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UpWrite Press understands the importance of writing skills in business: We're business people just like you. On this blog you'll find tips to improve your writing, along with topics of interest to our staff.

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Big Trouble in Little Commas

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Consider the little things that often cause trouble—the speck in your eye, the pebble in your shoe, the drip in your sink, and so on. In writing, one such trouble is the omission or misplacement of commas. Here are quick reminders of three places commas should be used.

  • Following introductory clauses and phrases: Commas are needed to set these off from the rest of a sentence.

    Example introductory clause: Although we had gone over the company’s requirements, the advertising campaign fell woefully short of our needs.

    Example introductory Phrase: By my reckoning, we needed to obtain at least three more sales to finish the year in the black.
  • Between independent clauses: A comma is needed to separate two or more complete thoughts in one sentence. Place the comma before the coordinating conjunction.

    Example 1: Madeleine spoke about making the office more environmentally friendly, and then she introduced our new energy plan.

    Example 2: You can elect to go with the company insurance plan, or you can select the HMA option.
  • Around nonrestrictive modifiers: Use commas to separate modifying phrases that aren’t critical to understanding the sentence.

    Example 1: Chris introduced the new hire, a recent college graduate, to the rest of the team.

    Example 2: The contract, which had been extensively revised, was finally signed.

Want more? Check out page 258 of Write for Business for more information on using commas to set off different elements in sentences.

—Joyce Lee

Image by Brett Jordan

Avoid Sentence Agreement Errors

Friday, September 14, 2012

Nothing makes writing look amateurish and unprofessional like basic sentence errors. This week we look at errors in pronoun-antecedent agreement and subject-verb agreement.

Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement
First, let’s define some terms. A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun (or noun phrase). An antecedent is the noun (or noun phrase) it stands in for. Pronouns and antecedents must agree in number, person, and gender.

Number: Use singular pronouns for singular antecedents and plural pronouns for plural antecedents.

  • Everyone on the committee took his or her [not their] seat.
  • All the committee members cast their [not his or her] vote.

Person: Pronouns may be first person, referring to the speaker(s), second person, referring to the listener(s), or third person, referring to something being spoken about. Always match the person of the pronoun to its antecedent.

  • Survey responders are asked to include an email address with their [not your] submissions.

Gender: Pronouns may be masculine (he, his, etc.), feminine (she, hers, etc.), or neutral (it, its). Make sure to match the correct gender between pronoun and antecedent.   

  • The tugboat broke loose from its (not her) moorings.

For more information about pronoun-antecedent agreement, see pages 325-326 in Write for Business and pages 366-367 in Write for Work.

Subject-Verb Agreement
The verb of a sentence must agree with the subject in number (singular or plural). Here are two basic examples.

  • Our manager happily agrees to order pizza for everyone. (singular subject and verb)
  • We certainly agree about that great idea. (plural subject and verb)

Many things can make subject-verb agreement a bit tricky. Here are three examples.

  • Two subjects joined with and call for a plural verb.
  • When two subjects are joined with or, the verb must match the last subject.
  • Collective nouns (class, family, team, and so on) may be singular or plural, depending upon how they are used.

See pages 323-324 in Write for Business or 363-365 in Write for Work for more explanations and examples.

—Les

Photo by Orin Zebest

Writing in Cars with Boys

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Have you ever bought a used car?

Recently my youngest daughter asked me to look over a used car she was considering buying. The dealer's salesperson smiled and walked us over to it, saying, "Great body. Not a scratch on her." I got in, started the engine, looked over the interior - all in good shape. I got back out, opened the hood and looked at seals, hoses, and so on, then bent down to look at the tires and underbody. The wheel wells were rusted completely through. When I asked the dealer's mechanic about repairing them, he took a look and replied, "The whole underbody is rusted out. I wouldn't feel comfortable selling this car to your daughter."

Now for the other side of the picture. One of the first cars my wife and I owned was a used Buick. Mechanically, that car was wonderful. Cosmetically, it was a mess. The paint was peeling off the roof. The hood had been replaced, and its color didn't match the rest of the car. The rear bumper was falling off and had to be held up with a rope tied inside the trunk. My wife was embarrassed to be seen in the thing, but I loved it: Good on gas, dependable starter even in the coldest weather, a smooth ride, and so on.

Those two cars represent different attitudes about business writing.

Writing teachers often focus on grammar training, punctuation practice, spelling, and correct word usage, as if these were what make writing perform. But this is like paying attention to how a car looks without considering how it runs. A great paint job and leather upholstery do no good if the underbody has rusted through or the engine is broken.

Business leaders often focus on content to the exclusion of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and correct usage, arguing that the only thing that really matters is communication. But this is like driving my old junker back and forth to work. Other people really do care how your ride looks.

Having been a writing teacher, I understand that grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word usage are easiest to grade. Ideas, organization, and voice require more expertise and energy. Working in business, I also understand that communication and delivery speed are essential. Devoting time to proofreading can seem counterproductive. (And maybe we still have some slight resentment toward those teachers who marked up all our papers in school.)

