unusual use of WERE is called the subjunctive verb. We use WERE when an "if clause" states a situation that is untrue, impossible or highly unlikely.
Since I am female, I cannot be a rich man. So I can sing, "If I WERE a rich man." And of course even though the character who sings that song in the musical, "Fiddler on the Roof," is male, he is also poor and unlikely to be rich, so he too uses the subjunctive verb and sings, "If I WERE a rich man."
Let's compare WAS and WERE.
Here are more examples:
TEN MAJOR LANGUAGE ERRORS
When in doubt about correct
versus acceptable grammar, choose what is most appropriate for your audience.
Other singular pronouns include someone, anyone, no one, everyone, somebody,
anybody, nobody, everybody. "Body" is acceptable in speech;
"one" is preferred in writing.
That can be eliminated before a phrase if the meaning is clear without it.
That should be used when two phrases could create ambiguity. This sentence can have two interpretations.
Which is the correct meaning for the sentence above?
Notice how that clarifies the meaning.
That and which create a lot of confusion. The main problem is that which can be used in two ways, that in only one.
That is used for essential material, creating what we call a restrictive clause. If essential material is eliminated, the sentence often changes meaning.
Which, on the other hand, can be used for essential or non-essential material, creating either a restrictive or non-restrictive clause.
Lets look at examples. (The complete grammatical subjectthe simple subject and all its modifiersis underlined.)
The sentence above uses a comma before the clause "which are poisonous." By using a comma here, we are saying that the clause "which are poisonous" is non-essential. Therefore, we can delete the clause and not change the meaning of the sentence. Non-essential material does not restrict the meaning of the sentence. The sentence above means
It also means
Now lets look at the identical words without the comma.
Because there is no comma in the sentence above, we are saying that all the words in the sentence are essential. The clause "which are poisonous" is part of the complete grammatical subject and therefore restricts the meaning of the sentence.
Remember, the crucial element here is that you can change meaning when you insert or delete commas. Be sure you choose the correct words when you write your sentence. Then be sure to punctuate the sentence correctly. If your modifying clause is non-essential, you must use which. And you must use a comma with which.
Notice the most important thing here: the words in both sentences are identical but the meanings differ because we used commas. The sentence above means
In other words, its all right to eat the non-poisonous mushrooms. Thats different from the first example, which said we should not eat any mushrooms.
Now that we have clarified how to punctuate that for essential material and which for non-essential material, lets look at the choices in usage.
That can be used only for essential material. And remember, we cannot use commas with essential material. So the rule is easy: dont use commas when that introduces essential material.
On the other hand, which can be used for both essential and non-essential material. This is what is so confusing.
Notice how different punctuation creates different meaning.
Dont eat the mushrooms which are poisonous.
How can we simplify this confusion? When we have essential material, we must use that. So reserve which for non-essential only.
Lets try another example. Can we write all these sentences?
Since arsenic is always poisonous, we can use only the first sentence. It means just that: arsenic is poisonous, so dont eat it.
The second and third sentences mean that its all right to eat non-poisonous arsenic. Since there is no such thing as non-poisonous arsenic, the second and third sentences cannot be written.
Much of the confusion about that and which comes from the fact that we have a choice of two words but a choice of three uses.
In other words, we have three ways of writing two things. These sentences are all correct. Notice that the first two sentences have the same meaning and have essential clauses that are part of the complete subject.
The best way to ensure that your meaning cannot be misunderstoodand to ensure that you have punctuated correctlyis to use which for non-essential material only. If you follow that convention, you will use only two words for two meanings. In other words,
TIPS FOR WRITERS
When we speak, our words account for only a portion of the message we convey. Our meaning is also interpreted through our body language and eye contact, as well as the intonation, pitch and speed of our voice. All affect the meaning of what we say.
We can have the same effect when we write. Its called tonethat is, the writing between the lines, the meaning conveyed in the words we choose rather than just in the message we are sending.
Tone is the most difficult part of writing to control because it is subjective. Two people will often have completely different responses to the same words. One person might say the tone is friendly and helpful, while someone else says it is blunt and abrasive.
Here are different ways of writing the same message. How would you characterize the tone?
Some people characterize No. 1 as demanding because they interpret SHOULD as YOU MUST (or else)! Others are not bothered at all; in fact, they feel the tone is helpful. Quite a difference, isnt it?
Many people say that No. 2 has an impersonal, bureaucratic sound. But others like being given clear, explicit orders.
Most agree that No. 3 is pleasant and courteous. That is because it has a message between the lines: Pat, were counting on you. We have chosen you for the job because we know we can rely on you to do it right.
Tone is a potential powder keg because people assign different interpretations to the same words. So what is a writer to do? Here are some guidelines.
First, choose the tone that is appropriate for the reader. What will make the reader most comfortable? Does she prefer direct and succinct communication. Does he write in a personal, friendly style?
