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You can have too much of a good thing.

In the last post, I wrote about punctuation marks that are used sparingly because writers are unsure about usage. But other punctuation marks are too popular.

Exclamation points

Exclamation marks add drama. Excitement. They can be powerful. But using too many will water down their strength like drinks in Las Vegas. Marketing documents often overuse exclamation points in an attempt to sell a product or idea. More than one exclamation point in a short passage will decrease impact.

Here are some examples from a page of advice about writing a web site:

http://www.marissaberger.com/blog/2009/03/17/hey-stop-it-with-the-exclamation-points/

And here’s a link to a study showing why women use exclamation points more than men do.

http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue4/waseleski.html

Dash

The dash is used to indicate an abrupt change of thought or a disruption in the flow of the sentence.

The construction delay — we’re still not sure why it happened — will mean that the office will not be ready for the scheduled Open House celebration.

Changes in the tax code — the Child Tax Credit in particular — will affect us this year.

Some business writers think dashes make the writing sound urgent and trendy. But too many dashes are tiresome for the reader. If you have too many dashes, substitute commas or parentheses to mix things up .

Multiple marks

In an e-mail to a friend, it’s OK to double up on punctuation marks:

WTF!?

I can’t believe he said that!!!

But in formal writing, duplicate marks show weakness as a writer; your words should convey the strength of your emotion without all the punctuation.

Of course, some writers disagree. One person created a Facebook page for “People who use multiple exclamation marks.” Here’s the explanation:

This page was made in dedication of my wife who does not understand the essence of using more than a single exclamation point. One can not truly understand one’s true feelings and emotion with merely one punctuation.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/People-who-use-multiple-exclamation-points/106620789378640?v=info

And Benjamin Franklin ends his famous advice about marrying an older woman with this statement.

They are so grateful!!

Of course, he was writing a personal correspondence, where the rules are more flexible; you can read more about his piece here:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2011/02/24/benjamin_franklins_advice_on_marriage_and_older_women.html

Bottom line: For formal writing, don’t use multiple punctuation marks.

Next time: Lies your English teacher told you

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Don’t be afraid.

When you write, you probably dive in and try your best with commas, apostrophes, and periods, all the while avoiding the less common punctuation marks out of fear. Reduce your uncertainty with this rundown of proper usage for unpopular punctuation marks.

Hyphens

With automatic hyphenation and justification built into word processing software, writers no longer need to know how to divide words at the ends of lines. Dictionaries and spell-checkers provide insight on words spelled with hyphens. However, hyphens are also used to join words that work together to describe a subject.

Some situations are clear examples of words working together as adjectives:

Our department runs like a well-oiled machine.

The 20-year-old dress code dictates that we wear matching uniforms.

My thin-skinned boss cringes every time the board president calls on him.

Grammar books say to use a hyphen in all cases where two words work together as adjectives. However, those stingy newspaper editors disagree, as is evident in the 2011 Associated Press Stylebook:

Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. But the fewer hyphens the better; use them only when not using them causes confusion.

The York Times Manual of Style and Usage says the same thing.

Some harmony occurs, with journalism stylebooks and grammar books agreeing on these rules:

  • Hyphenate combinations using the word well as in the first example above: well-oiled.
  • Omit the hyphen when the adjective follows the noun: a machine that is well oiled.
  • Omit a hyphen when the first word ends in ly: the poorly oiled machine.

Some people follow this guideline: if the words before the noun can function on their own as a noun that’s normally not hyphenated, omit the hyphen. For example, in the phrase high school students, high school can also be a noun, so it doesn’t need to be hyphenated.

So, then, is the United States having a health-care debate? Or a health care debate?

It depends. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says that the noun can be spelled health care or healthcare. If you use health care as the noun form, it specifies the hyphenated form as the adjective: health-care bill.

The Associated Press and New York Times specify that the expression is always two words as a noun and is not hyphenated as an adjective: health care bill.

Since hyphens are controversial, here’s the best plan of action when you encounter a hyphenation situation:

  1. Consult a dictionary to see if the word combination is already addressed.
  2. If not, consult a grammar handbook, the stylebook that is most appropriate for your field, or your company style manual.

