Cutting weasel words? I’ll get back to you

We might all have certain choice words that we resist saying to our work colleagues or boss at times. But these are probably quite different from the list of taboo workplace words and phrases recently published in Forbes Magazine.

The article asserts that phrases like ‘we’ll see’, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I’ll get back to you’, as well as so-called ‘weasel’ words like ‘if’ and ‘try’, should be struck from our office vocabulary, if not our lives. ‘Take a scalpel and cut them out of your thinking, speaking and writing,’ declares the author, psychotherapist and business consultant Linda Durré. ‘Words like these only weaken you and make you sound noncommittal, undependable and untrustworthy.’

No doubt most of us favour certainty and a ‘can do’ attitude in our business dealings. But the problem with such a blanket ban on these words and phrases is that they can actually be pretty useful. In an ideal world, we might all know everything in the instant that we’re asked. But in reality, sometimes you need to buy time in order to double check or do some research before passing information on to a client. Infinitely better that they should have to wait for an hour and get all the facts the first time, rather than potentially acting on misinformation you blurted out on the spot, under the pressure of not being able to say ‘if’.

Good business relationships depend on someone saying ‘I’ll get back to you’ and doing it, ‘try’ and meaning it, and ‘I don’t know – but I can find out’ as necessary, not on cutting such phrases out altogether.

How to use commas

Compared with pondering the placement of the much less familiar semi-colon or the enigmatic apostrophe, the ubiquitous comma might seem hardly worth worrying about. They’re ten a penny, aren’t they? Why not just sprinkle them at will or leave them out entirely?

Unsurprisingly, we don’t recommend doing either. They may seem a common or garden item of punctuation, but – just like the elderly in society – we can learn much from commas and should treat them with respect.

So, use them:

•      to denote a natural pause, such as if you were reading aloud

Unfortunately, commas are often underrated.

•      after a secondary clause that’s been put at the beginning of a sentence

Although the comma had been left out of the speech, he still paused for dramatic effect.

•      to separate items in a list

My job involves typing, proofreading, answering the phone and stocktaking commas.

I’m looking for a tall, dark, handsome lover of punctuation.

•      to make it clear exactly how items are split (to avoid confusion, usually when the word ‘and’ is involved in the list)

The courses on offer were Introduction to colons, Intensive comma revision, Hyphens and dashes, and Figures and numbers.

•      in pairs, for information additional to the main point (that could be lifted out to leave a sentence that still makes complete sense)

The phone call, which lasted ten minutes, was mostly about Mary’s incorrect use of punctuation.

However, the information contained by the two commas has to be ‘non-defining’ (not vital to the overall gist of the sentence); if it is ‘defining’, you would use no commas at all:

The phone call that was about Mary’s poor punctuating was full of awkward pauses.

•      to introduce short quotes

He said, ‘Let’s take a short break here.’

Changing sense

Given the often ambiguous nature of our language, it is important to give pause to where you place your commas. Otherwise you may end up saying something other than you intended, or leaving your reader rather confused. Compare:

However, you might feel the report is irrelevant [and we may take that into consideration]


However you might feel, the report is irrelevant [your opinion doesn’t really matter].


I donated, myself, to that charity [I, like you, am a philanthropist]


I donated myself to that charity [not sure how much use they’ll have for me].

Or even

The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we [that's why the Common is so tidy]


The Wombles of Wimbledon, common are we [can’t move for wombles while watching the tennis].

Commas can make subtle distinctions too. Observe the nuances:

Our boss, who is based in Basingstoke, will be at that seminar


Our boss who is based in Basingstoke will be at that seminar.

In the first example, there is only one boss. He may be based in Basingstoke, but that is not vital information (it is ‘non-defining’). The main point is that he’ll be at the seminar. In the second example, there are presumably several bosses. But it is specifically the one lucky enough to be based in Basingstoke who will attend the seminar.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: punctuation matters. Particularly if you want your writing to end up meaning what you meant it to.

Graduate positions

For anyone graduating – or with offspring who are graduating – this year, you could be forgiven for thinking the future looks a little bleak.

The average graduate salary is likely to stay frozen at £25,000 for the second year running, according to research by the Association of Graduate Recruiters. There are also fewer jobs to be had. And the best that can be said is that the number of vacancies hasn’t fallen as sharply as predicted last year: the decrease was by just under nine per cent rather than the anticipated 25 per cent.

