You can always leave ‘that’ out – true or false?

That's greatRecently, we were asked to settle a dispute between colleagues over the word that.

The example given was:  ‘The consensus was the chief executive was right’ vs ‘The consensus was that the chief executive was right’.

Our correspondent had written the former, but his colleague had insisted on the latter.

Which do you think is correct? Or, more pertinently, which sounds better to you?

When that is used as a conjunction, it’s a matter of preference whether you leave it in or not. For example, I would naturally put a that in ‘it’s great to hear that you enjoyed the course’. Personally, I think it sounds better. I wouldn’t, however, write ‘Personally, I think that it sounds better’. Because, personally, I don’t think it does.

So, in my opinion, the example given is one of those instances where a that improves the flow. I would write ‘the consensus was that the chief executive was right’.

Take care not to confuse

Sometimes, you’ll hear someone claim that that can always be left out. That’s certainly what I was told in my journalism training many moons ago. However, it’s not quite that simple. (Is it ever?)

It’s good to be concise, and concise writing generally aids readability. But be careful when omitting that that you don’t accidentally make a sentence harder to read.

The Guardian’s style guide gives the following example, where the direct quote is: ‘Nothing by way of an explanation will be forthcoming.’

If you write this in reported speech as ‘he said nothing by way of an explanation would be forthcoming’, the reader may begin the sentence thinking ‘ah, he said nothing by way of an explanation’ – and then have to backtrack a couple of seconds later. In this case, ‘he said that nothing by way of an explanation would be forthcoming’ is much clearer.

A versatile word

In Modern English Usage, HW Fowler explains that that has five main grammatical functions:

  • Demonstrative pronoun – That was what I meant
  • Demonstrative adjective – Why did you take that picture of me?
  • Demonstrative adverb – It didn’t hurt that much
  • Relative pronoun – It was not the drug that had done it
  • Conjunction – He had assumed that we would want to see him.

It’s only the fifth of these usages in which that is optional. And there are some cases where it’s more often left in than others.

Verbs of suggestion or wish, such as suggest, insist, propose, recommend and demand, tend to feel a bit bare without a that, as do constructions such as ‘the decision was (that)’, ‘the conclusion was (that)’, ‘the solution is (that)’ and ‘the consensus was (that)’.

If you’d like to read more, there’s a post in our blog archives here: How do you feel about that?

And don’t be afraid to bring out the ‘personal choice’ card on this one if challenged! (Though if you are the challenger, can we suggest that you phrase it: ‘That that that that sentence contains – is that correct?’)

Blast through writer’s block with this seven-step technique

breakthrough278How do you vanquish writer’s block? Some say to just start writing, even if you later have to delete half of what you’ve written. Some say to begin with the middle and add the introduction and conclusion later. Some say to make a list.

We say: grab some paper and a pen, and step away from your computer for half an hour.

This technique will not only cure your writer’s block, it will make your writing clearer and more logical for your reader.

Working out what goes in

Making a list of what you want to write about isn’t a bad starting point, but it has its limitations. The main drawback is that whatever word you write down first determines the next word you write down, and so on.

And once you have your list, it’s very difficult to change its order. So the entire structure effectively becomes governed by whatever word happened to pop into your mind when you sat down to write.

The other disadvantage of list structures is that they do nothing to unlock what’s actually in your mind.

Your mind stores things not in lists but in ‘files’. Consider this: if asked to list 20 things you own, you’d probably have to think quite hard. But if you were asked to list everything in your home, you’d soon hit 20. Easiest of all would be: ‘Name each room in your house, then name five things in each room.’

The reason is that you are sorting the ‘home file’ in your brain into folders – one for each part of your home. Once you’ve done that, it’s much easier to access the information.

Stage one: brainstorming

This seven-step technique is split between two stages. First, brainstorming.

You can apply the filing cabinet technique to help you brainstorm ideas, by drawing a mind map. This is a graphical representation of everything you know about a subject. Click here to see a mind map for planning an away day, for example.

