by Barbara McNichol
Have you crossed that line? There are some common phrases to avoid if you don’t want to come across as arrogant or condescending.
It’s important that you temper your language when writing. You don’t have the benefit of voice intonation, hand gestures, emotions…all the things that impact a face-to-face encounter with your audience.
If you give off the wrong signals in person, you have an immediate opportunity to correct your misstep.
That can’t be said of your writing. Once you’ve pressed “Send”, mailed the letter, circulated the memo or published the book, your opportunity to explain your intent has passed.
You don’t want to set a tone that can be misconstrued if you’re not there to explain what you meant.
There are several phrases you can avoid – they pad your writing with extra words but don’t add any meaning to your message.
Here are 12 phrases to avoid that will save you from sounding pompous:
- Not to mention… Okay, then don’t mention it.
- It goes without saying… Right, then don’t say it.
- If I may say so… Well, since you’re the author, of course, you can say so.
- I believe that… Now the reader wonders if your message is based in facts.
- In my humble opinion… An automatic signal that you’re not feeling humble.
- To tell the truth… Implies you’ve lied to your reader in the past.
- To be honest with you… Again, a suggestion that you’ve been dishonest.
- For the record… If you’re not under oath you don’t need this qualifier.
- Let me be perfectly clear… Usually followed by complete bafflegab.
- This may sound stupid but… Check yourself, the rest of that sentence probably sounds stupid.
- With all due respect… The prelude to an insult, no respect implied or taken.
- In other words… The worst culprit. Just use the right words the first time.
Take these pompous-sounding “fillers” out of your writing to avoid confusion and gain clarity in your writing. This is particularly helpful in business communication, approach your reader assuming they’re pressed for time. They need information, not prose or poetry.
Are there other “filler phrases” that make writing sound pompous? Share them in the comments section below or send them along and I’ll add them to the list.
Did you find this article helpful? Here are three others you’ll enjoy:
This article was originally published on September 22nd, 2016, and has been updated.
Your English teacher begged, cajoled, implored, beseeched you to use them in your writing.
And when you’re writing poetry or prose, playing with the English language is wonderful.
That’s when active verbs come into play. Using them is critically important in book writing and daily business communication.
What do you mean by active – versus passive – verbs?
Here’s a quick summary.
- Declare who or what is (or should be) performing the action you’re suggesting.
- Help your reader “get to the point” more quickly.
- Tend to eliminate extra words.
How can you identify passive verbs? Think, “To be, or not to be; that is the question.”
It’s a seminal phrase in Shakespeare’s prose and has its place in literature, but any use of the verb “to be” in business communication is passive and doesn’t inspire action.
So here are two examples of passive versus active verbs in a sentence:
Passive: The juicy watermelon was eaten by the boy.
Active: The boy chomped into the watermelon’s juicy belly.
Passive: Employees are seen by their managers as responsive and enthusiastic.
Active: Managers see their employees as responsive and enthusiastic.
When you want to place emphasis on the object of the sentence, passive verbs help.
In these examples, do you see how the passive verb puts emphasis on the watermelon and the employees while the active verbs place the emphasis on the boy and the managers?
It changes the perspective for the reader. And as the writer, you have to ask what you want them to care about?
Own the problem.
In stripped-down terms, not owning the problem is called “passing the buck.”
Passive verbs can be used to hide the person – or people – responsible for a mistake or lack of action. Worse yet, they can be used to validate inaction. For example, when you sign a lease, you’ll likely see a clause along these lines:
“The rules for the homeowners will be enforced.”
Rules by whom?
Or you might have received a message like this during your workday:
“Mistakes were being made that resulted in a failure to comply with regulations.”
Mistakes by whom?
Do you see how the ambiguity of the passive verb lays a foundation for poor business relationships?
What active sentence structure works?
A general pattern for a sentence employs an active verb rather than a passive one. It’s typically “subject + verb + direct object.”
Here’s an example:
“The landlord (subject) will implement (verb) the new safety protocol (object) to ensure renter safety.”
This sentence makes it clear that the landlord is responsible for the actions detailed in the contract.
Now it’s your turn.
Passive: “This policy is being implemented in an effort to streamline our process.”
I look forward to hearing from you!
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by Barbara McNichol
When it comes to English grammar, disagreements show up in writing and editing all the time – and mainstream media has blurred the lines along the way.
I can hear you saying, “Fine, but why does it matter?”
