Lesson 2


Use Short, Clear Sentences
and Simple Punctuation

 

Competencies

This lesson teaches the following competencies:

  1. Use short, clear sentences.

  2. Use simple punctuation.

 

Lesson Summary

The lesson summary contains the training information with few examples and activities. Read it if you want to go through the training more quickly. To skip to the full, detailed lesson, click here.

 

1. Use Short, Clear, Complete Sentences

Always use simple, straightforward sentences. Avoid complex sentences and constructions.

Writing clearly and simply is particularly important in business e-mails because the reader must act correctly and successfully based on the content.

Write Complete Sentences

Write in the same complete sentences you would use in a letter.

Put Only One or Two Ideas in Most Sentences

Generally, limit the amount of information you include per sentence to one or two ideas, with an occasional sentence containing three and even four ideas. Break up longer sentences into smaller thoughts

Use Short, Simple Sentence Constructions

Keep subject, verb, and object together. Avoid putting interrupting words in the middle of a sentence. If you have a comment to insert, put it at the beginning or end of the sentence, or rewrite the sentence so the comment doesn't interrupt the meaning.

When possible, begin sentences with the subject.

Use the Active Voice

Active verbs show the subject doing something rather than something being done to the subject. Using the passive voice slows down your writing and makes it less forceful.

Example:

PASSIVE VOICE: New regulations have been proposed by committee members.

ACTIVE VOICE: Committee members proposed new regulations.

Exercise:

Change this sentence to the active voice.

 

The account number was changed during conversion.

 




Use the Simplest Tense

Tense refers to the time of an action. Unless you have a really good reason to use another tense, always write in the present, future, and past tenses. Avoid conditional or perfect tenses.

 

2. Use Simple Vocabulary

Business writers tend to fall into using a business jargon language with vocabulary such as "as per your request," "thanking you in advance," and "commensurate with our aforementioned agreement." Don't do that. Instead, use the same plain, simple words you would use if you were speaking.

Delete words that don't add meaning but do give the writing a distant, overly formal feel, such as "It has come to my attention" and "to that end."

 

3. Use Simple Punctuation

Don't use dashes, semicolons, ellipses (dots), and other punctuation that extends sentences and makes the relationships among words unclear. Use parentheses sparingly.

Such punctuation is used in technical, academic, and more formal types of writing that can be unclear and complex, but business writing must be clear and straightforward. When you find yourself wanting to use complex punctuation, start a new sentence instead.

Don't use a series of exclamation points or question marks for emphasis.

 

Full, Detailed Lesson

1. Use Short, Clear, Complete Sentences

Always use simple, straightforward sentences. Avoid complex sentences and constructions.

Some business writers think that using simple language is "dumbing down" the text to the lowest level and that the explanations lose something. To them, using complex words and sentence structures seems to make the writing look more intelligent, businesslike, or professional. Nothing could be further from the truth. The information readers need to accomplish business objectives can be written fully and clearly using simple, straightforward, direct language. Writing clearly and simply is particularly important in business e-mails because the reader must act correctly and successfully based on the content.

Don't Write in Shorthand

Don't drop articles and the other glue words that hold sentences together thinking that the e-mail will be quicker to write and the reader will pick up on the missing words. Dropping words makes the writing more difficult to read and saves very little time.

Write in complete sentences and include all of the smaller glue words, especially articles (a, an, and the).

DROPPED WORDS: Request you locate employee information in database.

FULL SENTENCE: Please locate this employee's information in the company database.

Write Complete Sentences

Some business writers write e-mails that sound like they are text messaging or writing as thoughts pop into their minds. This is an example:

Can't get to the meet tonite. Fill me in--lunch maybe afternoon maybe....call.

Write in the same complete sentences you would use in a letter. The few seconds it takes to do that may save the reader from having to spend a few minutes trying to figure out what you mean, and may save you from receiving an e-mail asking what you meant to convey. Instead of the clipped text-message writing, write like this:

I can't get to the meeting tonight. Fill me in on what happened tomorrow. Call me in the morning and we can arrange to have lunch or get together in the afternoon for a few minutes.

