Write for Results, Communicate with Confidence


Style Guide

This style guide clarifies some of the most common errors in English grammar, punctuation and usage. It is not a complete guide. For more information about style, see the articles on our newsletter page and the books listed on the resources page.


Just for fun, test your grammar skills by taking our short quiz (5 questions).


Many of us remember being taught to use the article "an" before a vowel (a, e, i, o, u). This rule is probably based on making the language sound pleasant when it is spoken. We don't like the sound of a apple, a ice cream, a operator. Instead, we prefer an apple, an ice cream, an operator.

But the rule we remember is not quite right. The correct rule is to use "an" before a vowel SOUND. For example, we say "an unidentified object" because the "u" in "unidentified" has a vowel sound. Yet we say "a useful idea" because the "u" in "useful" has the sound of "y" rather than the sound of "u."

"U" and "o" often have the sounds of "y" and "w." Those are not vowel SOUNDS, so they don't take "an." For example, an open door (the "o" has a vowel sound), but a one-hour seminar (the "o" has a "w" sound).

When an "h" is silent, it usually gives us the sound of the vowel that follows.
For example, an hourly wage (the "h" is silent), but a humorous situation (the "h" is not silent).

We also use "an" before abbreviations that start with vowel sounds: an EFP, an HRC, an MD, an NCO, an SUV, an RN, an XKE. If we spell the word, we follow the conventions of a/an. An MD, but a medical doctor.

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American business suffers from an epidemic of incorrectly used capital (upper case) letters. Here are examples of incorrect capitalization.

Be sure to visit our Web Site.
All the City Employees are to attend the meeting.
We are the largest State in the country.
Our Bookkeeper paid the invoice.
She went to High School in another state.

Here are some guidelines.

  1. Capitalize a title only when it precedes a person's name. Doctor Sara Martinez (but Sara Martinez, my doctor . . . )

  2. Do not capitalize common nouns: our university, the city, my supervisor, the director.

  3. Capitalize common nouns when they take the place of their proper nouns: The Director is speaking at noon. (Fred is speaking at noon.)

  4. Capitalize a department when a word is used to replace the whole name of the department: I was told that Maintenance will repair the fan belt.

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Do you write for results? Do you communicate with confidence? If you answer "no" to more than two questions on this checklist, you can benefit from our Writing Courses.

  1. Is it to the point?
  2. Is your most important point obvious?
  3. Have you used simple language?
  4. Will your reader understand?
  5. Is it brief?
  6. Have you used the right tone?
  7. Have you eliminated unnecessary jargon?
  8. Do your sentences average 15 words?
  9. Are your paragraphs short?
  10. Are the spelling and punctuation correct?
  11. Will your reader know what to do next?

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Do you often have trouble being understood? Do you write "it is a matter of deep regret to us that you cast a negative vote on the appropriation of funds for construction of the new school" when you really mean "we’re sorry you voted against building the new school"?

What makes us write in this complicated, "official" style? It’s usually the misguided belief that we are supposed to. The truth is that readers have a difficult time understanding writing that is unnecessarily complex. If the reader has to work too hard for meaning, the writing is ineffective, and the results can be miscommunication and wasted time for everyone.

Writing becomes foggy when we use too many words or use big words inappropriately: medication for medicine, utilize for use, purchase for buy.

As the writer, it is your job to make reading easy. Don’t try to impress your reader with flowery writing. Write to express, not impress. Remember that the more technical or complicated something is to explain, the more simple the writing needs to be.

"Readability" is the term used to describe how difficult something is to read. It might surprise you that an appropriate level for most business writing is the eighth to tenth grade. For scientific or highly technical writing, you might write at the twelfth grade level. Anything beyond grade thirteen will be too difficult for most readers. Most major metropolitan newspapers, for example, are written at the sixth grade level. The Wall Street Journal is written at grade twelve. The IRS code is so complex it measures "unreadable."

How can you reduce your readability level? Simplify, simplify, simplify. Avoid too many big words (three syllables or more), and keep your sentences short (an average of 15 words per sentence, a maximum of 25).