But competition will be extra fierce this year, because the job-hunting class of 2010 will be joined by around 53 per cent of 2009 graduates, who are still vying for positions.

Employers might welcome a bigger talent pool. But such a welcome is misplaced, at least according to one recruitment firm. ‘This rise in the quantity of applications has not brought a rise in quality,’ says ClodaghBannigan, head of client services at Alexander Mann. So it seems that increasing the size of the talent pool has just diluted the talent.

The advice is straightforward: the best approach is to carefully research roles and apply with thoughtful covering letters and tailored CVs. And, as ever, one of the first ways to guarantee your foot in the door (on the way to an interview) is to pay close attention to your writing.

Remember the basics too. You might have an exceptionally well put-together CV, full of pertinent experience and encouraging insights into your person. But all that will mean nothing if your application is thrown out based on the typo in the first line.

Literacy is a basic ‘hard skill’ that prospective employers will look for evidence of in your resume. Typos, spelling mistakes and errors in punctuation and grammar can all indicate sloppy attention to detail and won’t paint you as the kind of representative they’ll want in their company.

Until your interview, you are only as good as your paperwork (to quote the Recruitment & Employment Confederation). But a great CV can get you a chance to prove you are the right person for the job. So make sure yours is:

•      up to date
•      well-structured and clearly laid out: it implies a logical and considered thought process
•      full of objective, genuine evidence of your (relevant) experience and achievements
•      written in simple language and short sentences: waffle will get you nowhere
•      proofed, proofed and proofed again: check all grammar, punctuation and spelling, paying close attention to any contact details. Get someone else to check it too.

Writing skills for nursing students, Nursing Standard

As the adage goes, anything worth having is worth fighting for. But it can be a rude awakening if you’ve signed onto a nursing degree course and now find your passion for helping people buried under a pile of essays and assignments.

There’s no doubt that a degree is great preparation for the challenging career you have ahead of you. But turning complex scientific information into concise writing is not always easy. It can seem like a losing battle – especially if you haven’t been shown how.

The secret is to learn how to communicate your ideas and arguments clearly. This can boost your understanding of the clinical material, enabling you to put your people know-how into context.

Here are five ways to lay the foundations for writing success.

Clarify your main message

Before you begin writing, it’s vital that you know what you really want to say. Answering the questions: What?, Where?, When?, How?, Why? and Who? can help you to organise your ideas.

Focus on your reader

Your reader is likely to be your university lecturer, who should already be very knowledgeable about the topics you write about.

So focus on exactly what they need for each particular assignment. For instance, if your task is to evaluate a variety of health-promotion models, focus on what is most important about each model and write about that first. This will show that you are able to reach a clear conclusion from your research. You can then demonstrate your evaluation skills by expanding on each of your key messages.

Keep it short and sweet

A survey by Harvard professor D.H. Menzel showed that in technical papers, people find sentences difficult to understand when they are longer than 34 words. So make things easier for your reader by keeping your sentences between 15 and 20 words.

One idea, one sentence

Consider this sentence:

‘Nurses play an important role in the delivery of healthcare yet some are concerned that they need more autonomy in their work.’

This actually contains two separate (but linked) ideas, so it would be more helpful to the reader to split the sentence up:

’Nurses play an important role in the delivery of healthcare. Yet some experts are concerned that they need more autonomy in their work.’

Splitting up your ideas in this way will give your writing clarity.

Use the active voice

Traditionally, academic writing uses the passive voice to appear objective and scientific. But the active voice adds movement to your writing and it’s still scientifically sound. So instead of writing ‘Leadership styles have been investigated by Zane and Prestipino (2004)’, write ‘Zane and Prestipino (2004) investigated leadership styles’.

Academic writing doesn’t have to be stilted, wordy and difficult to decipher. Practise these techniques and your writing will demonstrate your passion for nursing.

Next month, we’ll look at the ins and outs of essay writing. We’ll also give you some top tips for breaking writers’ block.

is Chief Executive of Emphasis.

Want to write better documents? See our courses for individuals or our courses for groups. Alternatively, send us a message or call one of our friendly advisors on +44 (0)1273 961 810

Dash it! Or do I mean hyphen?

Sometimes, in a writing skills blog, you’ll find yourself in a corner of the punctuation family tree where two symbols seem so suspiciously similar to each other you could imagine they are basically interchangeable.

Enter the dash and hyphen.

But wait. These actually have quite different purposes, and both are vital parts of the punctuation toolbox.

