I Versus We

Marina’s question: “When do I use ‘I’ in a document and when do I use ‘we’? Are they interchangeable?”

BizWritingTip blog response: First of all, yes, you can use both I and we in the same business document. Years ago, you were only supposed to use “we.” Nowadays, I means you personally. We refers to everyone who works for your organization.

If you have any questions, please contact us. (Someone in the organization will help you.)
If you have any questions, please contact me. (I will help you.)

It’s interesting how personal pronouns tend to increase your reader’s “buy in” to your message. The more personal pronouns, the warmer the tone — particularly the pronoun “you.” A great guideline is to aim for seven personal pronouns per 100 words.

As per your request (boring and outdated)
As requested (cold)
As you requested (warm)

Note: Have you ever wondered why you get bored reading formal reports? It’s normally because there are no personal pronouns.

Writing Style – To Verb or Not to Verb

Deane’s question: “In sports, news nouns, such as ‘summit’ and ‘medal,’ are often treated as if they were verbs. For example, someone will write: ‘I don’t expect them to medal in that tournament,’ or ‘he is expected to summit Mount Everest this afternoon.’ Is this correct in formal writing?”

BizWritingTip response: What you are concerned about even has a name. It is called “verbing.” Verbing is a way of creating new words out of old ones. Nowadays, we might head up a task force, hand over an assignment, or referee a game. We might also email or text a friend.

It has been estimated that up to a fifth of English verbs are derived from nouns — including verbs such as rain, snow, and hail.

New forms of words take some getting used to. But the truth is if those forms stick around for a while, we do get used to them.

However, when writing in the business world — regardless of whether you are preparing a formal or informal document — I would not recommend getting creative with your word choice. (I once received an email recommending we Calvinize at an upcoming conference. In other words, wear jeans.) Stick with words that would be familiar to your reader. In business writing, your role is to inform your reader – not distract them with your “brilliance.”

Have you been verbed lately?

Writing Style – Capitalization

Pam’s question: “Please provide a simple explanation on when federal should be capitalized and when it shouldn’t. The question applies to other modifiers like state or national.”

BizWritingTip response: Years ago, when in doubt you were told to capitalize a word. Now the guideline is when in doubt use lowercase.

When it comes to words such as federal, state, provincial, government, or national, only capitalize the word when it is part of a proper noun. A proper noun is the official name of a person, place, or thing.

He wants a job with the federal government. (general category)
She will contact the Federal Trade Commission. (proper name)
I have worked for the Ontario government. (non-official name)
I worked for the Government of Ontario. (proper name)
Is the issue subject to federal, state, or local laws? (general categories)

Closing Lines in Business Documents

Heather’s question: “In one of your biztips, you closed with ‘Trust this helps.’ Should it not be ‘I trust this helps’?”

BizWritingTip response: You are right in your thinking. “Trust this helps” is not a complete sentence. However, in business writing, it is common practice to be a little less strict with our closing lines in electronic messages.

Examples (informal closes)
Looking forward to seeing you.
Hope you have a good weekend.

All effective business writers understand the three tones of business writing: formal, neutral, and informal. The formal tone is used for reports and for official letters. It rigidly adheres to all grammar rules, but the tone can come across as rather stiff. The emphasis is on the writer or the writer’s organization.

Example (formal close)
I trust this information helps.

When reading most letters and emails, readers tend to prefer a style that sounds more conversational. It usually increases your reader’s buy-in of the message.

Note: I am not recommending disregarding grammar rules in letters and emails. My comments relate only to the closing line.

Writing Style – Numbers Beginning a Sentence

Kathryn’s question: “When starting a sentence with a number, should it be printed numerically or alphabetically?”

BizWritingTip response: Here is a great example of how technology drives changes in our writing. The rule in this instance was quite simple. If a number started a sentence, you had to write it out. And you would always rearrange your sentence so it didn’t start with a year.

One hundred and twenty-five people attended the seminar. (correct)
125 people attended the seminar. (incorrect style)
2013 was a year of strange weather patterns. (incorrect style)
Strange weather patterns occurred in 2013. (correct)

This is a rule I still follow when preparing letters, reports, brochures, and more formal emails.
However, when it comes to sending an email from a handheld device, I admit to starting the sentence with the number written as a number. It is faster and less risky with my “fat fingers.” Many people are now doing this. It just makes life easier, and it is becoming common practice.

Writing Style – He Versus They

Nicole’s question: “I recently received an email from an employee looking for clarity between he and they.  If you are not sure of the gender would you say ‘He will attend training’ or ‘They will attend training’?”

BizWritingTip response:  The answer to this question has changed over time.  In the past, writers used the pronouns he, his, him or himself when unsure of the gender.   The pronouns were considered all inclusive.   However, this is now considered outdated and sexist.

Examples  (grammatically correct but outdated)
If your child wants to attend med school, he should study hard. (What about your daughter?)
A politician should post his expenses on line.  (What about female politicians?)

