Whether you are composing formal business documents, emails, or social media posts, the goal is to write with as much power, precision, and persuasion as possible. Grammar goofs and punctuation problems can undercut your professionalism and credibility. In the quest to command readers’ attention, documents that convey competence always come out on top. As part of her recent webinar with Community Bankers Webinar Network, Nancy Flynn outlined the seven steps for great grammar for business and technical writers:
- Stop using exclamation points. In the age of email, some writers have gone mad for exclamation points. You’ve probably seen one-page email messages in which the writer ended every sentence with an exclamation point. Limit yourself to no more than one (if justified) exclamation point per email (or any other type of document, for that matter). Use the exclamation point only to communicate intentional impact, excitement, or alarm.
- Always place periods and commas inside the closing quotation mark. No exceptions. This is a firm rule of grammar. Periods and commas always — 100 percent of the time — go inside the closing quotation mark. Incorrectly placing periods and commas outside the closing quote mark is one of the most common grammar errors. Even “Jeopardy,” the television show that celebrates smarts, incorrectly places periods and commas outside closing quotation marks. Semicolons and colons, on the other hand, always go outside the closing quotation mark. Again, no exceptions.
- Demonstrate diversity and inclusiveness by using gender-neutral pronouns. Use gender-neutral alternatives to “he,” “she,” “he/she,” and “he or she” to support respectful interactions with gender-nonbinary colleagues, consumers, and community members. You can, for example, replace “he” or “she” with “one.” You can rewrite, casting your sentence in the plural, using “they.” You can eliminate the offending pronoun altogether. You also can replace the offending pronoun with a noun. For more on pronouns, diversity, and inclusiveness, you can check out Nancy Flynn’s complementary CBWN webinar, Incorporating Diversity & Inclusion into Your HR Policies.
- Capitalize job titles only if they precede individuals’ names or are abbreviations (CEO, VP, SVP). Do not capitalize job titles that follow names, merely describe jobs, or are used in place of people’s names. You would capitalize “Training Manager Bridget Rowe.” You would not capitalize “Chloe Murphy, training manager.” Nor would you capitalize “The president invited all the senior vice presidents.” You would, however, capitalize “The CFO questioned the VPs about their budgets.” To avoid hurt feelings, always place job titles in front of names. That way, you can legitimately capitalize everyone’s title.
- You will (not “shall”) use “less” fewer times a day. Writers often use “less” when they really mean “fewer.” Here’s the rule: Use “fewer” when referring to several countable people, animals, or items. Use “less” to refer to a single bulk amount. Example: “The training manager anticipates fewer employees [countable number of people] will apply for the job because the company has less money [single bulk amount] to work with this quarter.” As for “will” vs. “shall,” here’s the guideline. Keep your business writing conversational by using “will” rather than the more pretentious “shall.”
- Don’t confuse possessives and plurals. Use possessives (insert an apostrophe) to indicate ownership (or possession). Use the plural to indicate multiples. Correct use of the plural: “Born in the 1970s.” Incorrect use of the possessive: “Born in the 1970’s.” Correct use of the plural: “Adhere to the dos and don’ts of grammar.” In that case, “dos” is plural and therefore takes no apostrophe. “Don’ts” is a contraction, meaning “do not” (plural) and requires an apostrophe.
- And another thing. Go ahead and start your sentence with a coordinating conjunction (“and,” “or,” “nor,” “for,” “but,” “so,” “yet”). The rules of grammar have changed over the years. Once considered bad form, grammarians today agree there is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with “and” or another coordinating conjunction. Doing so helps create a smooth transition from one thought or sentence to another.
Nancy’s webinar, Business Writing Boot Camp, Including Critique of Your Own Writing Sample, goes beyond grammar and punctuation. She covers how to:
- Write with purpose, creating strategic, on-target business documents and email
- Compose with precision, using appropriate tone and language, correct grammar, and effective style
- Communicate powerfully and persuasively with internal and external readers
- Deliver complex information clearly
- Respond to challenging questions effectively
- Employ plain English that any reader — regardless of experience, expertise, or education — can understand
- Use a clear, convincing, conversational voice
- Write for results, persuading even the most difficult readers to act
Content from this post comes from Nancy Flynn’s Great Grammar in Seven Steps, a tip sheet from her Business Writing Boot Camp, Including Critique of Your Own Writing Sample webinar.