During a conversation with a colleague, I mentioned that my next blog was going to be on contractions. Most of her response I canât repeat, but basically she said that when she was growing up, her teachers drilled into her brain that she should never use contractions in her writings. They were too informal and sloppy, her teachers maintained.
Many people in my writing seminars tell me similar stories.
A contraction, according to the Gregg Reference Manual, a respected writing resource, is âa shortened form of a word or phrase in which an apostrophe indicates the omitted letters or words: for example, donât for do not.â
My response to my colleague and to the participants in my seminars is always the same: “Why can’t we use contractions? We use them when we speak, so why isn’t it okay to write with them?â
A primary goal of writing is to connect with your reader, and your choice of words helps to make that connection. There aren’t any non-verbal clues to help make your point when you email someone â the reader doesn’t see the smile on your face or hear the friendly tone of your voice. (Yes, I know there are emoticons, but I do not encourage their use in business writing.)
Using contractions helps you to convey a conversational tone. It makes the communication sound more personal and friendly, and less like a directive. Listen to the difference: âLet’s go to the conference on Monday,â or, âLet us go to the conference on Monday.â Donât you think the second version sounds rather stilted?
Here are my suggestions for using contractions successfully in business writing:
1. Think about your use of contractions. It may not be first on your list of business concerns, but the quality of your writing is important. Do you use contractions? One of my interns had the courage to point out to me that I used contractions a lot. I hadn’t realized just how much until she said something. I really valued that feedback.
2. Do not overuse them. Just because you can use contractions in your writing in today’s business world, doesn’t mean you should always use them. Read your documents out loud to hear how your use of contractions sounds. If your writings sound choppy, chances are you are using too many contractions.
3. Avoid excessively casual contractions. Some contractions sound sloppy. For example: “You’d” for “you would,” or âsheâsâ for âshe has.â I recommend not using them in business writing. And please, donât ever be tempted by double contractions, such as “shouldnâtâve” for “should not have.”
5. Understand the difference between it’s and its. A common mistake involves the difference between “it’s” â which is the contraction for “it is” â and the possessive “its.” The way to remember the difference between them is that the apostrophe in “it’s” means something is missing. If you arenât sure, read your sentence aloud and then substitute the non-contraction form (in this case, âit isâ) to see whether it still makes sense. (Itâs time to put the pencil in its case, for example. If you had an erroneous apostrophe in the second its, the sentence wouldnât make sense.) People often use the wrong form in their writings, and others love to point out their mistakes. Don’t give them the opportunity!
Your use of contractions may not seem like a big deal, but it is one of the many little things that can impact your writings, and therefore worthy of your attention. Additional information on business writing can be found in my book, The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes (McGraw Hill).
Pachter & Associates provides training and coaching on business writing and communication. For more information, contact Joyce Hoff at 856.751.6141 or email@example.com.
A mother said to her three-year-old daughter, âWhen you get a chance, can you please clean your room?â
The young girl responded, âMom, no, I’m not gonna get a chance.â
A colleague told me this story about her daughter, and after I stopped laughing, I had to tell her that she hadn’t used a little-recognized, yet powerful communication tool. Since she had hired me to teach assertiveness for her organization, I felt comfortable giving her this feedback.
Her stumbling block? My colleague had used a question instead of a direct assertive statement. Using a question (Can you please clean your room?) allows the other person to make the choice, and you may not get what you want. You are being less direct.
Using a direct statement, such as âSweetie, I want you to clean your room before lunch,â makes it very clear what you expect, and as a result you are more likely to get it. Of course, there are no guarantees with three-year-olds, but even with children, you have a better chance of getting what you want when you are direct.
This âsecretâ can also work in the workplace. Listen to the difference: âBoss, I would like to go to the conference next week,â versus âBoss, may I go to the conference?â Both are polite, but which one sounds more likely to give the speaker what she wants? The direct statement usually has more success.
Be cautious with the use of the word âtry,â if you want others to be accountable for their action or inaction. If you say to your employee, âPlease try to meet the deadline,â he or she can always say later, âWell, I tried, but something else came up.â
You can be polite and still use a straightforward statement, such as, âI need you to meet the deadline.â As mentioned above, when you are direct, you are more likely to get what you want.
Monitor yourself over the next few days. Is your word choice preventing you from getting what you want?
For additional tips on effective communication, check out my book, The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes.
Barbara Pachter provides training and coaching on communication and business etiquette. For more information, contact Joyce Hoff at 856.751.6141 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though unequal introductions may not be on the same level as eliminating sexual harassment or the gender pay-gap, they do constitute a communication concern with negative implications for women. Denying professionals the prestige that a title conveys is a subtle way of undermining them, even if it is unintentional.
Both men and women can benefit from the following suggestions about names and titles. They will help you to stop negatively influencing othersâ perceptions of women, even inadvertently. These tips also apply when you are writing emails.
1. Use a womanâs title. Some organizations are very informal with names, but if professional titles are typically used in your organization, refer to women by theirs, such as Dr. (Sally) Jones.
2. Be consistent with your use of titles. Use professional titles equally for both men and women. If you are mentioning a man by his title, such as Doctor Jones or Professor Smith, refer to a woman the same way. This is valid whether you are giving a speaker introduction, introducing someone to other people at the office or in social situations, or simply mentioning people in informal discussions.
3. Refer to friends and colleagues by their titles when in business settings. You may have a great relationship with Dr. Jones and use her first name when you are together. When you are with other people, however, you should refer to her by her title. You are recognizing her achievement in front of others. If you do not do this, you are establishing a norm that tells people itâs okay for them to call her by her first name. And that may not be the case. (This also applies to men.)
4. Be consistent with the honorific âMr.â and âMs.â This is similar to the second item. If you say or write, âMr. Williams,â do the same for the woman, âMs. Jones.â This conveys a level of respect for both parties. You do not want to say something like, âMr. Williams and Karen went to the meeting.â In an informal setting you might also use first names for both, such as âTom and Karen went to the meeting.â
5. Refer to women in the workplace as âwomen.â Businessmen arenât referred to as boys; businesswomen shouldnât be referred to as girls. The words âgirlsâ and âboysâ indicate children. I know, I know, you are going to say that itâs intended as a compliment, or itâs a way of expressing camaraderie, as in âgirlsâ night outâ or âthe girls I work with in the office.â But ultimately it fosters a less-professional image for women.
6. Do not refer to a woman by a nickname or shorter form of her first name âunless you are asked to do so. Children are often called by nicknames. And many shortened names do not have the same standing as full names. My name is Barbara. Do not call me âBarb,â and definitely not âBarbie.â This situation can be tricky. Sometimes people, especially high-power people, will use their nicknames to seem friendly and more approachable. Christine Todd Whitman, the first woman governor of New Jersey and former head of the EPA, will often refer to herself as Christie Whitman. (Her current website is www.christiewhitman.com.)
Men also can be influenced by shortened names. According to a story about basketball legend Michael Jordan on the CBS show 60 Minutes some years ago, he went from being called âMike Jordanâ to âMichael Jordanâ after he scored the winning basket in the 1982 NCAA championship game.
Start paying attention to your word choices. Though you may not be doing everything mentioned here, you may be surprised at how you refer to women. Additional information on communication can be found in my book, The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes.
About: Barbara Pachter is an internationally renowned business etiquette and communications speaker, coach and author of 11 business books. She helps individuals communicate more effectively and enhance their professional presence. (email@example.com)