16 Frequently Asked Business Writing Questions

1.  When are “state” and “federal” capitalized?  State and federal are capitalized when part of a proper name such as the name of a federal agency or act, etc. (for example Federal Reserve Bank but federal, state, and local laws).  The terms federal government and government (referring specifically to the United States government) are now commonly written in small letters.  In government documents, however, and in other types of communications where these terms are intended to have the force of an official name, they are capitalized. 

2.  How are “I,” “me,” and “myself” used?  Use I as a subject [Louise and I submitted our reports yesterday.] and after than in comparisons or with understood verbs [She is a faster typist than I (am).].  Use me as an object of a verb [Please put Lila and me on the expense account.] and as the object of a preposition [David assigned the project to Sam and me.].  Use myself when I has already been used as the subject—intensively [I, myself, will handle this.] or reflexively [I hurt myself playing tennis.]. 

3.  What is the difference between “than” and “then”?  Than is a conjunction used in comparisons; then (which rhymes with when) is an adverb indicating time [He is older than I am.  I will see you at dinner and return your book then.].

4.  Why shouldn’t sentences begin with “It is” or “It is important to note that”?  Meaningless openers weaken the power of a sentence.  Readers look to the beginning of sentences—the subject position—for key ideas and to the verb position for key actions.  Therefore, eliminate weak openings such as It is and There are and meaningless introductory phrases such as It is important to note that.

5.  May a business writer begin a sentence with “because”?  Many writers remember learning the rule, “A group of words that begins with because is not a complete sentence.”  That is, “Because of increased account activity” is not a sentence.  However, that rule does not mean “Do not begin a sentence with because.”  For example, the following is a correct sentence: “Because of increased account activity, we have hired an additional customer service specialist.”  Writers may begin a sentence with because.  In fact, doing so allows them to use the very persuasive “Sell and then tell” sentence pattern in which reasons and benefits are presented at the beginning of the sentence.

6.  When is the semicolon used?  Use semicolons sparingly in business writing.  Wherever possible, to prevent too-long sentences, turn a semicolon into a period, and use two separate sentences.  With that qualification in mind, use a semicolon to join:

  • Two closely related sentences not already joined by a conjunction such as and or but.  [Some employees have not taken their vacation days; some have not taken their personal days.]
  • Two independent clauses when the second begins with a conjunctive adverb such as however, otherwise, or therefore.  [Monday is a holiday; therefore, my bank will be closed.]
  • Items in a series when one or more of the items include commas.  [The project manager, Ann Davies; the lead engineer, Sue Black; and the technical consultant, Bob Smith, attended the meeting.]

 7.  When is a comma used before “and”?

  • Use a comma when you use a coordinating conjunction (for example, and, but, or) to join closely related sentences.  [The largest conference rooms are in Building A, and Marty Wood is your contact to make a reservation.]
  • A comma is optional, but recommended for clarity’s sake, with and before the last item in a series.  A series is a list of three or more items.  [Please ship us six boxes of paper clips, two boxes of file folders, and the new order forms.]

8.  Is “staff” singular or plural?  Staff, a collective noun like committee and team, denotes a group of people.  Whether it takes a singular or plural verb depends upon whether staff refers to the group as a unit or to its members as individuals.  [The staff is meeting to review safety procedures.  The staff are specialists, recruited from all over the world.]

9.  What’s the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”?  The abbreviation e.g. (exempli gratia) means for example; the abbreviation i.e. (id est) means that is.  Do not use these terms interchangeably.  The sentence “Use only company-approved shipping vendors, e.g., Star Shipping and Guaranteed Overnight Delivery” provides two examples of acceptable shippers; there are others.  “Use only company-approved shipping vendors, i.e., Star Shipping and Guaranteed Overnight Delivery” limits the reader to using only the two shippers mentioned.  Because many readers do not know the difference between e.g. and i.e., prefer the English words to the Latin abbreviations.       

10. Why should writers proofread their documents when they can use computer spelling and grammar checkers?  Spelling and grammar checkers alert writers to many errors, but some errors still slip through.  For example, a typographical error may produce a new word that is grammatically correct in its context, but that changes a sentence’s meaning.  For example, in the sentences that follow, can you spot the error that slipped by the computer spelling and grammar checker?

The Post Office has changed its operating hours to better serve the community.  The window will not be open from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 6:30 a.m. until 11:30 a.m., Saturday.   

Did you spot the “not” that should be “now”?  In these same sentences, the writer should also double-check the numbers to make sure that the times are accurate.  Transposed numbers are a common error that slips through spelling and grammar checkers.