Semicolons

Maybe you rarely use semicolons, which is fine because they are formal. But don’t avoid them out of uncertainty because the semicolon is one of the easiest forms of punctuation. There are only two places to use a semicolon. One is to make a complicated list clearer:

Serving on the new committee will be Ed Knight, chairman of Human Resources; Tamara Houston, assistant controller; and Norm McNair, Occupational Safety Committee chairperson.

The other place is between two complete sentences that are so closely linked that you don’t want a clear, definitive stop between them, the kind of stop a period creates. Instead, you want the reader to know that these ideas go together:

We must all work together to promote this new product; our future depends on it.

Colon

The colon is a social punctuation mark: its function is to introduce things.

And just like social customs, colon usage rules have gotten more casual over the years. It used to be that a colon was used only after a complete sentence.

Employees assigned to the Midwest Project are as follows:

Person A

Person B

Person C.

But these days, writers who want to introduce a bulleted or numbered list or separate block of information can use this format:

Employees assigned to the Midwest Project are:

Person A

Person B

Person C.

However, within a normal sentence, it’s still incorrect to use a colon after the verb to introduce a list that does not follow a complete sentence.

NOT: Employees assigned to the Midwest Project are: Person A, Person B, and Person C.

INSTEAD: Employees assigned to the Midwest Project are Person A, Person B, and Person C.

OR: Employees assigned to the Midwest Project are as follows: Person A, Person B, and Person C.

Colons can also be used to introduce examples as in the numerous sentences used to set up examples in this blog.

Colons have a few other technical uses, such as in ratios (a 2:1 return on investments) and time references (9:10 p.m.), but those common usages rarely cause problems.

Next time: Punctuation that’s too popular

Quotation marks create their own special problems: Do question marks go inside or outside of them? And when are quotation marks used versus italics? Here’s a review of the trouble spots:

Question marks and exclamation points

In situations involving quotation marks with question marks and exclamation points, the rule is “keep them together.” In other words, keep the punctuation with the group of words that is an exclamation or question.

For example, if you are quoting something that itself is a question or exclamation, the punctuation stays inside the quotation marks with the rest of those words:

Five executives left the office asking, “What happened to my job?”

The chairman of the board shouted, “Enough with the bureaucracy!”

But if the quoted material is simply a part of a sentence that is an exclamation or question as a whole, the punctuation stays outside with the rest of the sentence:

Do you understand what he meant about a “temporary reduction in force”?

I demand that we abide by our rule of “zero tolerance”!

Did you read the article “Customer Service for Today’s Business”?

Other rules

The rules are easier for other punctuation marks. Semicolons and colons always go outside the quotation marks; commas and periods always go inside. (Unless, of course, you’re in England. The British put them outside and often use single quotation marks in instances where Americans use double ones.)

It’s incorrect to use a string of punctuation:

NOT: We look forward to the presentation “Terrorism: What Should Companies Be Watching For?”.

INSTEAD: We look forward to the presentation “Terrorism: What Should Companies Be Watching For?”

Of course, some companies have gone out of their way to make these rules complicated. For example, Yahoo! has an exclamation point as part of its name, just like the game show Jeopardy! and the musical Oklahoma! But since company names aren’t italicized, Yahoo! creates more of a challenge, not the least of which is turning off the auto-correct feature so that your software doesn’t automatically capitalize the next word as you type. Generally, the rule is to use a company’s name as the company uses it. However, some journalists don’t: the Associated Press stylebook says to omit the exclamation point when referring to the search engine company.

The battle of italics vs. quotations marks

Generally, grammar books tell you to use italics or underlining for titles of the following:

Books (except the Bible)

Magazines

Newspapers

Pamphlets

Long poems

Plays and musicals

Movies

TV shows

Radio programs

Comic strips

Works of art

Grammar books also suggest italicizing or underlining the following:

Foreign words in a sentence otherwise in English

Names of software programs

Names of spacecraft, trains, aircraft, and ships

Words used as words

Letters used as letters

Numbers mentioned as numbers

Quotation marks are reserved for smaller units of the items mentioned above:

Chapter in a book

Article in a magazine or newspaper

Short poem

Single episode of a TV show or radio program

Of course, those pesky journalists have a quarrel with the grammar rules. Before computers came along, it was difficult to set underlining or italics in print, so journalists used quotation marks for many of the items listed above as being italicized, like movie and book titles. That practice continues today. However, editors of some publications — Time magazine, for instance — are ignoring the old conventions, taking advantage of computer technology, and using italics the way their English teachers taught them to.

