Category archive - Business/Formal Writing

Emails of complaint

Emails of complaint

1322466000_now_to_be_br-7In one of the writing courses, we’ve been dealing with email of complaint, a skill B2-level writers should be able to handle, but that we have to teach and grade at high-C1 for our teacher trainers as they learn the ropes of using grammars of politeness and how to complain in an English-speaking world.

Grammars of politeness and ways of softening a message include (not limited to)

– using modals,

– words like ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’ when suggesting a solution

– modals with questions and -ing forms (‘could it be worth considering’),

– superlatives in the positives (‘a truly wonderful week’) and

– played-down phrases (‘could have been better’ instead of ‘were really/very bad’ and substituting ‘very’ and ‘really’ for ‘a bit’, ‘somewhat’, ‘something of a …’, ‘a trifle’ in the complaint section of the writing

Sandwiching is also very important — start every sentence positively and put the complaint in the latter part of the sentence, then suggested solutions either as a new sentence or as another clause in what would then be a very long compound-complex sentence. Without sandwiching, a complaint becomes a rant and is unlikely to get a positive response.

We don’t get them writing limited business-to-business stuff, but encourage them to use a bit more story with a range of sentence patterns, so they can meet C1 criteria. It is a fine line we tread, especially as many of the examples we’ve found in textbooks lack the complexity required of a higher-level writer, and companies rarely publish emails of complaint.

After receiving some fairly aggressively written emails of complaint, we tried to work out what we had done wrong in our teaching. And, actually, it turned out that the Austrian students simply don’t believe that English speakers complain like this and that we are as direct as they are. We’re don’t and we’re not (a brief piece about how to be polite and complain at the same time, and another in GQ). 

I decided to model an example — with 20 students, so it is somewhat clumsy at times — one that would make use of the grammars and expressions of politeness and push the students to use the idiomatic phrases expected of a C1 writer, but I am interested in your opinions, Internet world. Do you think this is an excessively polite piece of writing (bare in mind we HAVE to have some of the more convoluted sentence patterns in there to fulfil the grading criteria)?

What do you think needs to be added and removed to make it a shining example of an email of complaint?

Subject: Feedback on KCSS

Dear Sir or Madam,

For the last four weeks, I’ve had the time of my life at KCSS. After arriving in LA, with its amazing weather (so different from home), we were whisked to a truly welcoming welcome party where we met people who would turn out to be best friends forever.

As the summer got under way, getting to know each other better took place, often, at the sports field, with its vast range of equipment; I met Charlie, for example, as we rummaged through the tennis store looking for a racket, but it turned out that many of them could have been in better condition. We decided to play football instead, but it might be worth considering checking through the store a little more regularly to make sure the equipment is in good shape.

Exhausted from our exertions, we headed back to camp, eager to dive into the buffet awaiting us: a table groaning under the weight of burgers, fries, hot dogs, pizza and all manner of wonderfully American fare, fare which was possibly a little on the salty and fatty side for some of the other campers, who spent quite a bit of time running back and forth to the toilet. Maybe, when cooking for such a large group, some of whom have specific dietary needs, you might think about cutting back on the salt and fat a bit/ offer a little more variety of dishes, maybe a few more vegetarian options.

I really did have a superb trip and would love to come back next year with friends, so I would be very grateful if you could consider my suggestions for future years, and, possibly, think about some sort of remuneration/compensation, maybe in form of a discount or voucher for next year.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Kind regards/ Best wishes/ Best regards,

Ann Example


Breaking the Passive Habit

Breaking the Passive Habit

There are five good reasons for using the passive, aside from those, using the active is by far the more preferable way of writing. There are some, though, who can’t seem to break the habit of overusing it. Surely, there has to be an element of changing the way you think, but there are practical things you can do until that change happens.

Happily, the practicalities of removing passive in your writing is pretty simple using functions in Word — maybe when you see where you use the passive, your thinking will start to change naturally.

How to find your passives

On your document, use CTRL+F to launch a ‘find’ facility. Type ‘by’ into the search area (why ‘by’? See here: grades are received by students, results are understood by reading the research thoroughly), which will help you find unnecessary passives that have the subject in the object position (everything after the ‘by’).

