Want to write well at your company? Break the rules.
Written and spoken language evolves over time. What used to be acceptable is now often confusing or archaic.
For example, my 87-year-old mom says "I shayn't". A contraction of "shall not." To me, that sounds like a phrase from the 18th century. For her, it's a normal part of her vocabulary.
Then there's my 14 year-old son. Here's his vocabulary: #YOLA, LOL, idk,.
Those are phrases I wouldn't use with my colleagues. But I would with my son. It's his language. Think about it, if you plan to stay in business for another decade or so, your future co-workers, customers, and managers are about 14 right now.
Rules evolve too.
In fact, some “rules” were never rules at all, but rather more like urban legends. For more enlightenment on real grammar rules, get this wonderfuly useful book Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. You'll find it at the top of this reading list.
I know some of you are about to cringe when you read the next sentence. But that’s something I’ll have to put up with. (See, I knew you’d cringe.)
In The Elements of Style, my pals Mr. Strunk and Mr. White tell us that it’s true, once upon a time, 8th grade teachers told their students never to end a sentence with a preposition. Yet Strunk & White go on to say,
“Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end,
it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else.”
That preposition rule your eighth-grade teacher drilled into your head, like many so-called grammar rules, is a remnant of Latin grammar. It’s not a rule. And it doesn’t apply to modern American English.
The experts don’t always agree on the rules – literally.
Take that word for example. Literally. You know when your co-worker Amanda says, “I, like, literally died when my boss caught me playing online poker.”
You roll your eyes say, “No, Amanda, you didn’t literally die. You’re literally alive, standing here telling me this.”
Well, turns out, Amanda may be more literal than you might think.
Take a look.
The Chicago Manual of Style says:
“Literally means ‘actually; without exaggeration.’ It should not
be used oxymoronically in the figurative sense…”
The Associate Press Stylebook agrees:
“Figuratively means in an analogous sense, but not
in the exact sense. Literally means in an exact sense.”
Two old reliable reference sources must be right, right?
Webster’s New World College Dictionary contradicts them:
“Literally is often used as an intensive to modify a word
or phrase that is being used figuratively.”
My preference is to use literally when I mean actually, not sort of. But that’s not based on a rule. It’s based on my desire to be clear to my reader above all else.
How do you handle business writing if the rules are elusive and evolving?
Heed John Sturtevant's Golden Rule of Business Writing: Be Clear. Above all else.
If you get mired in the muck of rules you’ll only confuse and annoy your readers.
Here’s a great example of confusing and annoying business jargon:
The Department of Labor and Industries has been notified that you did not receive the State of Washington warrant listed on the attached Affidavit of Lost or Destroyed Warrant Request for Replacement, form F242.
Here’s an example of clear writing:
Have you cashed your Department of Labor and Industries check yet? The state Treasurer's Office informed us that a check we sent you has not been cashed.
Look at your own writing.
Over the next few days, think about the people in your company who churn out confusing writing all day long. And imagine the negative effect those bewildering reports and proposals and emails have on your clients and business partners.