Business Writing Tip #27 – Use commas well

It’s a long tip today. Lots of information. I’ve had a couple of people ask me about using commas, so I’ve done some research and put together this post for you.

It seems to me that there are three different schools of thought on commas. These arise from historical comma usage. The thing is commas are ruled by two things – convention and rules.

  1. The ‘we don’t need them’ school of thought
  2. The ‘use them everywhere possible’ school of thought
  3. The ‘modern English’ school of thought

First Group

The first group feels commas are a waste of time and ink. People in this group don’t believe that they perform a useful function at all. They suggest we no longer need to bother with what they regard as an ‘antiquated’ piece of punctuation that serves no purpose. These people omit commas even when the ‘rule’ states that a comma must be used.

Second Group

The second group use commas everywhere. They fling them around and put them in, even in places where they are not needed. Even in places where they are wrong.

Third Group

The third group use commas:

  • Where the rules say they need them
  • At other times in places where the addition of commas makes their writing easier to understand

The Rules

So what are the rules?

There are not many absolute rules about commas, you will be relieved to hear. I will only discuss the main ones here – those that you are most likely to need.

Lists

Use commas to separate items on a list.

I visited Paris, Rome, Milan and Prague last summer. In this sentence some people would include a comma after Milan, and that’s okay. There’s no hard and fast rule about commas before conjunctions, although usually in UK and Australian English you would not put one there in a simple list. The exception is when the item following the word ‘and’ is a long expression. For example, ‘The team members were discussing the next quarter’s strategy, the training plan, and the proposed compensation and benefits changes.‘ The Chicago Manual of Style (2010) ‘strongly recommends’ using a comma before ‘and’ in lists because ‘it prevents ambiguity’.

Adjectives

These are a little like a list.

The report was well-researched, professionally written, concise, clear and thorough.

When words are put into a sentence that interrupt the flow

Sometimes we use words in the middle of a sentence that might normally be found at the beginning.

The word ‘however’ is a common culprit here. ‘My boss, however, did not agree.’

This also applies when we provide more information about something or someone within a sentence. ‘David Flynn, the deputy sales manager, did not agree with the proposal.’

With direct speech

The boss said, ‘It’s going to take far too long to complete the project if we do it like that.’

When subordinate clauses begin the sentence

If you are ever in Prague, give me a call and we’ll meet up.

(Without a comma this would be, ‘Give me a call if you are ever in Prague and we’ll meet up.’)

Before the non-restrictive relative pronoun ‘which’

This rule is as much about when to use ‘which’ and when to use ‘that’ as it is about commas. The rule is that we use a comma before the non-restrictive relative pronoun ‘which’. I can hear you asking, ‘What on earth is a non-restrictive relative pronoun?’

I’ll try and make this clear with examples. A non-restrictive relative pronoun introduces a clause that is not essential the meaning of a sentence. I am going to borrow my examples from The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (p. 59) because I think their example is very clear.

The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage. (Restrictive)

The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage. (Non-restrictive)

The first sentence tells us which lawnmower we are talking about. The restrictive clause defines.

On the other hand the second sentence tells us a fact about the only lawnmower in question. The non-restrictive clause only describes. And it is this one that uses a comma.

What about when the rules don’t apply?

My rule of thumb for using commas at other times is to read the sentence carefully watching out for two things.

  1. Are there places where you would naturally pause when reading a long sentence? If so, often a comma will help your reader. Particularly in long sentences.
  2. Is the meaning clear if you don’t include a comma? Lynne Truss includes some excellent examples in her wonderful book Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Incorrect comma usage

Correct comma usage

Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual. Leonora walked on, her head a little higher than usual
The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank and swam to the river-bank. The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank, and swam to the river-bank.

In another example that Truss gives the sentence could be perfectly correct, but add commas and the sentence has a very different meaning.

The convict said the judge is mad.’ Or is it, ‘The convict, said the judge, is mad.’