When you find that subject in the object position, you can easily restructure the sentence to put the subject in the active position (usually at the beginning of the sentence) and make the whole sentence active (e.g. students receive grades, reading the research helps us to understand the results).

You could also use the CTRL+F function to search for conjugations of ‘to be’ (is, are, should be, have been etc.), again, helping you to identify where you have used the passive forms and changing them to active.

And there you have it. Passives will be a thing of your past, unless you use them for a particular purpose.

Thanks for the loan of image


Top Rated on People Per Hour!

Top Rated on People Per Hour!

Would you look at that! Time for a bit of shameless trumpeting, I reckon.

I had an e-mail this afternoon from one of my lovely clients telling me that I was on the top-rated freelancers’ board on People Per Hour.

For the last few years, I’ve been working through PPH; now I have regular clients I bid much less, but the requests to bid keep coming in. I tell you what, though, when I get the daily bulletin of posted jobs I am very tempted to take on juuust a little bit more work!

But until these projects are done – within the month – I have to just let the PPH bulletins be the carrot that tempts me onwards.

e-mail, Email or email?

e-mail, Email or email?

Teaching at Salzburg University of Applied Sciences there is a heavy focus on business English and, of course, e-mail writing.

Across the internet, there is a range of spellings for e-mail, but I will argue, till I’m blue in the face, that it must be spelled with a hyphen: e-mail.

When e-mail started out it was written with a capital, now you just look old-fashioned if you use a capital for it (and a bit daft, after all, you don’t use a capital ‘L’ for ‘letter’, do you?!).
Reuters says that e-mail should be ’email’, without a hyphen, but what happens when we talk of  ebanking, ecommerce, eentertainment, egreeting? According to Reuters, these should all have a hyphen (becoming e-banking, e-commerce and, thankfully, e-entertainment, e-greeting). So why should e-mail be different? If we have a rule, surely it’s easier to apply it to all the words that are likely to need it, than to select one that should break the rule.
OED, in its benevolence, says that you can use either, but email, without the hyphen, is the default.
I think it’s a shame. Here we are at a massive moment in the English language; it’s changing and evolving, and it’s a great opportunity to rid the language of all these silly exceptions to rules that confuse both native-speakers and learners of English.
While the definitive answer is still in flux, I will continue to teach that it should be spelled with a hyphen, so that there is some hope of maintaining consistency within the rule.

Cleaning, Scaffold Towers and Website Design: What Do They Have In Common?

Cleaning, Scaffold Towers and Website Design: What Do They Have In Common?


While my kids were skiing yesterday, I supped a hot chocolate and thought about next year’s cleaning articles for CleanerLondon.

It going to be a good year, I reckon.

Follow my ever-evolving writing style, as I work on my master’s in professional writing, through the articles I write for my clients.

For CleanerLondon there will be more articles about domestic cleaning, commercial cleaning and carpet cleaning. From basic Feng Shui in your home, to chambermaid’s cleaning tips (from my own days cleaning a hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon) and uses for the archaic sugar-soap, which really should be given far more credit than it gets now that Mr Muscle rules the cleaning products aisles.

For Lakeside-Hire, I’ll continue helping out with their daily construction updates and industry leads on the Facebook fan page as well as adding to the wealth of articles about how to use scaffold towers, podium steps and razor decks in all kinds of situations, both commercial and in the DIY world.

A new client, ClearCut Web Design, needs a couple of articles a week exploring its new web designs for its own clients. It’s great to be able to see what’s going on in cutting edge design and share it with ClearCut’s potential clients.

What?! Only three clients, you say? I know, but alongside this I’ll also start my master’s in a few days at University College Falmouth and am still lecturing at Salzburg Uni and Salzburg Uni of Applied Sciences. All good fun 🙂

internet or Internet?

internet or Internet?

Sometimes it’s written with a capital, sometimes without, and there rarely seems to be any logic behind the choices. It seemed to be down to taste, more than anything. How on earth can modern readers expect to get a grasp on the evolving rules of language if there isn’t any consistency?

Happily sub-editing the International Press Institute’s World Review, I spotted it again and decided it was time to get a definitive answer to the internet/Internet conundrum. Here’s what Reuters has to say about it:


A global data communications system comprising hardware and software that connects computers. The World Wide Web consists of content accessed using the Internet and is not synonymous with it. It is a collection of documents and other resources linked by hyperlinks, or URLs. The Internet also carries, for example, email and downloadable software.
Capitalise as a noun, lower case as an adjective e.g. internet banking, internet cafe.