Next, be careful when you have any negative feelings: anger, frustration, disdain. Those feelings are likely to sabotage your writing; your tone can betray you. Remember that business writing should always be professional, regardless of the topic or your feelings. If you have doubts about your tone, wait until the next day to read your letter so you have time to cool off and create some emotional distance. Or show your letter to a trusted colleague and ask how he or she would characterize the tone.
Keep in mind that pronouns such as you create closeness, so they can be assets when you have good news: You wrote a good report. But pronouns should be avoided when you have bad news and want to soften the tone: This report could use some revision.
Finally, remember that no matter how hard you try, you cant please all the people all the time with the "right" tone. Writing is an art, not a science, and tone is the most subjective, challenging part of writing. Tread cautiously.
The verb is the most important part of the language. Pay attention to the verb form you use. Some verb forms are preferable to others; here is one order of preference.
This is one of the most difficult parts of grammar to understand. What makes it confusing is that we can often use acceptable grammar when talking, yet we should use correct grammar when writing. Rules of writing are more strict than rules of speech.
When something is acceptable but not grammatically correct, we call it a colloquialism, meaning "the way we talk."
In speech, whom, the object pronoun, has almost disappeared, being replaced by who, the subject pronoun. Yet you should still use both words correctly when writing.
Heres the way to remember the grammar rule. HIM and WHOM are both objects. (They come after the verb.) If you can use HIM, you can use WHOM. What do they have in common? They both end in M.
(If you can use the subject he, you use the subject who.)
Try it with the subject. He is the director? Who is the director?
Now try it with the object. You called him? You called whom? Or, whom did you call?
You stare at the blank computer screen. You stare at the empty page. Both stare back and wait for you to write. The longer you stare, the more you block--and the more you dread writing.
Cheer up. Help is on the way.
You know what you want to say, so why are you blocked? Probably because you are making one of the most common errors of writing: youre dividing thinking and writing into separate tasks.
Professional writers know that writing is a kind of thinking. It is by writing that you find out what you know. But if you are too structured in the beginning and start to prematurely organize your ideas into perfect sentences and logical paragraphs, you will surely block your thoughts.
Here are three techniques for unblocking your thinking process.
Freewriting is one of the easiest ways to avoid writers block. Put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and let your ideas flow. Dont worry about the quality of your thoughts or clarity and organization. Pay no attention to spelling, grammar or punctuation.
Write as quickly as possible and dont stop. You can never write as fast as you can think. If you stop writing, you might miss some good ideas.
Freewriting helps you get in touch with the big picture without getting sidetracked with details. Its a non-linear activity, using the right side of the brain, which deals in concepts and abstractions. As soon as you begin to organize, edit and censor your ideas, you have moved over to the left side of the brain, where the linear thinking happens. That is where thoughts get blocked.
Mind mapping is another non-linear activity. Draw an oval in the middle of a blank page and write your topic in the center. Try to include an action verb in the topic: to explain, to persuade, to recommend. From the oval, draw numerous spokes and label them with key words.
Write subordinate ideas on additional spokes extending from the main spokes. Write as many ideas as you can, skipping around as you think of new words and concepts.
WRITING FOR OTHER CULTURES
Choosing the appropriate tone in business writing is important, especially if you are writing to someone from another culture. It is often better to be somewhat formal and conservative than to risk insulting your reader with American informality. Consider the customs of the other culture, and choose the tone accordingly.
How are people addressed?
In American culture, especially in casual California (where I live), we tend to establish business relationships on a first-name basis very quickly. However, in most countries you would be safe to use last names until the other person invites you to be informal.
What about titles?
In some countries, people are very sensitive about adding "doctor" or "Ph.D." or "engineer" after a name. Follow the lead if that is the custom.
How are women addressed?
Are they "Mrs." after a certain age, regardless of their marital status? Will women want to be addressed by the American "Ms."?
Be careful with personal pronouns.
Americans frequently use personal pronouns (especially I, you and we). Doing so is often clear and direct. But that approach can offend others. To avoid personal pronouns, you often have to write in passive voice instead of active voice. For example: "The fax was not received" instead of "He didnt send the fax."
What about idiosyncrasies of other cultures?
Find out what they are and how important they are to the reader. Some cultures require an approach that Americans might consider flowery or circumspect. Such a style often requires reading between the lines. And learning to write that way is not easy if your usual style is direct and unambiguous.
Beware of American slang, jargon and idiomatic expressions. Avoid "shortcuts" that might "leave your reader in the dark." Dont go "the whole nine yards" for the "bottom line."
Avoid generalizing about various cultures. It is unrealistically simple to think that all Asian or all South American cultures, for example, have certain traditions in common. Japanese, Korean and Chinese lifestyles and business customs can vary as much as those of San Francisco, London and Sydney.
Do your homework. To find out more about customs of specific countries, inquire at your chamber of commerce, trade organization, foreign consulates or the public library.
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