So carefully read what you have written and think about whether commas will help people understand your meaning.

If you want to delve more into the delights of comma placement, Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage, provides good advice and examples. Mark Tredinnick devotes some 15 pages to its use in The Little Green Grammar Book. He too provides excellent examples and clear explanations.

Business Writing Tip #28 – Using Lists

At work it seems like each day there is more to read. There are more emails, more journals, more articles, more reports.

Each day we are faced with hundreds, even thousands, of words.

But you write as well. You are part of the challenge. You are creating words that others have to read.

And you want people to read your words, otherwise you wouldn’t write them.

In this tip we will look at lists and how to use them to help make your writing easy to read. You see, lists are very easy for people to scan quickly.

There are two kinds of lists:

  1. Ordered lists
  2. Unordered lists

Ordered Lists

In ordered lists we use numbering. This numbering implies an order or sequence.

A numbered list can also be used, as I have done, when you want to emphasise the number of items. There are two kinds of lists, there are three possible solutions, there are ten members on the team. Or you might want to tell people to follow a sequence of actions, in order.

So if you need to put things in order, or if you want to emphasis the number of points, use a numbered list.

Bulleted Lists

  • Bulleted lists are the lists to use when you just want to list a number of things, without implying a sequence or specific order
  • These use a graphic symbol to introduce each point
  • Usually it’s a ‘bullet’, but it could be a check mark or finger pointing (often used in presentation materials).

Business Writing Tip #26 – Create and use templates

Using templates will save you time.

When you’re writing for business you have to think about two things: the content and the layout.

One of the best ways to increase your productivity is to design and use templates for types of documents that you have to produce repeatedly.

A good template serves as a prompt to help you ensure you’ve included all the information you need. It also frees up your thinking so that you can focus on expressing your thoughts well.

You can develop templates for any regular writing job. Or you can often find templates on the web that you can adapt to your purposes.

Just some of the things you can use templates for include:

  • Business plans
  • Project plans
  • Meeting reminders and calls for agenda items
  • Proposals and quotes
  • Sales letters
  • Newsletters
  • Approval letters
  • Reports
  • Meeting minutes

Remember that you can also set up email distribution lists to use when you regularly email the same people.

Business Writing Tip #25 – Pay special attention to people’s names

A person’s name is the most important word in their personal dictionary.

Getting it wrong gives the impression of carelessness, and if you’re careless about names, what else might you be careless about?

Think of this. You’re in a crowded room – it’s a party, or a networking function. You’re standing with some people talking. Then, from somewhere across the room, you hear your name. There might be all kinds of other noises around – people talking, music – but still, when someone says your name, you hear it. We are tuned in to hearing our own names. In 2006 Carmody and Lewis reported on an experiment they had done. Their findings provided ‘evidence that hearing one’s own name has unique brain functioning activation specific to one’s own name in relation to the names of others’.

Spelling a name incorrectly is not a minor error. It is an error that everyone will notice if it’s their name that’s misspelt. And once someone finds an error, subconsciously they’re on the lookout for more. It damages the credibility of what you have written; it damages your credibility; and by extension it damages the credibility of the organisation you are writing for.

So take extra care with people’s names.

Business Writing Tip #24 – Write it once, check it twice

It’s not Christmas yet, but I’ve been told that some stores have started playing the Christmas music and that they’re bringing out the decorations…

I don’t know if you’ve heard the Christmas song Santa Claus is Coming to Town. When I was writing this post, a couple of lines of the song sprang into my mind:

He’s making a list
And checking it twice

I suggest you take a lesson from Santa. When it’s important to get things right, checking it twice really helps.

Our brains work faster than our fingers. This means that we think more quickly than we can write, or type.

The result is that sometimes we miss out words. As our fingers rush across the keyboard, or push our pen across our notepad, words rush out, while other words rush into our brains.