To measure your readability, use the grammar check on your computer or do the math yourself. Using a passage of at least 100 words, add the average number of words per sentence to the percentage of words with three or more syllables. (Treat the percent as a whole number.) Multiply the total by .4 and round up or down.

For example:



average number of words per sentence

percentage of big words
total x .4 = 9th grade

How can you practice reducing fog? Just imagine that you are talking on the phone rather than writing. On the phone we usually speak in a clear, simple style: "Bring your umbrella because it might rain." Often when we write, we obscure the message with fog: "It is highly recommended that you take into consideration the utilization of appropriate foul weather gear due to the fact that precipitation is anticipated."

To write clearly, remember to use short sentences and simple words.

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Use a colon before a list of items. Think of the colon as a substitute for the words "that is."

We brought several things to the picnic: champagne, oysters, chocolate truffles and fresh strawberries.

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Remember that you NEVER punctuate words. You punctuate sentences. (So you can’t say "and" takes a comma; "however" takes a semi-colon.) Also remember that every punctuation mark tells the reader to expect something. Don’t use a comma unless you can cite a rule for it. When in doubt, leave it out. ("Put a comma where you pause" is not a rule of writing. It’s a rule of reading.)

There are 46 uses for the comma. Here are the two most frequently asked about.

  1. Put a comma between each item in a series. The comma before "and" in the series is optional and should be used if it clarifies the meaning. This is called the terminal comma. A terminal comma is unnecessary if the word "and" clearly signals that the last item in the series is next.

    DON’T use the terminal comma in a short series. (Although doing so is not wrong.)

    The flag is blue, green and silver.

    DO use the terminal comma in a series that is especially long or complex.

    We had milk and cookies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and cake and ice cream for dinner.

  2. Put commas around non-essential material: material that would not change the meaning of the subject if it were left out. If material is part of the subject, it is essential and must not have commas.

    Gladys, who loves to ice skate, broke her toe.

    The woman who loves to ice skate broke her toe.

    His idea, which I like best, is the one about saving money.

    The idea that I like best is the one about saving money.

    All commas and periods go INSIDE quotation marks, regardless of usage.

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The hyphen is often used to create compound words that modify (describe) other words. Notice that numbers from 21 to 99 are compound words. When we write twenty-one, we are not writing twenty (20) and one (1), but 21.

How do the meanings differ in these phrases?

small-business committee
small business committee

The difference is how the word "small" is used. In the first example we are describing a committee that deals with or perhaps is comprised of small businesses. (The committee itself might be large.)

In the second example the word "small" describes the size of the committee. The word "business" describes what kind of committee.

Remember that when we create a compound modifier by using a hyphen, we are creating ONE word. For example, a two-hundred-year-old house. We have created one hyphenated word to describe the house.

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Do not use a dash when you can use a comma. DASHES SHOUT. (Parentheses whisper.) Unfortunately, the dash is not on your keyboard (as is the hyphen). If your computer software is modern, you probably can create a dash by using the function keys or the "insert, symbol" on your tool bar. Don’t use spaces before or after a dash.

If your computer doesn't have a dash, you must create one by using two hyphens.

Don’t use a hyphen for a dash. They are not the same.

dash –

hyphen -

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We are all sensitive about our writing, which is an extension of ourselves. So if you edit someone else’s work, don’t change his or her style unless it is inappropriate. Also be sure not to change the meaning. Sometimes changing a word or inserting or deleting punctuation can change the writer’s intent.

It is important to put your ego aside when you edit another’s work and not change something just because it is different; the change must be better. Try to make as few changes as possible when you edit someone else’s work.

And please don’t use red ink–choose purple or orange if you feel it is necessary to have the changes jump off the page.

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That can be eliminated before a phrase if the meaning is clear without it.

I told him I was leaving early.

I told him that I was leaving early. (eliminate that)

That should be used when two phrases could create ambiguity. This sentence can have two interpretations.

He told me in 1998 he moved to San Francisco.

Which is the correct meaning?

In 1998 he told me he moved to San Francisco.

He told me he moved to San Francisco in 1998.