11.  Can “that” be deleted in sentences such as “I believe that the information is unreliable” or “I believe that he would make a good manager”?  That is optional when used as a conjunction introducing or signaling a noun clause.  But use the following distinctions to ensure immediately understandable sentences:

  • Use that when sentence syntax could cause readers to misread a sentence and have to backtrack.  For example, consider the sentence “I believe the information is unreliable.”  With no that, readers might read “I believe the information . . . ,” which would suggest one meaning and simple sentence structure. Then reading “is,” they would have to adjust their understanding of the meaning and sentence structure.  Their original understanding of the sentence (“I believe the information”) would be the opposite of their final understanding (“The information is unreliable”).  On the other hand, if the sentence read “I believe that the information is unreliable,” that would signal sentence structure and prepare readers for the noun clause “the information is unreliable.”  Readers could grasp sentence meaning in one smooth reading.
  • That is optional when used as a conjunction introducing or signaling a noun clause when the noun clause begins with a personal pronoun (for example, I, you, he, she, we, they) or a proper name (for example, Susan or Michael).  Therefore, you could write “I believe that he would make a good manager” or  “I believe he would make a good manager.”

12.  Must tense be consistent in sentences and documents?  Many writers remember the rule “Do not change from one tense to another,” but leave out an important word.  The rule is “Do not change unnecessarily from one tense to another.”  All actions that occur at the same time must be expressed with the same tense.  When you change time, change tense.  For example, the sentence “He indicated (past tense) that he would fly (future tense) to Atlanta” is correct.

13.  In a list, what is the difference between using numbers and using bullets? 

  • Numbers are used to indicate priority or sequence, to allow reference, to increase memorability, and to provide an at-a-glance count of the listed items.  An all-numeric (rather than an alpha-numeric) numbering system is preferred for listed procedures.
  • Bullets are neutral, suggesting that the listed items are related, but of fairly equal value.  Cognitive experts have found that readers can comfortably grasp five to seven bulleted items.

14.  In a list, must there always be a “two” for every “one”?   Must there always be more than one bulleted item?  Use the “a-‘two-for-every-‘one’” tenet to check that your list hierarchy correctly indicates the relative importance and relationship of ideas and that you have appropriately provided complete content for each listed item—rather than as an inflexible rule.  For example, there may be only one remaining open item under one topic in a project action list, while other topics may have several remaining open items.  Each open item could be bulleted or numbered for reference.

15.  What is the difference between an abstract, an executive summary, and a letter or email of transmittal?

  • Abstract and executive summary are used interchangeably to mean a brief, integrated overview of a business investigation, situation, task, or proposal.  Both can summarize a document and serve as the basis for an oral briefing.  Both are used at the beginning of a document, on the same page as the discussion that follows or in a separate document section or even separate volume (as in a lengthy proposal).  An abstract or executive summary does not include content beyond the scope of its document.
  • Abstract can also be used to mean a brief integrated preview or overview of a formal paper, submitted as a stand-alone document, often published in a list of papers for a formal professional conference or on a web page to attract a listening or reading audience to the more detailed oral presentation or white paper.
  • A letter or email of transmittal accompanies, introduces, and highlights, but is not a permanent part of the document being transmitted.  Therefore, different letters or email of transmittal for the same document can be used for readers with varying concerns.  A transmittal letter or email may recommend action and go beyond the scope of the transmitted document.

16.  What is the difference between writing “rules” and “writing style”?  Both rules and style change with time and vary depending upon many factors.  The following distinctions may be helpful.  In general, effective writers keep current their knowledge of writing rules and make sure that their writing style is appropriate for their audience and situation.

  • A writing rule is a guideline based upon prevalent and generally accepted writing standards—that is, the approach taken by the majority of educated writers.  There are writing rules for punctuation, spelling, usage, grammar, and sentence structure.  Writing rules are provided in textbooks such as Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writers and in the usage notes and basic manuals of style of dictionaries such as The Random House Dictionary of the English Language.
  • Writing style is an approach to word choice and content presentation reflecting many factors including the genre, branch of learning, culture, situation, topic, etc., one is writing in, for, or about.  For example, the writing styles of mystery novels, legal contracts, email from an American to a Korean colleague, motivational articles, scientific white papers, letters of condolence, and product evaluations are very different.  Writing style may also reflect the preferred communication approach of the writer or that of the reader.  For example, some writers prefer getting to the point by presenting facts with little “fluff”; some writers may write for readers who prefer information presented in bullet points or for those who prefer it presented in Excel spreadsheets.  Writing styles for considerations such as capitalization, hyphenation, presentation of numbers, and word usage are based upon conventions followed by a particular group such as journalists, engineers, or members of the American Medical Association.  Writing styles are presented in manuals such as the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, the United States Government Printing Office Style Manual, and The Chicago Manual of Style.


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