The lowdown


Use them:

•      to go on to explain, paraphrase, or draw a conclusion from whatever you’ve just written (in this sense they act in much the same ‘arrow’ way as colons can do). For example:

It’s only rock and roll – but I like it.

•      in pairs, where you might otherwise use brackets – think of it as an aside that you want people to hear. Where brackets (or parentheses) can effectively tuck away such commentary (can’t they?), double dashes highlight it more. Either way, the sentence would still make sense if you lifted the section inside the punctuation out.

His favourite song – much to my embarrassment – was actually The Macarena.

•      to show a range or sequence – the dash replaces the word ‘to’. You don’t need spaces on either side.

1999–2001; 2007–09
London–Brighton bike race

Get to know them:

•      In Britain, generally we use the en-rule/en-dash (–). In the US, the longer em-rule/em-dash (—) is more common.

•      It is twice the length of the humble hyphen.

•      Put a space on either side of it, except when using it to show range or sequence.

•      In Microsoft Word, you can create an en-rule by holding down Ctrl followed by the subtract key (or numeric hyphen); if you want an em-rule, type Ctrl + Alt + subtract key. Alternatively, hold down Alt and type 0150 for an en-rule, or 0151 for an em-rule. Often, the AutoCorrect function automatically turns a typed hyphen into a dash (when you leave a space either side and continue the sentence), but it cannot always be counted on to do this, so check back.

•      In Mac OS, an en-rule is made by typing Option + hyphen. For an em-rule, it’s Option + Shift + hyphen.


Use them:

•      when joining words together in order to act as an adjective before a noun. This is known as an adjectival phrase and the hyphen makes clear which word is being modified. For example:

He’s a rocking-horse enthusiast.

Bread-making machines: imagine that!

There are twenty-odd members of staff at Emphasis.

Still not convinced? Well, compare the hyphen-less versions:

He’s a rocking horse enthusiast. (Loves headbanging; loves showjumping.)

Bread making machines: imagine that! (Run for the hills! The baked goods are getting organised!)

There are twenty odd members of staff at Emphasis. (We prefer the term ‘pleasingly eccentric’.)

•      for some compound terms, such as:

Eye-opener, cost-effective, up-to-date, self-assured.

If in doubt, look it up. If it’s not listed as one word or a hyphenated word, split it into two.

•      with prefixes, to distinguish from a deceptively similar word eg

I heard a confusing rumour by the water cooler: did Jones resign or re-sign?

•      for double-barrelled names:

Resign? Mr Spear-Shaker almost chased him out with a stick!

Get to know them:

•      No spaces on either side are needed.

•      Often used in web addresses (like, where they are sometimes mistakenly referred to as a dash. If you want people to find your website, it’s important to get this right.

To sum up, we love dashes and hyphens – they are very useful for clarifying meaning – and hope that you will all be dash- and hyphen-lovers now, too.

How to engage your team with better writing

If you’ve ever put off DIY, you’ll know that a dripping tap or peeling skirting board eventually just becomes one of life’s tolerations. If you put off the task long enough, it gets pushed to the dusty recesses of your mind. But it still chips away at your contentment, leaving you feeling uninspired and slightly uncomfortable in your own home.

Our relationship with work is often the same. Unless issues are nipped in the bud, small upsets can lead to apathy. For instance, it can be disconcerting if your firm introduces a debt-collection method that goes against your current client-centred approach. And if this new approach subsequently harms the relationships you’ve already built with a client, it’s likely that you’ll feel conflicted between your roles. You might start to dread dealing with clients you previously enjoyed working with. Your relationships with colleagues can also become strained.

If there are no structures in place to fix the issue, it will be hard for you to feel motivated and passionate about your job. After a while, you may begin to accept the new status quo. But you’re not as productive because the environment doesn’t allow you to perform to your highest ability.

These types of work worries are common. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has drawn together academic studies on employee engagement. One study of a cross-section of UK workers from various industries showed that only 35 per cent of people feel they are engaged in their work. Other studies suggest that 22 per cent of workers (6.4 million people) feel discontented and unproductive.

Yet the solutions to workplace disgruntlement can be surprisingly simple. Research sponsored by the O.C. Tanner Company found that saying ‘thank you’ to staff increases engagement by 20-30 per cent. And with such large results from a simple statement, it’s clear that communication is a powerful weapon in feeling productive and inspired at work.