Next Time: Unpopular Punctuation: The Marks You Probably Avoid

Unfortunate fact: Grammar and style books don’t agree about apostrophe use. Even the simplest apostrophe rule is the subject of controversy:

Add an apostrophe and an s to show possession of singular nouns.

I followed up on the client’s request.

I stepped on the boss’s foot.

Some grammar books grant an exception if adding an apostrophe and an s to a name ending in s creates an awkward pronunciation:

Sophocles’ works were required reading in college.

Illinois’ current business climate will affect our decision.

To make it more confusing, the Associated Press style book contradicts what you were taught in school and says to add only the apostrophe to any proper name ending in s. However, this leads to awkward and unrealistic pronunciations:

I borrowed Agnes’ employee manual.

I studied Elvis’ life.

Our company will be affected by Congress’ latest bill.

So unless you’re writing for the Associated Press, use the apostrophe and the s if you would pronounce the extra s in a name.

The Associated Press also has an odd rule saying that even for singular common nouns ending in s, you should add only the apostrophe if the subsequent word begins in s:

I stepped on the boss’s foot.

I stepped on the boss’ stiletto heel.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is more relaxed: unlike the AP manual, it says to use the apostrophe and s for proper names ending in s. However, it offers an exception for names ending in a sibilant sound that follows a vowel and another sibilant. Sounds complicated, but it refers to simple words like Kansas, Texas, and Moses.

Why should you care about the journalism rules if you’re not a journalist? The news stories you read each day in newspapers and magazines or on the Internet are edited according to these alternate punctuation rules, so they may have affected your apostrophe use. Also, maybe your workplace writing includes press releases. So knowing the purpose and audience for your piece of writing is important.

The apostrophe rules for plural nouns — nouns referring to more than one item – are largely undisputed:

Add only an apostrophe to plural words ending in s.

He was docked eight weeks’ pay.

The three agents’ sales for August totaled $8 million.

Add an apostrophe and an s to plural words not ending in s.

The publishing house is adding children’s books to its line.

It’s a real problem

The most common apostrophe problem arises around the word it. The word is a solid, everyday pronoun, so it seems natural to add an apostrophe and an s to make it possessive. “Wrong!” your English teacher screams. Don’t worry — you’re not stupid. It makes perfect sense to add an apostrophe and s just as you would to any other word. However, it’s wrong because its has been corralled into the group of possessive pronouns by a sadistic grammarian.

To understand this tricky word, it’s important to understand that the apostrophe is used to show possession in words that are not usually possessive. For example, a computer is a thing, so the word computer is a noun. But sometimes the word isn’t serving its normal function of being a noun: it is acting as a describing word showing possession:

My computer’s constant beeping drove my coworkers crazy.

In that sentence, beeping is the noun, and computer’s is a describing word. The apostrophe signals to the reader that the word is being used in a different way than expected.

But certain words exist in our language solely to show possession: his, hers, theirs, ours, its. So they don’t need an apostrophe because their usage isn’t changing.

Two easy ways to remember how to do it right:

