Much business writing includes difficult or archaic words and phrases people do not use in everyday speaking, such as “cognizant” instead of “aware,” “initiate” instead of “begin,” and “endeavor” instead of “try.” The writer feels the difficult or archaic words are more businesslike and show the writer’s intelligence. Using common, everyday words feels to them like it’s dumbing down the writing and patronizing the reader.
However, research* by Daniel M. Openheimer at Princeton University indicates the writers who use these words may not be projecting the image of themselves to the reader they think they are projecting. Dr. Oppenheimer conducted experiments to see what readers thought about the writers of documents that included difficult or archaic words. He then rewrote the documents replacing the difficult words with common, everyday words and asked readers what they thought about the writers of those simpler documents. The readers more often felt the documents using common, everyday words came from writers more intelligent than the writers of the documents containing difficult and archaic words. “Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers’ evaluations of the text and its author,” Oppenheimer wrote. “One thing seems certain: write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.”
Common, everyday words are the most up-to-date words in the language. Languages change over time, and the changes occur in the words people speak. Written customs in business lag behind the up-to-date words of the language, sometimes by centuries. These are some tips to use business vocabulary that communicates most clearly to readers, and may result in readers’ feeling you are more intelligent.
Write using words you would speak.
That doesn’t mean you use informal, street words like “bugs him” for “bothers him” or “pad” for “home.” Choose words you would use if you were speaking to the readers in a business meeting. Business writing today is a medium for conveying to readers what you would speak to them if you were with them. You wouldn’t sit across a table from the reader and say, “We initiated the endeavor to ascertain where the pipe malfunctioned utilizing our video equipment, but subsequently were compelled to excavate the line.” The reader would think you had lost it. You would say “We began to try to locate the broken pipe using our video equipment, but ended up having to dig up the line.” Write like that.
1. As you edit your writing, if you see words you wouldn’t speak change to the common, everyday words.
You likely will fall into using the difficult, archaic words when you write a business document. We see so much of it coming from other business writers that it seems like it’s the only appropriate vocabulary for business. When you’re editing your writing in preparation for creating the final draft, if you see a word or phrase you wouldn’t say if you were sitting with the reader speaking the message, change the word or phrase to the simpler alternative.
2. Use jargon words only when the reader uses them commonly.
Jargon words are the vocabulary specialists in a field use when writing about activities in the field. If you are talking to someone in finance, you’ll use finance jargon. Talk to someone in engineering and you’ll use engineering jargon. You both expect to write and read the specialized words you use in your field.
However, don’t use the jargon words with people who aren’t specialists in your field. Replace the jargon words with the plain English alternatives. Writing has two levels: a deep structure and a surface structure. The deep structure is the meaning you want to convey. The surface structure is the words, phrases, and sentences you use to convey the meaning. If you want your display vendor to realize you need the display by Wednesday, the deep structure is the message: “we need the display by Wednesday.” The surface structure could be “We need the display by Wednesday to finish the project” or it could be “Regarding the display, project completion necessitates acquisition of the display by EOD Wednesday” or it could be “We got to get our hands on the display to finish this gig by hump day.” All three of the sentences have the same deep structure, but very different surface structures. The version using simple everyday words will communicate most clearly and give the reader the feeling you see him or her as a colleague. The version using difficult words will not communicate as clearly and will give the reader the feeling you see him or her as a stranger you are writing a form letter to. Of course, the very informal writing will give the reader the feeling you’re not taking the job or the reader seriously. However, it still conveys the same deep structure that is your message.
Use the surface structure that communicates clearly. The reader will get the same message you might try to convey using difficult or archaic words.
3. When you are writing to someone who is a specialist in your field, use common, everyday words for the text that isn’t jargon.
When you write an email, memo, letter, report, or other business document to someone who is a specialist in your field, use the jargon words for your field, but for all other words, use common, everyday vocabulary. The fact that you’re communicating with another expert in your field doesn’t mean you may make the writing sound stilted and difficult. You will communicate most clearly using common, everyday words even with your colleagues in the field.
4. Avoid using abbreviations.
Avoid using abbreviations and acronyms unless the reader knows them well. For example, you would use “IBM” or “NASA” because those abbreviations are common knowledge. If your company referred to the employment review process as ERP and every employee knew that, you could use the abbreviation in an e mail to an employee. However, avoid using the abbreviation in an e mail to someone outside of the company who does not know the process unless you believe that other person needs to learn the abbreviation.
The reason for preferring the full set of words is that readers may not remember the abbreviation or may be coming into the document at a point past the definition when trying to find specific information in the document later. Besides, the full set of words has no negative effects on readers—they don’t mind reading them.
If the full set of words is very long, prefer to use a shortened version for it (such as “Engleman” for the firm name “Engleman, Breighton, Dawson, and Filburton”). The shortened version provides the reader with enough of the name that she will recall the full name.
Avoid abbreviations you must explain in parentheses the first time you use them. If any reader has a less than perfect memory, you will be creating confusion because the reader may have to later browse through the earlier pages of the document to find the definition.
5. Don’t use alternative terms for names, such as “Company” for “Jansen Manufacturing.”
Don’t use definitions such as “Company” for a firm’s name or “Plaintiff” for a person’s name. These are called “legal definitions” because they are used extensively in legal writing.
A growing number of businesspeople, attorneys, judges, engineers, and others whose disciplines commonly use unnecessarily complex language have joined forces to form the “plain English movement.” They are encouraging all professionals to use language anyone can understand. Lawyers, especially, must understand that using conventions such as legal definitions makes their writing unnecessarily unclear.
Example: We recommend that you not write text such as the following example:
This letter is in response to your request for a preliminary proposal for providing programming services to Beckwith, Trainer, and Associates, Inc. (hereinafter “Company”). Pivotal Programming, Inc. (hereinafter “Vendor”) will create a record-keeping system for use by agents of Company at their regional offices. Vendor will design, program, and test the program over a period of six months, beginning after the contract between Company and Vendor is signed.
Instead, use the complete name or a shortened version of the name, as in this rewritten version:
This letter is in response to your request for a preliminary proposal for providing programming services to Beckwith, Trainer, and Associates, Inc. Pivotal Programming, Inc. will create a record-keeping system for use by agents of Beckwith at their regional offices. Pivotal will design, program, and test the program over a period of six months beginning after the contract between Beckwith and Pivotal is signed.
If you wish, include the shortened version of the name in parentheses after the longer version to let the reader know you will use the shortened version in the remainder of the document. However, most often that isn’t necessary.
6. Use the plain English words for these difficult or archaic words.
|Complex, unusual words||Simple words|
|along the lines of||like|
|are of the opinion||believe|
|ascertain||find out, learn|
|consummate||close, bring about|
|despite the fact that||although, though|
|during the course of||during|
|financial deficit||losing money|
|for the purpose of||for, to|
|for the reason that||because|
|give consideration to||consider|
|have need for||need|
|in order to||to|
|in view of the fact that||because, since|
|make use of||use|
|multiple||several, many, more than one
(but prefer the exact number)
|on the occasion of||when|
|preceding year||last year|
|succeed in making||make|
|we would like to ask that||please|
|with reference to||about|
*Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006). Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective
of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 139-156.