Engagement isn’t something that can be demanded from someone, nor can it be part of a job description. It’s the willingness to do that little bit extra, simply because you care, or because you feel that it will be appreciated.

It’s vital that your organisation creates an entrepreneurial-style culture, where employees have the drive and ambition to succeed. So, whether or not you’re not part of the senior management team, you need to drive initiatives that enable managers to directly listen to employee views. And by communicating clearly you can help to set clear management objectives.

Tools for engagement

The first step to engagement is finding ways for you and your colleagues to share your views.   Hopefully, your firm will have an internal newsletter or intranet site that welcomes contributions from employees. Reports are also great tools for communicating your thoughts and ideas. This can help you to hone your recommendations so that your internal documents are clear and concise.

Taking the write steps

The following tips will help you to create a high-impact writing style so that you can express your ideas and recommendations clearly.

Engage your reader

Before you touch your computer keyboard, spend a few minutes focusing on your reader. Don’t assume, for example, that everyone in your organisation will understand detailed aspects of the human resources process.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the document about?
  • Who will read it?
  • How much do they already know about the subject?
  • What do they absolutely need to know?
  • How important is the subject to them?
  • How interested are they in the subject?

Focus on your main message

Whether you’re writing a short newsletter article or a lengthy report, make sure you’re crystal clear on what you really want to say. Take a pencil and a piece of paper and create a spidergram of all your ideas. Keep writing until you’ve exhausted every possibility. Then group together the ideas that have elements in common. Next, decide what you think is most important. This idea needs to come right at the top of your document. Then you present the other points in order of importance, making sure to leave out any unessential points.

Apply this same technique when you’re writing the executive summary of a report. Managers have competing priorities and many other documents to read. So if your summary isn’t compelling they may decide just to skim read the rest of the report. This could mean that the gems in your report are lost. Remember, your task is to create a more engaging working environment. You’ve got to connect with your reader first.

Create powerful sentences

Using verbs instead of nouns makes your sentences more powerful. Consider the sentence, ‘I expect the software to create a 15 per cent increase in productivity.’ It is much more powerful than, ‘My expectation is that there will be a creation in productivity of 15 per cent when using the software.’ Using the verbs ‘expect’ and ‘create’ over the nouns ‘expectation’ and ‘creation’ makes the sentence punchier. And try to limit the length of your sentences to 20 words. This makes them easier to read. (You could shorten this example still further to: ‘I expect the software to increase productivity by 15 per cent.’)

Use headings, subheadings and bullet points

Break up your documents into digestible chunks and keep your paragraphs short. Use subheads and make sure that they highlight your main points. If your reader only reads the subheads they should still be left with the gist of your document.

Bullet points are another great tool for making your documents readable. They help to grab attention; reduce word count and help your readers to scan for the important information.

Be persuasive

Speaking directly to your readers can help them to take action. So don’t be afraid to use the words ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘us’. Similarly, always opt for the active voice over the passive voice. For example, write, ‘We hold employee forums every Wednesday,’ instead of ‘Employee forums will be held every Wednesday.’ The first sentence has more movement and life – it’s also more likely to make someone want to attend a forum.

Avoid management speak

Aim to make your writing as plain and simple as possible; don’t fall into the trap of using management speak. Terms such as ‘raising the bar’ and ‘low hanging fruit’ are best left to David Brent from The Office. Your writing will have far more impact if you use simple terms to express your ideas.

Create a call to action

Know what action you want your reader to take, and then ask them to take it. If appropriate, you could even offer an incentive. (‘Email us at with all your great ideas for improving internal communication. The best ideas will win a £50 M&S gift voucher.’)

This may be a step too far, but at least make sure that there’s something in it for the reader. Always keep your readers’ needs in mind when writing your call to action.

Use a fine tooth comb

Once you’ve completed your document, print out a copy and proofread it slowly by stopping a pencil at every word. Look out for typos and spelling mistakes, but also see where you can prune out unnecessary words. For example, terms such as ‘pre-prepare’ and ‘forward planning’ contain redundant words. All planning goes forward and preparation is preparation: you can’t ‘pre-prepare’. Don’t be afraid to delete whole sentences if they don’t add much to the document, or repeat something that was said earlier.

Email made easy

Most of us have fired off an email in haste and regretted it at leisure. Hopefully, you didn’t do so at work. But if you did, it’s a lesson that email and emotion don’t mix. If you’re feeling particularly fired up about a particular workplace issue, by all means type it out on an email. But don’t even consider typing in an address or pressing the send button – until you’ve had time to reflect. The rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t want it broadcast on the 10 o’ clock news, don’t send it on an email.