To create a mind map, take the following steps:

1. Note down the subject in the middle of the page.

2. Write the aspects of the subject around it.

3. Look at each aspect and think about what its folder should include. Draw a line for each new idea or piece of information and continue this process, radiating outwards.

4. Keep asking questions such as Why?, How?, What?, When?, Where? and Who? until you’re satisfied you’ve put down everything you know about the subject.

Stage two: creating a logical structure.

Now you have all the information you need at your fingertips. But you still need to sort through it a bit further before you’re ready to start writing.

Classify each item in your mind map as A, B or C, where A = essential to everybody, B = essential to some readers and C = not important.

5. Pick one of the As as your starting point, label it number 1, then number the remaining As in a logical order.

6. Do the same for the Bs.

7. Cross out the Cs.

Once you have done this, you’re ready to form your ideas into a structure that your reader will find logical and easy to follow. Use the As for your body text and the Bs for your boxouts, appendices, sidebars and graphics.

Ready, set, go.

This is just one of the techniques you can learn on our High-impact business writing course, which is available both in-company and as a public course.

Five reasons to ignore your grammar gremlins (for now)

gremlinHere’s the good news: if you’re worried your documents are not as good as they could be, your grammar is probably not the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. Grammar matters. Of course it does. Getting it wrong can undermine your reputation (though probably not as much as you think – see below). Poor grammar can even completely change the meaning of a sentence.

But focusing too much on it could actually be more damaging. Here are five reasons why you should get over your grammar hang-ups.

1. Poor punctuation matters more than grammar. Colons and commas are vital sign-posts, so it’s important to put them in the right place. And a misplaced apostrophe (or, worse, a missing one) will make it look like you don’t care. On the other hand, I’d argue that no-one is going to get that worked up about whether you end a sentence with a preposition.

2. Grammar (and punctuation) issues usually indicate deeper problems. It’s probably not your imperfect understanding of a set of arcane grammar rules known only by master pedants that’s holding back your writing. It’s far more likely to be structural issues or focusing too much on your own aims rather than your readers’. In fact, worrying too much about your grammar can actually cause deeper problems. That’s because it seriously undermines your confidence, causing you to compensate with overly complex language or sentences.

3. Almost everyone struggles with it. Believe it or not, FTSE 100 directors and new graduates are often united in uncertainty over certain grammar points. Even experienced editors can spend a lifetime picking up the finer details. So waiting until you’ve perfected your grammar knowledge before you write anything is counter-productive – and futile.

4. Perfect grammar does not automatically mean perfect documents. Perfecting your knowledge of grammar will not automatically make you produce good documents, any more than memorising the workshop manual to your shiny new Ford or Volvo will make you a good driver. It’s perfectly possible to be technically perfect yet still produce an impenetrable tome stuffed with turgid professionalese.

Focus on your readers’ needs, structure your document well and use the right level of language. Then you stand a very good chance of making a real impact – yes, even if you’ve misplaced a modifier or left a participle dangling helplessly.

5. It’s not too late to fill in the gaps. If English is your first language, you already know 95 per cent of the grammar you’ll ever need. (And if it’s not, take comfort from the fact that your knowledge of technical grammar rules is probably superior to that of most native English speakers, simply because we learn our first language through usage rather than studying grammar.) Native speakers beyond the age of four or five already know which common verbs are irregular. They’d never say, for example, ‘I digged a big hole in the sand’.

They know that ‘dig’ becomes ‘dug’ in the past tense. They just don’t know that it’s called the past tense. (Nor, at that age, do they need to.) So the task of filling in the gaps is pretty straightforward. The odds are that the things you’re unsure about are the same ones that other people struggle with. (See point 3, above.)

So, take heart. Focus first on what your reader needs to know, then tell them in as straightforward a way as possible. Then – and only then – look up any points of grammar you’re not sure about.

Where to get help

There’s a lot of free grammar and punctuation advice on this blog. If you can’t find what you need, just drop us a line here. We’ll always do our best to help. Most of our business-writing courses take the same reader-focused approach that Rob advocates here, filling in your grammar gaps (identified through confidential analysis) where necessary. Training only in small groups enables us to tackle those very effectively and tailor training to individual needs. Also, look out for specific help with common grammar gremlins as we build our online training resources.