  1. If you write it’s, you mean it is. Always.
  2. Picture its with other possessive pronouns: his, hers, theirs, ours. You wouldn’t write hi’s or her’s. So keep the apostrophe out of its as a possessive word, even if you think it’s stupid.
More controversy
Disagreement also arises about using an apostrophe for plurals of letters, numbers, abbreviations, and words used as words. Here’s a rundown:
MOST GRAMMAR BOOKS (not all agree)
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of words used as words, letters used as letters, numbers used as numbers, and acronyms/abbreviations. But use only the s for plurals of decades:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2‘s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many and‘s at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVD’s on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of single letters used as letters. But use only the s to show plurals of numbers used as numbers, acronyms/abbreviations, words used as words and the plurals of decades:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVDs on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
NEW YORK TIMES
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of letters used as letters, numbers used as numbers, acronyms/abbreviations, and the plural of decades. But use only the s for words used as words:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2‘s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVD’s on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990’s.
MODERN LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION (MLA style is used for academic writing in the humanities)
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of letters used as letters. But use only the s for numbers used as numbers, acronyms/abbreviations, and the plural of decades. No specific rule is given for words used as words, but there’s a strong indication to omit the apostrophe:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVDs on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE (used in the publishing industry and certain academic applications)
Use an apostrophe and an s to form the plural of lowercase letters used as letters and abbreviations containing periods. Use only the s for capital letters used as letters, numbers used as numbers, and the plurals of decades. Also use only the s for words used as words, with possible exceptions for such examples that are awkward or in quotation marks:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2s to the budget total.
Our company earned two Bs and an A on its marketing scorecard. (Exception: Mind your p’s and q’s.)
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVDs on our new product line immediately. (Exception: Even three Ph.D’s couldn’t solve the problem.)
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
Confused? You should be. Each set of rules is slightly different. Find out the accepted style in your workplace.*

Next time: Quarrelsome Quotation Marks

Interesting related links

A fun blog that posts examples of misused apostrophes:

http://www.apostropheabuse.com/

An article about the struggle over its vs it’s:

http://www.newsweek.com/1995/11/05/its-academic-or-is-it.html

An article about how punctuation is being lost in the new age of texting:

http://www.newsweek.com/2008/08/01/the-death-of-english-lol.html

A story about how Arkansas struggled with apostrophe use with its name, proposing a bill that became law:

http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2007/02/27/arkansas_house_to_argue_over_apostrophes/

*Special note: Words used as words, numbers used as numbers, and letters used as letters are usually italicized but not in boldface. However, for purposes of drawing attention to words used as words in my blog, I have chosen to add the boldface.

There are only about a dozen rules on comma use, but a few are tricky. Let me try to clear things up:

When you list three or more items in a series, separate them with commas.
Standard English rules say to use a comma before the and. To make things confusing, journalism style books say you should never use a comma before the and. (Newspaper editors are stingy with punctuation.) Check to see which style your company prefers. If you are listing only two items in a series, don’t use the comma before and.

I will bring milk, creamer, and sugar to the conference room. (Standard English)
I will bring milk, creamer and sugar to the conference room. (Journalism)
I will bring creamer and sugar to the conference room.

When you are connecting two complete thoughts, put a comma before the and.
This rule also applies to the words but, or, nor, for, so, and yet, but and is the troublemaker because it’s prominent in the first rule above. Take this example:

Group A will attend training in the morning, and Group B will attend in the afternoon.

Each half of the example could stand alone as a complete sentence, so the two thoughts are separated by a comma and a connecting word (conjunction). But don’t forget the conjunction. It’s wrong to say, “Group A will attend training in the morning, Group B will attend in the afternoon.” That’s called a comma splice, and your high school English teacher frowns upon it.

Here’s where the real problem starts. Some business writers put commas with and because of the two rules just mentioned and then get in the habit of throwing in commas any time they see and. However, if a sentence simply contains two verbs and is not expressing two complete thoughts, no comma is needed:

Ted will present his draft of the annual report and then take questions.
The new computer system consolidates the two old servers and increases our networking capabilities.

Believe it or not, those two rules will take care of most of your comma problems. Other than that, where do the commas go?

Here: After an introductory word, phrase, or clause:
Before the boss arrived, my team checked the audio-video equipment for defects.
After the interviewees left the conference room, the management team voted for the top two candidates.
Not here: After a short transitional word or phrase.
Then I realized I was flirting with the boss’s wife.
In time we will expand the product line.

Here: Around the name of a person spoken to directly.
I think your problem, Stephen, is that you use too many commas.

Here: After a mild interjection.
Oh, I don’t know which laptop I like better.
Not here: After a strong interjection.
Damn! I spilled coffee on my keyboard!

