Tips to Improve Your Business Vocabulary

Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training

In the business writing classes I lead, people often tell me they want to use the right verbiage to come across professionally. The first tip I offer them is to get rid of words such as verbiage, whose meaning has been muddied and is not what people typically think it is. (Read my blog post “Watch Your Verbiage” to learn the many meanings of verbiage.)

Apply these tips to improve your language:

1. Avoid using big words to impress readers. Use the simple aware rather than cognizant, extra rather than superfluous, and unique rather than inimitable. When you use words that are more complex than necessary, you lose readers. Remember that people read your messages for content, not for vocabulary enrichment.

2. Choose the most precise, simple word. Words have shades of meaning, so choose the word that best conveys your intent. Change hot to warm, scorching, or fiery to communicate precisely. In my writing, I use the expression “great relationships.” But what does great mean? Depending on the context, it might mean supportive, lasting, or strong–all of which are more precise than great. When I choose a more accurate word, I help myself and my readers be clear about my meaning.

3. Vary your word choice to avoid boring the reader. When you think you may have used an adjective such as excellent too often, do an electronic search for the word. The search should highlight each use. You can review the highlighted words and replace some of the excellents with words such as outstanding, first-rate, and superb. Your software program’s thesaurus will help you find good synonyms–but remember Tip 1 above.

On the other hand, when you use a noun to name something, use that name consistently so your readers know that you are referring to the same thing. For instance, if you refer to a “job aid,” avoid also calling it a “tool,” “program,” or “memory aid” unless the context makes it clear that all the expressions refer to the same thing.

4. Use acronyms and abbreviations with their spelled out versions–not alone. Some of your readers will not know that ROW stands for “right of way”; ETA, for “estimated time of arrival”; and NWT, for “Northwest Territories.” It is better to spell out your terms and communicate effectively with all readers than to ignore the needs of some. You have several ways to handle spelling out abbreviations:

right of way (ROW)

ROW (right of way)

right of way. The ROW is . . .

5. Avoid clichés, which seem to communicate well but are often vague. In a recent class, a participant said she would like to write more creatively by thinking outside the box. My suggestion to her: Stop using clichés such as “outside the box”! Your grammar and spelling checker should flag well-known clichés. And you can read your message or document once through just to identify overused expressions–things like “bottom line,” “proof is in the pudding,” and “when all is said and done.” Can you think of different ways to communicate the ideas of those three clichéd expressions? In each case, it depends what you mean. The “bottom line” can mean “In summary,” “net cost,” “the current status,” or something else.
6. Avoid slang. Some expressions are fun to say, like chillax for “relax.” Others are common in casual conversation, like “My bad” for “I’m sorry” or “I made a mistake.” But these expressions do not work in most business writing because they confuse some readers and seem overly informal to others. Unless your industry is very hip, avoid words that dictionaries describe as slang.  
7. Master those tricky word pairs and trios such as insure-ensure-assure, appraise-apprise, amount-number, can-may, fewer-less, and discrete-discreet to avoid distracting your readers with word-choice errors. Your grammar and spelling checker may flag a word that you have used correctly, so it is important to understand word pairs well enough to be confident. Style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style and The Gregg Reference Manual list and explain words that are often confused. My booklet “60 Quick Word Fixes” includes 60 confusing pairs and trios (read the list here). It is available from Syntax Training as a printed booklet or a PDF for US$7.00.

8. Pay attention to the great communicators in your company. Notice and copy the effective language they use. But do not adopt any use of jargon such as “value chain” and “mission critical,” which readers may see and hear often but not understand. If you do not have communicators in your company who can serve as role models, pick up a best-selling business book. Such books are typically written in short, powerful sentences using crisp, precise language.

Besides applying the language tips above, write short to medium-length complete sentences. Crisp sentence structures will protect you and your readers from getting lost in them. In addition to being easy to understand, short sentences come across as powerful and confident. The average length of sentences in this article is 15 words, with no complicated words that slow down your understanding. I wrote the article at eighth-grade level, which is the level of complexity I recommend for clear, strong writing.

Perhaps these tips for improving your business vocabulary were not what you expected. Were you hoping for ways to learn big, impressive words? You can find plenty of vocabulary-building exercises online. But those complex words–things like perspicacious and salutary–will not help you communicate successfully. Just use simple, accurate language.

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This blog is Zoe's way to spread the joy of finding and learning interesting bits about English. Join her and learn something new every time.

2 responses to “Tips to Improve Your Business Vocabulary”

  1. samalbahaykubo says :

    Reblogged this on Samal English Language Services.

  2. sharechair says :

    I had an awesome (but unappreciated at the time) English teacher in high school. She was SO OLD (actually about 10 years younger than I am, now …. it’s all about perspective). Her mantra was “OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS” and throughout my entire life, I can’t write anything without hearing her … and editing accordingly. Her advice has served me well. 🙂

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