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.
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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?
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by Barbara McNichol
In wanting to cover many aspects of a topic, business writers sometimes throw down so many variables that readers have no way to gauge the importance of each. They feel weighed down trying!
Look at these examples in business writing:
- The professor included and provided a methodology for continuing the effort.
- The state and local leaders developed and drafted numerous statutes.
- We need to appreciate and understand the factors affecting the time and place.
The “Pick One” Principle
You can lighten your readers’ load by applying the “pick one” principle. You’ll find it works for all kinds of business writing—emails, reports, manuscripts, and more.
The “pick one” principle asks: “Which word better describes what you want to say—the word before or after the and?” Then pick the one that adds more emphasis and accuracy to your meaning.
In Example 1, which word better conveys the meaning—included or provided? In this context, provided can cover the meaning for both—that is, if something is provided, we can assume it’s included. Pick one: provided.
The professor provided a methodology for continuing the effort.
Example 2 has the word and in two places, making the sentence long-winded. For developed and drafted, the more apt word is drafted because something can’t be drafted without being developed first. Pick one: drafted.
“Pick one” also applies to making a single-word substitution. For example, state and local could be changed to government without altering the meaning in this context.
The government leaders drafted numerous statutes.
In Example 3, because appreciate and understand are so close in meaning, using both is like saying it twice. “Pick one” to streamline the writing. For time and place, we could substitute a single word: situation.
We need to understand the factors affecting the situation.
Rule of Thumb in Business Writing
When you reread anything you’ve written, find all the places you’ve used and, then apply the “pick one” principle wherever possible. That way, you won’t dilute the meaning of your message or needlessly weigh down your readers.
Give them a break. Pick one!
Want more tips like this to hone your writing skills? You’ll find 18 Days to Become a Better Writer an easy-to-use e-guide. Start your journey today by clicking here. Use code 18DAYS at checkout for a discount.
Share examples of “pick one” from your own writing here.
In the ’60s, a movement started to encourage people to share in conscious expressions of Gratitude on one day of the year. World Gratitude Day was born. How can you celebrate World Gratitude Day this September 21st?
I suggest setting aside time to express appreciation for your family, your community, your friends, your business associates, and anyone or anything that makes your life better—even animals and technologies.
Express gratitude to people who source, prepare, and serve your food and deliver your mail. Thank community leaders and employees who imagined, built, and continue to provide the systems that serve you. Thank those customers who put money in your pocket so you can live well. What would you add that’s specific to your life?
I am grateful for opportunities to spread light, love, and kindness every day. And I’m especially grateful to you for allowing me to help you make your dreams stronger through better writing.
Happy Gratitude Day.
P.S. Don’t forget to celebrate National Punctuation Day on September 24th!
by Dianna Booher (reprinted with permission)
Tim, a friend of mine back in college, had the weird habit of setting his alarm to go off at 7:00 am on Saturdays when he had no intention of getting out of bed early. “Why?” I asked him one day when we were complaining about studying late for exams and getting up early for class during the week.
“Oh, I don’t get up at 7:00! I just love the feeling of slapping off the alarm and knowing that I can roll over and go back to sleep for another 3 hours.”
Often, during the last three decades as I’ve coached, consulted, trained, and keynoted throughout organizations across myriad industries, I hear a similar sentiment. It’s just worded a little differently: “That department sends so much paperwork and nags us for so much information. It feels good just to ignore them.”
You have an essential mission, of course. And certainly you need to recruit, develop, and retain top talent to accomplish your goals. That involves educating your team about budget, resources, regulations, and compliance matters. Yet it’s not uncommon to hear complaints like these:
- “They’re nonresponsive; they move too slowly.”
- “Getting pre-approval just muddies the water.”
- “They’ll tie your hands. They’re not risk-takers. It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
Could better—but fewer—emails close the gap between those negative perceptions and your essential mission?
Stated another way: Do you say too much, . . . about too little, . . . too often? And does this habit bury critical communication your team needs to hear?
The Stats About Overload
Wherever we go, most of us are still tapping away. At the airport. At the gym. At the beach. From a hospital bed. At sunrise. Over lunch. During dinner. Chances are, email habits drain you and your employees, both mentally and emotionally. That spells lost productivity for your organization, stress for you and them, and ultimately the need to tune out periodically.
We were told more than two decades ago that email would revolutionize the way we work and save us an enormous amount of time. While email has many benefits, it has also engulfed us and created other productivity drains.