Put Only One or Two Ideas in Most Sentences

Generally, limit the amount of information you include per sentence to one or two ideas, with an occasional sentence containing three and even four ideas. Break up longer sentences into smaller thoughts:

TOO LONG: The best thing to do in this situation is to remember not to input more data, which can cause the data already entered to be lost and can result in your having to re-enter the data, and possibly you may need to re-enter the data from the previous entries that could have been corrupted.

BETTER: The best thing to do in this situation is to stop inputting data. If you input more data, you may lose the data you have already entered. That may result in your having to re-enter the data you just entered and, possibly, the data from the previous entries that could have been corrupted.

Use Short, Simple Sentence Constructions

Keep subject, verb, and object together. Avoid putting interrupting words in the middle of a sentence. If you have a comment to insert, put it at the beginning or end of the sentence, or rewrite the sentence so the comment doesn't interrupt the meaning.

INTERRUPTED: A corporation, because of its permanent legal status, generally has more credibility with potential clients.

BETTER: Because of its permanent legal status, a corporation generally has more credibility with potential clients.

INTERRUPTED: ABC Corporation has struggled, over the course of 2000, to see its strong operating results reflected in its share performance.

BETTER: During 2000, ABC Corporation has struggled to see its strong operating results reflected in its share performance.

Avoid mixed grammatical constructions:

MIXED: The hiring process is long and tedious is why you should apply now.

BETTER: The hiring process is long and tedious, so you should apply now.

When possible, begin sentences with the subject.

SUBJECT BURIED: There is no law that specifically addresses this question.

BETTER: No law specifically addresses this question.

Use the Active Voice

Active verbs show the subject doing something rather than something being done to the subject. Using the passive voice slows down your writing and makes it less forceful.

Example:

PASSIVE VOICE: New regulations have been proposed by committee members.

ACTIVE VOICE: Committee members proposed new regulations.

Exercise:

Change this sentence to the active voice.

 

The account number was changed during conversion.

 





Exercise: Writing Clear Sentences in Active Voice

Put this sentence into the active voice.

 

Your problem was already logged.

 



Use the Simplest Tense

Tense refers to the time of an action. Unless you have a really good reason to use another tense, always write in the present, future, and past tenses. Avoid conditional or perfect tenses.

AVOID: We had been aware that the argument could have been less confusing.

SIMPLER: We knew the argument was complicated.

 

2. Use Simple Vocabulary

Business writers tend to fall into using a business jargon language with vocabulary such as "as per your request," "thanking you in advance," and "commensurate with our aforementioned agreement." Don't do that. Instead, use the same plain, simple words you would use if you were speaking.

Delete words that don't add meaning but do give the writing a distant, overly formal feel, such as "It has come to my attention" and "to that end." Your goal is to communicate clearly, and simple vocabulary will help you achieve your goal.

Address readers directly using "you." Even when you're writing an e-mail to a number of people, they're reading it as individuals. Use "you" instead of "all employees" or "everyone."

 

3. Use Simple Punctuation

Don't use dashes, semicolons, ellipses (dots), and other punctuation that extends sentences and makes the relationships among words unclear. Use parentheses sparingly.

Such punctuation is used in technical, academic, and more formal types of writing that can be unclear and complex, but business writing must be clear and straightforward. When you find yourself wanting to use complex punctuation, start a new sentence instead.

COMPLICATED PUNCTUATION: Place the order number in the top blank--making sure to include the ED at the beginning; including date ordered and method of payment--check or credit card--unless payment will be made at time of delivery.

SIMPLIFIED PUNCTUATION: Place the order number in the top blank. Make sure to include the ED at the beginning. Include the date ordered and method of payment (check or credit card). Do not put anything for the method of payment if you will pay at the time of delivery.

Don't use a series of exclamation points or question marks for emphasis. E-mail has no nonverbal signals, so the reader can't see you smiling or hear the calm tone of your voice as you say the words. Instead, a reader may easily feel you are angry or frustrated. Your emphatic exclamation points or question marks may sound to the reader like lecturing, whining, or shouting. You have no control over the reader's reactions when you aren't there speaking the words.

Write clear, simple, short sentences. If you are writing simple sentences with only one or two ideas per sentence, you will not need complex punctuation. Complex punctuation often results from trying to stack disorganized thoughts into sentences that are too long to begin with. Long sentences only slow down the reader as the reader organizes the thoughts in his or her mind, which is work the writer should have done. Always remember that clarity is your main goal.