There are now other options to make your writing “gender-neutral.”

1.   You could make the noun plural and rework the rest of the sentence.

If your children want to attend med school, they should study hard. (And you better start saving.)
Politicians should post their expenses on line.
They will attend training.

2.   You could use he or she or his or her or he/she or his/her.

If your child wants to attend med school, he or she should study hard.
A politician should post his/her expenses on line.
He/she will attend training.

Although awkward, this can work well — as long as you don’t have to keep repeating he or she or his /her throughout a lengthy document.*

3.   According to the Oxford Dictionaries Online, although it is not grammatically correct, the practice of using plural pronouns to refer to a singular noun is now acceptable. *

If your child wants to attend med school, they should study hard.
A politician should post their expenses on line.

*      If your organization has a style guide, naturally you would follow its advice.

Writing Style – Commas After But?

Taranjit’s question:  “Should we put a comma after ‘but’ in the following sentence: I am sorry to hear you’re leaving the department. But (comma?) I know you will enjoy your new position.”

BizWritingTip response: Good question. If your connecting word is only one syllable (e.g., and or but), do not place a comma after it.

Examples (correct)
I am sorry to hear you’re leaving the department. But I know you will enjoy your new position. (one-syllable connector = no comma)
You should complete the report by the end of the month. And please work with the communications department to ensure it follows our style guide. (one-syllable connector = no comma)

If the connecting word or phrase is two syllables or more (e.g., however, therefore, in addition), then you place a comma after it.

I am sorry to hear you’re leaving the department. However, I know you will enjoy your new position. (Two-syllable connector = comma)
The report must be completed by the end of the month. In addition, please work with the communications department to ensure it adheres to our style guide. (Two-syllable connector = comma)

Writing Style – Starting a Sentence With “But”

Tammy’s question: “I’ve always thought that it is not appropriate to start a sentence using ‘but.’ What are your thoughts?”

BizWritingTip response: Starting a sentence with but is not a grammar error. It is a style issue.

In the academic world, the writing style is formal. Therefore, starting a sentence with but would be inappropriate as it comes across as casual. (Note: Over the past year, I have been hearing that some elementary school teachers are now accepting and and but as sentence starters.)

In the business world, effective writers use two different styles or tones: a formal one for reports and a more conversational one for emails. If I was writing a report, I would use however or on the other hand. If I was writing an email, I would use but.

Most of today’s readers tend to pay more attention to messages written with a conversational tone.

I am sorry to hear you are leaving the department. However, I know you will enjoy your new position. (Formal)
I am sorry to hear you’re leaving the department. But I know you will enjoy your new position. (More conversational)

Another Option: This sentence could also be rewritten as a compound sentence.
I am sorry you’re leaving the department, but I know you will enjoy your new position. The issue here is that the longer the sentence, the more likely it is that readers will skim the first part. The “I am sorry” is de-emphasized.

If I wanted to sound warm and friendly and to have my readers absorb both points, I would write short sentences and connect them with “but.”

I realize this information will upset some readers. But business writing requires us to be persuasive and to find ways to increase our reader’s “buy in” to the message.

Writing Style – Contractions in Minutes

Marg’s question: “My manager says I can’t use contractions in my minutes. What do you think?”BizWritingTip response: First, contractions are words that are shortened by replacing a letter or letters with an apostrophe.

Cannot = can’t
It is/it has = it’s
We will = we’ll

Contractions are not wrong, but they are considered a less formal way of writing. Contracted words are fine for emails and some letters. You would not use them in reports or business cases.

Second, board minutes are considered formal documents so it would not be appropriate to use contractions in them. If you are writing informal minutes for a weekly staff meeting or for a committee that was established handle one event, e.g., planning a fund-raising activity, contractions would be fine.

To sum up, avoid contractions when preparing documents you want to come across as formal or official; use contractions when you want your writing to sound more conversational.

Writing Style – Smothered Verbs

Paul’s question: “My manager was talking about smothered verbs last week. What are they and why should we avoid them?”BizWritingTip response: Smothered verbs deal with style. There is nothing wrong with them grammatically.

Smothered verbs are created when writers take our strong English verbs and turn them into nouns. They then have to insert another verb to make the sentence make sense. Writers think it makes them sound more professional.

I have a preference for (“Have a preference for” is a smothered verb.)
I prefer (The verb is not smothered.)
The accountant conducted an analysis of the figures. (smothered verb)
The accountant analyzed the figures.

Smothered verbs make sentences lengthy, and the tone is not as strong. If you reduce your use of smothered verbs, your sentences will be clearer and more concise.

Oftentimes, you can pick out a smothered verb by the word ending. Smothered verbs frequently end in –ion (e.g, recommendation), -ment ( e.g., overpayment), -sis (e.g., analysis), and -nce (e.g., preference).

A recommendation was made by staff. (smothered verb)
Staff recommended … (better)
We made an overpayment to you of $20. (smothered verb)
We overpaid you $20.