Do not split an infinitive.
- Do not end a sentence with a preposition.
- Do not begin a sentence with a conjunction.
In this article, we will look at each of these, what the historical and current thoughts on the rules are, and how the rules affect what you write.
Splitting infinitives is the act of putting a word, usually an adverb, between the preposition "to" and the verb in its infinitive form.
She planned to quickly clean the floor.
Placing the word "quickly" between "to" and "clean" splits, or divides, the infinitive "to clean." Many grammar experts would frown upon doing so, stating that it should be written as:
She planned quickly to clean the floor.
Split infinitive example:
He tried to boldly go to her house.
Not split example:
He tried to go boldly to her house.
The problem with the corrected first example is that it makes the sentence somewhat unclear. Written that way, you are not sure if she planned quickly or she is going to quickly clean the floor. Avoiding split infinitives, although still strongly advocated by many, sometimes causes ambiguity.
Many years ago in this country, people routinely split infinitives and it was not an issue. Then people started pointing it out when they saw it in print and voiced their disapproval. This is because much of the language we use is based upon Latin and in that language infinitives are not split. Once it became such an issue with the public, newspapers and other publications started following the writing rule of never splitting infinitives. Fast forward to recent years and it is not as followed as it once was. Many English majors have been trained over the years that it is still a stronghold and should never be done. But many people are moving away from the rule.
In fact, in 1998, The New York Times announced that it was comfortable with split infinitives. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English recognizes the movement away from following this rule yet still recommends following it because you will not always know the expectations of your reader. So why would people move away from splitting infinitives? Sometimes not splitting infinitives can lead to unclear writing or ambiguity. For purposes of business writing, you should aim to not split infinitives, unless the wording would cause the sentence to become unclear or ambiguous.
Not Ending a Sentence with a Preposition
Not ending a sentence with a preposition has undergone changes similar to the previous rule. There are many die-hard proponents of following the rule today, but by and large it is not something that is a must for a great deal of the public. Many people refer to it as an antiquated rule, and some even say it is a grammar myth. No matter what side of the debate you fall on, it is a good idea to be aware of it. Someone for whom you are writing may be on the side of sticking to the old rule; therefore, it does not hurt to keep it in mind and even try to avoid it if possible.
A preposition is a word that forms a connection with other words. Many people believe prepositions are associated with the use of time.
What did you just sit on?
Those are problems we are already aware of.
Rewritten to not end the sentence in a preposition, the sentences would be like this:
On what did you cook that?
On what did you just sit?
Those are problems of which we are aware.
As you can see, many people have moved away from this rule because it does not always sound right. However, many find sentences ending in a preposition to be weak. Therefore, it is wise to keep this rule in mind and even try to avoid the practice because, again, you do not always know the preference of the reader.
Link of interest. You can read some passages regarding ending sentences with prepositions by visiting this site:
Not Beginning a Sentence with a Conjunction
Conjunctions are words that join thoughts together; examples of coordinating conjunctions include "and," "but," or "yet." Many teachers have a preference for not starting sentences with a coordinating conjunction. This is largely because in doing so some people end up writing fragments. Like the other two rules, following it just depends on whom you are writing for. If you have a professor or boss that prefers you do not start sentences with conjunctions, then you will need to be aware of and avoid the practice.
For many people, it is acceptable to write sentences starting with coordinating conjunctions. Because it is a debatable issue, however, it is important that you understand what they are and how to avoid them. In casual writing, advertising copywriting, and often in journalistic writing, it is acceptable to start sentences with conjunctions. In more formal writing, it usually is preferable that you do not start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. If your writing has any sentences beginning with a coordinating conjunction, it is probably wise to see if it would be better written another way.
Examples starting with a coordinating conjunction:
But I could not do my homework because I lost my textbook.
And then after lunch, she started crying about the apple on the floor.
Or salt the porch to keep it from being slippery.
Coordinating conjunctions typically connect one complete independent clause, or a sentence with a subject and verb that could stand alone, with another complete thought. The two independent clauses are joined by a comma and a coordinating conjunction. Examples of the sentences rewritten to not start with the conjunction:
She needed food for the party, so she went to the store.
She received a phone call this morning, and after lunch she started crying about the apple on the floor.
Leave the porch slippery, or salt it to melt the ice and snow.
These three writing rules may seem a little confusing at first, but you will get used to them after catching them a few times. While the origin of using such rules dates back some time and they have evolved over the years, it is still a good idea to understand them and see if you can apply them to your writing to create documents that are more clear, direct, and effective.
The Writing Process
Once you receive or find that you need a document written, the first thing you need to do is gather information. In order to create an effective document you will need to know:
- who the audience is that will be reading it;
- what the goal of the correspondence is (e.g., complaint, recommendation, etc.);
- what key factors and points will need to be made;
- who the recipient is and any other pertinent information.
Common Business Writing Rules
- Keeping it short and simple is one of the most effective rules in any type of writing. People have a tendency to say too much. Your aim should be to keep it clear, concise, and to the point. Using the right words and sentences and omitting unnecessary words will drive home the point you are trying to make. Avoid being too wordy, or your message could become lost.
- Pay attention to your word choices. Try to use words that are simple and will not require someone to pull out a dictionary in order to decipher your message. Using simple words and avoiding jargon, or industry-specific words, will better serve the audience. Word choice is also important if you are writing something that will be read internationally, as the meanings of some words may be unclear.
- Organize the material or direction of the document before getting started. You also can make adjustments to the way things are organized when you are editing. Usually there is a logical order for paragraphs or information to follow, so it is a good idea to pay attention to the structure. When organizing your document you should aim to have an introduction, supporting body of information, and a conclusion.
- Pay attention to the tone of your document. The tone is the style or manner in which you are presenting the information. A light and positive tone is usually going to be better received by the reader. Even if you are writing something that is delivering a negative message, the goal should be to soften it and deliver it in a lighter tone.
- Be mindful of your grammar. Such things as subject and verb agreement, using conjunctions, split infinitives, and prepositions all fall under this category. Having an understanding of grammar will be beneficial in producing all types of business writing documents.
- It also is important to not abbreviate or leave words out when you are writing your letters.
- You should also try to avoid using the same word repeatedly. This is sometimes unavoidable if you are writing about a particular item or topic; but whenever possible, try to break it up using different words so the reader does not become bored with the repetition. For example:
Repetitive: The cat has long, brown fur. The cat went up the tree. The cat then climbed down.
Non-repetitive: The cat has long, brown fur. It went up the tree and then climbed back down.
- Punctuation is important regardless of the type of document you are preparing. Following proper punctuation rules will help your writing be more clear and effective. Important rules to follow include placing commas where they belong, avoiding over-punctuating with commas, using apostrophes, capitalization, quotations, periods, dashes, and writing with numbers.
- Watch whether you are using active or passive voice. Most business writing should aim for using the active voice, unless you are writing something that clearly makes more sense using a passive voice.
- Aim to create a visually appealing document. It is equally important to create a document that is visually appealing as it is grammatically correct. When we as humans speak, much of our language comes across through nonverbal signals. We give cues as to our tone and feelings by our body language. How a document is visually prepared is the equivalent of this. Along with having professional text, the document should be easy on the eyes, look crisp and clean, follow proper formatting techniques, and be free of debris, etc. A document that is wrinkled, not formatting properly, smudged, etc., will take away from any good writing on the page. Likewise, a good, crisp, clean document that is visually appealing will add to the professional image and go a long way in preserving the message and tone.