When to Start a New Paragraph

There is nothing more ominous to the time-pressed reader than a dense paragraph taking up half or more of a page. This not only dilutes your message; it runs the real risk of the reader simply skimming the page and ignoring vital information. Effective business writers make use of short, crisp paragraphs to develop points, clarify ideas or signal a change in direction. The reader can then locate specific information. Short paragraphs also open up white space on the page, a blessing to the weary-eyed reader. When you have a clearly defined topic sentence, the supporting details should … [Read more...]

The Structure of Paragraphs

Proper, effective paragraphs should have a structure. This gives clear, confident direction to the reader and presents a logical flow to the material. The three main components of a paragraph are the topic sentence, supporting details and a closing sentence. (i) The topic sentence introduces the main idea of the paragraph. You should spend time developing three or four key topic sentences in a business letter. These can become the basis for your response or explanation to an external source. Ask yourself: What points do I want to make in this business letter? What exact messages do I … [Read more...]

Don’t do the Run-Around: Avoid Run-On Sentences

Run-on sentences represent a significant problem in business writing today. The examples of improperly constructed sentences can be obvious (often referred to as “spliced” or “fused” structures) or subtle (typically involving lengthy complex-compound sentences that should be broken down). The fused sentence contains no internal punctuation, such as commas or semicolons. The splice, in which two or more sentences are joined by a comma, is another form of run-on sentence. The complex run-on sentence contains too much information and too many supporting clauses. The result is confusion for … [Read more...]

Varying Sentences for Rhythm and Effect in Your Business Writing

Many writers tend to get into trouble when they rely on one type of sentence structure and length in their correspondence. This can result in a repetitive, “machine-gun” effect, such as the following example. “This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. A five word sentence is fine. But several together become monotonous. You can see the problem.” Or: “This sentence has five words, except for the clause. I like to use these sentences, particularly in business writing. I find these are effective, but only when used properly. I use this structure frequently, which explains … [Read more...]

This is Your Sentence: Use it Wisely

Most business writers don’t consider sentence structure. There is an understanding that a sentence should have a subject, verb and object, but that’s about it. Yet there are many types of sentence structures; varying their style and length can lead to better writing. Sentences can be simple (one main thought), compound (two main thoughts), complex (one main thought and one subordinate thought) or compound-complex (two or more complex structures). The effective business writer should feel comfortable experimenting with different styles. Here are some examples. Simple Sentence: Kevin’s … [Read more...]

Grammar Rules You Can Bend

Some grammar rules can be amended for reasons of style or common sense. The trick is to do this sparingly – and only if the effect has the desired purpose. (i) Ending a sentence with a preposition. It is better to be natural than to artificially structure a sentence to comply with a grammar rule. Example: This survey will show where most of our product orders are coming from. (not “from where most of our product orders are coming.”) Example: This is a technology we are familiar with. (ii) Beginning a sentence with And. This can, if used occasionally, call attention to your … [Read more...]

Frequently Mistaken Words

Have you ever come across these “twin” words? It’s amazing how many times they are misused in a sentence. Keep an eye out for these pairings that often confuse business writers.   Adverse . . . . opposed, unfavorable Averse. . . . . . unwilling, reluctant (Especially when used with risk-averse, not risk-adverse)   Affect . . . .verb, to influence Effect . . . .noun, outcome, result, also verb, to cause to happen (i.e. to effect change)   Altogether. . . . completely All together . . .collectively   Beside . . . . alongside Besides. . . . in … [Read more...]

Punctuation: Possessives, Contractions and Commas

The improper use of possessives versus contractions is a common mistake in business writing. One simple rule of thumb is that a word contracted, such as it’s, they’re, you’re and who’s, indicates a shortened form of a verb action – it is, they are, you are and who is. If there is no contraction, such as its, their, your and whose, this indicates a possessive use. Incorrect Example: The pharmaceutical industry had it’s day in court (should be “its”) Incorrect Example: Whose responsible for the office break-in? (should be “who’s”) Incorrect Example: Your welcome for the good deed! … [Read more...]

Don’t Let ‘Em Dangle: Phrases, Modifiers And References

Misplaced modifiers, dangling phrases and unclear references – these are mistakes of placement and they can have a disastrous or odd effect on sentences and meaning. The goal is to keep the word or words that modify or directly affect the meaning of other words close together. (i) Dangling phrases usually begin a sentence; what they modify is omitted. Dangling Phrase Example: Checking the lunchroom, the sales manager was found. Correct: Checking the lunchroom, security found the sales manager. (ii) Misplaced modifier – Each modifier needs to be placed next to, or as close as … [Read more...]

Building Parallel Structure

Writing related parts of a sentence, list or heading in similar grammatical form makes reading easier. The reader expects the sentence to follow a pattern; if you abandon it, you create confusion. Here are some examples. Unparallel structure: Lisa was happy about the promotion and getting the pay raise. Parallel structure: Lisa was happy about the promotion and the pay raise. Unparallel structure: The regulator advised companies to work diligently and against relying on luck. Parallel structure: The regulator advised companies to work diligently and not rely on … [Read more...]