Notice how that clarifies the meaning.

He told me that in 1998 he moved to San Francisco.

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Ellipses are used to indicate that a word, phrase, line or paragraph has been omitted. The correct way to punctuate the dots is with a space before each one. Ellipses can be at the beginning, the middle or the end of a sentence.

. . . until we meet again.
All that . . . is not gold.

When the omission is at the end of a sentence, you will need a fourth dot for the period. In that case, there is no space before the first dot.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of. . . .

The word ellipses is plural. The dots are also referred to as ellipsis (singular) points.

Don't use those little dots indiscriminately instead of commas, dashes or colons. Remember that the number is three (sometimes plus one), not two or five or whatever strikes your fancy.

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  1. Make e-mail easy to read.

  2. Use plenty of white space.

  3. Press the return key often to create paragraphs. YES, you can write a one-sentence paragraph.

  4. Use headings and sub-headings (but don't overdo it).

  5. Use the standard conventions of good writing: complete sentences, correct grammar and spelling.

  6. Write a compelling subject line that makes the reader want to open your email.

  7. Start with your most important point. Get the reader's attention.

  8. Be careful with your tone. Warm it up if it's abrasive; polish it if it's too chatty.

  9. Proofread. Print a hard copy if you need to.

  10. Don't write in all capital letters (all caps). We read all caps at one-third the normal speed.

  11. Don't make your margins so wide that they can't be read without scrolling. A good guideline is 64 characters or fewer per line.

  12. SLOW DOWN. When you go too fast, you make errors and look sloppy or careless.

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A client recently asked about using humor in business writing. Humor is extremely subjective, so it should be used cautiously in business correspondence. What is funny to you might not be to someone else.

If you use humor, you risk offending the reader or creating a misunderstanding. However, if you know your reader especially well, a dash of humor can be refreshing. Just be certain that the humor is obvious as well as appropriate for the reader and the topic.

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Writing "it’s" when we mean "its" is probably the most common grammar error American writers make. Memorize that IT’S is a contraction for IT IS. And then learn that ITS is a possessive pronoun—and a possessive pronoun NEVER takes an apostrophe. Think of his, hers, yours, ours, its.

It’s (it is) time to write clearly.

The cat lost its identification tag.

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Fewer is a word that has almost disappeared from our language. We hear about less dollars, less employees, less commitments. Wrong!

Part of the problem no doubt stems from an inconsistency in English usage. After all, when we have more, one word is correct in all situations. We have, for example, more money and more dollars.

But when we have the opposite of more, we must distinguish between two words: fewer for things that can be counted, less for uncountable items.

For example, less money, fewer dollars. Less stress, fewer mistakes. Less water, fewer gallons of water.

So the next time you write, please make fewer grammatical errors. Keep in mind that when you have less love, you can expect fewer kisses.

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Here are two words that are often used incorrectly, especially in speech.

"To lie" means to recline. Notice the various verb forms.

  • I advised the patient to lie down.

  • He lies on the sofa while reading; the babies lie in their mothers' arms.

  • The runner lay (past tense) down before fainting.

  • He was lying in the street when the medics arrived.

  • The neighbors said that he has lain there since 8 a.m.

" To lay" means to place or put down. Notice the various verb forms.

  • I told her to lay her reports on the table.

  • He always lays out his clothes before packing the suitcase.

  • We laid (past tense) out the plans before we proceeded.

  • He was laying the electrical wire near the river.

  • He has laid six feet of cable since this morning.

Most of the "mistakes" we make in English grammar (as well as punctuation, and ESPECIALLY in spelling) have some basis in logic. Our errors are seldom just random.

So why do we confuse lie with lay? Because the infinitive for placing is "lay," and the past tense for reclining is "lay." Same word, different uses.

The most common error we make with the lie/lay combination is to use "lay" when we mean "lie." Here is an example of incorrect usage:

"I like to lay in bed late on holidays because I don't have to go to work."

So the next time you have a holiday, remember to LIE in bed late and review your grammar.