Well, precision in language is important, because an exception on one platform – a printed newspaper article or spoken news broadcast, for example – will have different repercussions than an exception in an academic paper, a technical manual, or a formal business document.
If you’re creating content on one platform that doesn’t adhere to basic English grammar rules and suddenly find yourself in a situation, at work or in university, where you’re expected to follow them to the letter you’ll be at a disadvantage.
By following the basic rules of English grammar at all times you will establish yourself as an authoritative, clear, and precise communicator. And there are some simple ways to stay on the right side of grammar rules, but first…
What does the media have to do with it?
As I mentioned, mainstream media has influenced English grammar.
The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook gave writers the green light to use one disagreement: the plural pronoun “they” as a singular noun. This change came about because of issues surrounding gender identity, and it’s a worthy endeavour to represent people more accurately.
AP’s solution to this shift is to substitute:
- He or she with “they”
- His or hers with “theirs”
- Him or her with “them”
The Stylebook suggests that writers use the person’s name wherever possible if they’ve asked to not be identified by gender. Further, when using the plural pronoun in place of the singular pronoun, to be sure the reader understands you’re talking about one person, not several.
In theory, this leaves less room for ambiguity on the reader’s part when he or she is taking meaning away from a news item.
Grammar experts are asking themselves…
Why is this necessary?
It’s a fair question.
Isn’t it more important to follow English grammar norms – especially when there are easy fixes to some common problems?
Here are some common examples of noun/pronoun disagreement, and the simple solution:
- “We want the school board to do their job.”
Problem? It’s one school board, not several. Here are two potential fixes for this grammatical error:
“We want the school board to do its job.”
“We want the school board members to do their job.”
- “Your reader can peruse your book at their leisure.”
Problem? There’s only one reader, not several. Here are grammatically correct alternatives:
“Your readers can peruse your book at their leisure.”
“Your reader can peruse the book at his or her leisure.”
In order to keep agreements in place – to not switch between singular and plural – when dealing with gender identity, you can use these writing tips:
- Use the person’s name instead of a pronoun.
- If you don’t know the gender (or preference) of the person you’re citing, use “his or her”, “he or she” or even “s/he” – they’re all grammatically correct.
- Alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns – I edited a book for an author writing about raising a baby who did this seamlessly.
Just because it’s old…
You could argue that it’s not relevant to hang on to the “old” English grammar rules and it’s true that they have flexed and changed slightly over time. But it’s wise to hang onto those basic rules, and there are ways to adapt your message to current communication standards without abandoning the basics.
I’ve got a handy Pronoun Chart you can use if you’re in doubt – request one here.
Finally, I’d like to know what you think. Given our ever-changing language, would you side with the exceptions the AP Stylebook offers, or do you prefer to put accuracy above all in your writing?
Did you enjoy this article? Here are three more you might find useful:
by Kathleen Watson (guest blogger)
Did you as a child ever say, “Me and Billy wanna go for a bike ride!” and have your mom admonish: “Billy and I.”
What about, “Can me and Suzie have a popsicle?” and your mom corrected you, “Suzie and I.”
Mom no doubt was trying to teach you the courtesy of mentioning the other child’s name first, but your brain might have been imprinted to avoid me.
No wonder so many of us steer clear of me in places where it truly is the correct choice. The problem: We’re supposed to know better by the time we grow up and communicate with adults in the business world. These tips will help you get it right.
Subjects and Objects
Let’s start with a brief definition of two terms: subject and object
A subject is the doer of the action in a sentence:
I | she | he | they
An object is the receiver of the action in a sentence:
me | her | him | them
I hear him. She sees them. He called me.
Me and I have another grammatical role: They are pronouns. They refer to and stand in for the name of someone or something mentioned previously. Other pronouns are you, he, she, we, him, her, us, they, them and it.
Me vs. I
The following examples show how difficult it can be to choose the right pronoun when the choice is me or I:
My boss (subject) is taking Sarah (object) and I (oops: subject) to lunch.
My boss (subject) is taking Sarah (object) and me (object) to lunch.
She (subject) demonstrated the new software to Rob (object) and I (oops: subject).
She (subject) demonstrated the new software to Rob (object) and me (object).
The easiest way to choose the right pronoun is to eliminate Sarah or Rob. Your ear will help you decide what sounds right:
no: My boss is taking I to lunch.
yes: My boss is taking me to lunch.
no: She demonstrated the new software to I.
yes: She demonstrated the new software to me.
