English Grammar 101 for Business Writing
English grammar for business writing is actually a bit easier than grammar for other types of writing. Business writing in English relies on short, clear, direct sentences. It prioritizes clarity over sophistication, and this means easier grammar.
Here are six key suggestions to improve your business English grammar for writing and enhance communication skills as you write to business professionals.
1. Use simple verb structures
To really succeed in business English, you only need to know six tenses:
With these six tenses, you can describe what you have done in the past, what you are doing NOW, and how all of that will impact the future.
Avoid future perfect continuous, for example, even though it looks and sounds fancy because it is hard to use correctly and hard for anyone to understand (I have to construct a little mental image in my head to figure out what these sentences mean regarding time, and I teach this stuff!). Stick to the six straightforward, simple verb tenses in order to convey your message clearly, directly, and succinctly.
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2. Use the active voice
Business writing leans heavily on the active voice because it is shorter, clearer, and easier to understand. Because business communication prioritizes clarity over sophistication, the active voice is preferred. The passive voice is a longer, denser verb structure in which the subject of the sentence is receiving the action, not doing it.
Here are some examples:
John delivered the report to Brenda.
This sentence is in the ACTIVE voice. John is the subject of the sentence, and he is doing the action (delivered).
The report was delivered to Brenda by John.
This sentence is in the PASSIVE voice. The subject of the sentence is “the report”, and it’s not doing anything - it’s receiving the action. It means the exact same as the active sentence above, but the focus is on the report (which, again, didn’t do anything here). This construction is also longer and much more difficult to understand.
Brenda received the report from John.
This sentence is ACTIVE voice. The subject, Brenda, is still doing the action (received). If you need to put the focus on Brenda, this is a good way to do it.
The report was received by Brenda from John.
This sentence is PASSIVE voice, and it’s atrocious. It’s long, complicated, has too many prepositions, and it’s difficult to understand exactly who did what because the subject, the report, is, again, not doing the action.
There are times when the passive voice is more effective. Outside of those, be sure that you are using the active voice because it is clearer, more direct, and much easier to understand by native and non-native speakers alike.
3. Avoid adverbs (and choose stronger verbs)
I’m the first to admit that I love adverbs. Look at this sentence from the first section, “Stick to the six straightforward, simple verb tenses in order to convey your message clearly, directly, and succinctly.” I emphasized the adverbs here to show you what they are, but I’ll explain a bit more.
Adverbs can be used in three ways:
- To describe a verb - She talks loudly during meetings. (Loudly describes talks)
- To describe an adjective - Her voice is very loud. (Very describes loud)
- To describe another adverb - She talks very loudly during meetings. (Very describes loudly).
In all of these examples, it would be better to choose a stronger verb. For example, shout, yell, screech, shriek, holler, and squawk are all more descriptive and give you a fuller picture of how exactly she talks during meetings.
All of our courses, including Business Writing Techniques for Non-Native English Writers, have a lesson on strong business verb usage because it is such a key business English grammar skill for all business writers.
4. Keep your sentences short
Short, complete sentences are easy to understand. It may be cliché, but in business, time is money. You don’t want your readers to waste time trying to understand your formal writing because the sentences are long and complex. Instead, use short, direct sentences to make your point. Here’s a specific example:
John needs to prepare the executive summary, and Xian needs to prepare the presentation materials.
This is one long sentence that could easily be split into two by removing the “, and” structure. Doing this will not only make it easier to understand but will also make it sound more confident.
John needs to prepare the executive summary. Xian needs to prepare the presentation materials.
After you write your document, read it again and split any sentences you can. You should do this for ANY document - email, report, letter, memo, or proposal. Short, direct sentences are clearer, more confident, and easier to understand for all readers.
5. Be careful with these common gerund mistakes
There are a lot of common business phrases that require the proper use of gerunds. These are:
- To be looking forward to + gerund
- To be responsible for + gerund
- To be committed to + gerund
- To be interested in + gerund
- To prevent (someone or something) from + gerund
Each of these phrases or expressions ends in a preposition (in, to, for, from), and prepositions MUST be followed by a noun. Gerunds, the verb-ing form, can act as nouns. So these phrases would be:
I am looking forward to meeting you on Sunday.
John is responsible for scheduling all of the team meetings.
We’d be interested in learning more about your new product.
Our team needs to prevent our competitor from securing that contract.
Using to + a gerund can feel very awkward, but when to is used as a preposition, as in these phrases, it must be followed by a gerund.
6. Use tools to help improve your English grammar for business writing
Here are four tools to help you as you improve your English grammar for business writing:
- Hemingwayapp.com - This web-based app will help you write short, clear, direct sentences (like Hemingway). It will also help you to avoid adverbs and reduce your use of the passive voice. This video explains more.
- Microsoft Editor - This is built into Microsoft Word both in the desktop app and in Office 365 (since 2019). It offers feedback on grammar mistakes, spelling, punctuation, clarity, professionalism, and more. I love this tool and use it for anything that I write in Word. This link provides the download for Chrome or Edge.
- Grammarly - This is an extension (and a website into which you can upload documents) that will grammar check everything you wrote online. Like the Microsoft Editor, it offers feedback on grammatical errors, spelling errors, punctuation errors, clarity, professionalism, and more. This tool is fantastic, and I use it to check my email, social media posts, and anything I do on Google. It also offers a tone check tool for your email tone (friendly, professional, stern, etc.)
- Word Tune - This is a fantastic Chrome extension that uses AI technology to provide sentence re-work suggestions. It will also catch some grammar issues. This is a really nice tool for non-native speakers of English because the suggestions it provides are to make you sound more natural. Because they are so similar yet so different, this video explains the difference between Grammarly and Word Tune.
Writing is a skill that needs attention and practice to get better. It’s also a communication skill that can be honed with input from others.
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