Formal Business Writing (part 3)
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Formal Business Writing (part 3)

A Guide to Business Writing (continued)


5. Write clearly, simply and specifically


Here are some common pitfalls to avoid:

  • superfluous words
  • pompous phrases
  • vague, abstract words and phrases
  • 'hedging'
  • the proximity rule
  • misuse of pronouns
  • words with several meanings
  • double negatives.

Superfluous words

'staff of suitable calibre and quality' (Overemphasis and confusion of meaning.)
'I personally believe...' (Who else believes?)

Another common fault is unnecessary adjectives and adverbs:

true facts (If it is a fact it is true.)
actively investigate (Can you investigate passively?)
active consideration (Can you consider passively?)
quite unique ('Unique' means the only one.)
absolutely impossible ('Impossibility' is absolute.)
an unfilled vacancy (A vacancy is something unfilled!)
I would suggest (If you mean it, why be tentative?)
completely fatal (Can something be half or partially fatal?)

The list is endless! Ruthlessly edit these banalities out of your writing.

Pompous phrases

This form of traditional, pointless jargon is described by the the Oxford Concise Dictionary as 'barbarous or debased language'. Many of the phrases are clich├ęs that we use unthinkingly:

'further to the above' (referring to a heading)
'the aforementioned'
'at this moment in time'
'at the end of the day'
'in the not too distant future'
'a substantial proportion'
'for the reason that'
'taking into consideration'

Again, seek out these and similar ghastly phrases and get them out of your writing.
Vague, abstract words and phrases

Using long-winded phrases leads to vagueness. Be specific in your writing. Do not write:
It was suggested that consideration be given to the possibility of improvement in our facilities for conferences with the object of elimination of noise and provision of adequate ventilation.
if you can write:
We need a better place to meet. This room is noisy and hot.

Use concrete rather than abstract words: they are more easily understandable. A concrete word is something you can see or feel. For example:

  • chair
  • desk
  • computer

An abstract word is not something you can see or feel. They generally represent concepts (an abstract word itself!). For example:

  • communication
  • democracy
  • memory
  • facility.

Such 'idea' words need explanations - the more explanations the more complex the idea.

Try to choose words which convey precise ideas to your readers, for example:

Do not write:

transport facilities
educational amenities
research facilities
computing facilities
worker on a temporary basis
in the engineering field
the human factor

if you can write:

trains, cars, lorries
schools, colleges
e-mail, letter, phone call
chemistry laboratory
temporary staff
in engineering

The more directly you express yourself the happier your reader will be.


Words such as 'perhaps', 'probably', 'comparatively', etc. are used by writers to avoid committing themselves. If that is your deliberate intention, then all right.

However, if it is not intended, it destroys conviction. Where these words carry such implications, avoid them.

Avoid words that sit on the fence and 'hedge' the meaning until it has no meaning. In the example below, the italicised words 'hedge':

Additional evidence suggests that the difference in the midrange of the curves may possibly indicate a curve form that our hypothesis may not adequately encompass.

Are you any wiser?

The proximity rule

Keep modifying words or phrases close to the word or phrase they modify, otherwise your meaning will be uncertain. For example:
A discussion was held on overtime working in the office.
What went on in the office - the discussion or the overtime working? Or was the discussion held while the staff were on overtime? Make the meaning quite clear; rewrite the sentence - even if it becomes a bit longer - and use punctuation. For example:
A discussion, on overtime working, was held in the office.

Do not write that
The work area needs cleaning badly.
when you mean
The work area badly needs cleaning.

Misplaced modifiers can also be amusing (but may make you look rather foolish):
We saw a man on a horse with a wooden leg.
The fire was extinguished before any damage was done by the fire brigade.
He told her that he wanted to marry her frequently.

Misuse of pronouns

Be careful not to use a pronoun when you have already used two nouns in that sentence - or sometimes in a preceding sentence. For example:
Mary told Susan she was being promoted.
Who was being promoted?
The car collided with the van at the crossroads. It had to be towed away quickly to avoid a traffic jam.
What had to be towed away?

Words with several meanings

Many words that have two (or more) meanings may leave the reader in doubt about your message. For example:
We dispense with accuracy.
John is aggressive.
It is practically done.

If you are unsure of a word that you feel/know has more than one meaning, look it up in the dictionary! The context is often a clue to the meaning intended.

Double negatives

The Double Negative is further discussed here

Try to phrase your message in a positive way rather than a negative one. Instead of:
a decision should not be delayed
a decision should be made

Always try and avoid multiple negatives, such as:
there is no reason to doubt that it is not true
The chances of the reader understanding that sentence as true or not true are about even!

Sometimes we can use a multiple negative to give an extra shade of meaning. For example:
There is no specific reason to doubt their claim, but previous experience . . .

Before allowing this sort of negative construction to stand, make sure that it is really needed, either to make your point or add emphasis.

There are plenty of traps that the unwary writer can fall into. Those mentioned in this chapter are some of the most common. But don't let these pitfalls stop you writing. Just get it down on paper. The later process of editing will correct errors and idiocies.