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Style in Business Writing. The Most Common Problems in Business Documents. Long sentences Passive voice Weak verbs Superfluous words Legal and financial terms Numerous defined terms. The Most Common Problems in Business Documents (cont’d). Abstract words

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The most common problems in business documents
The Most Common Problemsin Business Documents

  • Long sentences

  • Passive voice

  • Weak verbs

  • Superfluous words

  • Legal and financial terms

  • Numerous defined terms

The most common problems in business documents cont d
The Most Common Problemsin Business Documents(cont’d)

  • Abstract words

  • Unnecessary details

  • Unreadable design and layout

Use the active voice with strong verbs
Use the Active Voicewith Strong Verbs

  • The time you spend searching for a good verb is time well spent. When a verb carries more meaning, you can dispense with many of the words used to bolster weak verbs.

  • Weak verbs keep frequent company with two grammatical undesirables: passive voice and nominalizations.

The active and passive voice
The Active and Passive Voice

  • Active: “Microsoft bought our company.”

  • Passive: “Our company was bought by Microsoft.”

  • Obscure Passive:

    “Our company was bought.”

What s wrong with passive constructions
What’s Wrong withPassive Constructions?

  • It generally adds length to a sentence -- 25% to 33% on average.

  • The agent or human actor is often obscured or deleted.

  • Responsibility for actions in the sentence are obscure or missing entirely.

How can you recognize a passive sentence
How Can You Recognize aPassive Sentence?

  • Some form of the verb “to be.” (“The stock was bought by an investor.”)

  • Another verb in the past tense. (“The stock was bought by an investor.”)

  • A prepositional phrase beginning with “by.” (“The stock was bought by an investor.”)

How can you recognize an active sentence
How Can You Recognizean Active Sentence?

  • Doers Before Verbs.

  • Before: The foregoing fee table is intended to assist investors in understanding the costs and expenses that a shareholder will bear directly or indirectly.

  • After: This fee table shows the costs and expenses you would pay directly or indirectly if you invested in our fund.

Active voice really is better
Active Voice Really is Better

  • Before: “The proxies solicited hereby may be revoked, subject to the procedures described herein, at any time up to and including the date of the meeting.”

  • After: “You may revoke your proxy and reclaim your right to vote any time, up to and including the day of the meeting.”


  • Does the sentence use any form of the verbs to be, to have, or another weak verb, with a noun that could be turned into a strong verb?

  • In the samples that follow, strong verbs lie hidden in nominalizations, nouns derived from a verb that usually ends in -tion.


  • Before: “We made an application.”

  • After: “We applied . . .”

  • Before: “We made a determination.”

  • After: “We determined . . .”

  • Before: “We will make a distribution.”

  • After: “We will distribute . . .”

Why use personal pronouns
Why Use Personal Pronouns?

  • First, personal pronouns aid your reader’s comprehension because they make clear what applies to your reader and what applies to you.

  • Second, they allow you to “speak” directly to your reader, creating an appealing tone that will keep your reader reading.

Why use personal pronouns1
Why Use Personal Pronouns?

  • Third, they help you to avoid abstractions and to use more concrete and everyday language.

  • Fourth, they keep your sentences short.

  • Fifth, first- and second-person pronouns aren’t gender specific, allowing you to avoid the “he and she” dilemma. The pronouns to use are first person plural (we, us our) and second singular (you, yours).

Write much less abstractly
Write Much Less Abstractly

  • A Carnegie-Mellon study discovered that readers faced with complex written information frequently resorted to creating “scenarios” in an effort to understand the text. They often made an abstract concept understandable by using it in a hypothetical situation in which people performed actions.

Consider levels of abstraction carefully as you write






Common Stock

IBM “A” Common

Consider Levels of Abstraction Carefully as You Write

Write less abstractly
Write Less Abstractly

  • Before: “Sandyhill Basic Value Fund (the “Fund”) seeks capital appreciation and, secondarily, income by investing in securities, primarily equities, that management of the Fund believes are undervalued and, therefore, represent basic investment value.

Write less abstractly1
Write Less Abstractly

  • After: “At the Sandyhill Basic Value Fund, we will strive to increase the value of your shares (capital appreciation) and, to a lesser extent, to provide income (dividends). We will invest primarily in undervalued stocks, meaning those selling for low prices given the financial strength of the companies.”

Write less abstractly2
Write Less Abstractly

  • Before: No consideration or surrender of Beco Stock will be required of shareholders of Beco in return for the shares of Unis Common Stock issued pursuant to the Distribution.

  • After: You will not have to pay for or turn in your shares of Beco stock to receive your shares of Unis common stock from the spin-off.