Difficult apostrophes: six do’s and don’ts

apostropheApostrophes are unpredictable little blighters. No sooner have you mastered the basics than they pop up in new and unexpected places, apparently breaking all the rules.

Should they, for example, be involved when you “cross the i’s and dot the t’s”? How about in the Ts &Cs? What are the, ahem, do’s and don’ts?

Don’t know? Don’t despair. Below we’ll strip away the guesswork from six of the most common apostrophe dilemmas, leaving you clear on whether to invite the curly little fellows in or boot them out.

1. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s: DO

Many people doubt whether they should use apostrophes in “crossing the i’s and dotting the t’s”, because the i and t in question are plurals, rather than contractions or possessives – and we all know not to use apostrophes to indicate plurals.

But the problem is that if you omit the apostrophes and write “dotting the is and crossing the ts”, your reader may stumble over the “is”, confusing it with … is.

One alternative might be to capitalise the I and the T – “dotting the Is and crossing the Ts”. But that’s not quite right either, because a capital I doesn’t need dotting, nor a capital T crossing (not in the original handwritten sense, anyway).

So, “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s” it is – it may not be pretty, but it’s clear and there’s no risk of confusing your reader.

2. Ts & Cs: DON’T

When you can capitalise the initials, they become much easier to deal with. Ts & Cs, or Ts and Cs if you prefer, is perfectly readable. Using apostrophes (T’s & C’s) just adds unnecessary clutter. So in this case, you’re better off without. The same goes for Ps & Qs.

3. 1980s: DON’T

Particularly in the US, it used to be quite common to use an apostrophe to indicate numerical plurals, such as “1980’s”. These days, however, most style guides on both sides of the Atlantic recommend using no apostrophe.

4. Do’s and don’ts: DO and DON’T

This one can have grown men and women groaning. But the secret, again, is simply to be pragmatic: do what makes it most readable (putting the reader’s needs first).

“Dos” just asks to be pronounced incorrectly, so it clearly needs an apostrophe – do’s. But if we’re adding an apostrophe there, should we also add an extra one to don’ts – don’t’s? Well, no, because that just looks crazy.

So, add an apostrophe to the former and make do with the existing apostrophe in the latter. It’s not perfect, but your reader will thank you for keeping it simple.

5. Cc’ing and Bcc’ing: DO (if you must)

There are two trends at play here. The first is towards sentence-cased “initialisms”, where only the first letter is capitalised. The second is our natural instinct to take new words and apply grammatical rules to them. So not only do we now want to Cc things, we also want to see who is Cc’ing them and check who has Cc’d them, and so on.

Ccing and Ccd aren’t very readable, and neither are Bccing and Bccd. Hyphens make even clunkier constructions than apostrophes (Cc-ing and Bcc-d, anyone?). So use an apostrophe … if you must.

Or, even better, avoid writing constructions like these and rephrase. For example: instead of “Are you Bcc’ing that to me?” write “Can you Bcc that to me?”, and instead of “I’ve Cc’d you” write “I’ve copied you in”.

6. Pdf’ing: DO (if you must)

As with point 5 above, this is another growing trend. It used to be standard practice to capitalise initialisations such as PDF, but increasingly we are seeing some well-known ones written in lower case – pdf, for example. Even LOL is now often written “lol”.

In cases such as these, try to rephrase sentences to avoid having to conjugate the initialism. So instead of “I’m pdf’ing it”, write “I’m making a pdf of it”, for example.

But if that isn’t possible, use an apostrophe. “Pdf’ing” may not be elegant, but it’s at least easier to read than “pdfing” and easier on the eye than “pdf-ing”.

Why does being easy to read matter so much?

So why does all this matter? Well, when your reader stumbles, they have to shift their attention from your message to your writing to get back on track. And as soon as they do that, you risk losing them – and you don’t know whether it’ll be for a few seconds or forever.

In situations such as these, pragmatism is key. You want to make the reading experience as smooth as possible so the reader focuses on the topic, not the words – even if that means putting an apostrophe somewhere that you usually wouldn’t.

