From RILW: Relaxing The Rules for Business Writing

From Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly: Relaxing The Rules for Business Writing

Some live by the saying “rules are meant to be broken,” while others follow said rules to the letter. Grammar gurus and lawyers alike typically fall into the latter camp. After all, the rules of writing, style and grammar are there for a reason: to make writing clear, effective and easily understood.

But even the strictest stickler for punctuation and subject-verb agreement can acknowledge that certain rules can be not altogether broken but, at least, relaxed in the interest of contemporary writing and reading.

The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook – the bible of writing style for journalists, public relations specialists and all-around good writers — has in recent years made several changes that reflect a more relaxed approach to writing. Other updates come from contemporary culture and society.

Bring on the bullet points

Once solely relegated to the Buzzfeed realm, bullet points, subheadings and listicle-style blogs have made their way into contemporary business and news writing. Not only do such tools make it easier for the writer to organize thoughts into separate sections, they offer a format far less daunting to most readers, breaking up big blocks of text into bite-sized nuggets of information.

Of course, it’s important to pay close attention to parallel structure when using bullets to be sure this format does, indeed, clarify your messaging for your readers.

The singular “they”

An important update to the traditional “he” and “she” singular pronouns, “they” is now widely accepted as both a plural and a singular pronoun referring to an unspecified gender. For example, my law firm is looking for one new associate. They will work with an amazing team of super savvy lawyers.

This change is, in part, the result of gender fluidity slowly making its way into our mainstream culture, from drivers’ licenses to doctors’ office forms. Employment law attorneys have always been in the forefront of emerging gender-inclusive practices, which now include neutral pronouns like the singular “they.”

FYI re that memo

For general communications, acronyms and abbreviations were once a decided no-no, at least in first references requiring the full words to be spelled out. Now, commonly used acronyms and abbreviations like FYI (for your information) and re (regarding) are becoming more widely accepted both in vernacular and in writing. Use your best judgement — taking into account the subject matter, writing outlet and intended audience — when deciding whether to replace full words with acronyms or abbreviations.
(Legal documents with complex terms and details will continue to use acronyms to define parties and legal structures with the caveat that all acronyms are spelled out clearly in the first reference.)

Long live the 99%

Among the most significant changes the AP Stylebook has ushered in of late is a change in the writing of percentages. Rather than writing out the word “percentage” each time, the style now allows for the % symbol. As with other grammar rules for writing numbers and numerals, best practices that formerly recommended spelling out the word “percentage” were often disregarded. And unlike some guidelines, using the percentage sign did not necessarily inhibit clarity … another situation where personal preference reigns.

Drama from the AP

Other AP style changes include allowing the Oxford comma in certain occasions to connect long and complicated phrases; previously, the Stylebook banned all use of that last comma before the “and.”

Just this month, editors for the Stylebook also condoned removing the hyphen from certain two word adjectives commonly used (and widely accepted) to describe a singular noun. Then, in a dramatic grammar move, they reversed that thinking based on an outcry from writing gurus. Sunday football fans will appreciate the initial thinking that decreed a first quarter touchdown, for example, no longer needs a hyphen between the words “first” and “quarter.” But further refinement by the AP and writers now reaffirms the use of a hyphen unless the phrase is part of common vernacular such as “chocolate chip cookie.”

Effective writing in today’s competitive legal marketplace — from work-centric emails to marketing and business-building communications to proposals for new clients — is vital to the reputation of lawyers and law firms. Keeping up with the changing world of writing and style can be a never-ending job. When in doubt, referring back to the old standbys of good grammar is always a safe bet.

The end goal, regardless of style changes, is keeping your reader informed and engaged in a clear, concise format. Relaxing the rules may take some practice to feel comfortable for those lawyers used to the old-school ways.

Carolyn Lavin is the president of Lavin Marketing Communications. www.LavinMarketing.com