My brand-spanking-new Shorter OED lists ‘internet’ initally without a capital with “now usual: Internet” written in brackets. Why? Why is it now usual?   I quite like the idea of distinguishing between the noun and the adjective, but surely there are more than enough people who don’t have a clue which is which and will merely confuse their readers.

For me, though, the question is: should it be a proper noun? Back in the day, the internet wasn’t considered a proper noun, so wasn’t capitalised. Just as we didn’t capitalise telegram, book, television, telephone, discussion, – which serve/d a similar purposes as the internet. What makes the internet any different (in grammatical terms) to any other media, any other common noun? By capitalising we are giving it massive importance – akin to Mum, Dad, Big Ben and London. Does it deserve to have this standing? Is it more important than books or telephones, newspapers or words?

What do you think? Should it be universally spelled with a lower case ‘i’, or should we plug on with a capital?

UPDATE (4th April 2011): reading The Sunday Times this morning, I noticed it used ‘internet’ – no capital. I did a leap of joy, quietly!

US and UK business letters

US and UK business letters

You’d think writing a business letter would be pretty much the same globally. Au contraire!

The differences between UK and US are quite significant.

Initially the UK and US are divided with the return address: in the UK it goes on the right, whereas in the US it can either go on the left or the right.

The recipient’s address is left-aligned in both countries (phew, we agree on something!)

Date swiftly follows; the UK date would read: 25th December 2009 on the right or left of the page, and the US: December 25, 2009 always on the left.

Each starts with ‘Dear ____’

If you’re addressing someone whose name you know: in the US you’d add a fullstop/period after their title (i.e. Mr., Mrs., Ms.) where in the UK we’ve done away with the point leaving the title thus: Mr, Mrs, Ms

And so we jolly our way on past the surname and…come to a divergence again! In US business letters you’d now enter a colon (:) and in UK letters a comma (,)

i.e. (US) Dear Mr. Jones: / (UK) Dear Mr Jones,

(If you have a subject you want to add, much like the subject line in an email, add it under the salutation. To draw attention both US and UK prefer to use bold and/or upper-case letters)

As we enter the body of the letter, we all agree that, despite following a comma, the line should start with a capital letter . (This is a standard that seems to grate on some German writers composing English letters, who feel that the first letter of the body should be lower case.).

On we stroll though the body of the text where UK and US are in blissful harmony again. Single-line spacing throughout with a blank line (NOT an indent) between paragraphs.

Now you just have to close. In the US, your close should be aligned with YOUR address and in the UK it’s always left-aligned.

In the UK, if you know the recipient’s name ‘Yours sincerely,’ is standard, and ‘Yours faithfully,’ when you don’t. ‘Kind regards,’ and his pleasant variants are acceptable, but they do prefer their cyber domain to paper. In the US, however (thank you, Karen!) the most common closings in a formal letter are ‘Sincerely,’ ‘Sincerely yours,’ and ‘Very truly yours’, (‘Cordially’ and ‘Best regards’ also make a show at times).

Leave a few lines (in which to add your signature after printing)… then add your name, and, if you want, your job title.

Job done.

Now, as a little post script, you may want to add … a post script. In the US, ‘PS’ or ‘ps’ is the accepted norm, but in the UK ‘p.s.’ still holds true.

And there we have it. I hope that helps someone 🙂

How do you remain gender neutral in your business communications?

How do you remain gender neutral in your business communications?

See full size image

Every day we write to a broad audience and while it’s fine in a fictional piece of work to be gender-specific, in our business communications we often have to be more general. And, using the combination “him/her” is cumbersome.

It is so important these days to remain gender neutral, especially when compiling manuals, office policies and procedures, and employee handbooks. Using ‘sexist language’ can be a costly mistake – even resulting in missing out on a job a sexist tem is spotted in a resume/CV.

Traditionally we’ve used third-person masculine pronouns (he, him, his, himself). Many ‘jobs for the boys’ had the suffix ‘-man’ (fireman, chairman, foreman), while women were indicated by ‘-ess’ (stewardess, waitress, actress).