Where apostrophes are concerned, our motto is: use them if to leave them out would be confusing.

To find out more about reader-centred writing and delivering your message effectively, sign up for one of our wide range of business-writing courses – we can either come to your company or you can join a group session for individuals in central London.

20 surefire tips for using bullets like a pro

bullet200Bullet points can bring clarity to an otherwise dense report, delivering quickfire information. But overuse them and you could shoot yourself in the foot – too many can make a document very hard to read.

There are 20 bullet points in this article. Take each of them on board next time you draft a document and you’ll be formatting like a pro in no time.

Why use bullets?

Bullet points are great for communicating information and breaking up text. For example, they can:

  • make lists clearer, as they are more visual
  • use white space well
  • grab attention by drawing the reader’s eye
  • help readers scan information
  • reduce word count.

When to use bullets

Bullet lists always need an introduction (like this one) and are good for:

  • concise web content
  • conveying key information
  • breaking down complex lists
  • summarising main points
  • giving instructions.

Bullets can be particularly useful in technical writing. In our experience, they’re popular with scientists and engineers, who sometimes even have a tendency to overuse them as a substitute for structured prose. Historians and policy makers, on the other hand, tend to prefer more connected text, and in some cases don’t even use bullets at all.

So, how do you strike a good balance? Just remember that they should be the exception, not the rule. They can’t draw the reader’s eye if they’re everywhere, so reserve them for your hardest hitting, most concise points.

When to dodge the bullets

As a general rule, readers don’t like bullet points when:

  • there are too many or the points are too long
  • they are used for unimportant details
  • the story is emotive or involved and so needs connected text
  • (T)he punctuation is erratic and distracting(;)
  • some of them are very much longer than others and it’s difficult to really see what the point of this particular type of bullet point is – in fact when the writer is just rambling on and simply wasting the reader’s time (annoying, isn’t it?).

How to punctuate bullets

There are various different styles of punctuating bullet points, and no hard-and-fast rules on the right way to do it. The most important thing is to have a consistent style across your organisation. At Emphasis, for example, we use two different styles.

When the bullet points are not full sentences (as in this article so far), we use:

  • lower case
  • no punctuation
  • a full stop after the final bullet if it ends the sentence (as this one does).

However, if we’re using bullet points for a list of complete sentences:

  • We use a capital letter at the start of each one.
  • And we end each one with a full stop.

So there you have it, 20 bullets to help you hit your writing targets. Do you have a preferred style? Do you want to come clean as a bullet-point addict or phobic? We’d like to hear what you think – join the discussion below.

How to use bullet points effectively is just one of the many topics we typically cover in our in-company courses and courses for individuals

These five techniques will transform your technical writing

Here is the gist of a conversation I had with a scientist a few years ago. I was teaching a one-day technical-writing course that she was (reluctantly) attending.

‘What do you write?’
‘Mainly records of experiments and field trials.’
‘And do you enjoy writing?’
‘No, I absolutely loathe it.’
‘Why?’
‘Because it’s just going to sit in a dusty folder somewhere and no one will ever read it.’

My first thought was that it was going to be a long, hard day. Happily, I was wrong.

In this short post, I won’t go through the protocols and conventions unique to technical writing, as that’s not necessary to get results (although you may find this article on how to write a paper useful). No, the key is to approach it from first principles – the disciplines every writer, technical or otherwise, should be aware of and practise.

1. Be clear and logical

I usually enjoy training scientists. They have one essential quality that’s gold dust for a writer – they’re trained to think logically and clearly. While their PhD may be in low-temperature physics or fluvial dynamics, they bring a rigorous way of thinking that’s incredibly helpful when it comes to writing up their work. Refreshingly, they’re also often among the most enthusiastic and intelligent students.

When I’m training, the one thing I want people to take away is the power and importance of writing. It obviously helps if you have a love and respect for language as well, but that’s a personal thing. If I could instil in the scientist a sense of pride in her writing, at least, I thought, that would be a start.

