The Syntax of Business Writing

We often take the small things in life for granted; but when you are writing, these small things can make a big difference.

In writing for professional or personal purposes, some people show a certain amount of laziness. Many adults have below average grammar and punctuation skills. This can have considerable repercussions in their professional life. A spell-check program will not catch bad grammar and incorrect punctuation.
In fact, many people believe that the computer spell-checker has helped to increase the errors that are sent out in businesses. You would think it would be the other way around. However, before computers people had to read over their work to look for errors before sending it out to the intended recipient. Today, too many people rely on a computer spell-checker to look for their errors. The computer cannot be relied on to find all errors. The best way to use a spell-checker is to run it once when you finish a document. Then read the entire document yourself. Do not automatically assume that because spell-check says that something is correct that it is so.

How you write can affect your reputation and your company's reputation. When you send out communications to your colleagues, seniors, vendors, associates, and consumers, you will be judged by the level of proficiency your writing exhibits. If your writing is marred with spelling and grammatical mistakes, your reader will lose interest and respect. A piece of writing that is immaculate in its spelling and grammar will successfully convey the desired message to the reader.
Here are a few basics that will help you glide through your business writing.

Spelling: Misspelled words may seem harmless, but they are easily the most noticeable error in any form of writing. We rely on our computers, and the general notion is that a spell-checker on Microsoft Office can take care of all your spelling worries. Use the spell-check, but make sure to always revise your work at least once.

Here are the reasons why:

- Spell-checkers pinpoint nonexistent words for you; they do not highlight words that have been used in the wrong context.

- Spell-checkers are ineffective with proper nouns. You will need to cross-check the addressee's name and address for accuracy yourself.

Let us say you are writing to your customer to inform him or her about a new product your bank has launched. Your letter goes out and it reads:

"We are proud to introduce this new product to a steamed customer."

Will the reader feel really "esteemed" when you are spelling the word incorrectly?

A spell-checker will not catch this one: "I'd like to way in on the matter."

Chances are that the reader will see this in a negative way and probably will think that if you cannot take the time to correct spelling errors, you will show the same carelessness with customers' money. A little mistake can go a long way in forming negative impressions, so be very careful.

There are some words that are commonly spelled wrong, and many people do not even realize it. For example, there is no such word as "alot," yet many people write it as such. The correct usage is "a lot" because it is actually two words. The Internet has opened up a new can of worms as well when it comes to word usage and spelling. Many people do not realize that the dictionary lists "Web site" and not "website," and it is "World Wide Web" in capital letters and therefore "Web" when referring to just one of the words to describe the Internet. Also, Internet is capitalized according to the dictionary.

Abbreviations: Often people write the way they talk. While in colloquial usage, certain abbreviations and short forms are understandable, they should be avoided in business writing. Business writing is professional, and at times the use of short forms makes it appear unprofessional. Abbreviations also are not understood by everyone. Avoid using abbreviations when you know that some of your readers may not understand them. Abbreviations and short forms may confuse the readers and your communication will fail to deliver its message

Jargon: By definition, jargon is a characteristic language of a particular group. It is a vocabulary common to a set of people who are in the same profession. While it might be acceptable for people in the same profession to use jargon when they are talking, it becomes a problem when the jargon is extended to people beyond the closed group.

Here are some of the problems that people using jargon in business writing encounter:

Readers become confused and unable to follow the meaning of the words.

Readers feel alienated and form negative impressions.

The message of your communication is lost.

It makes communication needlessly complicated.

Commonly misused words: There are many, many words in English that have been used and misused over the years. Words such as "effect" and "affect," "advise" and "advice," and "accept" and "except" are misused every day.

Affect and effect: "Affect" is a verb that means "to influence." The word "effect," when used as a noun, means "result or consequence." When it is used as a verb, it means "to bring about."

Advise and advice: "Advise" is a verb that means "to counsel," while "advice" is a noun that refers to an opinion.

Accept and except: "Accept" is a verb that essentially means "to agree or receive," while "except" is a preposition meaning "other than."


Punctuation: Now that we have tackled poor spelling and misused words, it is time to look at the other malady that haunts business writers: punctuation. If you think you do not have a good grasp of punctuation rules, buy a book or get a punctuation Web site listed in your favorites.

Here are some basic rules of punctuation:

Comma: Often misused or overused, here are a few pointers on when to use it:

To set off clauses: "The director is in a meeting, he is expected to arrive soon, and we will continue at that time."

Another example: She prefers to wear purple, especially when cold, but will consider yellow.

Replace periods within quotation marks: "I might not go," said Julia.

This is most often done when quoting. One mistake that people often make is to put the comma outside of the quotation mark. It should be placed within the quotation mark.

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Correct examples:

"She left last night," Jane said.

