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Parenthetical phrases come in many stripes: the whispered aside, the not-so-brief digression, the explanatory remark, the wacky tangent. And, despite their moniker, they can be punctuated with commas, dashes, or parentheses, depending on their importance within the larger sentence. One thing is true of nearly all parentheticals, however: they are interruptions.

In speech, we interrupt our own utterances all day long, and our friends and colleagues keep pace easily. We skillfully and unconsciously augment what we’re saying with gestures, facial expressions, changes in pitch and tone of voice — all to help keep what we’re saying on track. Thanks to nonverbal and paraverbal cues like these, we can drop a parenthetical phrase just about anywhere in a spoken sentence, and whoever’s listening will follow along just fine.

In written English, of course, we don’t have such tools at our disposal. Our readers are stuck with just the words on the page and a few punctuation marks. That’s why it’s important to place parentheticals carefully, where they will cause the least disruption possible.

Take the following statement, for example:

Too few young women are entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers.

Spelling out what the acronym stands for is critical to understanding the sentence here, so the parenthetical phrase is important. But inserting it between the noun careers and its modifier is pretty awkward, and forces the reader to do some mental backtracking to piece the clause together. That’s a problem.

In most cases, the solution is pretty simple: examine the sentence’s structure and move the parenthetical to a place where a pause feels more natural. This is usually the end of the phrase or clause:

Too few young women are entering the STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, math).

Too few young women are entering the STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Poorly placed parentheticals crop up often in the writing I read. Business writers are usually trying to help explain or define some other element in the sentence. But they seem to get distracted by the relationship between the inserted material and the rest of the sentence — so much so that they end up using parentheses like wedges, cramming these phrases into awkward spots and, in the process, creating syntactic structures that are remarkably convoluted.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The bigger lesson here? I’ve said it before: trust your readers. They have undoubtedly encountered parenthetical phrases before, so give them some credit to connect the dots. Better yet, help them out by incorporating your parentheticals judiciously.

One last note, since our example features an acronym: For the love of Strunk and White, never, ever, do something like this:

Too few young women are entering the STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Again, have confidence that your readers can figure out what the acronym stands for without your resorting to such blatant typographic disrespect. Deal?

Let’s be honest. Despite the many jeremiads written about the PowerPoint-ization of the content we encounter — some of them well-deserved — when it comes to writing for business, the bulleted list is here to stay. Yes, a list often serves as a poor substitute for a series of connected thoughts. Used carefully, however, a list can be a smart way to communicate information quickly. (Of course, the items in the list should be succinct and parallel, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

Whether you’re stacking your items next to typographical glyphs or stringing them out in running text, here’s something to consider: How do you introduce your list? My teachers and textbooks always seemed to recommend a phrase like as follows or the following, plus what’s sometimes regarded as the Vanna White of punctuation marks, the colon. In general, this isn’t bad advice. But sometimes there are more artful ways to accomplish the task.

Take a look at the following excerpt from a business pitch deck. (As usual, some nouns and verbs have been altered to protect the unenlightened.)

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, these elements will guide where the company is headed. These elements include:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

Conscientious writers are always creating lines like these to set up a list — sometimes even adding the following for extra credit. The problem here is that we have three sentences, each of which points forward to the bulleted items. By the time we reach the word include, it’s as though we’ve read three separate introductions for the list. This paragraph is begging for a little tightening work, don’t you think?

Okay. For starters, the final sentence is entirely superfluous. In fact, this is a pretty common verbal tic for writers, thanks to our overzealous English instructors. Despite what you might have learned in middle school, you often don’t need a line that explicitly states “the elements are as follows.” As it turns out, our friend the colon is not just a Vanna White, pointing out what’s already obvious (apologies to Ms. White). In fact, the colon can communicate this connection — it can, on its own, say something like “and here they are”:

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, these elements will guide where the company is headed:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

Now to tighten the introductory copy further . . .

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, they guide where the company is headed:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

And further . . .

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform each other and together guide where the company is headed:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

For my money, this is a great place to land. We’ve ended up with an intro that’s much more succinct and a colon whose use might even qualify as elegant. (You be the judge.)

And here’s one final thought: When the items in the list are short, like these, consider whether the bullets are necessary at all. You may find that the list works just as well run back into the paragraph:

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform each other and together guide where the company is headed: mission, vision, values, and objectives.

The larger lesson here? Trust your readers and their intelligence. Whether you’re writing a case study or a crime story, you’re always building an unspoken relationship with an audience. Using subtler cues can not only make your writing tighter; it can foster a better relationship with your readers, which is bound to make them more receptive to what you’re saying.

Precise writing is hard to come by some days. We editors do our part to promote precision, diagnosing and treating maladies like adverb-itis and waffle syndrome. (See also: Make a compelling statement! Plant a stake in the ground! Say something without hedging!) But sometimes, a writer can’t be exact and needs to do a little approximating, like in this example:

Among those who qualify, about 20 to 40 percent advance to the second round.

