The Language of Business Writing – Is It Really Different?

Well, yes and no. The main difference between the written language we learned in school, and the written language we use on the job, is purpose. What language are you speaking, and to whom? And most importantly – why?

To oversimplify, the purpose of academic, or formal writing was, at least initially, to give us the skills we needed to succeed in the formal or academic setting. The skills not only to write well in a scholarly manner, but the skills we needed to help us learn well from all types of writers, including the scholarly ones.

An additional, and frequently overlooked benefit was that, virtually unconsciously, we learned to write with a certain “tone,” garnering skills that enabled us to build, or reinforce a relationship that would allow us to fit in with the people we wanted to meet, know, or work with as adults.

On the other hand, business writing has a far different purpose. The purpose of business writing is to get a job done in the business situation. In the same way a shovel, rake, or hoe is designed for, and used for its specific purpose, business writing is a tool to get a job done!

And in the same way the design of the garden tool has been modified to do the best job of the job it has been assigned, the various tools of business writing are similarly designed to do the best job of the job they have been assigned. Business writers need to learn those skills.

And on yet another hand, there is at least one common factor: the proper use of the English language – and in particular the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage that those English teachers – God Bless ‘em! – had the patience to teach us, whether we wanted to learn, or not.

So let’s take a look at five of the most common errors that mark your writing as being not quite up to speed with those folks you may want to meet, know, or work with, now that we are adults. Do you recognize any of them? Here’s a very quick short quiz (answers at the end):

1. So… Let’s begin with quotation marks, and where the period (.), comma (,), colon (:), and semicolon (;) go – inside of, or outside of that closing quotation mark?

.             ,             :            and          ;

2. Do you see anything wrong with this sentence?

The Smith’s and the Johnson’s were invited to go with the Walker’s.

3a. its means______________________________________

  b. it’s means______________________________________

4. When do you use each of the following:

   a. Can not

   b. Cannot

   c. Can’t

5. When do you use “lay,” and when do you use “lie”? This one has been irritating students of “proper English,” virtually forever!

   a. Use “lay” when ______________________________________________________

   b. An example of using “lay” correctly in a sentence is: _______________________________

   c. Use “lie” when ___________________________________________________________

   d. An example of using “lie” correctly in a sentence is:________________________________

Hope you enjoyed this week’s brainteaser. Let me know if you’d like to do it again soon. Here are the answers:

  1. So… Let’s begin with quotation marks, and where the period (.), comma (,), colon (:), and semicolon (;) go – inside of, or outside of that closing quotation mark?

.”                  ,”                  “:          and          “;

2. Do you see anything wrong with this sentence?

The Smith’s and the Johnson’s were invited to go with the Walker’s.

The three words boldfaced and in black, are all singular possessives – one person owning something. Makes one want to ask, “(Joe) Smith’s what?” His house? Book? Party? Same for the Johnson’s what, and the Walker’s what.  What is it each possesses? The problem here is that if you are talking about a couple, or a family, the Smiths, the Johnsons, and the Walkers, are plurals (more than one), and not possessive at all. Plain old plurals (unless they are possessive), are not made with apostrophes.

3. a. its means: “its” is possessive.

   b. it’s means: “it is.”

Its/it’s are, arguably, the most commonly misspelled words in the English language

4. When do you use each of the following:

a. Can not: The only time you use “can not” (two words) is when the next word is “only” – e.g., She can not only dance, she can sing.

b. Cannot: This is the one you will generally use.

c. Can’t: This contraction of “cannot” is generally used for less formal communication, including business use.

5. When do you use “lay,” and when do you use “lie”? This one has been irritating students of “proper English,” virtually forever! Or at least since 1770, when, my Webster’s tells me, a group of scholars started trying to correct those who were misusing it!

a. Use “lay” when: There are so many definitions and uses for “lay,” that the mind boggles. Let’s stick with the one that gives so many folks problems. Use “lay” when you mean to put something down.

b. An example of using “lay” correctly in a sentence is: I will lay my books on the table.

c. Use “lie” when: There are probably as many definitions for “lie” as there are for “lay.” So, as before, let’s look at the one  most likely to give problems. Use “lie” when you mean “to recline,” or, as Webster’s puts it, “to be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position…”

d. An example of using both “lay,” and “lie” correctly in a sentence is: I think I’ll lay my books on the table and go lie down for a while.

Got some favorites we can take on? Let us hear from you!

 

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

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