How low can you go?

There’s a fine line between refreshing informality and embarrassing folksiness in business writing. Worse, the location of this line varies from industry to industry.

Read my thoughts on formal vs. informal writing at

Look who’s talking

The first rule of successful business writing is “Know your audience.” But an important corollary is often overlooked: “Know who’s doing the talking.”

Do your marketing materials have a clear point of view? Here’s a cringeworthy example from a corporate law firm:

“Clients turn to us for help with bet-the-company matters that impact your bottom line.”

This sentence starts in the third person (Clients), but quickly shifts to first (us) and then second (your).  It also boasts three buzz words—bet-the-company, impact and bottom line—that would  never leave the mouth of a corporate lawyer.

So who’s doing the talking here? Clearly someone with no sense of the site’s audience (buyers of $900/hour legal advice) or product ($900/hour legal advice). As pitch materials go, it’s not much of a confidence builder.

Escape goats and other mondegreens

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the term “mondegreen” was coined in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, who offered this example from “The Bonny Earl O’Moray:”

They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

The correct line was “And laid him on the green,” and the resulting sense of confusion is familiar to everyone from church-goers (“Gladly the cross-eyed bear”) to lovers of Jimi Hendrix  (“Excuse me while I kiss this guy”).

Business writing has its share of mondegreens, along with close cousins like the malapropism (misused word). Some are the result of typos—e.g. pubic announcements—but I recently received an email exhorting me to “leave no holes barred”  and saw a tweet chastising “escape goats.” And my eyeballs are still aching from the list of religious holidays at my first job, including notes for “Wide-angled Saxons” and “Off-the-dock Jews.”

Gaffes like these make you look pretty silly, so try to avoid them if you want to get ahead in this doggy-dog world.

That’s just sic

I first met sic, the Latin word for “thus,” in a high school Latin class: “Sic transit gloria mundi” (thus passes the glory of the world), “sic infit” (so it begins) and “sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants—usually accompanies a knife in the gut or bullet to the head).

It was a surprise to come upon sic again, this time in a pair of neat little brackets, as a way of pointing out other people’s odd spelling choices. For example: “Elaine wrote Tom that she was happyer [sic] after she left him.”

Or let’s say Elaine has a unique way of spelling her name: “Ellayne [sic] wrote Tom that…” etc.

Is it just me, or is there a tad of judgment implied when [sic] shows up in a sentence?

Man up to avoid gender bias

Although a few (nutty) people continue to debate the issue, most writers in the corporate world agree that it’s tacky to use gendered pronouns such as “he” and “his” when discussing individuals of both sexes. Instead, you can:

  • Rephrase the sentence
  • Use plural nouns or pronouns  such as “they” and “their”
  • Replace the pronoun with an article like “the”
  • Drop the pronoun altogether, if grammatically feasible
  • Replace the pronoun with a noun such as “person,” “police officer” etc.

Two solutions I don’t recommend are alternating “he” and “she,” or using the awkward constructions “s/he” or “him/her.” These terms distract the reader and keep the focus on gender rather than non-specific personhood.

How to quit your job

I was planning a how-to guide on writing a resignation letter, but these suggestions were too great not to share. You can quit your job with an interpretive dance, by getting naked,or through this classic error message:

Just don’t ask for any references.

A matter of style

Every company needs a style guide. And everyone employed by the company needs to know about it.

As the name implies, a style guide is a compendium of rules for language usage at a particular organization. It can (and should) include everything from the correct spelling of the company name to guidelines for appropriate descriptions of minority group members.

I’ve worked at publications that create their own guides from scratch, sometimes running 200 pages or more. But most places do just fine with an existing style guide supplemented by a list of exceptions and words specific to the organization.

In the United States, the most popular guides are the Associated Press Stylebook, favored by journalists and other language-forward types, and the more traditional Chicago Manual of Style. If you write for an international audience, check out The Economist Style Book, which offers a handy section on Americanisms and has the added advantage of being free.

Whichever guide you choose, your company should have a frequently updated, regularly circulated list of addenda to make sure all employees—especially those responsible for external communications—are on the same page.  I’ve been called in to compile these lists, often after some publicly embarrassing incident, and I can tell you that employees desperately need them.

Almost famous

I’m pleased to announce that, a go-to website for corporate communications people, has begun featuring expanded versions of my posts in their Writing and Editing section. Visit the site to check out my thoughts on mission statements and sign up for their excellent free newsletter.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

What do you do when you screw up at work? The obvious answer is to apologize. Often the apology is communicated via email—for instance, when people are in different locations, it’s late at night, or they really don’t want to see your face right now. Here’s how to write an “I’m sorry” you won’t have to apologize for.

  1. Never ruin an apology with an excuse. Ben Franklin’s advice still holds true. If you did something wrong, just man up and say the “s” word.
  2. Don’t go over the top. Flagellating yourself for every little error is self-indulgent and immature. Start with a quick apology and proceed to Step 3.
  3. Fix the problem. Offer concrete suggestions that will get the issue off the other person’s plate. If there are several possible solutions, suggest the one that’s easiest for them.
  4. Give it a time frame. “I’ll get to it as soon as I can” isn’t acceptable in this case. “I should have this resolved by tomorrow at the latest” is better.

How else can you make things right?

Capital punishment

It’s Saturday evening and I had a glass of wine before I wrote this, so I have to share: God, I hate extraneous capital letters. They smack of self-important posturing and unearned respect. People who use them seem to think they add weight and importance, much as the use of the third person does for the Queen. But the truth is that they’re just annoying.

Law firms are major offenders, especially those that refer to themselves as “The Firm.” Why is your firm “The Firm” while Weedy, Footsore & Dank LLP is not? Or is every firm “The Firm?” What about proper names that include those two words, like the John Grisham novel and the San Francisco boutique?

Here are the rules, people: A person’s title is capitalized when it precedes his or her name and is therefore seen as part of the name—Judge Judy, President Barroso. Further references to the person holding the title appear in lowercase: the judge, the president.

The name of a group is capitalized when it is the full name: the Department of Bloodsucking Bottomfeeders. Further references are lowercased: the department.

Which means that Backbite, Snivel and Drone is a firm, not The Firm. You’re welcome.