In the above sets of examples, my boss and she are the subjects, the doers of the action; me is the object, the receiver of action.
There are other cases where choosing between me and I can be difficult. Which is correct in these examples?
Jeff likes ice cream more than I.
Jeff likes ice cream more than me.
Does the writer mean:
Jeff likes ice cream more than I [like ice cream], or Jeff likes ice cream more than [he likes] me?
Simply adding the implied “do” makes it clear:
Jeff likes ice cream more than I [do].
Some grammarians consider either me or I acceptable in this kind of sentence construction. I’m not one of them, because I believe using me can leave room for misinterpretation.
She knows Steve better than me.
(She knows Steve better than she knows me?)
(She knows Steve better than I know Steve?)
She knows Steve better than I [do].
He loves baseball more than me.
(He loves baseball more than he loves me?)
(He loves baseball more than I love baseball?)
He loves baseball more than I [do].
Me vs. Myself
Have you ever received messages like these:
Call Ryan or myself if you have questions.
Thank you for notifying Claire and myself about the incident.
Myself and my team are meeting his afternoon.
Myself is a reflexive pronoun belonging to a category of words that end in self or selves. Reflexive pronouns often are used when the subject and object of a sentence are the same. They also help create emphasis.
I myself would never take an unnecessary sick day.
She allowed herself the luxury of a pedicure.
We ourselves performed the entire symphony.
You yourself will have to decide.
I bought myself a latte.
Here are the correct versions of the first set of reflexive pronoun examples:
Call Ryan or myself me if you have questions.
Thank you for notifying Claire and myself me about the incident.
My team and myself I are meeting this afternoon.
Using I when it should be me and improperly using myself show that frequent misuse can make erroneous grammar almost sound right.
Don’t fall into the “But everyone says it that way” trap. Know your grammar and adhere to standards that reflect positively on your communication competence.
Want to polish your grammar skills? Kathleen’s book Grammar for People Who Hate Rules is excellent. More info at https://ruthlesseditor.com/grammarbook/
by Barbara McNichol
When polishing your sentences, pay attention to the nuances of word order. Yes, it matters!
Here’s a simple example from a recent book I edited:
“He was well respected and loved in the academic community.”
I changed it to:
“He was loved and well respected in the academic community.”
Because “loved” is 5 letters and “well respected” is 13, it makes for a smoother read if the longer phrase follows the shorter word. See if you agree.
“Good leaders don’t waste time, effort, financial resources, or opportunities.”
“Good leaders don’t waste time, effort, opportunities, or financial resources.” This shift creates a tidy parade of words from short to long.
Word Order in Lists
In addition, a list is visually easier to follow when the line length goes from short to long. This example is from a leadership newsletter:
It would be counterproductive if you:
- Take the time to plan your day, but you don’t follow the plan.
- Hire people to do a job but don’t take time training them to do that job.
- Have slow-moving products in your inventory that generate low margins.
- Conduct an employee engagement survey and do nothing with the results.
- Attend a trade show to network with customers but spend your time on the phone.
To get a feel for how adjectives line up best in a sentence, this blog post summarizes it beautifully: http://barbaramcnichol.com/2017/11/02/order-place-adjectives-sentence-explained/
For even more tips, go to http://barbaramcnichol.com/2016/03/06/5-writing-tips-to-improve-your-readability/
Key message: Better writing means paying attention to the best use of word order!
by Barbara McNichol
Incremental learning makes a difference when you set any goal for yourself, including becoming a better writer.
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In each of those days, you would study one of these easy, effective tips to hone your writing craft. Using them habitually, you’ll find you get better results and your confidence will grow. Any time you might spend in a writing WordShop (including those I offer) is reinforced by the ideas in this e-guide.
Your assurance: These practical, immediately usable tips have been compiled over years of editing nonfiction books and conducting business writing classes. You can feel assured writers have tested them thoroughly!
Your goal: Make a point of integrating a fresh tip into your writing every day. You’ll see how perfecting the communication loop through improved writing benefits your readers, your coworkers, you clients, and ultimately your career.
Your Key to Better Writing
This e-guide can be purchased for only $14.95. Click here to order. Use code 18DAYS to receive a $4.95 discount! Any questions? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Have you already worked with this e-guide? If so, please leave your comments here. How did it help you? Inquiring minds want to know!