Category Archives: Business Writing

Usings Commas with Job Titles

Commas Job Title

One of the most common errors I see in business writing is the misuse of commas with names and titles. If you’re trying to figure out when to use commas with someone’s job title, just use these formulas to see three correct ways to express the same information.

[Name], the [job title] of [company name], [rest of sentence].

The [job title] of [company name], [name], [rest of sentence].

[Company name] [job title] [name] [rest of sentence].

Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, plays the ukulele.

The chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett, plays the ukulele.

Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett plays the ukulele.

Why do job titles sometimes need commas and sometimes not? It depends on whether the sentence contains restrictive or nonrestrictive elements (also called essential or nonessential elements).

The top two examples each contain a nonrestrictive clause between the two commas, meaning that it doesn’t restrict the meaning of the rest of the sentence. If you removed that clause, the sentence would still make sense.

Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, plays the ukulele.

The chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett, plays the ukulele.

Warren Buffett plays the ukulele.

The chairman of Berkshire Hathaway plays the ukulele.

As my trusty reference guide Universal Keys for Writers explains,

“Commas signal that the extra, nonessential information they set off (useful and interesting as it may be) can be removed without radically altering or limiting the meaning of the independent clause. Think of paired commas as handles that can lift the enclosed information out of the sentence without making the sentence’s meaning confusing.”

But in the bottom example, Warren Buffett is a restrictive element, meaning that it restricts the meaning of the rest of the sentence. If you removed that information, you’d be left with an incomplete sentence.

Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett plays the ukulele.

Berkshire Hathaway chairman plays the ukulele.

Universal Keys commands, “Do not use commas to set off restrictive information.”

Next time you’re writing a sentence containing a name and job title, follow these steps to figure out if you need commas or not:

  1. Use the formulas at the top of this guide.
  2. Put commas where you think they should go, and then try removing them. If the sentence still makes sense, you need the commas. If the sentence sounds wrong, you need to leave the commas out.
  3. If you’re still not sure, send me an email. I will happily tell you the answer.

For more fun with commas, check out 5 Surprising Places You Need a Comma and 3 Surprising Places You Don’t Need a Comma.

Photo credit: By TheYellowFellow (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Small Businessman? Small Business Man? Small-Business Man? How Do You Write This Term?

In my last post, I talked about compound words and inserting hyphens to clarify meaning, using the example of the novelty song “The Purple People Eater.” Although I spent a truly ridiculous amount of time researching that one, and I hope you will read and enjoy it, I do recognize that it’s unlikely to be directly applicable in your everyday writing. So I thought I would follow up on that idea with an example that gets used (and misused) frequently in business writing: what to call a man who runs a small business.

Many people incorrectly write this term as small businessman. It’s easy to see why this error is so common: a man who works in business is a businessman, one word. But businessman is actually a compound noun that lost its hyphen along the way. In its earliest days, going back to 1798, the term was written as business-man, with a hyphen, or business man, two words. It first got squished into one word in 1860, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and that spelling eventually became standard.

If you call someone a small businessman, you’re implying that he is a businessman who is small. While some men may technically fit into this category (e.g., the three-foot-six actor of Return of the Jedi and Harry Potter fame, who also owns a talent agency for actors under five feet tall, Willow Management), I doubt any of them prefer to identify as such.

Sure, he’s technically a small businessman but, more importantly, he’s a small-business man.

If you write the term as three separate words, small business man, you’re no longer actively suggesting that the man is small, but people may read it that way. It’s hard to tell what’s modifying what, and that results in confusion.

The proper way to write the term is small-business man. The compound adjective small-business modifies the noun man, implying a man who is involved in a small business.

The AP Stylebook uses this term as the example for using a hyphen to avoid ambiguity:

The president will speak to small-business men. (Businessmen normally is one word. But the president will speak to small businessmen is unclear.)

Next time you start to write this term, stop and remind yourself that what’s small is the business, not the man. And even if both are small, err on the side of modifying the business—the company wouldn’t feel belittled by being called small, but the man probably would.

How to Write an Effective Press Release

I just contributed a guest post about to Searching for the Happiness, a blog about writing. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Press releases (also called news releases) can be a great way to get news about your business to the media, your current customers, and potential new customers. Unlike direct advertisements, press releases are written in the objective third-person voice, just like newspaper articles.

Press releases used to land in the newsroom, where the story would live or die on an editorial whim. But nowadays, numerous online services will post your release and send it to hundreds of news organizations, building strong links to your website in the process. The good news is that you can easily get your message out there. The bad news is that everyone else can, too, including your competitors.

So how do you make your press release stand out from the crowd? Just follow these six steps. …

And if you’d like to have a professional review your press release to make sure it’s as effective as possible, .

Presidents Day? President’s Day? Presidents’ Day? How Do You Spell the Upcoming Holiday?

We’re all counting down to the upcoming three-day weekend, but many of us don’t know how to write the name of the holiday on Monday correctly. Is it Presidents Day? How about President’s Day? Presidents’ Day? Well, it all depends on whom you ask.