What can we do? Of course we don’t want to think slowly. I mean, have you ever tried to slow down your thinking? Your brain naturally resists that.

Simple solution. Check your work once you’ve finished.

Check for missed words. Check for typing mistakes. Check for grammatical errors. Check your logic (your brain doesn’t always put things in the right order).

Then check it again.

Remember though, something strange can happen when we check our own work. Our brains think they’re being very clever. They fill in the gaps. Even if we’ve left something out, our brains know it was meant to be there. So we ‘see’ what should be there, rather than what is.

The second thing that happens is our brains like to get on with things. I figure they’re not too keen on going back over things we’ve done. So the first time you check something you might even be thinking about the next item on your ‘to-do’ list.

If it’s an especially important piece of writing – your division’s contribution to the annual report, a grant submission, a press release, etc. – try and leave it for a few hours before you do your final check. And get someone else to check it as well.

Business Writing Tip #23 – Be careful with your choice of pronouns

Pronouns seem to confuse people but they’re really not difficult. The form of the pronoun that you need to use depends on whether it is a subject or object in the sentence.

1.  If it’s a subject, it performs the action.

Use I, he, she, they , we, who.

2.  If it’s an object, it receives the action.

Use me, him, her, them, us, whom

Not really so confusing, is it?

Examples

Here’s an example with an incorrect sentence, and a way to work out if it’s incorrect or not, and how to fix it by stating the unstated verb.

Incorrect: Jacob is older than her.

To work out if it’s correct, put in the verb that is understood, not stated.

Jacob is older than she is.

So the correct pronoun is she.

Correct: Jacob is older than she.

Another example where the confusion comes from having a list of nouns.

Incorrect: The competition judges awarded certificates to Carol, Ziad and myself.

To work out the correct pronoun, just remove the others from the list.

Incorrect: The competition judges awarded certificates to myself.

Wrong. You wouldn’t say that, would you? You would say they awarded certificates to me.

The correct sentence is:

The competition judges awarded certificates to Carol, Ziad and me.

This second error, using myself incorrectly, is very common. I see it just about every day, and hear it more often. To make sure you’re not making the error, just take the others from the list.

If you’ve written, ‘Please copy it to John and myself’, think about how you would say it if you took John out. ‘Please copy it to me.’ Put John back in and it’s still ‘me’.

Here’s a useful chart of pronouns that was put together by Kaye Mastin Mallory. It includes a handy row with an example where you can test which pronoun to use.

Copyright (C) Kaye Mastin Mallory / English-Zone.Com

Writing well is not just something that you do for pure delight. You may, in fact, hate writing. But your business writing is a reflection of your organisation and its brand. Potential customers will judge your organisation on the messages they receive. If they are full of poor grammar, typing errors and spelling mistakes, your potential customers may think that your work is shoddy, not up to par. Pronouns may seem like small things, but it’s important to get them right.

Business Writing Tip #22 – Be active

Whenever you can use the active voice rather than the passive. The sentence structure—subject, verb, object—is much more familiar to people and they can read it quickly.

In the active voice the subject performs the action.

Compare, ‘The tiger bit me’, and, ‘I was bitten by the tiger’. Both sentences mean essentially the same thing. My leg still hurts. But the emphasis is slightly different.

In the first example the tiger bit me; It wasn’t a cat or dog—it was the tiger. The tiger performed the action. The emphasis is on the tiger.

In the second example I was bitten by the tiger; it wasn’t my friend who was bitten, it wasn’t the zoo keeper. I was bitten. And I didn’t do anything. ‘I’, the subject of the sentence, didn’t perform any action—apart from screaming after being bitten.

Both the active and passive voices have their place in good, clear business writing.

The passive voice is often used when the writer/speaker doesn’t want to say who was responsible. Think of politicians stating, ‘Mistakes were made’. The passive version saying who was responsible sounds clumsy. ‘Mistakes were made by this government.’ ‘We made mistakes’ is much cleaner, easier to understand. But politicians don’t usually want to say that they made mistakes.