Here: Around groups of words that you could remove from the sentence without changing its basic meaning.
My boss, an avid golfer, gets a new set of clubs every Christmas.
Bill Clinton, who was hounded by sex scandals, served two terms as president after serving as governor of Arkansas.
Not here: Around groups of words that are essential to the meaning of the sentence:
Employees who arrive late to work set a bad example for others.
The contracts that arrived on Monday were accidentally shredded.

Here: Around elements of dates and addresses.
The corporate office at 14 S. Market St., Pittsburgh, Pa., will be renovated beginning August 12, 2011, and won’t be finished for 10 years.
Not here: Between the month and year if no day is listed:
I started to work for Computers R Us in August 2010.

Here: Between adjectives (describing words) whose order can easily be changed:
It was a wordy, boring, useless report.
Not here: Between adjectives that need to be in a specific order.
He released the company’s 100-page annual report.

Here: To set up a quote.
According to the incident report, the employee said to the boss, “Shut the hell up!”
Not here: To set up a quote that flows with the sentence.
According to the incident report, the employee said that the boss should “shut the hell up!”

Check your documents to see if you can match each comma to a rule. If not, the comma is probably not needed. There is a technicality in most grammar books: use a comma any time the sentence would otherwise be misread or when the reader needs to be guided toward the correct interpretation, as in the classic expression below:

A woman without her man is nothing. (technically correct for one interpretation)
A woman, without her man, is nothing. (clarifying commas) 

A woman: without her, man is nothing. (alternate reading)

Next time: Annoying Apostrophes

Alphabet Soup

In addition to struggling for the right words, business writers often wrangle with the letters of the alphabet, wondering what to capitalize and what to abbreviate. These issues lead to three common problems in business writing:

1. Overuse of capital letters

Sentences like the following are common in business writing:

John Smith, Vice President of Water Cooler Maintenance, will be accepting applications for Computer Engineers all Summer in the Conference Room.

Writers know that capital letters add emphasis, so they tend to capitalize everything to make everything important — or to be politically correct and make it seem important.

A few general rules:

Titles

Titles are capitalized when placed in front of a person’s name but not after, no matter how important the person is. If the person’s name isn’t even in the sentence, the title is definitely not capitalized! But many writers balk at writing “Our executive director called the meeting to order,” preferring to say “Our Executive Director called the meeting to order.”

If you’re loath to lowercase an important title, pick up a major newspaper or newsmagazine and find an article about the president of the United States. You’ll notice that some major news organizations refer to him as “the president,” not “the President.” Some stylebooks say it’s acceptable to use “the President” when referring to the leader of the United States, but that’s the only exception. The president of your company doesn’t get the same courtesy from press association stylebooks or grammar books.

Still hesitating at using little letters for a big title? Then change the sentence around. Write “President John Smith spoke at the meeting” instead of “John Smith, president, spoke at the meeting.” President Smith will appreciate it.

Job descriptions are never capitalized. The mailroom clerk has to accept that he will never see capital letters in his job title, even in front of his name: “Mailroom clerk John Smith eventually became the company’s president.”

Company terms

The formal names of a company’s departments and divisions are usually capitalized. The names of rooms aren’t: lunch room, conference room. The only exception is when a room has a formal name: the J.P. Rockefeller Executive Suite or the Rockefeller Suite.

Things you think should be capitalized

Seasons and directions are not capitalized. To make up for fall and summer being in small letters, all holidays are capitalized: President’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving.

Directions — east, southwest, north — are capitalized only when referring to specific regions of the United States: “Manufacturing firms dominate the business landscape in the South.” But “Pittsburgh is north of Lexington.”

Of course, there are always exceptions. Southern California has become known as a specific region, and most people capitalize it. Also, if a direction is part of a proper name — like Southwest Wacker Drive — it is capitalized.

So assuming the company has a Water Cooler Maintenance Division, the sample sentence at the beginning of the section should look like this:

John Smith, vice president of Water Cooler Maintenance, will be accepting applications for computer engineers all summer in the conference room.