The SCRAP formula below will help you to write emails that grab your readers’ attention for all the right reasons.


Begin by explaining the situation (‘where you or your department are now’).


Introduce the idea that there’s a problem (‘why you or your department can’t stay where you are’).


State your resolution to the problem. The reader will perceive you as an expert because you have a ready-made way of fixing things.


Suggest what action the reader can or should take. Offer a viewpoint that is new and intriguing.


Finally, end with a polite, but thought provoking sign-off.

When it comes to email, usually the fewer people you put in the ‘carbon copy’ box, the better. But distributing important ideas and recommendations isn’t spamming. So make sure that important documents are forwarded to the wider organisation.

Whether you want to highlight a brand new piece of bookkeeping software or demonstrate an innovative approach to credit control, it’s important to look beyond your administrative role. So, investigate areas of your work where you can make real improvements.

Remember, if a workforce isn’t engaged, it’s likely that the staff turnover will be high. But even if you see colleagues becoming disenchanted and leaving, that doesn’t mean you need to join them. The techniques you’ve learnt such as focusing on your reader and clarifying your main message can also be used in verbal communication and can help you stand your ground.

Improving productivity isn’t just about working harder. It’s also about improving your knowledge so that your work has greater impact. By honing your written communication skills, you make other parts of your job easier.

But whatever issues you face at work, don’t let them put you off your path. When you take responsibility for driving your own career success and happiness, you set the stage for clear communication.   And that ultimately helps you and your colleagues to be more engaged and productive.

is the Chief Executive of Emphasis.

Want to write more engagingly? See our courses for individuals or our courses for groups. Alternatively, send us a message or call one of our friendly advisors on +44 (0)1273 961 810

How to write for non-accountants

Finance is a murky place for many people. Money comes into the bank account and it goes out again. And the process in between is something of a mystery. But even if your clients are financially savvy, it can still be difficult to explain money matters. Accounting has its own language and is often riddled with jargon that even experienced business people can sometimes find difficult to understand. (I know: I’m one of them.)

Writing financial information in ‘accountingese’ can waste time and money. If your clients are unclear about what your figures mean, they’ll ask for further clarification. A single document could lead to several hours of unnecessary (and frustrating) follow-up phone calls.

That’s one reason why the tide is turning in the financial industry. Leading firms such as Deloitte, Ernst & Young and Grant Thornton have commissioned specialist writing training programmes. And more accounting firms are following suit, adopting plain English in all their written communications.

The other is that the Financial Services Authority keeps a watchful eye on adverts for financial products and services that are misleading.

So as a finance professional, you still have to make sure your writing is not just legal, but effective.

Here are six steps to clear client communication.

One:  put your reader first

Many accountants overestimate the knowledge their clients have. Even if you have been working with a client for many years, there’s no guarantee they really understand the nuances of finance.

Get back to basics by asking yourself the following questions:

    • What is the document about?
    • Who will read it?
    • How much do they already know about the subject?
    • What do they absolutely need to know?
    • How important is the subject to them?
    • How interested are they in the subject?

Use the answers as a guideline for the amount of detail that you need to include in your document.

Two:  avoid a mind-dump of ideas

Whether you’re writing an email, contract or report, do plenty of ground work before putting pen to paper. Brainstorm all your ideas using a mind map and then put your points in order of importance. If you’re having trouble getting started, ask yourself the questions: Who? What? Where? When? and Why? Becoming clear in your thinking helps you to create clearly structured documents that are easy to follow.

Three:  communicate technical terms in plain English

Financial abbreviations and other technical terms can be useful when communicating with colleagues but they can confuse clients. For example, the term ‘accrual rate’ may seem simple but it still needs to be accompanied by an explanation of how the interest is built up. Similarly, never assume that your clients will understand terms such as ‘smoothing’, ‘arbitration’ and ‘cap and collar rate’. You don’t need to dumb down your writing, just make sure you provide clear, concise explanations.