"Please spell correctly," said Professor Whitman.

"I don't think I want to go there."

Jane believes in "justice for all."

Incorrect examples:

"She left last night", Jane said.

"Please spell correctly", said Professor Whitman.

"I don't think I want to go there".

Jane believes in "justice for all".

Commas also are used to separate items listed in a document:

Before conjunctions: "This blender will save you time, and it also will make your food taste better."

Commas are used to separate three more items in a row. Examples include:

She loves to eat apples, pears, bananas, and spinach.

He loves to play basketball, soccer, and hockey.

Please select from the brown, blue, or black paint.

However, not everyone includes a comma before the "and" on the final item. This depends on the type of writing you are doing. For example, most journalistic style writing does not include the comma before the "and" on the final item.

Commas separate two complete sentences joined by a conjunction.

For example: She went to the store, and now has food to prepare dinner.

In that example, the word "and" acts as a coordinating conjunction to link the sentences together. The two complete sentences it would be joining together are the following: She went to the store. She now has food to prepare dinner.

To join the two complete sentences together, you must use a coordinating conjunction. Otherwise, it would not read correctly and would be punctuated wrong. Written without a coordinating conjunction it would look like this: Incorrect example: She went to the store, she now has food to prepare dinner.

That example would be considered a comma splice because it actually is two complete sentences. The sentences need to be joined together correctly, either by a coordinating conjunction or a semicolon. Keep in mind that "and" is not the only coordinating conjunction; others include such words as "but," "yet," and "nor," among others.

When using commas, it often is considered better to aim for fewer of them. Too much punctuation in a document, especially in the form of commas, can be distracting. Fewer commas usually are considered better. Many years ago, the common thought was to always place a comma where you would pause. This has since been frowned upon because it tends to create an overuse of commas.

Colon: Essentially, the colon says, "Pay attention to the information that follows." It usually comes before a clause, and the sentence preceding should be complete in its sense, though the sentence following need not.

Example: "There are two things that are most important in business writing: clarity and correctness."

You also can use a colon to introduce a list of things.

Examples: The shopping list contains the following list of goods: pens, markers, notebooks, and scissors.

Bring the following items on picnic day: sunscreen, food, drinks, and napkins.

The colon also can be used when quoting someone after an introductory sentence. Here are some examples:

Jane Loop, noted secretary, once said: "All secretaries deserve to be paid more money."

John F. Kennedy is famous for saying: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

The colon also is used after the salutation in a business letter or memo. Here are some examples:

Dear Sir:

To Whom It May Concern:

The colon also is used when writing out time, such as 6:30 p.m.

Semicolon: Combine two separate but complete sentences and make them one. It also is used to emphasize a point. Just as was discussed previously, if you are going to combine two complete sentences together, they must be combined with a coordinating conjunction or with a semicolon.

Example: Punctuation is an important part of business writing; it can make or break an impression.

Dash: Dashes are two hyphens used next to each other. A dash is more formal than a comma and less formal than a colon. It precedes a subordinate clause, and often links two ideas or sentences together.

Example: In business writing, your aim -- if you want to improve -- should be to pay close attention to details.

Quotation marks: These are used to quote someone directly or to indicate titles of books, poems, stories, etc. Sometimes quotation marks are used to convey irony or sarcasm as well. Quotation marks are used in additional ways, such as when someone wants to emphasize something she or he is writing about or is pointing out something ironic. For example:

She thinks she looks "dorky" when she wears pink.

He says she acted liked a "great chef on wheels" on their first date.

She "loves" to have to fill in on graveyard after working all day.

He "loved" her to death.

Question mark: Question marks are used while asking a question or to end a sentence of inquiry. If the question is part of a quote, then the question mark goes inside the quotation mark. If it is not part of the quote, then it goes outside. For example:

"Will you be going to the concert?"

Did she ask, "What time is the concert"?

Exclamation point: This mark is used when expressing surprise and great emotion; it is the equivalent of shouting verbally. The use of exclamation marks should be limited and reserved for emergencies, strong commands, or scorn. Following are some examples:

Get out of there, now!

Get help!

Congratulations on your graduation!

Parentheses: These marks, to be used sparingly, go on either side of a word or phrase and are used when adding examples or words that are not directly related to the sentence. Here are some examples:

Most of the class (my sister was there as well) left early for the holiday break.

The car has some wonderful features (such as a GPS system and gasoline savings account) that makes it appealing.
At this point you may be thinking that there is an overwhelming number of items to look for in a document. At first glance, that may seem true. However, once you get used to the above items, it will become like second nature to scan a document looking for them. Just as you know where to use a period, at the end of sentences, abbreviations, etc., you will quickly be able to identify what is missing and fix it.