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 – 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 – 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.

Writing Style – Closings on Letters

Jean’s question: “Could you please provide some guidance with regard to the closing on a business letter.  My colleagues are no longer comfortable with “Yours sincerely” or “Yours truly” and, to add fat to the fire, they are seeing business letters with no closing at all — just the person’s name, title, and contact information.  Is this the current direction of business correspondence?”

BizWritingTip response: Think of a conversation you have had with a colleague. It usually starts with some sort of a greeting and ends with some sort of closing – good bye, see you later, etc. If you jumped into a conversation without acknowledging the other person or left their presence without some sort of farewell, you would be regarded as arrogant or rude.

The same is true for letters and emails. You need a greeting and a closing. However, these documents are two different forms of communication. Letters are considered more formal and are handled in a traditional manner.

A business letter should be produced on letterhead and contain an inside address, a “dear” line (unless you don’t know who will be reading your document), a complimentary closing line, and a signature box.

The standard way to close letters is “Sincerely” or “Yours sincerely.”

If I received a letter without a closing line, I would assume the sender was either uneducated in business protocol or a careless writer. It would definitely lower my impression of the writer and the organization.

Writing Style – Capitalization of Organizational Names

Betty’s question: “When should divisions with a department and staff titles be capitalized?”

BizWritingTip response: Organizations often have their own style guides that list the words they want capitalized.  If your organization does not have a style guide, here are some basic rules from  The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling book and The Chicago Manual of Style.

Capitalize the full names of government departments and agencies, associations, companies, clubs, religions, languages, races, places and addresses —and the major subdivisions of an organization.

I am working for the Ministry of the Environment
She worked for the Committee of Adjustment for 20 years.

Note: The article “the” is lowercased.

Generic terms are usually lowercased when they are used alone (although some organizations prefer to capitalize them).

the ministry
the committee
the division
Ontario government

Email Tip – Name and Signature Boxes in Emails

Diane’s question : “How should you sign off at the end of an email?  Some people don’t sign off but just use their signature box, which includes their full name. Others place their first name above the signature box.”

BizWritingTip response: Either way is correct. It’s all about the tone you want to create. If you don’t know the person or want to come across as formal, you should omit your first name and just close with the signature box.

Example (Formal Approach)

Jane Watson

President, J Watson Training
Phone and fax numbers

For a warmer, informal approach, insert your first name above the signature box.

Example (Informal Approach)


Jane Watson
President, J Watson Training
Phone and fax numbers

Signature boxes should contain your name and all the ways you are willing to be contacted. I usually omit the email address in my signature box because it takes up more room, and people have it anyway when they right click on the “From:” line.

I also believe business people should have two signature boxes: internal and external. The internal one would contain only your name, title and phone number. The external one would contain your name, title, company, snail mail address, etc. Set your default to the box you use most often.

Note: Every signature box must carry your phone number and extension line.

Writing Style – Caring Less

Klaus’s Question: “Here is something I’ve wondered about since I’ve seen it used both ways. When showing lack of concern, which is correct, ‘I could care less’ or ‘I couldn’t care less’?”

BizWritingTip response: The expression “I could care less” has caused a great deal of criticism for many years. The original phrase “I couldn’t care less” was a British creation. It was first seen in print in 1946 as the title of a book by Anthony Phelps regarding his experiences during World War II. The phrase migrated to North America in the ‘50s.

No one is quite sure when the inverted form, “I could care less,” came into being. However, it is common in North American slang today.

If you look at the phrase logically, “I couldn’t care less” means there is no interest whatsoever. “I could care less” means there is a little interest.

Regardless, when someone says either of these phrases, you still get the same meaning because of the inflection they put into the words. They are being sarcastic. They really don’t care.

In writing, there is no voice inflection. The inverted phrase just sits there looking weird. I strongly suggest that, if you feel the need to use the expression in written form, you use the older form “I couldn’t care less.” This does not require a pause for interpretation.

Trust this helps those who do care.

Writing Style – Inside Addresses

Kirk’s question: “I am drafting a thank-you letter to two men. In the address portion of the letter, do I write Mr. X and Mr. Y or do I write Messrs. X and Y? And similarly, if the letter was addressed to two women is it correct to use Mmes.?”

BizWritingTip response: Here is another area where styles have changed. Today, if a letter is addressed to two or more people at different addresses, the individual address blocks may be placed under each other with 1 blank line between. Alternatively, you can place the address blocks side by side.

Example (correct)

Mr. Robert Smith                  Mr. George Brown
Finance Manager                 Vice President of Sales
Starbrite Industries Inc.      Glorious Enterprises
234 Street Name                     567 Street Name
City Province Postal Code    City Province Postal Code

If the letter is addressed to two or more people at the same address, list each name on a separate line. There is no need to include their positions unless the titles are very short and can be placed on the same line as the name. Also, leave out the department name unless both people are in the same department.

Mr. Robert Smith
Ms. Georgia Brown
Starbrite Industries Inc.
234 Street Name
City Province Postal Code

Use separate envelopes and give the full address for each individual; omit all reference to other names.

As for the salutation line — if the letter is addressed to two or more men, you have three options:
Dear Mr. Smith and Mr. Brown:
Dear Messrs. Smith and Brown: (formal)
Dear Robert Smith and George Brown:

If the letter is addressed to two or more women, you have four options:
Dear Mrs. Smith and Ms. Brown:
Dear Mesdames Smith and Brown: (highly formal)
Dear Mses. Smith and Brown: (formal)
Dear Claudia Smith and Georgia Brown:

If the letter is addressed to a man and a woman, it is quite simple:
Dear Ms. Smith and Mr. Brown:
Dear Claudia Smith and George Brown:

Note: In selecting Miss, Mrs. or Ms., always use the woman’s preference. If you do not know the preference, use the title Ms. (Ms. merely indicates a female. It does not indicate marital status.)