Jobs are now gender-neutral! My children talk of a ‘postal worker’, ‘flight attendant’ or a ‘firefighter’, and I’m trying hard to do the same!

It seems we’re trying to wipe ‘man’ off the planet! ‘Mankind’, ‘the average man’, ‘manned’ are now replaced by words such as ‘people’, ‘average person’ and ‘staffed’.

What are some options for ensuring that your writing is gender neutral? First, adopt the titles that are in use today:

» Postal worker/ letter carrier
» French (not Frenchman)
» Chairperson or Chair
» Spokesperson
» Flight Attendant
» Sales representative
» Police Officer
» Firefighter
» Host (no more hostess with the mostest!)
» Journalist, Writer
» Actor (no Actresses)
» Sportsperson
» Nurse

If using a sentence where the subject can be ‘he’ or ‘she’, or ‘him’ or ‘her’, try to find another way to write the sentence without using ‘him/her’ or ‘he/she’.

For example, the sentence:

Before you invite him/her to interview, check his/her references.

You should change the wording to:

Before you invite the candidate to interview, check the references provided.

Public relation materials, advertisements or job applications are particular areas in which to be careful. Make sure your words are eunuchs! It is very easy to alienate new customers, clients or potential employees by using sexist language.

As a new mum, it tickled me to read ‘baby’ books that seemed to leap into panic every time they had to refer to ‘the baby’. Obviously writing for their audience they had to acknowledge that babies are ‘girls’ or ‘boys’ – for no other reason than they ran out of words for ‘the baby’ sometimes!

One particularly delightful book opted to give male gender pronouns to one chapter, and female to the next and let them switch back and forth through the book.

Do you find this need to make a eunuch of language frustrating or necessary? Where do you find most problems using gender neutral constructions?

To capitalize or not?

To capitalize or not?

I’ve just had a very peculiar response to an English proofread I completed for a German speaker.

She had written a letter thus:

Dear James,

it was lovely to see you at the weekend….

Naturally I corrected the ‘it’ to read ‘It’; she responded ardently stating that this should not be capitalized; I checked around to confirm I was correct, looking at business letter templates and so forth and found no version that wasn’t capitalized.
But in fact grammatically speaking it’s right, isn’t it? There is no other time we’d capitalize after a comma, so why do we in a letter?

What do you think? Has anyone ever seen the rule that states the beginning of a letter should be capitalized?

The great closing debate

The great closing debate

For the last couple of months I’ve been using ‘Warmest regards’ to close my emails. With this phrase I was hoping to convey a warm and friendly, yet professional image. How can you get just a couple of words to speak for you when there are no physical signals to read as well?

This week I asked professionals on LinkedIn How do you close your emails? and got an astonishing response. My thinking behind this question was initially pretty selfish: I wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth, as it were, what the most acceptable and pleasantly received close is, so I could adopt it as my own!

For me Sandra Carden (  summed the issue up best when she said: “I vary my closing depending on the content of the e-mail and my relationship with the recipient. But sometimes I get bored with my usual closings, so thanks, everybody, for your replies — I’ll add a few of these to my mental list.
Best wishes ~ Warm regards ~ Cheers,

After thinking more about it, I was also intrigued to know what the reasons were for people’s choices and how they reacted to the close on the emails they received. Is it a surprise to find that ‘Regards’ would be far and away the most popular choice?

I doubt it!

Instead of leaving it at that, breaking it down to specifics was also interesting. ‘Regards’ and all its variations won when grouped together, but even within that group, a simple ‘Regards’ still rules the roost.

Instead of including all of the types of close, I’ve tabulated those that were represented twice or more in the 56 responses. I was surprised, and pleased, to find that  a fair number of senders believed it was important to consider the recipient and adapt their close accordingly. Several women mentioned they mirror the close that they receive from that person, although there were no men who admitted doing the same.

So let’s have a look at the most popular five phrases used.

‘Regards’ has its roots in handwritten communications. It is regarded by some as a less formal, yet respectful word and by others as the height of formality. Many add ‘Best’, ‘Warm/est’ or ‘Kind/est’, which can only suggest they are trying to convey more of a personal message to their reader.