2. Focus on the audience

For some 15 years, I was the lead writer for Jaguar. I wrote the launches of their cars and all the company’s major conferences and speeches, some of which were highly technical. But the first question any writer has to ask, regardless of the material, is always the same – who is going to read this? Or, if it’s a speech, who is going to listen to it?

An automotive engineer, for example, will have a clear understanding of terms such as ‘horsepower’ and ‘torque’ and how they influence a car’s performance. They will also be familiar with the host of abbreviations and acronyms that are common parlance in the engineering community. (Is there a sector that doesn’t have its own jargon or buzzwords?)

If a piece of writing is peer to peer, it’s generally fine to use these terms without explanation (but sparingly, please). An engine’s performance may simply be expressed in measurements, graphs and charts – if the information is simply and clearly presented, the knowledgeable reader will be able to extract what they want and interpret it. The writing will have served its primary function, which is to communicate.

3. Consider every word

Most drivers, however, would struggle to explain ‘horsepower’ and ‘torque’, let alone the difference between them. Unless they’re fully paid-up petrolheads, all they may know is that a powerful car will have a lot of both. Car manufacturers know this, of course, and that’s when (supposedly sexy) language starts creeping into the writing. ‘Effortless’ and ‘refined power’, for example, are words Jaguar often use to describe torque delivery for the layman. (I fought long and hard to suppress the truly awful ‘waftability’, but it seems to have crept into the marketing.)

The point is that you use the appropriate language for the audience. The engineer writing the technical report isn’t selling the car, so they don’t need to use adjectives and adverbs (modifying words) to communicate performance – they can let the stats do the talking. In fact, if they submit their findings to scientific journals, they’ll find that most editors delete modifiers anyway, because at best they’re subjective, and at worst vague and confusing, especially for an international audience. Editors encourage authors to ‘unpackage’ concepts – to present them in simple, clear sentences.

4. Keep it brief

Most people have a lot of things they could be doing rather than wading through 50 pages of turgid, unfocused waffle. Know your reader, know what you want to say and know why you’re saying it. Is it relevant to your reader? If not, why are you making them read it? And although you may have spent ages writing something, be aware of ‘Mr Skippy’ – the person who will just skim through the text. He may only read the sub-heads, so make sure they tell the story clearly.

5. Be active and engaging

Get people into your writing. The passive voice (‘the trials were conducted …’) may be the default in most technical writing, but the active voice is more direct (‘we conducted the trials …’). You don’t have to do it all the time: a balance between passive and active is best. But we’re people and we like to read about ourselves, even if it’s just a humble pronoun (‘we’). Incidentally, a surprising number of journals recommend the active voice in their instructions for authors, including Nature.

And the reluctant scientist on my course? I saw her for a follow-up class a couple of months later and her writing had improved immeasurably, largely because she was now thinking clearly and writing short, clear sentences. Most importantly, she was taking pride in her writing and even starting to think of publishing her work. It had been a day well spent.

Jack can help you improve your team’s technical writing. Call us on +44 (0)1273 732 888 for a chat to explore how.

Why plagiarism doesn’t pay

word thiefHere are the plagiarists of Internet Town
With Ctrl+C and clattering keys
They prowl and creep when you’re asleep 
And take whatever they please.

Sounds good, right? They aren’t my words though: we lifted them from Allan Ahlberg’s Cops and Robbers, then made a couple of tweaks.

These days, pinching stuff from the internet is all the rage, simply because it’s (a) incredibly easy and (b) a short-cut to mountains of free web content.

Obviously, plagiarism is unethical. We all know that text or images taken from another source should be properly attributed, in a footnote or through ‘quote marks’. But ethics aside, plagiarism is simply bad business.

‘Ello ‘ello, what’s going on here?

Let’s say that you copy and paste a chunk of text from a website into your own report, press release or company brochure. It may look good. It may read well. But the basic fact is, people will notice. Stolen goods – in writing just as at a car-boot sale – stand out.

If they find your content via a search engine, they’ll immediately see that yours is not the only site to carry the text in question. If they’re editors and run plagiarism software (such as Turnitin or iThenticate), they’ll quickly see through your sleight-of-mouse.

