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Writing for a North American Business Audience

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Every country has its own set of rules and expectations about the ways to communicate in a business setting. In some countries, they may place less emphasis on written materials and more emphasis on verbal communication. However, in the United States, memos, letters, and emails are important and play a role in creating a person's business reputation.

This handout is designed to provide you with a few basic tips about North American business audiences along with some helpful hints on writing to this audience effectively. Some of the information and examples on this handout are taken from other sources that you may find helpful. The asterisks (*) mark sentences borrowed from other writers. You can find the bibliographic information at the end of the page.

The topics discussed in this handout are:

  • Getting to the point
  • Keeping it simple
  • Using passive and active voice
  • Using nondiscriminatory language
  • Over-generalizing verbs

Getting to the Point

The question "so what is your point" is very common with American audiences. In general, North Americans prefer to get a preview of the main ideas so that they know what to expect. Time is an important factor for U.S. business people because they do not have much of it. So it is important to state your purpose or "the bottom line" for writing at the beginning of your document.

Here is an example of a hidden main point where the writer is requesting employment verification*:

Dear Personnel Director:

On March 27, I received a phone call from Mrs. Karen Krane from New York, who was once a data entry clerk in your Ohio office. She was under the direct supervision of.....

As you can see, the above statement goes on several sentences and the writer still has not revealed his or her purpose. A busy personnel director might skip over this request and make it a last priority.

This is an example with the main point clearly stated:

Dear Personnel Director:

Would you verify the employment of Mrs. Karen Krane? She was a data entry clerk in your Ohio office (fill in the details) Sincerely,

Often times writers will place their main point at the bottom of their document because they are either delivering bad news or they are afraid their ideas will be rejected. But business writing experts warn against this style of writing. Bad news should always be delivered up front. Also remember that while you do not want to be too shy about delivering bad news, you also do not want to be too aggressive when you submit an idea or suggestion. For example, "We must hire a new secretary now" has an aggressive tone that your reader may not appreciate. Instead write something like, "I know that you do not think we should hire a new secretary now, but I really think we need to. Please let me explain my reasons."

Keeping It Simple

You may have heard your English instructors tell you not to worry yourself over complicated sentences and impressive words. Just use simple language to get your point across and you will have more success. Well, the same proves true for business writing. You might feel compelled to use bigger words or more complex sentences to build credibility with your audience.

The two primary reasons to avoid such tactics are:a) you might be perceived as a con artist or, b) your message might become confusing.

An example of using "impressive words":

Subsequent to the passage of the subject legislation, it is incumbent upon you to advise your organization to comply with it.*

An example using simple words:

After the law passes, you must tell your people to comply with it.*

The second passage is much easier to understand and it gets straight to the point. There is little room for misunderstanding with that statement.

Using Passive and Active Voice*

Passive voice has three basic characteristics:

  1. A form of the verb to be (is, am are, was, were, be, been, or being).
  2. A past participle (a verb ending in -ed or -en except irregular verbs like kept).
  3. A prepositional phrase beginning with by (though this is not always the case)

Here is a sentence using all three characteristics:

The meeting is being held by the human resources department.

Another sample of a passive sentence:

It was decided that the experiment would be conducted at noon.

Passive statements convey a clear message and in some cases (those without the prepositional phrase) are grammatically correct. But the problem is that writers often over use passive phrases.

A writer uses passive voice to purposefully leave out the actor or subject of the sentence in an effort to sound more diplomatic. Look at this example.

Active: "I decided that everyone must retake the exam."
Passive: "It has been decided that everyone must retake the exam."

The passive example takes the actor out of the sentence so that the audience cannot directly blame someone.

Author Edward Bailey offers a few suggestions on when to use passive voice. He says there are three instances to use it:

  • When you don't know the actor
  • When the actor is unimportant to the point you're making ("The Congressman was re-elected.")
  • When the emphasis is clearly not on the actor but on the acted upon ("What happened to the little girl? The little girl was rescued.")

If your purpose does not fall into one of three categories above then use active direct voice. But be careful not to be too direct. You would not want to tell an employer that he or she should hire you because "I am the best."

For more about active and passive voice, click here for a whole OWL handout devoted to it.

Using Nondiscriminatory Language

Nondiscriminatory language is language that treats all people equally. It does not use any discriminatory words, remarks, or ideas. It is very important that the business writer communicate in a way that expresses equality and respect for all individuals. It is the kind of language that can come between you and your reader. Make sure your writing is free of sexist language and free of bias based on such factors as race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, and disability.

  • Use neutral job titles.

    Not Good: Chairman
    Better: Chairperson

  • Avoid demeaning or stereotypical terms.

    Not Good: After the girls in the office receive an order, our office fills it within 24 hours
    Better: When orders are received from the office, they are filled within 24 hours

  • Avoid words and phrases that unnecessarily imply gender.

    Not Good: Executives and their wives
    Better: Executives and their spouses

  • Omit information about group membership

    Not Good: Connie Green performed the job well for her age.
    Better: Connie Green performed the job well

  • If you do not know a reader's gender, use a nonsexist salutation.

    Not Good: Dear Gentlemen:
    Better: Associate Director Chris Hammond:

  • Do not use masculine pronouns

    Not Good: Each student must provide his own lab jacket
    Better: Students must provide their own lab jackets. Or Each student must provide his or her own lab jacket.

For more about nondiscriminatory language, please see our OWL handout on nonsexist or appropriate language use.

Over-generalizing Verbs

Conjugating verbs poses a challenge for all speakers and writers of languages other than their native tongue. One feature that is found with ESL speakers is the tendency to over-generalize verbs with pronouns.

For example, when using the verb to try:

I try We try
You try They try
He/She/It try*

Notice the asterisk (*) next to He/She/It try. It is there because try should be conjugated to "He/She/It tries." Sometimes these small points are missed because when you read your paper aloud it may sound fine to you.

But note that there is a distinct difference between the way we talk and the way we write. When you are proofreading your document, try to be mindful of the verb variations. Unfortunately, there is no magic trick for overcoming this except for memorizing verbs. When you are in doubt, ask someone for help.

Notes and References

* Bailey, Edward P. The Plain English Approach to Business Writing. Oxford University Press: NY, 1990.
** Mark Dollar. "Basic Tips for ESL Students: Writing for an American Audience." Purdue OWL, 1999.