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Parallel structure is a grammatical technique for creating a uniform pattern when two or more items are being compared or listed. The technique requires that each item begin with the same grammatical structure:

I like singing, dancing and cooking.
I like to sing, dance and cook.
I like to sing, to dance and to cook.

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Remember that parentheses whisper. DASHES SHOUT.

Use parentheses to set off explanatory elements.

The ingredients in the recipe (flour, sugar, eggs, salt) are common.

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Imagine Tony Bennett selling a million records with a song that goes like this: My heart was left in San Francisco by me. It sounds awkward and passive. That’s because it is written in passive voice.

I left my heart in San Francisco says the same thing, but in active voice. Same message, different sentence structure.

Active voice means that at the beginning of the sentence you have an actor who is responsible for the verb. Jean opened the door. Jean is the actor. (Notice that I am using actor, not actress, to avoid sexism.)

Reverse the word order: The door was opened by Jean. Jean is still the actor, but she is at the end of the sentence. The door isn’t an actor because it isn’t doing anything. Something is being done to it. The door is being passive.

You don’t always have an actor when you use passive voice. You can just say the door was opened, and not say who did it.

There are three ways to recognize passive voice:

  • The recipient, not the actor, is at the beginning of the sentence.
  • The verb always has at least two words ("was opened").
  • The actor (if there is one) is at the end of the sentence.

Active voice has three strengths:

  • It is more direct and forceful.
  • It clearly states who or what is performing the action.
  • It uses fewer words.

Passive voice gets a bad rap. Many people say not to use it; they say it’s bad writing. That isn’t necessarily so. Passive voice can be a very good choice if used for one of these three reasons:

To hide the actor’s identity. "A mistake was made." We don’t mean hide in a furtive sense necessarily. You might want to be diplomatic, sensitive or confidential.

When the actor is unknown, obvious or unimportant. "A telephone is often called a phone." Who calls it that? Do we care?

To emphasize who or what was acted upon. "My mom was kissed by a killer whale." The sentence is about the mom; she is more important than the whale.

Most technical, medical and scientific writing uses passive voice because there is no actor, or because the actor is obvious or unimportant. For example, the specs were written; the keyboard was redesigned; the wiring was installed.

Changing passive to active is simple: put the actor in front of the verb. My heart was left; I left my heart.

Use passive voice only for one of the three reasons above. Otherwise, use active voice. Your writing will have more force and energy--and be much more interesting to read.

If you use grammar checker on your computer, you will often be flagged for using passive voice. Now that you know when to use passive voice effectively, you can tell grammar checker to stop bothering you.

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There are two very different past tenses in English. Use them correctly.

  1. When the action has been completed: learned, read, swam.

    I worked 40 hours last week.

  2. When the action began in the past but has not been completed: have learned, have read, have swum.

    I have worked 12 hours so far today.

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Note: These "proverbs" play with language. For example, "Mistakery loves company" is a play on the cliché "Misery loves company." There is no such word as "mistakery."

  1. "You can't see the forest for the trees." When you are the writer, editor, typist or typesetter proofreading your own work, you see your ideas rather than your words. You are too close to see all the errors. Get help.

  2. "Familiarity breeds content." When you see the same copy again and again through the different stages of production, you will miss new errors. Fresh eyes are needed.

  3. "If it's as plain as the nose on your face, everybody can see it but you." Where is the reader most likely to notice errors? In a headline; in a title; in the first line, first paragraph or first page of copy; and in the top lines of a new page. These are precisely the places proofreaders are most likely to miss.

  4. "Mistakery loves company." Errors often cluster. When you find one, look hard for others nearby.

  5. "When you change horses in midstream, you can get wet." It's easy to overlook an error set in type that is different from the typeface you are reading. Watch out when type changes to all caps, italics, bold face, small sizes and large sizes. Watch out when underlines appear in typed copy.

  6. "The footbone connected to the kneebone?" Numerical and alphabetical sequences often go awry. Check for omissions and duplications in page numbers, footnote numbers or notations in outlines and lists. Check any numeration, anything in alphabetical order, and everything sequential (such as a path of arrows in a flowchart).