Most importantly, copied text stands out to anyone who pays enough attention to your writing (and if people aren’t paying enough attention to your writing, you’ve got a whole other problem). Changes in tone, style, vocabulary and voice register with readers, even if they don’t realise it. It makes for a bumpy ride. It makes the reader less comfortable with your content. And it makes them less likely either to sympathise with you or believe you (or ‘you’).

OK, so you think again, and go to what we might call ‘level 2’ plagiarism. You rip off, but you re-write. You change maybe one word in ten, alter ‘cannot’ to ‘can’t’, cut out a handful of adverbs. Presto! ‘New’ content.

There are two problems here. Which of the two you encounter depends on how good a writer you are.

Problem one: the hybrid

In the first case, you wade in, thesaurus in hand, and make a terrible hash of the job. You lack the technical knowledge to amend the text appropriately (which is probably why you stole it in the first place).

A synonym in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing – and the results are likely to both point up your obvious attempt to plagiarise and cause the reader great amusement/frustration.

I’ve encountered these weird hybrids in the wild many times. Let’s create one at random. Here’s the original text:

The potential loss on a short sale is theoretically unlimited in the event of an unlimited rise in the price of the instrument; however, in practice, the short seller will be required to post margin or collateral to cover losses, and any inability to do so on a timely basis would cause its broker or counterparty to liquidate the position.

That’s from Wikipedia’s page on ‘short-selling’, a financial concept chosen at random from the almost infinite number of topics about which I know nothing. We want to use this content in our report, but we don’t want anyone to know that we purloined it. Right – where’s that thesaurus?

The would-be slaughter on a dumpy auction is tentatively on tap in the event of an infinite augment in the consequences of the utensil …

Hmm. Perhaps this isn’t the best approach after all.

This example may seem far-fetched (it was done using MS Word’s ‘thesaurus’ tool, by the way), but I have come across real-life examples that are just as bizarre. It’s what comes of failing to show sufficient respect for the process of writing – of imagining that one word is just as good as another, that writing skills can be bluffed and technical know-how mimicked without consequence. The consequence is, of course, that the shortcomings you hoped to conceal by appropriating another’s work are laid bare. In the end, it undermines your reputation, rather than enhancing it.

In this case, shortcuts just won’t cut it. Expertise is what you need, and if you don’t have it yourself, you’re better off buying it in than trying to rip it off.

Problem two: the long shortcut

And this is where the second problem comes in. Perhaps you do have the knowledge to make the necessary amendments without turning the content into a laughing stock. Perhaps you know that ‘short-selling’ might be better replaced with ‘going short’ or ‘shorting’ than with ‘dumpy auction’. Clever you! But then in that case, why are you copying content in the first place?

More often than not you’ll find that, by the time you’ve re-worked a sentence to eliminate every trace of the original, you’ve used just as much time and effort as if you’d bitten the bullet and written it yourself. It reminds me of the story of the boy who tried to cheat in his exams by writing the answers on his shirt cuff. By the time he’d done that, he’d memorised them all anyway.

This is a confidence issue. You have to remember that, very often, if you’re good enough to fake it, you’re good enough to do it for real.

Ultimately, even if you’re prepared to ruthlessly jettison what they taught you at school about stealing being wrong, it’s still seldom a good idea. If you do it badly, you’ll get caught – and if you do it well enough not to get caught, it probably wasn’t worth doing it in the first place.

Are your ‘good manners’ letting you down?

dog wearing crownWhat’s the right tone to strike in business writing?

Formal? Yes, you want to come across as a serious contributor to the subject at hand and not to sound too … chatty? Hmmm. But if you’re too serious, don’t you risk boring people and losing them?

Tone is a minefield. And it’s made all the more treacherous by social media. Now, even the weightiest of subjects – market-shaking IPOs, Barack Obama’s first election win, the discovery of water on Mars – are announced via the same medium, Twitter, that also broadcasts what thousands of people had for breakfast.

Moreover, the ruling tone on the ever-more pervasive LinkedIn is breezy, informal and – yes – chatty. To buttoned-up Brits in particular, it can seem more suited to a coffee shop than to the office.