‘Thanks’ in its various guises surprised me when it romped in second as it is something of a removal from ‘back in the day’ letters when you’d get a ‘Thanks for…’, as well as a close before the name. I like the sentiment, it shows real consideration for the person who is being thanked and offers a chance to reiterate the most important point of the message.

Well if ‘Thanks’ surprised me, ‘Cheers’ downright blew me away. For me, ‘cheers’ is what you say before a drink. It’s informal, but I like it. It suggests equal standing, and an easy confidence.

‘Sincerely’ had to show up, really, didn’t it? I’d feel sad for it if it’d disappeared entirely considering its long-standing history of closing letters when you know the name of the person you’re contacting. Interestingly, several people said they considered it to be fairly informal and would only use it when they know the contact personally. When I was growing up, ‘faithfully’ was used when you didn’t know the person’s name, and ‘sincerely’ when you did. It seems it’s moved a step closer in recent years.

Now ‘Best wishes’ I like, and find myself using from time to time, but it reminds me so much of birthday cards I had when I was a child. Nonetheless the sentiment is rather quaint, friendly and seems less wooden than some alternatives.

Google email close/signatures and there is a wealth of people, some confused, others confident, discussing the pros and cons of a massive variety of options. While some business writing books declare you must use a capital for both words, others are just as emphatic about only capitalizing the first.

Ultimately, you have to select a close that you feel best reflects you. For my part, I think I’ll stay with ‘Warmest regards’ in initial emails, then move into a spot of mirroring, chucking in an ‘All the best’ (which I was surprised didn’t make the cut) or ‘Cheers’ here and there when the moment seems right.

What do you use? How do you feel about these tiny little phrases? Which do you prefer to receive and why?

To see the responses in full, please go to:



Efficiency is the aim for most people, is it not? Even if you’re not aware of it and don’t rate it as top of your agenda you’d far rather get something finished (unless it’s a holiday!) as quickly and accurately as possible, wouldn’t you?

So the same should apply to your business writing.

Would you rather read:

It is incumbent upon management to display appropriate behaviour and verbalise what is consistent with the messages that are being conveyed via your business communication methodologies. (when did you stop reading?!)

or this:

As a manager, you should always demonstrate the communication methods of your business.

It is easy to get so rapt in what you’re writing that you end up not making your message clear. So concerned in showing off your excellent vocabulary, you turn your reader off. The pace of communications has stepped up in just a couple of years, with Facebook and social networking status updates allowing just a small box to write in; Twitter have even gone as far as to limit it to 140 characters! Should we consider limiting many of our communications to 140 characters?

However, keeping one’s message clear is not a new thing. Read any newspaper and you’ll find that the main story is found in the first two sentences. Subsequent information (names, places, quotations from witnesses or experts) is found in the following paragraphs.

This is called inverted pyramid writing and it originated during the American Civil War when Northern reporters on the frontline had to get information to their editors in New York across wires that were both in heavy demand and under constant threat of being destroyed: most important information went first, and the details followed if there was still a wire to use.

So when you’re writing your next communication, whatever form it takes, consider what the most important information is and how to write it concisely (and politely!).

Further reading:



Rather sensibly one company examined 4,000 emails originating from their staff. In that number they found misspelled words in 486 of them and counted grammatical errors in 544 of them. That’s over a quarter of communication containing some kind of error.

That’s quite something, isn’t it? In these days when so much business is done using the written word, people are willing to send a document that they haven’t so much as spell checked (incredible when it’s just the click of an icon) or even re-read what they’ve composed.

Of course, human error is hardly something I can get all bent up about, but when I get an email that is barely legible because it lacks punctuation, grammar – or worse, doesn’t capitalise I – I get in quite a pickle. I, for one, could not part with my trust, money or time for someone who can’t even be bothered to hit the shift key once in a while.

How hard is it to do a bit of studying to fill in those gaps in education? Even take a class in writing? Failing that, the very least you can do is acknowledge that accurate writing is a weak area for you and ask someone to proofread or edit it before you send it: a colleague or a friend if they have time, if not retain an editor for your important communications.

*stepping off the soapbox and taking a few deep breaths!

What are the most remarkable emails you’ve received? What really winds you up when you see it in a mail?  Have you seen any truly hilarious ones? Do share!