  7. "It takes two to boogie." An opening parenthesis needs a closing parenthesis. Brackets, quotation marks (and sometimes dashes) belong in pairs. Catch the bachelors.

  8. "Every yoo-hoo deserves a yoo-hoo back." A footnote reference mark or a first reference to a table or an illustration is termed a callout. Be sure a footnote begins on the same page as its callout. Be sure a table or illustration follows its callout as soon as possible.

  9. "Numbers can speak louder than words." Misprints in figures can be catastrophic. Take care with dollar figures and numbers in dates, statistics, tables or technical text. Read all numerals character by character. For example, read "2001" as two zero zero one.

  10. "Two plus two is twenty-two." The simplest math can go wrong. Do not trust figures giving percentages and fractions or the "total" lines in tables. Watch for misplaced decimal points. Use your calculator.

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Every sentence must have a subject, verb and a complete idea.

Don’t separate two sentences (independent clauses) with a comma. Separate them with a semi-colon or use a period and a capital letter.

No: I like red, my sister does too.

Yes: I like red; my sister does too.

Yes: I like red. My sister does too.

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  1. Use a semi-colon to separate two independent clauses that are closely related. Do this to indicate that you don't want the reader to stop with the thought.

    An independent clause is one that can stand alone as a complete sentence. It has a subject, a verb and a complete idea.

    Red is my favorite color; half my wardrobe is red.

  2. When items in a series are complex, long, or contain commas, it is often best to separate the items with a semi-colon rather than a comma.

    We elected the following: Mary, president; Sue, vice-president; Richard, secretary; and Roger, treasurer.

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Style means putting words together in a way that is unique to you. When you like a certain writer’s work, you usually mean that his or her style appeals to you.

Style is not quite the same thing as tone, which you can change, depending on your message. It’s hard to change your style, which is much like your signature or personality. Think of your style as your "voice."

We all have our own style, and we are entitled to sound like ourselves as long as the style is appropriate for the topic and audience. There is no ideal style; some people are terse, others expansive. Although some uniformity in a company or department is desirable, people should not be expected to sound alike.

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Are you confused about when to use "if I WERE" vs. "if I WAS"? Why is it correct to say "I WAS working at 4 a.m." yet say "If I WERE you"? This unusual use of WERE is called the subjunctive verb. We use WERE when an "if clause" states a situation that is untrue, impossible or highly unlikely.

Since I am female, I cannot be a rich man. So I can sing, "If I WERE a rich man." And of course even though the character who sings that song in the musical, "Fiddler on the Roof," is male, he is also poor and unlikely to be rich, so he too uses the subjunctive verb and sings, "If I WERE a rich man."

Let's compare WAS and WERE.

If that WAS my dog, I'd teach it not to bark.
(It's possible the dog could be mine; thus I use WAS.)

If I WERE a dog, I wouldn't bark at cats.
(I cannot be a dog—I hope—so I use WERE.)

Here are more examples:

If I WAS going to the movie, I would invite you. (It's possible for me to go.)

I wouldn't do that if I WERE you. (It is impossible for me to be you.)

We would go skiing if it WERE snowing in July in California. (It is unlikely to snow in July.)

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    It's is a contraction for it is. The possessive pronoun its never takes an apostrophe.

    Say between you and me. Me is an object pronoun, and here it is the object of the preposition between. I is always a subject pronoun.

    There's is the contraction for there is. You would not say there is many. Try there are many.

    Say I'm fine, and you. Use self as a reflexive, as in I did it myself, he takes care of himself, they learned by themselves. Or use it for emphasis. Do it yourself!

    Revert means to go back or return. Eliminate redundancies.

    Learn words that are commonly confused. Compliment with an "I" means to say something nice. Complement with an "E" means to complete.

    This is tortured English. A reason cannot be because. A reason can be good or significant, but not because. Drop the word reason and the sentence will make sense: We're doing this because it's important.

    Use the plural verb are. When you join two subjects with and, you create a compound subject, which is always plural. Subjects and verbs must agree: both plural or both singular.

    Another agreement error. Use two singulars (this kind) or two plurals (these kinds).