My organization, Booher Research Institute, recently commissioned a survey of email communication habits and productivity from the Social Research Lab at the University of Northern Colorado. Here’s what a representative sampling of knowledge workers across multiple industries reported about their email habits:
–42 percent spend 3 hours or more per day reading and writing email
–55 percent check email either hourly or multiple times per hour
–34 percent say the email they get is redundant (meaning they receive duplicate copies) or irrelevant to their needs
Send Fewer Emails to Get Quicker Action
When you send multiple emails regarding the same issue (reminders and follow-ups), people start to tune out—to that specific message and others you send. In essence, you are “training” readers to ignore “first editions.” As with those who hit the snooze button on their alarm clocks multiple times, people become accustomed to ignoring required action until they get several email reminders.
Many conference planners have communicated through this typical “cycle” and learned this principle the hard way. For example, their annual convention ends in August. They began sending periodic emails: “Sign up now for next year to get a big discount.” Then to speakers, they start a different email series: “Propose to speak.” Then, it’s “The proposal deadline is coming.” Then, “The deadline is about to close.” Then, “We’re extending the deadline to give you longer to propose.”
Then the next series starts: “Submit your materials by X date. Then, “This is a reminder to submit your materials by X date.” Then, “This is your last reminder to submit your materials by X date.” Then, “We’re extending the submission deadline.” Then, “We’ve changed the date for you to submit materials to give you adequate time. The new date is Y.”
You get the idea. Such communication habits sound like a parent’s saying to the four-year-old, “This is the last time I’m going to tell you this last time to pick up your toys.”
Lighten your load and stress: Don’t train your employees to ignore you.
Engage Fewer People to Get More Responses
Culling your distribution lists for emails you send will likely increase engagement on important projects. As with meetings, the larger the group, the lower the individual participation. When you’re emailing a group for input (for example, a group of engineers about their training needs for the new year), the same principle applies: When you copy a large list, people feel anonymous, and fewer feel obligated to respond.
If you want/need input, cut your list, and you’ll increase response—not to mention clearing inboxes for the uninterested.
Clarify and Adapt to Standard Response Times
Eighty percent of the participants in the UNC survey said typically expect readers to respond to “important” outside emails within four hours or less; 24 percent expect a response within an hour or less.
What’s the expected response time in the culture of the team you’re serving? Four hours? Twenty-four hours? Should you adapt to it? Are there exceptions to these standards? If so, what? If you don’t know, find out from the organizational leader. (If you are the leader, communicate that standard to your team.) Protect your organizational brand and your personal brand by living up to the expectations.
Slow responses suggest many things—most of them negative.
- You’re overwhelmed and can’t keep up with the pace.
- You’re puzzled by the decision or action required.
- Your system of handling daily inquiries is ineffective.
- You have a staffing problem.
- The situation, decision, or project is unimportant to you.
- You need to gather more information or input before replying.
- You need time to deliberate before responding.
Can you routinely afford to be considered the bottleneck?
Email can be an enormous time saver–unless poor communication practices diminish its benefits and create an untamed monster. To tame the beast and reclaim your time, send fewer but better emails to engage team members to act on the essential.
Learn more ways to tame the email monster in Faster, Fewer, Better Emails: Manage the Volume, Reduce the Stress, Love the Results. Click here for details.
How would Dianna’s advice–send fewer but better emails–make a difference in your world? Share your comments here.
by Barbara McNichol
Suppose you’re composing a sensitive email, article, or letter—one that’s extremely important in your world. But the message must be as clear and concise as possible.
Ask these five writing questions and follow the examples. From there, make changes that will immediately improve your prose and ensure you’ve written what you meant to write.
- Have you put in filler words that don’t add meaning to your sentence? E.g., Starting a sentence with “there are” or “here is” or a variation. “Here are excellent points to consider” becomes “Consider these points.” More direct!
- Can you spot and eliminate extraneous phrases? Omit “the fact of the matter is…” or “it’s important to remember that…” or “it’s all about…” Like filler words, they take up space without adding meaning.
- Where can you use noun modifiers to be more concise? E.g., “Tips on writing” becomes “Writing tips” and “Details regarding the conference” becomes “conference details.”
- How can you streamline sentences without changing the meaning? Look for “who” and “which” phrases. E.g., “Dee, who is our new manager, just had surgery” becomes “Our new manager, Dee, just had surgery.” “Our report, which we finished, is on your desk” becomes “We put our finished report on your desk.” Bonus: It uses an active verb.
- How can you use commas sparingly but also when needed to clarify the meaning of your sentences? E.g., “You can overlook punctuation rules and people will have trouble reading your writing and your ideas will get lost.” Without a comma after rules, this can be misread to say: “You can overlook punctuation rules and people…” That’s why you need the comma after rules. Even clearer would be: “If you overlook punctuation rules, people will have trouble reading your words, and your ideas will get lost.”
What writing questions would you add to these five that would help hone your writing to perfection before saying, “I’m done”? Note them in the comments section.
Want more tips like this to answer your writing questions and advance your career? You’ll find 18 Days to Become a Better Writer an easy-to-use e-guide. Start your journey to #betterwriting by clicking here.