What Business Writing Vocabulary Makes the Writer Seem Intelligent?
What many business writers refer to as “business vocabulary” contains 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 writers feel using difficult or archaic words makes their business writing seem more professional and shows the writer’s intelligence. Using common, everyday words in business writing feels to these writers 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 they think they are projecting. Dr. Oppenheimer conducted a series of experiments to see what readers think about writers who use difficult and archaic words. He wrote several documents using difficult, archaic words such as those some business writers use. He asked groups of readers what they thought about the documents. He then rewrote the documents replacing the difficult words with common, everyday words and asked groups of readers what they thought about the writers of the simpler documents.
The results were that the readers more often felt the documents using common, everyday words were written by writers who were more intelligent than the writers of the documents containing difficult, archaic words. Dr. Oppenheimer concluded, “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. . . . 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 appear first in the words people speak. Words business writers use lag behind the up-to-date words of the spoken language, sometimes by centuries. In the eighteenth century, sending a letter “under separate cover” referred to sending a letter wrapped in a sheet of paper that was folded around the letter and sealed with sealing wax so the letter would arrive at its destination undamaged. These covers were used until around 1840 when envelopes were invented. Today, no one says, “I wrapped the letter in a cover and sent it.” “Cover” has been replaced by “envelope.” However, some business people still write that they have sent something “under separate cover.”
You will make your writing clearer and more effective immediately by being careful about the words you use. Here are some tips to help you use business vocabulary that communicates most clearly to readers and may impress readers with your intelligence.
1. Write using the plain English words you would speak.
Write as though you were speaking to the reader. 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 a co-worker and say, “Karen, we initiated the endeavor to ascertain where the pipe malfunctioned utilizing our video equipment, but subsequently were compelled to excavate the line.” Karen would think you had lost it. Unfortunately, many business people write using words like that. Instead, you would say to Karen, “We began to try to locate the broken pipe using our video equipment, but ended up having to dig up the line.” Karen would understand you easily and feel you regard her as a colleague because you communicate with her in common English. Write using the words you would speak.
2. Write your first draft freely, as though you were speaking it.
Good business writers create clear, effective business writing when they do their editing. Writing the first draft is just a way of putting the ideas into words so you can start to edit them. If you look at an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, you’ll see insertions and strike throughs from beginning to end. No one writes a first draft that is as clear and correct as it must be to achieve the writer’s goals with the reader. All accomplished business writers will tell you they have to edit their first drafts to massage them into the documents they want them to be. Write your first draft as the words come to you. Don’t edit sentences while you’re writing the first draft.
Writing the first draft as though you were speaking also helps eliminate writer’s block. If it takes you a frustratingly long time to write an email or report, you’re likely trying to make every sentence perfect as you write it. That’s like holding up building your house because you spend weeks building the bathroom, painting its walls, putting up prints, installing curtains, and taking a shower before you build the framework for the rest of the house. You’ll write more clearly and quickly if you prepare notes and an outline of the document, then write your first draft as though you were speaking to the reader using the outline. Edit your spoken draft to make it a clear, well-organized document by removing fragment sentences, unclear statements, and overly casual words. However, keep the clear, everyday words you would speak.
3. As you edit your writing, if you see words you wouldn’t speak, change them 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 business writing using these words that it seems like it’s the appropriate vocabulary for business. As you edit 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.
4. 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.
5. 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 a 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 should make the writing sound stilted and difficult. You will communicate most clearly using common, everyday words even with your colleagues in the field.
6. 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 email to an employee. However, avoid using the abbreviation in an email to someone outside of the company who does not know the process unless you believe that other person needs to learn the abbreviation.
Important reasons for preferring the full set of words are that readers may not remember the abbreviation or may open the document to a page past the page with the definition when trying to find specific information in the document later. Besides, writing 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 to enable him or her to 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.
7. Don’t use alternative terms for names, such as “Company” for “Jansen Manufacturing.”
Don’t use alternative terms such as “Company” for a firm’s name or “Plaintiff” for a person’s name. 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 replacing names with generic terms such as “Company,” “Plaintiff,” or “Defendant” makes their writing unnecessarily difficult to follow.
We recommend you not write text such as the following example:
8. 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|
Write using clear, common, everyday words. It will pay off for you when your readers understand your messages and respond as you expect them to. They’ll see you as well organized and intelligent because you communicate clearly.
Why Using Plain English Isn’t Dumbing Down the Meaning
Writing a message using plain English doesn’t change the meaning of the message. 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 the reader to know your vendor must provide a 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 “Gotta have the display Wednesday or we’ll be in a world of hurt.” All three of the sentences have the same deep structure, but very different surface structures. The first version uses simple, everyday words that will communicate most clearly and give the reader the feeling the writer sees him or her as a colleague. The version using difficult words will not communicate as clearly and will give the reader the feeling the writer sees the reader as a stranger deserving only a form-letter message. Of course, the third, informal version will get the point across, but may give the reader the feeling the writer is not taking the job or the reader seriously. However, regardless of the words the writer uses, all three convey the same deep structure without a loss of meaning: “we need the display by Wednesday.”
Use the surface words that communicate clearly. The reader will get the same message you might try to convey using difficult or archaic words, but will more likely understand it and thank you for being clear.
*Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006). Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective
of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 139-156.