    Another agreement error. Everyone is singular; their is plural. Technically you should say everyone do his or her work. But since the correct grammar produces the awkward his/her style, the incorrect their is quickly becoming acceptable in casual speech.

When in doubt about correct versus acceptable grammar, choose what is most appropriate for your audience. Other singular pronouns include someone, anyone, no one, everyone, somebody, anybody, nobody, everybody. "Body" is acceptable in speech; "one" is preferred in writing.

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That can be eliminated before a phrase if the meaning is clear without it.

I told him I was leaving early.
I told him that I was leaving early. (eliminate that)

That should be used when two phrases could create ambiguity. This sentence can have two interpretations.

He told me in 1998 he moved to San Francisco.

Which is the correct meaning for the sentence above?

In 1998 he told me he moved to San Francisco.
He told me he moved to San Francisco in 1998.

Notice how that clarifies the meaning.

He told me that in 1998 he moved to San Francisco.
In 1998 he told me that he moved to San Francisco.

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That and which create a lot of confusion. The main problem is that which can be used in two ways, that in only one.

That is used for essential material, creating what we call a restrictive clause. If essential material is eliminated, the sentence often changes meaning.

Which, on the other hand, can be used for essential or non-essential material, creating either a restrictive or non-restrictive clause.

Let’s look at examples. (The complete grammatical subject—the simple subject and all its modifiers—is underlined.)

Don’t eat the mushrooms, which are poisonous.

The sentence above uses a comma before the clause "which are poisonous." By using a comma here, we are saying that the clause "which are poisonous" is non-essential. Therefore, we can delete the clause and not change the meaning of the sentence. Non-essential material does not restrict the meaning of the sentence. The sentence above means

Don’t eat the mushrooms.

It also means

The mushrooms are poisonous.

Now let’s look at the identical words without the comma.

Don’t eat the mushrooms which are poisonous.

Because there is no comma in the sentence above, we are saying that all the words in the sentence are essential. The clause "which are poisonous" is part of the complete grammatical subject and therefore restricts the meaning of the sentence.

Remember, the crucial element here is that you can change meaning when you insert or delete commas. Be sure you choose the correct words when you write your sentence. Then be sure to punctuate the sentence correctly. If your modifying clause is non-essential, you must use which. And you must use a comma with which.

Notice the most important thing here: the words in both sentences are identical but the meanings differ because we used commas. The sentence above means

Don’t eat the poisonous mushrooms.

In other words, it’s all right to eat the non-poisonous mushrooms. That’s different from the first example, which said we should not eat any mushrooms.

Now that we have clarified how to punctuate that for essential material and which for non-essential material, let’s look at the choices in usage.

That can be used only for essential material. And remember, we cannot use commas with essential material. So the rule is easy: don’t use commas when that introduces essential material.

On the other hand, which can be used for both essential and non-essential material. This is what is so confusing.

Notice how different punctuation creates different meaning.

Don’t eat the mushrooms, which are poisonous.

(Don’t eat any mushrooms.)

Don’t eat the mushrooms which are poisonous.

(It’s all right to eat the non-poisonous mushrooms.)

How can we simplify this confusion? When we have essential material, we must use that. So reserve which for non-essential only.

Don’t eat the mushrooms that are poisonous.

(Don’t eat the poisonous mushrooms.)

Don’t eat the mushrooms, which are poisonous.

(Don’t eat any mushrooms.)

Let’s try another example. Can we write all these sentences?

Don’t eat the arsenic, which is poisonous.

Don’t eat the arsenic which is poisonous.

Don’t eat the arsenic that is poisonous.

Since arsenic is always poisonous, we can use only the first sentence. It means just that: arsenic is poisonous, so don’t eat it.

The second and third sentences mean that it’s all right to eat non-poisonous arsenic. Since there is no such thing as non-poisonous arsenic, the second and third sentences cannot be written.

Much of the confusion about that and which comes from the fact that we have a choice of two words but a choice of three uses.

That can be used only for essential material.

Which can be used for both essential and non-essential material.

