Word Rules and Cautions

Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.

-Matthew Arnold


Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of trust on the part of the reader.


-William Zinsser


Nobody goes broke in America now; we have money problem areas. It no longer rains; we have precipitation activity. Choose one noun,preferably one that is short and specific. Choose it
carefully and it will do the job.


-William Zinsser


Should You Use Formal or Informal Words in Business Writing?

Business writing should be informal writing. It should be conversational in tone and tailored to the audience and the subject. But instead of writing conversationally, many business writers lapse into the stiff and stilted verbiage of the late 19th century and early 20th century. This is when business letter writing, especially, reached a stylistic high. Many of the words and phrases used then (which today are clichés) still stubbornly show up in business communications, especially letters. How many of these have you used?

This is to inform you…

I am in receipt of your recent…
Enclosed please find…
Please be advised…
Enclosed herewith…
Trusting to hear from…
Thanking you in advance, I remain…
I appreciate your timely response…
You may deem it advisable…
May I take the liberty of…

These are not good choices for today’s business writer. In selecting the exact tone and words to use, rely on your relationship with your reader. Write to the level you would use in a face-to-face conversation. Think of your writing as talking on paper, and select the language level that fits your reader, the subject, and the requirements of your communication. Here are some examples:

Use These Words

For These

Casual and/or Breezy (colloquial, very informal).

Memo to company softball team concerning an after-hours upcoming game.

Informal English. (Use some jargon and shop talk.)

Memo to department heads concerning procedural changes in the manufacturing process.

Informal English. (Use publication guidelines, but include technical terms.)

Article for a trade publication on a new manufacturing process.

Informal English (conversational in tone, but not familiar).

Letter to a corporate President concerning a position, which her friend (and yours) has recommended you for.

Informal English (formal layout printing).

Invitation to company annual awards dinner.

Informal English. (Write to the high school level.)

Annual report for distribution to stockholders and the general public.

Hedging and Emphatic Words

Writing balanced statements is difficult. If you use too many qualifiers, your statement is ineffective; too many extremes, and your writing becomes dogmatic. Using too many words from either category will tell your reader that (1) there was no purpose to the communication, or (2) you did not do your research before writing.

Check your writing for hedging and emphatic words, and eliminate most of them.

Hedging Words

often
usually
perhaps
almost
that
possibly
virtually
apparently
seemingly
in some ways
to a certain extent
sort of
somewhat
in some respects
might
can
may
could
attempt
seek
hope
tend
try

     

Emphatic Words

always
undoubtedly
everyone knows/agrees
it is obvious that/certain
the fact is
indisputable
indeed
certainly
clearly
it is true that
central
cardinal
basic
primary
essential
fundamental
principal
the rule is
common knowledge
absolute
generally agreed
known conclusion

Eliminate Most Harsh Words

Some words will irritate, antagonize, or anger your reader. Using them will make your reader become defensive or bristle.

Demanding, commanding, or attacking terms do not leave your reader with alternatives, and if the tone of your communication indicates disbelief in your reader, you probably won’t get her cooperation. In fact, these words indicate you have taken an inflexible, self-righteous, or rigid position. Terms like "you claim you sent a letter," or "you misrepresented" will paint the reader as an adversary.

There may be times you will have to use harsh words, but if you want the reader’s cooperation, select words and phrases that allow room for compromise. Demonstrate support for your reader in what you write, and concentrate on stating things in a positive way.

When reporting bad news, use tact, and be as understanding and positive as possible.

Avoid directing any of the following words at your reader, or using them in contexts that will offend:


Avoid Harsh Words and Phrases

abominable
absurd
abuse
allege
antagonize
apparently
assume
bad
bad mouth
banal
beware
big mouth
blame
butt in
butt out
cancel
careless
cheap
claim
Communist
complain(t)
contempt
contend
correct
criticize
cruel
damage
deceive
definitely
defy
demagogue
demand
deny
dense
deplore
deprive
destroy
dictator
disgust
drunk
dumb
error
excuse
fail

    

fail(ure)
false
fault
fiasco
flagrant
flimsy excuse
get off my back
hamper
harass
hate
hogwash
hurt
I cannot believe
I cannot
comprehend/believe/permit
I cannot permit
I demand
I insist/demand/require
I must repeat
I require
idiot
ignorant
inadequate
inferior
insist
invalid
liable
lie, liar
ludicrous
meddle
misinform
misinform(ation)
misrepresent
mistake
mistaken
mundane
must
naive
neglect
negligence
never
no
obligated
obstinate

    

obstruction
one-sided
opinionated
overbearing
overlook
overreaction
oversight
pessimist
predatory
prejudice
pretentious
questionable
reject
rude
ruthless
sarcastic
senseless
shameful
shameless
shortsighted
slow
squander
stubborn
stupid
the blame
the error
the responsibility
unfortunately
useless
weak
wrong
you allege
you are being unreasonable
you claim
you demand
you do not understand
you forgot
you maintain
you must
you neglected
you omitted
you overlooked
your carelessness