Chapter 4 Business Writing Trait 4: Words

4

33

Business Writing Trait 4: Words

Take a lesson from the three little pigs: Just as a house built of straw or sticks cannot stand against the wind, writing containing poor, dull words cannot deliver a strong message. A house built of bricks, however, stands firm; and writing containing rich, interesting words delivers a powerful message.

Work at building your messages with “bricks”—words that are concrete, strong, and well-connected to other words around them. Remove deadwood, slang, cliches, redundancy, and puffed-up language.

This chapter will help you recognize which words to cut from your writing and which words to add.

In this chapter

34

Words: An Overview

The fewer words you use to express an idea, the better. That kind of economy necessitates careful choosing. Certainly, you can write down the first words that come to mind, but always be willing to change them.

Specific Nouns, Verbs, and Adjectives

When selecting words for a message, choose the most precise word for each situation. General nouns, verbs, and modifiers create vague, confusing messages. Specific language makes your message clear and effective.

  • General—The person had a good way to have more success.

  • Specific—Sara Jacobson outlined a practical plan for improving sales.

 

General

More Specific

Most Specific

Noun

person
place
thing

customer
checkout
tool

Mr. Jackson
Counter C
router

Verb

put
get
help

apply
charge
guide

caulk
invoice
train

Adjective

good
bad
nice

useful
unsafe
cooperative

practical
haphazard
team-oriented

Active/Passive Verbs

  • A verb is active when the subject of the sentence performs the action.

    The committee recommends a new marketing approach.

  • A verb is passive when the subject of the sentence receives the action.

    A new marketing approach is being recommended by the committee.

  • Use active verbs for most messages.

    All Farm Insurance seeks to serve you. (direct)

  • Use passive verbs for bad news or to direct attention away from the subject.

    Your insurance coverage is being canceled. (indirect)

Active and Passive Voice

35

Words: Problems and Solutions

Strong word choice creates clear communication. Weak word choice derails your message. The following material helps you recognize and fix problems with word choice.

Problem:

Solution:

The message isn’t clear.

Listen for

  • “Can you be more specific?”

Use specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Select the most specific word for each situation.

The words are sluggish.

Listen for

  • “This is boring.”

Change passive voice to active voice.

Revise the sentence so that the subject performs the action.

The bad-news messages sound too blunt.

Listen for

  • “You’re insensitive.”

Use passive voice to soften the message.

Use passive voice for bad news, diverting emphasis from the sender onto the message.

The writing sounds unprofessional.

Listen for

  • “Take out the slang.”

Avoid slang and cliches.

Avoid slang, which is informal language that becomes popular, is widely used, and then falls out of style. Using it undercuts your thinking, excludes receivers unfamiliar with the expression, and quickly dates the message. Also avoid overused expressions, or cliches.

Look for

  • Our goal is to cut you in on some cool deals and hot service.

Professional: Our goal is to provide you the best service at the best price.

Listen for

  • “That’s a cliche.”

Look for

  • The lawn application includes fertilizer and insecticide, killing two birds with one stone.

Professional: The lawn application both fertilizes the ground and kills insect pests.

The message is wordy/artificial.

Use plain language:

Avoid long, wordy phrases.

Listen for

  • “This is so verbose.”

  • “You've got a lot of redundancy.”

Don't Say

Do Say

advance forward

advance

advance planning

planning

a majority of

most

any and all

any/all

are of the opinion that

believe

ask the question

ask

assembled together

assemble

at an early date

soon

attach together

attach

at the conclusion of

after/following

at the present time

now

based on the fact that

because

basic essentials

essentials

both together

together

brief in duration

brief

close proximity

close

combine together

combine

completely unanimous

unanimous

connect together

connect

consensus of opinion

consensus

descend down

descend

despite the fact that

though

disregard altogether

disregard

due to the fact that

because

during the course of

during

end result

result

engaged in a study of

studying

few in number

few

filled to capacity

filled

final conclusion

conclusion

final outcome

outcome

first and foremost

first/foremost

foreign imports

imports

for the purpose of

for

for the reasons that

because

free gift

gift

free of charge

free

having the capacity to

can

in connection with

about

in light of the fact that

since

in order to

to

in spite of the fact that

although

in the amount of

for

in the event that

if

in the vast majority

most

in view of the fact that

because

it is often the case that

often

it is our opinion that

we believe that

it is our recommendation

we recommend

it is our understanding

we understand

joint cooperation

cooperation

join together

join

joint partnership

partnership

main essentials

essentials

make reference to

refer to

meet together

meet

mutual cooperation

cooperation

of the opinion that

think that

on a daily basis

daily

on a weekly basis

weekly

on the grounds that

because

over again

again

personal in nature

personal

personal opinion

opinion

pertaining to

about

plan ahead

plan

postpone until later

postpone

present status

status

prior to

before

repeat again

repeat

until such time as

until

with regard to

about

The language sounds pompous and fake.

Listen for

  • “Sounds like a lecture.”

Use plain English.

Avoid pompous language, which some people use to sound “important.” Pompous language actually makes you sound fake and silly. Plain English does a much better job of communicating.

Look for

  • In accordance with managerial policy, attached hereto is an enclosure that contains highly informative delineations of policies and procedures pertaining to credit.

Plain: I have enclosed a brochure that describes our credit policies and procedures in more detail.