In other words, we have three ways of writing two things. These sentences are all correct. Notice that the first two sentences have the same meaning and have essential clauses that are part of the complete subject.

Don’t eat the mushrooms that are poisonous.

(Don’t eat the poisonous mushrooms.)

Don’t eat the mushrooms which are poisonous.

(Don’t eat the poisonous mushrooms.)

Don’t eat the mushrooms, which are poisonous.

(Don’t eat any mushrooms. They are poisonous.)

The best way to ensure that your meaning cannot be misunderstood—and to ensure that you have punctuated correctly—is to use which for non-essential material only. If you follow that convention, you will use only two words for two meanings. In other words,

Don’t eat the arsenic, which is poisonous.

(Don’t eat the arsenic. It is poisonous.)

Don’t eat the mushrooms that are poisonous.

(Don’t eat the poisonous mushrooms.)

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  1. Identify your reader(s).
  2. Write from the reader's point of view.
  3. Know why you are writing.
  4. Choose the proper tone.
  5. Get to the point quickly.
  6. Be brief.
  7. Keep it simple.
  8. Be specific.
  9. Avoid improper jargon.
  10. Beware of clutter and "the official style."
  11. Write to express, not impress.
  12. Tell the reader the outcome you expect.

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When we speak, our words account for only a portion of the message we convey. Our meaning is also interpreted through our body language and eye contact, as well as the intonation, pitch and speed of our voice. All affect the meaning of what we say.

We can have the same effect when we write. It’s called tone—that is, the writing between the lines, the meaning conveyed in the words we choose rather than just in the message we are sending.

Tone is the most difficult part of writing to control because it is subjective. Two people will often have completely different responses to the same words. One person might say the tone is friendly and helpful, while someone else says it is blunt and abrasive.

Here are different ways of writing the same message. How would you characterize the tone?

  1. You should plan to install a new fiber optics line from headquarters to the satellite station.

  2. It will be necessary to install a new fiber optics line from headquarters to the satellite station. You have been assigned to supervise installation according to the specs below.

  3. Pat, the company plans to install a new fiber optics line from headquarters to the satellite station. We’d like you to oversee installation. Below are some of the important specs you’ll need.

Some people characterize No. 1 as demanding because they interpret SHOULD as YOU MUST (or else)! Others are not bothered at all; in fact, they feel the tone is helpful. Quite a difference, isn’t it?

Many people say that No. 2 has an impersonal, bureaucratic sound. But others like being given clear, explicit orders.

Most agree that No. 3 is pleasant and courteous. That is because it has a message between the lines: Pat, we’re counting on you. We have chosen you for the job because we know we can rely on you to do it right.

Tone is a potential powder keg because people assign different interpretations to the same words. So what is a writer to do? Here are some guidelines.

First, choose the tone that is appropriate for the reader. What will make the reader most comfortable? Does she prefer direct and succinct communication. Does he write in a personal, friendly style?

Next, be careful when you have any negative feelings: anger, frustration, disdain. Those feelings are likely to sabotage your writing; your tone can betray you. Remember that business writing should always be professional, regardless of the topic or your feelings. If you have doubts about your tone, wait until the next day to read your letter so you have time to cool off and create some emotional distance. Or show your letter to a trusted colleague and ask how he or she would characterize the tone.

Keep in mind that pronouns such as you create closeness, so they can be assets when you have good news: You wrote a good report. But pronouns should be avoided when you have bad news and want to soften the tone: This report could use some revision.

Finally, remember that no matter how hard you try, you can’t please all the people all the time with the "right" tone. Writing is an art, not a science, and tone is the most subjective, challenging part of writing. Tread cautiously.

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The verb is the most important part of the language. Pay attention to the verb form you use. Some verb forms are preferable to others; here is one order of preference.

  1. Active voice, present tense

    The technician adjusts the heat.

  2. Infinitive

    Do the following to adjust the heat.

  3. Passive voice

    The heat is adjusted by the technician.

  4. Noun forms ending in "ing"

    Adjusting the heat is easy.

  5. Noun forms ending in ion, ent, ence and so on

    The adjustment of the heat is easy.