Four:  avoid verbosity

Often though it’s the words in between the jargon that cause the problem. Never add in redundant words into your writing. For example, ‘I herein enclose details of your asset classes for the aforesaid investment, as requested’ sounds complicated, archaic and stilted. A much simpler way of writing it is, ‘I enclose details of your investments, as requested. ’

Five:  opt for verbs instead of nouns

Verbs help to give sentences movement and life. So write, ‘We will decide on our next steps on Monday, rather than ‘A decision will be made on our next steps on Monday’. The word ‘decide’ is more powerful than ‘decision’. And the first sentence is also written in the active voice, so it is punchier.

Six:  keep sentences short and sweet

Aim for your sentences to be a maximum of 20 words. If you make your sentences longer, it’s likely your readers will have trouble making sense of what you mean.

Remember, clear language makes sound business sense. It sends out the message that you have nothing to hide and that your words are as transparent as your financial dealings.

is the Chief Executive of Emphasis.

Ban the bull: skilled for Health

Good intentions may or may not pave the road to hell, but evidently they can sometimes be wrapped up in some seriously bewildering prose.

On its website, the Department of Health outlines its Skilled for Health programme. This aims to make sure people with lower levels of literacy, language and numeracy skills are as able to access everything the health service has to offer as anyone else.

Fantastic stuff.

Unfortunately, on the site, the DoH goes on to describe one of the aims of Skilled for Health like this:

Enhanced engagement in learning

  • to use health improvement topics that embed Skills for Life learning as an incentive to engage and recruit individuals who do not traditionally participate in adult learning initiatives, with a view to supporting them to progressing into other learning opportunities – including, where appropriate, a Skills for Life qualification-based outcome.

Trying to wade through that may be enough to make anyone question their literacy skills.

Since the goal is to encourage people to do something, using ‘doing’ words (verbs) is a good start. Instead of ‘enhanced engagement in learning’, try ‘engaging people in learning’. Rather than ‘a Skills for Life qualification-based outcome’, how about ‘earning a Skills for Life qualification’ or, simply, ‘learning with Skills for Life’.

Consider swapping large, unwieldy words like ‘traditionally’ and ‘participate’ for more everyday versions, like ‘usually’ and ‘take part in’. And don’t try to do in one sentence what is better done in two. Remember: one sentence, one idea.

Imagine one of the people behind the programme was asked by an interested associate or friend to explain the aims of the venture over a cup of coffee. If they expressed it as above, by the time they had finished, their acquaintance would be none the wiser and their coffee would probably be cold. Writing more as we speak – though not universally appropriate – makes our writing more ‘human’, as well as easy to understand in just one reading.

In fact, back in the cafe, it would probably go something more like this:

Engaging people in learning

  • to encourage people who don’t usually take part in adult learning initiatives to do so, by engaging them on topics of healthy living and Skills for Life. Ideally, this could include supporting them in further learning opportunities, including earning a Skills for Life qualification, if appropriate.

Calling all Write Away readers: we need your bull

Whenever you trip over any truly turgid or baffling business-speak, think of us. (You know what we mean, don’t you?) Send in any examples for us to unravel, and you’ll receive a free copy of our style guide, The Write Stuff. And don’t worry, we can leave names out of it if you’d rather.

Students plagued by poor grammar

University students’ writing is plagued by poor grammar and punctuation and a lack of consensus on what constitutes a clear writing style, new Emphasis research has found.

This inaugural research project, which marks the launch of the Emphasis Research Centre, suggests that today’s graduates – the business writers of tomorrow – aren’t being encouraged to write in a clear, straightfoward manner that will serve them (and their future colleagues and clients) best in the world of work.

The results, compiled from an online survey of academics and lecturers from 37 UK universities, reveal a range of problems – from poor grammar and punctuation to an inappropriate style. But the real problem may well be the inconsistent advice handed down from lecturers. The survey reveals a lack of agreement on what constitutes a good writing style: there is a real gulf between the plainer language tutors claim to prefer, and the typically opaque and multi-syllabic language of academia.

So it isn’t the case that the problem is going unrecognised or being ignored. Rather there is just a need for a unified – and uniform – support system. ‘University lecturers are keen to help students overcome worrying deficiencies in their writing,’ says Emphasis CEO, Rob Ashton. ‘But a lack of familiarity with the building blocks of a clear, plain style makes that goal hard to achieve.’

To read the full report on this research, click here.

  • Other research has recently highlighted the link between low levels of literacy and a lack of success in the workplace. The report, published by the National Literacy Trust, found that one in six adults has levels of literacy lower than that expected of an 11-year-old. Two-thirds of men and three-quarters of women with poor reading and writing skills had never received a promotion.