2. Overuse of acronyms

Some business documents look like alphabet soup because of all the initials:

Donna Reynolds, VP of HR, will meet with all CSRs.

Acronyms should be written out on first reference:

Donna Reynolds, vice president of Human Resources, will meet with customer service representatives (CSRs).

If you plan to use an acronym throughout the document, put it in parentheses after the first reference. If you’re not going to use it again, don’t bother! Some stylebooks say that if you think the acronym is clear, you don’t even have to use the parentheses: just start using the acronym on second reference.

In an informal internal document, writing “HR” is fine — it’s an example of the time-saving jargon described in an earlier post.

Most acronyms don’t need periods, and common ones don’t need to be written out on first reference. If you don’t trust your judgment on whether an acronym is commonly known, check your dictionary. You’ll find that FBI, CIA, FAA, FCC, and many other government agencies have their own entries. If it’s in the dictionary, it’s probably common enough to stand without explanation.

3. Inconsistent Abbreviations

Do you abbreviate “October 12” as “Oct. 12”? Should you write “Asheville, North Carolina” or “Asheville, N.C.” or “Asheville, NC”?

There’s no right answer. It depends on which style guide you’re following. The Associated Press Style Book and other journalistic style guides prefer the standard abbreviations. The Chicago Manual of Style and others want you to write out the names of states and months. If your company doesn’t have its own style manual or a recommended style guide, use whichever style you prefer. Just be consistent. If you abbreviate “Jan. 1” in the first paragraph of a report, make sure that 100 pages later you abbreviate “Dec. 31.”

A note on postal abbreviations:  The two-letter codes developed by the U.S. Postal Service to expedite electronic mail processing should not be used in formal writing unless an address, complete with ZIP code, is being included specifically to guide readers to send mail. So you might write “The Bread and Milk Company’s processing plant is at 900 Spring St., Chicago, Illinois.”  In another context, you might write “Receive a copy of these delicious bread recipes by writing to The Bread and Milk Company, 900 Spring Street, Chicago, IL 50037.”

Here is a list of state abbreviations. Note that the standard abbreviations use periods and the postal codes do not:

Alabama                      Ala.                     AZ

Alaska                        Alaska                 AK

Arizona                       Ariz.                    AZ

California                   Calif.                   CA

Colorado                     Colo.                   CO

Connecticut               Conn.                  CT

Delaware                   Del.                      DE

Florida                       Fla.                        FL

Georgia                      Ga.                        GA

Hawaii                      Hawaii                 HI

Idaho                         Idaho                    ID

Illinois                      Ill.                          IL

Indiana                     Ind.                       IN

Iowa                          Iowa                      IA

Kansas                     Kan.                       KS

Kentucky                  Ky.                          KY

Louisiana                La.                          LA

Maine                       Maine                    ME

Maryland                 Md.                        MD

Massachusetts       Mass.                     MA

Michigan                 Mich.                     MI

Minnesota               Minn.                    MN

Mississippi             Miss.                      MS

Missouri                  Mo.                        MO

Montana                 Mont.                     MT

Nebraska                Neb.                        NE

Nevada                    Nev.                        NV

New Hampshire   N.H.                        NH

New Jersey             N.J.                        NJ

New Mexico           N.M.                       NM

New York                N.Y.                        NY

North Carolina      N.C.                        NC

North Dakota        N.D.                        ND

Ohio                        Ohio                        OH

Oklahoma              Okla.                      OK

Oregon                    Ore.                        OR

Pennsylvania         Pa.                         PA

Rhode Island         R.I.                        RI

South Carolina      S.C.                        SC

South Dakota         S.D.                       SD

Tennessee               Tenn.                    TN

Texas                       Tex.                        TX

Utah                         Utah                      UT

Vermont                  Vt.                          VT

Virginia                   Va.                        VA

Washington           Wash.                   WA

West Virginia        W.Va.                   WV

Wisconsin              Wisc./Wis.          WI

Wyoming                Wyo.                      WY

Next time: Where the commas go

“I have a dream today.”

Martin Luther King Jr. repeated those dramatic words in his pivotal speech about civil rights. People remembered it. And responded. But the speech wouldn’t have had the same impact if King had repeated, “There are some things that I think we need to work on to improve this country with regard to racial issues.”