Most dictionaries and The Chicago Manual of Style favor Presidents’ Day. The apostrophe at the end of the word indicates a plural possessive: It’s a day that belongs to multiple presidents. But the AP Stylebook—perhaps taking its cue from Veterans Day—favors Presidents Day, as in a day of more than one president. You could maybe make an argument for President’s Day, but no official reference book will back you up on that. Why are there two “correct” ways to spell the holiday? Believe it or not, Presidents’ Day (which, as a Chicago Manual enthusiast, I will choose to spell with an apostrophe at the end) is not an official holiday.

The federal holiday is called Washington’s Birthday; the term Presidents’ Day was popularized by marketers seizing on an occasion for a sale. The presidents it refers to are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who both had birthdays in February.

Washington was born on either February 11, 1731, or February 22, 1732, depending on whether you use the Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar (both were in use at the time; we use the Gregorian calendar now). Many states started celebrating his birthday on February 22, 1832, in honor of the centennial of his birth. It was made a federal holiday in 1879.

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. Since 1922, it’s been a tradition to lay a ceremonial wreath at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on his birthday, and many states celebrate it as an official holiday. But it has never been a federal holiday.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, enacted in 1971, moved several holidays to designated Mondays to give citizens fixed three-day weekends. Washington’s Birthday was moved to the third Monday in February, ironically ensuring that it would never fall on his actual birthday. Since it was now within a week or so of Lincoln’s birthday, many businesses squashed the holidays together. And that’s why we’ll be enjoying Presidents’ Day, plural possessive, or Presidents Day, with no apostrophe, on Monday.

How Should You Begin a Business Email?

Expert advice on getting your email off to a good start from the guys who wrote the book on email etiquette

Recently, I’ve been spending probably too much time considering email salutations. Back when letters were the dominant way of corresponding, the salutation was fairly straightforward. For a formal letter, the convention was to start with “Dear” and address the recipient by last name, followed by a colon.

Dear Mr. Smith:

For an informal letter, the convention was to use the person’s first name, followed by a comma.

Dear Jacob,

But email salutations, if used at all, tend to be much less formal. I find that most people start business emails with something like,

Hello Jacob,


Hi Jacob,

These greetings are friendly, but slightly ungrammatical. When addressing someone directly, a comma should go between the greeting and the person’s name.

Hello, Jacob,

I experimented with starting emails this way, but I thought it looked weird to have two commas. Not incorrect, just weird. Then I tried using a colon.

Hi, Jacob:

I liked this better, but I’d never seen anyone start an email this way. Unsure of what to do, I thought I’d better get some expert advice.

David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, authors of , favor starting a new email relationship the same way you would if you were writing a letter: formally.

“Email is a more urgent form of communication, and we have many more emails to answer every day than letters,” note the authors. “But it strikes us as rude to bark out someone’s name … even in an email, especially if you don’t really know your correspondent.”

But what if the person you’re emailing with is less formal? If you get an email that starts with “Hey, Bro,” and you respond with “Dear Mr. Smith,” the recipient may feel reprimanded or even insulted.

I asked Will Schwalbe what he thought about an imbalance in formality and grammaticalness. Is it better to mirror the person who’s writing to you, even if the grammar is off, or to be more formal but correct?

“You can never go wrong STARTING with ‘Dear Mr.’ or ‘Dear Ms.’ with someone you don’t know and with whom you’ve never corresponded,” he replied. “But if they write back and sign with their first name only, then go to ‘Dear FIRST NAME’ if they addressed you ‘Dear YOUR LAST NAME.’ If they started ‘Hi Will’ or ‘Hi, Will’ or ‘Hey Will’ or any variation, though, in their reply, switch to mirroring them—it’s always safe and cordial.”

Since receiving this advice, I’ve adopted a three-category approach to sending emails.

1. Starting new relationships formally

Dear Mr. Smith,

2. Beginning a new email thread with an acquaintance or colleague less formally

Dear Jacob,

3. Mirroring the opening line of incoming emails

Hi Jacob,
[No salutation]

Do you have a preferred email salutation? Do you follow the lead of whomever you’re corresponding with? Share your strategies below.

Are You “Utilizing” Useless Buzzwords?

Yes, my writing skills are stronger than my PowerPoint drawing skills. But you can tell it’s a bee, right? Right.

“Avoid fancy words.” This command from is excellent writing advice whether you’re publishing a novel or sending an email. They admonish, “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

But somehow we all end up choosing longer, showier words to say something that could be said simply—especially in business writing. Here are just a few of the worst offenders:

Buzzwords Better Words
actionable (adj.) useful
cutting-edge (adj.) advanced
implement (v.) do
incentivize (v.) encourage
innovative (adj.) new
facilitate (v.) ease
groundbreaking (adj.) fresh
monetize (v.) profit from
paradigm (n.) model, pattern
solutioneer (n.) problem-solver
solutioneer (v.) solve
synergy (n.) teamwork
takeaway (n.) lesson
utilize (v.) use

Open one of your business documents and do a search for each of these words. Are you using buzzwords without noticing? Believe me; it’s easy to do.

Now try replacing your buzzwords with the stronger words in the right-hand column. You’ll be pleased with how much simpler and snappier your writing becomes.

Buzzwords will never go away entirely. But the less you use them, the better your business communication will be. So whenever you start reaching for one of these words, remember this post, and repeat the mantra: “Avoid fancy words.”