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, memos will be sent back by a line manager with the criticism: ‘Too formal!’ However, at least for now, formality is still the norm in business communication.

Genteel does it

The trouble is that using formal language (or what people think is formal language) is not the same as getting it right – and this is nowhere better revealed than in the dreaded use of genteelisms.

A genteelism is the substitution of a word or phrase that the speaker thinks is more correct for one that they imagine to be inappropriately colloquial or vulgar.

Examples would be substituting ‘at this juncture’ for ‘now’, ‘transpire’ for ‘happen’, ‘missive’ for ‘letter’ or ‘consume’ for ‘eat’.

Genteelisms are related to euphemisms (mild words that replace ones thought too direct) and often jar when used in the wrong context.

Some of the great grammarians of English have proclaimed the use of genteelisms to be a defining curse of social climbers.

HW Fowler (who wrote Modern English Usage in 1926) coined the term, defining a genteelism as ‘the substituting, for the ordinary natural word that first suggests itself to the mind, of a synonym that is thought to be less soiled by the lips of the common herd’.

His examples included ‘lounge’ for ‘sitting room’, ‘odour’ for ‘smell’ and ‘perspire’ for ‘sweat’.

Lexicographer Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, his 1942 classic on English style, also condemned ‘those words and phrases which the semi-literate and far too many of the literate believe to be more elegant than the terms they displace’.

More recently, Simon Heffer, the former Telegraph journalist, diagnosed ‘a phase’ through which ‘the aspiring, undereducated person passes … in which he feels it is right to imitate the language of bureaucrats’.

Indeed, a good synonym for ‘genteelism’ in the business-writing context is ‘bureaucratese’. And probably no one wants to sound like a bureaucrat when they write – not even a bureaucrat.

Not only pompous but wrong

The irony and tragedy of genteelisms is that they reveal a person’s ignorance in the very moment that they try to conceal it – and never more so than when the genteelism is not only pompous, but grammatically wrong.

Such ‘false genteelisms’ are legion in business writing when, for example, the writer invites the reader: ‘please don’t hesitate to contact my colleagues and I’.

No doubt they think that sounds more like something the Queen would say (if she had colleagues), rather than the hideously street ‘me and my colleagues’. Yet the latter is grammatically correct, just as it would be if you took the colleagues out of the equation – ‘please don’t hesitate to contact me’, rather than ‘please don’t hesitate to contact I’. (Unless, of course, you speak Iyaric, the Rastafarian dialect.)

Similarly, you may hear people refer to ‘my manager, my team members and myself’, which sounds rather like a police report. Indeed, this may be the kind of language the speaker is unconsciously imitating – imagining it to be the paragon of official correctness.

However, ‘my manager, my team members and me’ is the correct way to phrase it. (‘Myself’ is used in reflexive expressions such as, ‘I picked myself up,’ when the subject and object of the verb are the same.)

How to avoid these embarrassing errors?

As always with writing, especially in business writing, err on the side of simplicity.

To put it another way, if it sounds suspiciously simple, it may well be right. And if it sounds suspiciously superior, it is quite possibly wrong.

If you find yourself pondering which is correct, instead of trying to guess the difference, take a moment to look it up. Or drop us an email or give us a call, and we’ll help.

Spaces and units: survey results

numbersLast week, in our post on units and spaces, we asked you to take our short survey. We’re delighted to report that 130 people did – and here are the results.

Overall, most of you were in favour of closing up the number and unit, with four fifths preferring ‘1.75cm’ to ‘1.75 cm’. However, this wasn’t the case across the board. With some units, such as kcal, more than half (57 per cent) of you preferred to include a space. This may be because we are used to seeing it with a space on food packaging.

Those who described themselves as working mainly for media (20 per cent) were far more likely to want to close up the number and unit in all instances, while those who said they wrote mainly for academia (4 per cent) were more likely to want to leave a space in all instances. Those who wrote mainly for business (80 per cent) were more mixed, but tended towards not leaving a space.

So, while there are some quite strict formatting rules within the scientific and academic communities, which say to leave a space in almost all instances, it seems that many people outside of those communities actually prefer not to.

