Category Archives: CorporateSpeak

Can Contractions Go Too Far?

Yes, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Contractions exist to help written words sound the way we talk because we do not pronounce every letter in every word as if we are robots.

Instead, we drop letters and slide words together, and contractions depict that. But they can get weird if you try to follow speech too closely.

Such as when positive “would’ve” — would have — becomes negative “would’nt’ve” — would not have.

The same goes for for “could’ve” or “should’ve.” Sometimes you see these three expressions as “coulda, shoulda, woulda,” and they mean the exactly same thing. But in business writing I’d never advise turning a standard “could have” into a slangy “coulda.”

Nonstandard English is best confined to dialogue in creative writing where you’re trying to make a character’s speech distinctive. It’s extremely difficult to do well.

One common, simple contraction is “there’s,” but it’s tricky. It means “there is” and it’s singular. However, it’s often used with plural subjects because the contraction for “there are” would be “there’re,” which looks strange and is even hard to pronounce.

There’s people who aren’t going to agree with me about contractions.

Translation: There is people who are not going to agree with me about contractions.

Would you say that? No, I wouldn’t either. So let’s not write it.

On the other hand, we do have “you’re” for “you are.” Go figure. English is so quirky.

We should avoid some contractions simply because they don’t look good written, even if we often say them. One example is “that’ll” — that will — even though Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison used it with great success in a song: “That’ll Be the Day.”

Then there’s “there’ll” — there will — which sends my eyes and ears over the edge.

Conversely, a contraction sometimes doesn’t go far enough. such as on this license plate:

Apostrophe-VaLicensePlate

There’s no such word in English as “dont.” Microsoft Word won’t even let me type it that way without automatically inserting the apostrophe.

When at work, as long as you confine contractions to two words and put an apostrophe where letters are omitted, consider yourself on solid ground.

What’s Wrong with Contractions in Business Writing?

The short answer is, absolutely nothing. But in my workshops, someone almost always asks, “Aren’t contractions forbidden in business writing?”

Recently, a client converted a print newsletter to online-only and banned contractions in all feature articles from the executive team and those by HQ on benefits and personnel matters.

Such pieces are typically dry even on a good day, so making their tone even stiffer and more formal — to be read on the easy, breezy Internet, no less — leaves me shaking my head.

Do you remember Data, the android on Star Trek: Next Generation? One of his biggest regrets was that he hadn’t been programmed for contractions, because he thought they’d make him sound more human.

When you eliminate all contractions from your writing, you sound like Data.

“We are happy to announce a new benefit that is most requested; you will be allowed to work from home on Fridays.”

“We are sorry for issues you have had with our website. It is our pleasure to make sure you receive service that is reliable.”

Simple contractions such as it’s and that’s definitely have a place in business writing. Just “listen” as you write and sprinkle contractions in where you would use them in conversation.

My only caution is to be careful if your readers speak English as a second language. In that case, you would want to keep the wording clean and simple to aid comprehension.

Coming up: Can you take contractions too far?

Capitalization: An Overused Way to Show Respect

Many businesses embrace the AP Stylebook as their writing guide, but the relationship often breaks down over capitalization. AP is firmly minimalist, where corporate America believes you can’t have enough of a good uppercase thing.

Years ago, I worked for a mortgage company whose voluminous customer correspondence capped every word related to the business, such as Mortgage, Deed, Escrow, and many others. The letters looked downright biblical.

Many companies deify their buildings, such as Headquarters, the Home Office, and the Midwest Branch. But where does that leave the warehouse?

And when it comes to people, it’s Caps Gone Wild. AP says no caps on job titles used without a name or following a name (John Smith, manager of operations), including the president of the United States.

But business writers cap them all: the President, the Board of Directors, the Rapid Response Team, the Christmas Party Committee.

When forced to reason why, they usually come up with, “To show respect.”

Well, no, no it doesn’t. Instead, it creates a silly slippery slope that leaves anybody in lowercase feeling slighted or undervalued.

Rampant capitalization can actually sabotage your message. Readers think capped words have more importance because you drew attention to them, so it’s easy to emphasize the wrong things.

For example, the target audience may fail to feel the love from this heartfelt statement you might find in a corporate brochure or website copy:

The customer is the primary focus of every Teammate in our Company.

What comes through to me is a self-centered organization paying lip service to customer service.

(On a side note, yes, companies will devise capitalized euphemisms for their workers because “employee” has somehow become a four-letter word. They think it’s a way to show respect. But that’s another post.)

Here are other examples:

Our Goal for our Products and Services is total customer satisfaction.

The Board of Directors at its Annual Meeting took comments from shareholders.

Companies who rely on caps to pump themselves up become the boorish windbag everybody avoids at the party. In addition, they convey grammatical ineptitude.

So what do you do? AP and common sense generally dictate lowercase on all words except:

  • proper names and places
  • trademarked product names
  • job titles immediately preceding a person’s name (Director of Marketing Mary Jones, President Thomas Jefferson)

It requires no guesswork, it’s easy to remember, and your Shift keys will thank you for the much-needed rest.

How to Kill Your Corporate Newsletter

One sure way to make a corporate newsletter thrive is to place its focus on employees. They will read it, they will contribute to it, and they will believe that management cares about communicating with them.

I once had a client with such a newsletter. It was a delight to edit because employees across the country submitted stories about their accomplishments and events, complete with photos. It was a great recruiting tool, truthfully portraying the company as a fun, participative workplace.

But then control of the newsletter shifted from marketing to human resources, where the HR head was a political animal who saw everything as an opportunity for personal career advancement. Under this person’s direction, the newsletter withered.

If you’ve got a pesky publication you’d like to kill, you can follow this company’s recipe for disaster:

  • When the submission deadline nears, send a vaguely threatening reminder to potential contributors, with wording like, “This is strictly a friendly reminder that we’re expecting your articles.” (The “or else” may be implied.)
  • Keep stories of employees winning awards and hosting successful events off the front page. Instead, lead every issue with a formal essay on some aspect of the company’s finances—a real wall of words with long paragraphs and no subheads to break things up. Attach a highly placed exec’s byline and headshot to give it credibility, whether he/she actually wrote the piece or not.
  • Forbid the professional editor you’ve hired to improve the front-page story’s readability or make it consistent with the publication’s more conversational style. The executive authors may come off looking long-winded, grammatically inept, and prone to redundancy, but their every word is golden.
  • Decree that any article mentioning the company president must appear no later than page 2, even if the article falls neatly into an established section for such news. The president should never be forced to mingle with the peons, even on paper.
  • As employees disengage and submissions dwindle, fill the void with boilerplate about safety, customer service, ethics, whatever top-down lectures you can cobble from the Internet. Nothing livens up a publication more than recycled generic content. And the longer it is, the deadlier.
  • If the publication is print, move it online, but maintain the print format so readers may have to scroll and jump around a lot to follow stories. Bonus points if the original format was an oversized page — they’ll have to zoom, too.

Before long, your newsletter will shrink like a contestant on Biggest Loser. But the biggest loser will be YOU. You will have stifled employee engagement and killed one of your most effective channels for communicating with employees in a painlessly entertaining way, while earning their goodwill.