In almost every writing skills seminar, there comes a moment in which a participant finds
that one of the notions about writing that he or she has held since elementary school is
either no longer valid or is dead wrong.
Many teachers and scholars, in an attempt to standardize communication in English,
codify their opinion as “rules.” These “rules” are really guidelines that must occasionally
yield to give flexibility to our efforts to express ourselves.
Although we cannot communicate without at least some understanding of the rules, we
also need to be flexible about applying them. We need to leave room for creativity as
long as the goal of communication can still be achieved.
Here are seven “rules” that claims people must break occasionally to give their
communications the suppleness and effectiveness they demand:
- “Never end a sentence on a preposition.” When criticized for occasionally
ending a sentence on a preposition, Winston Churchill replied, “This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.” Churchill’s reply satirizes the strict adherence to this “rule.” No one is urging you to write, “Where is Johnny at?” or “Where are you going to?” The best, most effective communication sounds and feels natural, and if that means writing, “Here is the file the list belongs with” instead of “Here is the file with which the list belongs,” then write it that way.
- “Never use ‘I’ in business writing.” Although the use of “I” is forbidden in
formal research reports and in technical journals, if you are writing about your own thoughts, actions or opinions (“I believe … ” “I’ve enclosed … “) in a business letter and aren’t speaking for your company or department as a whole, “I” is acceptable.
- “Never start a sentence with a conjunction.” Admittedly, starting a sentence with a conjunction can leave the reader wondering what preceded the “and,” “or,” “but,” or “yet.” It automatically creates a sentence fragment, because, if you lift the sentence off the page, it makes no sense at all. But sometimes starting with a conjunction can add vividness.
- “Never write a one-sentence paragraph.” Our teachers may have defined a
paragraph as “a cluster of like ideas” but sometimes a sentence stands alone. There may be only a single thought you have to express on a subject. Also, you may be striving for the dramatic effect of an occasional one-sentence paragraph. A one-sentence paragraph can be a reader-friendly way of forming a bridge between two lengthy paragraphs.
- End with a “thank you.” While thanking people for what they have done for
you in the past is always a good idea, I do not extend the concept to thanking people for what you are asking them to do in the future. “Thanking you in advance” and its sister phrases (e.g., “Your cooperation is appreciated”) are inappropriate because they haven’t done anything for you. If you are trying to motivate them to do something for you, show them why it can help them as well (e.g., “To speed settlement, send me the medical report by October 1st.”). Just thanking people is not a motivation for them to put themselves out. So, if you are asking them to do a small favor, “please” should suffice. If you are asking
for something that is more mighty, then make sure you provide a reason – a motivation – for them to do it.
- Beware “Hopefully”! A TV newsman used to have a sign above his door: “Abandon ‘hopefully’ all ye who enter here.” Grammarians don’t want you writing “Hopefully, that will change” because whatever “that” is, it can’t hope nor can change anything in a hopeful fashion. They prefer that you write “We hope that will change” or “It is hoped that that will change.”
- Avoid pronouns like ‘you’ or ‘me’ in business writing. “You” and “me” are perfectly good words and need not be shunned. When you write “I’ll meet with John, Karen, and yourself’ it sounds awkward. Substitute “you” for “yourself.” When you write “Send the claims report to myself,” you should use “me.” On the other hand, what is known as the reflexive in English (“I did it myself’ or “I myself did it”) is perfectly fine, and you are using those words properly.
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