Writers have many tools for approximation. Using a word like about or approximately is one common technique; quoting a range of figures (as in “x to y percent”) is another. But using both, as the writer has done here — especially with an already wide range of percentages — feels downright vague. When I read something like this, the writer’s credibility takes a small hit, leaving me to wonder, “Really? You couldn’t narrow it down further?”

Thankfully, the options for correcting such a problem are numerous. Here are a few ideas, depending on the data the writer has access to:

Among those who qualify, 20 to 40 percent advance to the second round.

Among those who qualify, between 20 and 40 percent advance to the second round.

Among those who qualify, about 35 percent advance to the second round.

Among those who qualify, about one third advance to the second round.

I’ll get back to writing with precision in future posts. In the meantime, keep an eye out for writing that approximates, and make sure your own examples are as tight as they can be.

Here’s one that’s quick and easy.

I’ve heard the term end result a good bit during my years in the marketing industry. And I bet you have too, no matter where you work. It’s an expression that has made its way into business parlance, and from there into everyday English. No one seems to talk about a result anymore; it’s always an end result.

Now, I suspect the phrase was originally coined with good reason: to differentiate a final outcome from preliminary results. Perhaps the term still is quite useful in some industries — say, health care, where such a distinction can be critical.

But when I see it used in the business world, 99 percent of the time, no such nuance is at work. (I’d stake my salary on that percentage.) Instead, it’s just a redundant phrase — a tautology, if you’re into fancier Greek-type words.

So what’s the allure? Why waste your breath on the extra syllable? I’m fascinated by that question, actually. And I think that it may be related to the culture of the corporate cubicle farm.* Stick with me for a second.

We all use language daily to communicate on several levels. Sure, there are the literal words we’re speaking or writing, but the message we’re trying to convey is often more complicated. Consider the last time you heard, “Well, that’s just great” delivered with biting sarcasm, and you’ll see what I mean.

In the workplace (and elsewhere), we often choose language in the hope of telegraphing ideas about ourselves — messages like “I’m intelligent” or “I’m valuable” that make us look better. Granted, this isn’t unique to corporate environments, but it seems a little more prevalent in that atmosphere, where the stereotypical dynamic can be downright cutthroat.

So when someone writes, “These advertising strategies are customer-centric,” maybe she’s unconsciously trying to sound savvy. When someone says, “What’s the end result of this scenario?” — using two words, not one, that mean “outcome” — maybe he’s hoping others see him as a no-nonsense guy who cuts to the chase.

It’s just a theory.

And in case you haven’t figured out how to tighten up the phrase end result, the fix is simple. Use your delete key to get rid of the word end.


*Disclosure: I haven’t worked in a cubicle since the late ’90s, and I’m grateful for that. But I’ve encountered many cubicle dwellers since then, and I still think I might be on to something.

Sometimes it’s the littlest things that elevate your writing. Take the word oftentimes: an upstanding member of the English language since the 14th century.

But when it crops up in business writing, I have yet to find a case where replacing it with often doesn’t improve the sentence — if only slightly. Take for example the following line, cribbed from some marketing copy I encountered on the job:

However, oftentimes, these women don’t know what CXX even does.

First, this shows that writers like to “front” the word oftentimes in a sentence — and there’s nothing wrong with that in principle. But rhythm is important, even in professional prose, and dropping that one syllable would make this roll a little easier. (That’s because oftentimes has a metrical pattern called an dactyl. Yes, I’m also a poetry geek.)

However, often, these women don’t know what CXX even does.

Even more important, though: here we already have a sentence opener in however. Doubling up means two commas, and two pauses, which slows things down even further. Better to move the adverb often further in, closer to the verb it modifies. This gets the sentence moving quicker and tightens things up overall.

However, these women often don’t know what CXX even does.

For the bonus round: I’d move even as well, placing it so that it clearly modifies the verb know (instead of does). This better reflects what the writer probably intended anyway. It’s a fine point, but then, we are talking about the little things here, right?

However, these women often don’t even know what CXX does.

So remember: save oftentimes for more casual or poetic writing, and when you see it at work, take 50 percent off. It’s a minor savings, but hey — these things add up.

When it comes to writing, I’ll never argue that using fewer words is automatically better. But in most professional writing — and particularly in the marketing industry, where I work — it’s important to make every word count. That’s what I like to call writing tight.*

So consider the following phrases, temporal expressions that I encounter consistently:

on a daily basis
on a weekly basis
on a consistent basis
on a regular basis
on an occasional basis
on an intermittent basis

The trouble? Look closely, and you’ll see that these phrases are just adverbs dressed in extra clothes. My advice is to strip down a construction like this so that its “-ly” is showing.

on a daily basis → daily
on a weekly basis → weekly
on a consistent basis → consistently
on a regular basis → regularly
on an occasional basis → occasionally
on an intermittent basis → intermittently

Occasionally, I run across an example that sounds a little more bizarre:

The committee meets only on an as-needed basis.

The version below is shorter, yes — but also easier to read. Wouldn’t you agree?

The committee meets only as needed.

*(Note to pedantic grammarians: tight and tightly are both valid adverbs.)


June 2017
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