The truth is, of course, that we need both. A piece of writing must be well designed and mechanically sound to communicate. It must have sound ideas, a logical organization, and an appropriate voice for its audience. But it must also look good if we are to be taken seriously. This is where editing and proofreading become important - to ensure correctness in spelling, punctuation, grammar, word choice, and sentence construction. Page design (use of headings, columns, lists, graphics, and so on) is also important, of course, to help readers quickly comprehend your message.

You can find tips about all of these things by using the search box on this site, and more in-depth information in our print publications. You might consider these your toolboxes. Here's wishing you the best on your writing journey.

- Lester Smith

Photo by Ross Griff

The Sour Sixteen: Avoiding Writing Errors that are Bad for Business (Part II)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Last week we celebrated the second week of the NCAA basketball tournament by creating our own "Bizzaro" version of the Sweet 16, but with business writing in mind. In part one of "The Sour Sixteen." we examined eight writing errors that you should steer clear of anytime you're writing important workplace documents. While the NCAA tournament field is down to its Final Four, we'll delve into eight final writing problems. Before we begin, here is a quick look back at the first half of the list. Notably

  1. Lack of focus
  2. Missing important proper nouns
  3. Using slang
  4. Forcing artificial language
  5. Using the wrong word
  6. Missing comma after introductory elements
  7. Faulty subject-verb agreement
  8. Incorrectly joined sentences

The next four problems concentrate on two important traits of writing, voice and sentence fluency.

  1. The writing sounds too informal
    A professional writing voice is a lot like proper business attire. Just as you wouldn't wear a T-shirt and athletic shorts to a formal business meeting, you shouldn't write a memo that includes slang and emoticons. In workplace writing, it is best to avoid an informal voice altogether. An informal voice is characterized by frequent contractions and personal pronouns; humor and slang; and shorthand and emoticons. It is perfectly appropriate to use an informal voice when you're jotting down notes or gathering your thoughts, but when it comes to drafting workplace documents or e-mail, opt for a more formal tone.
  2. The writing sounds too formal
    Yes, there is also a point when business writing can sound too formal, or stiff. Grasping this point may seem contradictory after reading the previous rule about informal voice. However, there is an appropriate medium between the two. We call it "The Business Middle." The Business Middle is a conversational but professional voice. It uses friendly and natural expressions but is still free of humor and slang. Notice the difference in these two passages:
    Formal and stilted: This correspondence is in reference to the position of Software-Training Specialist at Evergreen Medical Center. My decision is to agree to the conditions of employment for that position that were expressed to me…
    The Business Middle: Thank you for offering me the position of Software-Training Specialist at Evergreen Medical Center. I am happy to accept the position at the annual salary of…
    The Business Middle is appropriate for most business letters, workplace e-mails, and memos. If you're writing a more formal document, such as one dealing with legalities or bad news, it's best to use a more serious and objective tone. One final thought on the levels of formality: If you're struggling to find a happy medium between informal and formal voice, it's best to err on the side of formal. After all, it's always less awkward to be a bit overdressed rather than noticeably underdressed.
  3. The writing is too negative
    Another problem relating to voice occurs when the writing comes across as overly negative. A negative tone is one that focuses on a problem, rather than a solution; it is accusatory rather than cooperative. Here are some tips for achieving a positive writing voice:

    Focus on…
    • The subject, not the personalities of the people involved
    • Solutions, not the problem
    • Strengths, not weaknesses
    • Suggestions, not threats
  4. The sentences are too repetitive
    Effective writing flows smoothly from sentence to sentence. If you start all your sentences the same way, you risk creating choppy writing. Choppy writing is predictable and hard to read, which is why you should vary the beginnings and length of your sentences. Consider the difference in fluency in the following examples:
    Repetitive: The report shows that first-quarter earnings continue to improve. The report's findings show that we should reinvest.
    Varied: The report shows a marked improvement in first-quarter earnings. If earnings continue to rise, we should reinvest.
    To improve the fluency of your own writing, consider different ways to begin sentences, or ways to combine ideas.

The last set of errors focuses on English language rules. Business writing and business correspondence must follow the correct use of punctuation, capitalization, spelling, words, and grammar. Sometimes these language errors are hard to spot, but even the most obscure error can be bad for business. As you will see, the following mistakes can create confusion, which prevents clear and straightforward communication.

  1. Unnecessary shift in tense
    A shift in tense happens when a writer uses two different tenses in the same sentence when only one is needed. Such an error can distort when something is happening.
    Shift in tense: I prepared the invoices and verify all the expense reports.
    Corrected: I prepared the invoices and verified all the expense reports.
    Make sure the tense (past, present, or future) remains consistent throughout each sentence.
  2. Indefinite pronoun reference
    An indefinite pronoun reference results when it is unclear which word or phrase a pronoun refers to.
    Unclear: Once they transferred to the new site, the new owners gave the workers a new benefit package. (They could refer to the workers or the owners.)
    Clear: Once the employees transferred to the new site, the new owners gave the workers a new benefit package.
    You can fix an indefinite pronoun reference by using more specific words to rename the subject or by rearranging the sentence.
  3. Missing comma in compound sentence
    A compound sentence made up of two independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as sentences) needs a comma and a conjunction to properly link the two clauses. Oftentimes, writers will ignore the comma before the conjunction, even though the conjunction itself is not strong enough to hold the two clauses.
    Incorrect: I was unhappy with the conversation so I called Jim back to resolve our disagreement.
    Correct: I was unhappy with the conversation, so I called Jim back to resolve our disagreement.
  4. Missing commas around additional information
    When a group of words adds information that is not needed to understand the sentence, you should set off the extra information with commas.
    Example: Third Community Bank, which was founded in 1957, is opening three new locations in the area.
    Remember, commas are needed only when the phrase (extra information) can be left out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.