There are too many words.

Listen for

  • “Your message is bloated.”

Cut deadwood.

Watch for and cut irrelevant information, obvious statements, and awkward phrases. Also cut wordy phrases or clauses that could be replaced by concise words.

Look for

  • The plant must go through a thorough retooling process necessary for producing the most recent additions to the new line of competitive products.

Concise: The plant must retool to produce competitive products.

The message is confusing.

Listen for

  • “The message has inaccuracies.”

Double-check facts.

Double-check names, key terms, and other facts. A message that makes mistakes with fact-words confuses instead of communicating.

Look for

  • I completed the installment of the 200-watt electrical server for the customer at 311 Marten Luthar King Drive.

Correct: I completed the installation of the 220-amp electrical service for the customer at 311 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

People say the message is ageist.

Listen for

  • “That’s ageism.”

Use accepted words when you refer to age.

Use terms of respect when referring to age. Mention age only when it is necessary to the issue.

  • boys, girls (up to ages 13 or 14)

  • youth, young people (between 13 and 17)

  • young adults (late teens and 20’s)

  • adults (30’s to 60’s)

  • older adults (60 and older)

People say the message is sexist.

Listen for

  • “That’s sexism.”

Use accepted words when you refer to gender.

Use terms of respect when you refer to gender. Mention gender only when it is necessary. Take special care when dealing with occupations, courtesy titles, and salutations.

  • chair, presiding officer, moderator (not chairman)

  • sales representative, salesperson (not salesman)

  • mail carrier, postal worker (not mailman)

  • executive, manager, worker (not businessman)

When possible, refer to people using third-person plural antecedents (workers) and pronouns (they) instead of third-person singular antecedents (worker) and pronouns (he or she), which can create sexist or gender-binary language. If an antecedent referring to a person must remain singular, The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press now accept use of plural pronouns to refer to it.

People say the message is racist.

Listen for

  • “That’s racism.”

Use accepted words when you refer to race.

Use respectful language that gives equal value and respect to all races and ethnicities. Mention race only when it is central to the issue.

General

Specific

Native Americans

Cherokee people, Inuit people

Asian Americans

Chinese Americans, Korean Americans

Hispanic Americans

Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans

African Americans

Nigerian Americans, Kenyan Americans

Note: Some Native Americans prefer the term "Indian," and some African Americans prefer the term “Black."

People say the message is insensitive to those with disabilities.

Listen for

  • “That’s insensitive.”

Use accepted words when you refer to ability.

Refer to the person first and to the disability second. Mention ability only when it is the central issue. Use the following accepted terms.

  • person with HIV/AIDS (not AIDS victim)

  • person with autism (not autistic)

  • person with a disability (not handicapped)

Bilingual people don’t understand the message.

Listen for

  • “I don’t understand.”

Use clear language and avoid cultural pitfalls.

Here are tips for communicating with those who come from different language and cultural backgrounds:

  • Avoid cultural references. Be careful with references to people, places, and events specific to a culture. These may confuse or alienate your reader. Specifically, avoid sports, pop culture, religious, and military references.

  • Avoid jargon, slang, idioms, acronyms, and abbreviations. Such shorthand has a restricted use that may confuse bilingual readers. Use plain English instead.

  • Use simple, objective words. Avoid words that have emotional or historical baggage. Use nouns with clear meanings and verbs that express a clear action. However, don’t confuse simplicity with a condescending tone: Don’t write as if your reader were a child.

  • Use clear, obvious transitions. At the beginnings of paragraphs and sentences, use obvious transitions like however, in addition, first, second, and so on, whenever appropriate. Such transitions highlight relationships between statements and help bilingual readers follow your thoughts.

  • Be grammatically correct. Spelling errors, misplaced modifiers, sentence fragments, and faulty comma usage can confuse bilingual readers. Be especially careful with spelling. When a name or word includes accents or other diacritical marks, make sure that you use them.

  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short. Avoid long, complex sentences (more than 15 words) and big, intimidating paragraphs (8 lines or longer). Such sentences and paragraphs are challenging for some bilingual readers.

  • Use Standard English. Not all English is the same. For example, American English is different from Canadian, British, and Australian English. Bilingual readers will have the most success reading Standard English.

  • Caution: Avoid humor. Cultural differences present ready opportunities for unintended offense. Humor does not translate well from one culture to another.

40

Checklist Words

Your goal is to select words that best express your ideas, using plain English and respecting diversity.

  1. Have I used specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives?

  2. Have I used active verbs to be direct and passive verbs to be indirect?

  3. Have I used concise rather than wordy phrasing?

  4. Have I avoided unprofessional expressions?

    • Rewording slang

    • Stating cliches in fresh language

    • Avoiding euphemisms

  5. Do I use plain English?

    • Avoiding pompous language

  6. Have I used fair, respectful language?

    • Respecting age

    • Respecting ability

    • Respecting gender

    • Respecting ethnicity

  7. Have I used plain, clear wording for bilingual readers?

  8. Have I cut unnecessary phrases and clauses?

    • Removing deadwood

  9. Have I used correct key terms, names, numbers, facts, and easily confused words?

  10. Have I avoided humor or other nuanced and potentially misleading language?

“In good writing, words become one with things.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

© 2019 Thoughtful Learning. Copying and distributing this content is prohibited without written permission.