Both styles are fine, but it’s a good idea to be consistent within your organisation, so we recommend deciding on a preference and adding it to your house style guide. If you don’t have one, you can talk to us about tailoring our style guide The Write Stuff to your organisation’s needs.

Survey responses

1. Would you write ‘the table is 1.75cm wide’ or ‘the table is 1.75 cm wide’?

  • 80 per cent said 1.75cm
  • 20 per cent said 1.75 cm

2. Would you write ‘then add 7oz of flour’ or ‘then add 7 oz of flour’?

  • 80 per cent said 7oz
  • 20 per cent said 7 oz

3. Would you write ‘the car was travelling at 80mph’ or ‘the car was travelling at 80 mph’?

  • 55 per cent said 80mph
  • 45 per cent said 80 mph

4. Would you write ‘one slice of cheese on toast contains 150kcal’ or ‘one slice of cheese on toast contains 150 kcal’?

  • 43 per cent said 150kcal
  • 57 per cent said 150 kcal

5. We asked you what kind of writing you usually do, and you answered:

  • mainly for business – 60 per cent
  • mainly for media – 20 per cent
  • mainly for pleasure – 11 per cent
  • mainly for academia – 4 per cent
  • all of the above – 5 per cent

We also asked you for your nationality, but as 89 per cent of those who answered were British, we don’t have enough data about the other nationalities (which included Indian, Swiss, Dutch, South African, American, Canadian, Irish and Australian) to draw any conclusions about national preferences.

Spaces and units: 60-second fix

puppiesRecently a reader asked us whether it was correct to put a space between a number and a unit (eg ‘4 cm’), or to close them up (‘4cm’). Well, what a can of contradictory worms that turned out to be.

When it comes to units of measure, it seems some like to get up close and personal, while others prefer a little bit more space.

The short answer is that scientists are very strict about including a space, as are many academics, while journalists and non-scientific publishers tend to prefer to omit the space. Business writing falls somewhere in the middle, often influenced by how science-y (technical term) the company is.

The International Bureau of Weights and Measures takes a no-nonsense approach: ‘The numerical value always precedes the unit, and a space is always used to separate the unit from the number,’ it says.

The only exceptions it makes are for the unit symbols for degree, minute, and second – °, ‘ and ” respectively – which don’t need a space. Note, though, that this applies only to angles and geographical co-ordinates, not temperatures. ‘This rule means that the symbol °C for the degree Celsius is preceded by a space,’ adds the IBWM, as it lines up its perfectly sharpened pencils.

Outside of the International Bureau, however, people have loosened their ties a little. The UK Metric Association (UKMA) says: ‘Where there is room, leave a (non-breaking) space between the number and the unit – eg 25 kg, 100 m, 37 °C.’ (‘Non-breaking’ means the number and unit won’t be split if they fall at the end of a line of text.) This seems pretty sensible. In fact, if your workplace prefers a scientific style, you might like to bookmark the UKMA’s excellent Measurement units style guide. It’s concise, comprehensive and well laid out.

Loosening the tie a little more, and maybe even undoing a button if no-one’s looking, we move on to The Telegraph. ‘Use common British weights and measures even in foreign stories unless the context dictates otherwise. No full points, no plurals, no space between the number and the abbreviation.’

It makes an exception for abbreviations that may be confusing if closed up, eg 22sqyd or 20sqm – which become much more readable when written as 22 sq yd and 20 sq m.

Turning the tie into a jaunty bandana and spilling a little coffee down our shirts, we come to the Guardian. It’s far too cool to include spaces and units in its style guide, being more interested in martini recipes and the spelling of mangetout. However, it did concisely answer our question on Twitter, confirming that it too leaves out the space.

At Emphasis, our in-house style is also to leave out the space – we find it looks tidier and more modern. However, it’s a matter of preference, so find out what your company’s style is. If it doesn’t have one, it may be a good idea to set one up so that you’re consistent.

As opinions vary on this, we’re interested to find out more about who uses spaces and who doesn’t. If you have a spare minute, why not take our six-question survey?

Thanks to everyone who took our survey – you can see the results here.