People don’t respond to bland words. Improving your word choice will make your documents clearer and more effective. Four easy steps:

1. Eliminate bland words
Use strong words to punch up a sentence:
This proposal is very important to our company’s success.
This proposal is crucial (or vital) to our company’s success.

The controller looked into the discrepancy between the two financial reports.
The controller investigated the discrepancy between the two financial reports.

A thesaurus can pull you out of a rut. Just make sure the new word is an improvement, not change for the sake of change. Reading business magazines and other documents written with a smooth, intelligent style will also improve your word choice.

2. Be specific
Specific words create specific images that keep readers interested.
Look at the following memo:

The D.B. Company, which in the past has purchased many shipments of our products, had not paid on its invoices for a long time. As a result, I ordered that all remaining orders to the company be cancelled as of July 1. However, an executive from the company called to complain about the cancellation, offering an excuse about the unpaid invoices. She also said that a glitch in our software had caused an error in the date of one invoice. Because D.B. has been a good customer, we worked out a new agreement with the company. We also hired someone to debug our invoice computer.

The memo is free from grammar errors. It’s not wordy. It’s just dull. Specific details would liven up the memo and make the writer look more capable:

The D.B. Company, which has purchased 100 shipments of our hammers and nails in the past two years, had not paid on its invoices for four months. As a result, I ordered that all remaining orders to the company be cancelled as of July 1. However, Susan McGraw, D.B.’s vice president, called to complain about the cancellation. She said one of the invoices had not been paid on time because of a seasonal cash flow problem that has since been overcome. In addition, she said that a glitch in our software had caused an error in the date of another invoice, making it seem as though the invoice was already 30 days old before D.B. even received it. Because D.B. has been a good customer, we worked out a new agreement that would allow the company a 90-day payment window in the spring, when D.B. ships out most of its products and is waiting for customer payments. We also hired a computer specialist from CompFinancial to debug our invoice computer.

3. Eliminate jargon
Jargon is tricky. Using specialized terms from your field can be helpful or harmful. If you’re sending a memo to coworkers, it will save time to use vocabulary they understand, especially if using one jargon word will save you from writing four other words.
But jargon leads to confusion in external documents because people outside a certain field don’t understand it. For example, a person not familiar with hockey might think a hat trick is something a magician does. In a hospital, an MI sounds harmless enough, but it’s doctor jargon for a heart attack. In a courthouse, a prosecutor might say he is going to nol-pros a case. That’s abbreviated jargon for nolle prosequi, which is law jargon meaning “we shall no longer prosecute.” For those of us who get our law education from TV dramas, it means the case was dismissed.

A survey of more than 1,500 people in 2003 discovered that one-third of PC owners did not know the meaning of megahertz even though most computer ads and product information sheets studied during the same time period used the word as if everyone understood it.
Because different sectors of the business world have their own jargon, it’s hard to provide a comprehensive guide on this blog. The bottom line is this: If you’re writing something that will go to customers, the media, or any outside organization or agency, use common words even if it means adding a word or two.

Your goal for any document is to be understood by its audience, even the guy who doesn’t know the meaning of megahertz.

4. Avoid Businessese
Jargon sometimes goes hand in hand with “businessese,” wordy, pretentious writing that is geared more toward making the writer sound smart than toward conveying a clear message. For example, the first sentences in the following examples use terms that sound important but are actually just wordy:

Company executives will conduct a site visit to our department Tuesday.
Company executives will visit (or tour) our department Tuesday.

High production costs can be a causal factor in worker layoffs.
High production costs can cause layoffs.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of adding extra words. Sometimes writers try to use the most elaborate word for any given situation. Here are some examples and their simpler counterparts:

Reside > live
Inform > tell
Request > ask
Initial > first
Initiate > start, begin
Subsequent to > after
Modify > change
Assist > help

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to exercise your verbal skills, so don’t abolish the terms on the list. Using one here and there won’t hurt your writing, but a document stuffed with businessese will sound dull.

Next time: Alphabet soup

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