We also use it when the subject is unknown, or unimportant.

So write, ‘Barbara chaired the meeting” rather than, “The meeting was chaired by Barbara’.

If you use the passive voice, make sure you know why you are using it. Use it carefully and deliberately.

Back to the politicians:

‘The economy was a mess. We’re going to fix it.’ The implication is someone else messed up the economy. The speaker is distancing themselves from the mess and identifying themselves with fixing it.

This is quite different from, ‘We messed up the economy. We’re going to fix it.’

In summary, there are two main things to consider when deciding which voice to use.

  1. Most readers find the active voice easier to read and understand
  2. Think about what you want to emphasise and whether you want to identify who or what is responsible

 

Business Writing Tip #21 – Signing off

How you sign off depends on whether you are writing a letter or an email, and whether you know the person’s name or not.

When you don’t know the name of the person (Dear Sir/Madam) UK English: Yours faithfully                            US English: Sincerely, Yours truly or Best regards
When you know their name (Dear Ms Jones) Yours sincerely

Other closings that are generally accepted in modern business correspondence, closings that I think are most appropriate for emails, include:

  • Best regards
  • Best wishes
  • Kind regards
  • Many thanks
  • Respectfully yours
  • Warm regards

With business correspondence, even if you know the person well, it is best to use a professional sign off like “regards” rather than sending hugs and kisses to the recipient. There are, of course, many less formal sign offs. I suggest you check your organisation’s guidelines before using these:

Informal sign-offs are best kept for friends

  • Be good
  • Be well
  • Cheerio
  • Cheers
  • I’m out
  • More to come
  • Smiles
  • Ta ta for now
  • Take care
  • Take it easy
  • Until next time

While you may think that your correspondence is private, the truth is that many business
emails end up in the public domain. Always remember that you are representing your organisation.

 

Business Writing Tip #20 – Are you excited?

Today’s tip is short and simple.

Avoid using exclamation marks (or exclamation points if you are from the US).

It does not matter how excited you are. It does not matter how informal you are being. A string of exclamation marks immediately marks out your business writing as unprofessional.

One is all you need…

When you want to convey excitement, use words. If you feel the situation really merits an exclamation mark (and I have yet to see a business situation that does), limit it to one.

All you need is one!

 

Business Writing Tip # 19 – Be Specific, Be Concrete

Be specific. Be concrete. By spelling things out you make it easier for people to understand. You are also more credible.

If you find yourself writing something like, ‘Funds have been set aside for the refurbishment of various assets’, ask yourself what you really mean, what it is that you’re trying to say. Does this sentence mean anything at all? Look at the words and phrases.

  • Funds – how much?
  • Have been set aside – by whom? Who is footing the bill?
  • Refurbishment – modernization, replacement or a lick of paint?
  • Various – which ones?
  • Assets – what are they? Buildings, cars, photocopiers, printers?

Now look at this sentence:

‘The Sydney division of the company has set aside $500,000 dollars to replace all the computing equipment and upgrade the photocopiers.’

We now know exactly who is paying, what the budget is, and what it’s for.

This tip is important when you’re answering questions at job interviews.

Compare, ‘I supervised a team of ten with a budget of $4 million and our sales increased by 30% year on year from 2005 to 2008’ and, ‘I supervised a big team with a pretty good budget. Our sales increased every year’.

Which example gives you more information, and coincidentally is also more credible. When you have numbers you can check facts.

Here are some other examples of specific and general words/phrases:

About Relating to the situation regarding
Door Entranceway
TV, radio Broadcast media
Trains, buses and trams Public transportation facilities
At 1500 hours In the afternoon

Remember you want to make things easy for your reader. When you send an email, avoid using words like ‘the current situation’. Your reader may be in the midst of 5 or 6 different ‘current situations’. Be specific and spell it out.