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This is one of the most difficult parts of grammar to understand. What makes it confusing is that we can often use acceptable grammar when talking, yet we should use correct grammar when writing. Rules of writing are more strict than rules of speech.

When something is acceptable but not grammatically correct, we call it a colloquialism, meaning "the way we talk."

In speech, whom, the object pronoun, has almost disappeared, being replaced by who, the subject pronoun. Yet you should still use both words correctly when writing.

Here’s the way to remember the grammar rule. HIM and WHOM are both objects. (They come after the verb.) If you can use HIM, you can use WHOM. What do they have in common? They both end in M.

(If you can use the subject he, you use the subject who.)

Try it with the subject. He is the director? Who is the director?

Now try it with the object. You called him? You called whom? Or, whom did you call?

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You stare at the blank computer screen. You stare at the empty page. Both stare back and wait for you to write. The longer you stare, the more you block--and the more you dread writing.

Cheer up. Help is on the way.

You know what you want to say, so why are you blocked? Probably because you are making one of the most common errors of writing: you’re dividing thinking and writing into separate tasks.

Professional writers know that writing is a kind of thinking. It is by writing that you find out what you know. But if you are too structured in the beginning and start to prematurely organize your ideas into perfect sentences and logical paragraphs, you will surely block your thoughts.

Here are three techniques for unblocking your thinking process.


Freewriting is one of the easiest ways to avoid writer’s block. Put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and let your ideas flow. Don’t worry about the quality of your thoughts or clarity and organization. Pay no attention to spelling, grammar or punctuation.

Write as quickly as possible and don’t stop. You can never write as fast as you can think. If you stop writing, you might miss some good ideas.

Freewriting helps you get in touch with the big picture without getting sidetracked with details. It’s a non-linear activity, using the right side of the brain, which deals in concepts and abstractions. As soon as you begin to organize, edit and censor your ideas, you have moved over to the left side of the brain, where the linear thinking happens. That is where thoughts get blocked.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is another non-linear activity. Draw an oval in the middle of a blank page and write your topic in the center. Try to include an action verb in the topic: to explain, to persuade, to recommend. From the oval, draw numerous spokes and label them with key words.

Write subordinate ideas on additional spokes extending from the main spokes. Write as many ideas as you can, skipping around as you think of new words and concepts.

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Choosing the appropriate tone in business writing is important, especially if you are writing to someone from another culture. It is often better to be somewhat formal and conservative than to risk insulting your reader with American informality. Consider the customs of the other culture, and choose the tone accordingly.

How are people addressed?

In American culture, especially in casual California (where I live), we tend to establish business relationships on a first-name basis very quickly. However, in most countries you would be safe to use last names until the other person invites you to be informal.

What about titles?

In some countries, people are very sensitive about adding "doctor" or "Ph.D." or "engineer" after a name. Follow the lead if that is the custom.

How are women addressed?

Are they "Mrs." after a certain age, regardless of their marital status? Will women want to be addressed by the American "Ms."?

Be careful with personal pronouns.

Americans frequently use personal pronouns (especially I, you and we). Doing so is often clear and direct. But that approach can offend others. To avoid personal pronouns, you often have to write in passive voice instead of active voice. For example: "The fax was not received" instead of "He didn’t send the fax."

What about idiosyncrasies of other cultures?

Find out what they are and how important they are to the reader. Some cultures require an approach that Americans might consider flowery or circumspect. Such a style often requires reading between the lines. And learning to write that way is not easy if your usual style is direct and unambiguous.

Beware of American slang, jargon and idiomatic expressions. Avoid "shortcuts" that might "leave your reader in the dark." Don’t go "the whole nine yards" for the "bottom line."

Avoid generalizing about various cultures. It is unrealistically simple to think that all Asian or all South American cultures, for example, have certain traditions in common. Japanese, Korean and Chinese lifestyles and business customs can vary as much as those of San Francisco, London and Sydney.

Do your homework. To find out more about customs of specific countries, inquire at your chamber of commerce, trade organization, foreign consulates or the public library.

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