So there you have 16 writing errors that are bad for business. Think about them the next time you're assigned a writing project at work. By making a point to avoid them, you'll improve the transparency of your communication. And that's good for business.

—Tim Kemper

Photo by Frank Douwes

The Sour Sixteen: Avoiding Writing Errors that are Bad for Business

Thursday, March 24, 2011

If you're a sports fan like me, there's no sweeter time of the year than mid-March, when the NCAA tournament treats us to hours of great college basketball, torn-up bracket sheets, and repeated references to Cinderella.

It's also a heck of a time of the year for alliteration. "March Madness." "Bracket busters." "Buzzer beaters." "The Final Four." To an outsider it might sound like gibberish, but to college basketball fans, it's the vocabulary of March.

Today the single-elimination tournament continues with the Round of 16, or as it more commonly called, the Sweet Sixteen. (Alliteration again.) In the spirit of this event, here are 16 errors that can make the difference between winning and losing in your business writing. Today's post will feature the first eight errors. We'll post the final eight next week.

Naturally, we're calling them the "Sour Sixteen."

The first four errors could also be categorized as "big-picture mistakes." These are major writing errors that are obvious to everyday readers, and which therefore can seriously jeopardize the quality of your writing.

  1. Lack of focus
    Good writing has a clear subject and purpose. Without one or the other, the writing will lack focus, leaving the reader to ask, "What's this about?" or "What's the point?" If you have trouble formulating a clear subject and purpose, "I want to say _____________ about ___________" is better than nothing at all.
  2. Misspelling important proper nouns
    This one should be obvious. While all types of spelling errors should be avoided, misspelling a client's name or a company's name could drive away business. Be cautious about relying solely on your computer's spellchecker, for it might not recognize the correct spelling of proper nouns.
  3. Using slang
    Slang makes your writing sound unprofessional. It can also undercut your message, confuse readers who are unfamiliar with the expressions, and make the writing sound dated.
    • Unprofessional: We can hook you up with a slick deal.
    • Professional: We guarantee you the best service at the best price.
  4. Forcing artificial language
    If you try too hard to make your writing sound "important," you run the risk of seeming pretentious. Most readers will see right through such writing. Plain English does a much better job of communicating your message.
    • Artificial: It has come to our knowledge that you have made an inquiry pertaining to our line of suction efficiency machines.
    • Plain English: Thank you for your question about our vacuum cleaners.

The next group deals with smaller but still serious writing errors. These mistakes are easy to miss, so it's important to pay close attention during the revising and editing stage of the writing process.

  1. Using the wrong word
    Many of the most commonly misused words are confused with others that look the same. Make sure you can distinguish each word in the following sets: its, it's; affect, effect; complement, compliment; good, well; than, then; and there, their, they're.
  2. Missing comma after introductory phrases
    Anytime you begin a sentence with an introductory phrase of four or more words, you should place a comma after the introductory phrase (as in this sentence itself). People tend to ignore this rule, but the comma helps readers distinguish introductory material from the main part of the sentence.
  3. Faulty subject-verb agreement
    There are three basic rules to follow when dealing with subject-verb agreement:
    1. With most subjects, a singular subject takes a singular verb, and a plural subject takes a plural one.
    2. Compound subjects joined by and take a plural one, but when the compound subjects are joined by or, the verb should agree with the last subject.
    3. Some indefinite pronouns are singular, some are plural, and some can be singular or plural depending on their placement.
    You can find additional tips for subject-verb agreement of indefinite pronouns on the Write for Business blog and on pages 323-324 of the Write for Business handbook.
  4. Incorrectly joined sentences
    Take care to avoid run-ons and comma splices. A run-on results when two sentences are joined without any punctuation or conjunction. Run-ons are easier to catch than comma splices, which occur when two sentences are joined by only a comma. These errors can be fixed by joining the sentences with a semicolon, with a semicolon and a conjunctive adverb (such as however), or with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, etc.). You could also make the two independent clauses into sentences by separating them with a period.
    • Incorrect: We launched a new Web site everyone should take a look.
    • Correct: We launched a new Web site; everyone should take a look.
    • Correct: We launched a new Web site, and everyone should take a look.
    • Correct: We launched a new Web site. Everyone should take a look.

Part II of "The Sour Sixteen, outlining the final 8 errors," will be posted next week.

—Tim Kemper

Photo by Neeta Lind