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Ten Tips for Improving Your Business Writing

On Friday, Gary Kinder, an expert on business and legal writing, offered a course on Advanced Business Writing at Pepperdine University. He drove the point home that “your credibility rides with every sentence.” Here are a few takeaways from his  presentation:

1.) Avoid Splitting Infinitives: This rule came from Latin scholars who, in 1820, wanted to elevate the English language to the standards of Latin. In Latin, you can’t split infinitives because there’s no Latin equivalent of the word “to”.

Wrong: Learning about grammar seems to never get old.
Right: Learning about grammar never seems to get old.

2.) Lay vs. Lie: Lay is the present tense of “to lay,” but the past tense of “to lie.” Remember, to lay requires an object (i.e.- lay down the book, lay the bricks), while to lie never has an object (i.e.- lie down).

Wrong: I lay down and lie my head on the pillow.
Right: I lie down and lay my head on the pillow.

3.) Between vs. Among: The word “between” indicates that there are only two options. The word “among” indicates that there are no less than three options.

Wrong: The hiring manager had to choose between three equally qualified candidates.
Right: The hiring manager had to choose among three equally qualified candidates.

4.) Quotation Marks: Unless you’re in Europe, quotation marks always go OUTSIDE the comma and the period. However, they are always used INSIDE a colon or a semicolon.

Wrong: She came into the room and declared, “I’m sick of you splitting infinitives all the time”.
Right: She came into the room and declared, “I’m sick of you splitting infinitives all the time.”

5.) Avoid Passive Voice: Passive voice is the form of “to be” + past participle. Sometimes it’s not possible to avoid it, but using passive voice will slow and dull your writing.

Wrong: The offending writer was caught by the punctuation police.
Right: The punctuation police caught the offending writer.

6.) Fewer vs. Less: The word “fewer” refers to a number of items that can be separated (i.e.- There will be two fewer place settings at Thanksgiving this year.) Less refers to a measurement, or something that cannot be separated (i.e.- Less than a pint).

Fewer horses – less glue.
Fewer trees – less shade.

7.) Firstly, Secondly, Thirdly, etc.: There is no such word as “firstly” or “secondly” or “thirdly.” Just say “First,….” or “Second,…”

8.) Plural Nouns Require Plural Verbs: Watch out for those tricky plural nouns, like data, media, criteria, and phenomena.

Wrong: The data is accurate.
Right: The data are accurate.

9.) Personalize your Writing: When referring to a person, make sure to use the word “who” instead of “that.”

Wrong: It was the police officer that gave us the go-ahead to cross the street.
Right: It was the police officer who gave us the go-ahead to cross the street.

10.) Improve clarity: A word’s job is to convey meaning. If it’s not doing it’s job, it’s getting in the way of other words that are trying to do their jobs. Get rid of excessive words and phrases like, “essentially,”  or “It is our understanding that…” The most effective way to convey meaning is to put the most important information at the end of a sentence. Open with the sub-point, and then drive it home with the main point.

I love chocolate cake, but it is fattening. (You’re not sure if I eat the cake or not.)
It is fattening, but I love chocolate cake. (You know that I’ll eat it despite the fat.)

For more information on Gary Kinder’s writing seminars, visit

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Graziadio Business Review
Graziadio Business Review is an online journal that delivers relevant business information and analysis for business, government, and non-profit managers. From accounting and finance to ethics and work/life balance, the Graziadio Business Review extends current business debates in new directions that you can use to advance your business and professional career.
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