Omit superfluous words

in accordance with

in the event that

subsequent to

prior to

despite the fact that

because of the fact

in light of

owing to the fact that

by, with





because, since

because, since

because, since

Omit Superfluous Words

Omit superfluous words1
Omit Superfluous Words

  • Before: “The following summary is intended only to highlight certain information contained elsewhere in this prospectus.”

  • After: “This summary highlights some information from this prospectus.”

Omit superfluous words2
Omit Superfluous Words

  • Before: Machine Industries and Great Tools, Inc... are each subject to the information requirements of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended (the “Exchange Act”) and in accordance therewith file reports prosy statement and other information with the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “Commission”)

Omit superfluous words3
Omit Superfluous Words

  • After: We file annual and special reports, proxy statement, and other information with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Write positively
Write “Positively”

  • Positive sentences are shorter and easier to understand than their negative counterparts.

  • Before: “Persons other than the primary beneficiary may not receive these dividends.”

  • After: “Only the primary beneficiary may receive these dividends.”

Write positively1

not able

not accept

not certain

not unlike

does not have

not many

not often

not the same

not . . . unless




similar, alike


excludes, omits




Write “Positively”

Use short sentences
Use Short Sentences

  • Before: “The following description encompasses all the material terms and provisions of the Notes offered hereby and supplements, and to the extent inconsistent therewith replaces, the description of the general terms and provisions of the Debt Securities (as defined in the accompanying Prospectus) set forth under the heading. . .”

Use short sentences1
Use Short Sentences

  • . . . “Description of Debt Securities” in the Prospectus, to which description reference is hereby made. The following description will apply to each Note unless otherwise specified in the applicable Pricing Supplement.”

Use short sentences2
Use Short Sentences

  • After: “We provide information to you about our Notes in three separate documents that progressively provide more detail: the Prospectus, the Prospectus Supplement, and the Pricing Supplement. Since the terms of specific notes may differ from the general information we have provided, in all cases rely on the information in the Pricing. . .”

Use short sentences3
Use Short Sentences

  • . . . Supplement over different information in the Prospectus and the Prospectus Supplement. And, rely on this Prospectus Supplement over any different information in the Prospectus.

Here s another option
Here’s Another Option

  • We provide information to you about our Notes in three separate documents:

  • Prospectus: general information that may or may not apply to each note.

  • Prospectus Supplement: more specific than the Prospectus, and to the extent information differs from the Prospectus, rely on the information in this document, and. . .

Another option
Another Option

  • Pricing Supplement: provides final details about a specific note, including its price. If information differs from the Prospectus or Prospectus Supplement, rely on the newer or more current information in this document.

Replace jargon and legalese with short common words
Replace Jargon and Legalese with Short, Common Words

  • Ruthlessly eliminate jargon and legalese. Instead, use short common words to get your points across. In those instances where there is no plain English alternative, explain what the term means when you first use it.

Replace jargon and legalese with short common words cont d
Replace Jargon and Legalese with Short, Common Words(cont’d)

If you’ve been around your industry for awhile, it may be hard to spot jargon and legalese in your writing. Ask someone from outside the industry to read your writing.

Choose the simpler synonym
Choose the Simpler Synonym

  • Surround complex ideas with short, common words. For example, use end instead of terminate; explain rather than elucidate, and use instead of utilize. As a rule of thumb, when a shorter, simpler synonym exists, use it.

Keep subject verb and object as close together as possible
Keep subject, verb, and object as close together as possible

  • The natural word order of English speakers is subject-verb-object.

  • Before: “Holders of the Class A and Class B-1 certificates will be entitled to receive on each Payment Date, to the extent monies are available therefor (but not more than the Class A Certificate Balance or Class B-1 Certificate Balance outstanding), a distribution.”

Keep subject verb and object as close together as possible1
Keep subject, verb, and object as close together as possible

  • After: “Class A and Class B-1 certificate holders will receive a distribution on each payment date if there is cash available on those dates for their class.”

Keep your sentence structure parallel
Keep Your Sentence Structure Parallel

  • Parallelism means ensuring a list or series of items is presented using parallel parts of speech: nouns, verbs, or adverbs.

  • Before: “We invest the Fund’s assets in short-term money market securities to provide you with liquidity, protection of your investment, and high current income.”

Keep your sentence structure parallel1
Keep Your Sentence Structure Parallel

  • That sentence was unparallel because the series is made up of two nouns and an adjective before the third noun.

  • After: “We invest in short-term money market securities to provide you with liquidity, to protect your investment, and to generate high current income.”