Business Writing Tip #65—The Dash

In this tip we’re going to look at how to use the dash—or rather, how to use two different dashes.

Did you know that there were two? One is called the m-dash and the other is the n-dash. Strange names you might think. But quite logical. The m-dash takes up the same amount of space as the letter ‘m’ and the n-dash takes up the space of, you guessed it, the letter ‘n’.

How do we choose which one to use?

The m-dash is used to mark a break in a sentence.  Here are some examples of different kinds of breaks where an m-dash is just the thing:

Used in pairs, like parentheses

  • The manager was involved—in fact the prime mover—in the decision to relocate the team.

Used alone to introduce an example of something that came beforeCharles-Bridge-Prague

  • If you’ve been to Prague you must have seen it—nobody misses Charles Bridge.

To introduce an aside by the writer

  • The decision to relocate was made for a range of excellent reasons—and at least we now have more space.

An n-dash really only has one use. It shows sequences.

  • 2012 – 2103
  • A – L and M – Z

Both of these dashes are longer than the hyphen.

Business Writing Tip #64—Parentheses

parenthesesSome people have asked me when they should use parentheses. The main use of parentheses is to show that the words enclosed in them aren’t essential to the meaning of the sentence. They provide additional information. Sometimes it might be information that doesn’t fit into the grammatical structure of the sentence. At other times they are used by writers to make a personal comment.

Here are two examples (taken from Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation):

He coined the term hypnotism (from the Greek hypnos, meaning ‘sleep’) and practised it frequently.

This is also known as junk email … or spam. Obviously it’s impossible to distribute processed luncheon meat electronically at this time (and hopefully it’ll never happen).

You can also use them to clarify numbers.

The new office furniture will cost about ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

Basically you use parentheses when something you write is a little bit out of place in your sentence. This is particularly used in informal English, perhaps in an email.

I’m heading out now (date night!!), but I’ll phone you to chat about the meeting tomorrow.

Hope this helps.


Business Writing Tip #62—Ambiguous Headlines

I love English, and I love spotting the errors that so many of us (including me) make with the language.

One of my favourite pastimes is finding errors in headlines in newspapers. Now, you wouldn’t really expect professional writers to make errors, but we do. We’re all human after all. I would just say you need to take care when you are writing a headline, a heading, or a subject line for an email.headlines

There are two main reasons things go wrong in these kinds of text. Usually the authors:

  1. Avoid using punctuation, and
  2. Don’t form complete sentences.


To give an example of the perils, here’s a headline I copied from a newspaper some years back.

Lack of facilities in schools to hit children

Of course, and thankfully, when we think about it we realise that they mean that the children will be affected by a lack of facilities, rather than the schools don’t have enough children-hitting facilities.

But you can see how easy it is for the meaning to be misconstrued.

It makes for great fun, but you don’t want people to remember your business writing because of how much they laughed!

Just to give you another example of unclear meaning, here’s a headline that was analysed on the website

Gadhafi Forces Retreat

Did Gadhafi force a retreat, or did Gadhafi’s forces retreat? Without reading the article, we’ll never know…

So read your headlines carefully before you publish. Better yet, ask someone else to read them for you.

Business Writing Tip #61—Avoid Stuffy, Outdated Expressions

Today’s tip is a short one.

Unless you want to sound very stuffy and old-fashioned, avoid using words and phrases that are never used in conversation. Or, in other words, if you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it! conversation

Here are some examples of expressions to avoid:

  • Attached herewith…
  • This is to advise you…
  • As per your request…

There are simple, elegant, plain English alternatives which are perfectly polite.

  • I have attached (or enclosed)…
  • I’m writing to let you know… (in some cases you don’t even need this.)
  • As requested…

I think my favourite of all time was when I received a letter which finished with the words

“I remain, Sir, your obedient servant.”

I seriously had to wonder which century I was living in…and why the author addressed me as a man.

Business Writing Tip #60—Building Sentences: Auxiliary Verbs

Last time we looked at action verbs and linking verbs. In this post we’ll look at auxiliary, or helping, verbs.

Photo by Mandajuice. Creative Commons.

Photo by Mandajuice. Creative Commons.

Auxiliary verbs add something to the main verb. They always come before the main verb. The auxiliary verb and the main verb together are called the “complete verb” or a “verb phrase” (depending on what book you read). These verbs can show differences in meaning and can suggest the time at which the action of the verb takes place.

There are nine auxiliary verbs that are always helping verbs. These verbs are never the main verb. They can’t stand alone.

These nine verbs are:

May Might Must
Could Would Should
Can Will Shall

In the examples in this post the auxiliary verbs are in bold type, and the main verbs are underlined.

  • You should arrive at the meeting on time.
  • You will need help from the sales department to prepare the quarterly report.
  • You must use the fire stairs to exit the building if there is a fire.

As well as these nine verbs, there are three others which can be helping verbs, but which can also take the part of the main verb in a sentence.

These are ‘be’, ‘do’ and ‘have’.

Their forms are:

Be Is Are Was Were Be Being Been
Do Do Does Did
Have Has Have Had

Take a look at the following examples. In the first sentence of each pair the verb is performing the role of a main verb, and in the second sentence it’s an auxiliary verb.

  1. She was an excellent supervisor.
  2. The report was written by a committee formed with representatives from each department.


  1. He does everything you tell him to do, but he doesn’t ever take the initiative.
  2. When you push her, she does finish her work by the deadlines.


  1. They have enough space in their office to add an extra desk.
  2. They have participated in this introductory training course. Now they need to do the advanced one.

Until next time …