Over on LinkedIn, I’ve been posting some little tips on pitfalls to avoid in your writing, as a series of posts with the hashtag #WhatNotToWrite. A while ago, I packaged up the first five into this handy blog post. Now, here comes a round-up of numbers 6 to 10 (with some minor edits).
The tips are mainly geared towards business writing, and are largely based on things I’ve noticed when editing business content – but some are worth bearing in mind when doing other types of writing as well. Here we go, then …
6️⃣ Don’t use a hyphen in a phrasal verb such as ‘set up’, ‘check in’ or ‘rule out’.
A phrasal verb is usually a pair of words that represent ‘doing’ something: first a verb, then a preposition or adverb such as ‘in’ or ‘up’.
I’ve noticed this kind of thing a lot lately:
❌ Please log-in to your account.
❌ Sign-up for our newsletter!
❌ She mapped-out the way ahead.
Each of these hyphens is an unnecessary distraction, making the text more cluttered than it needs to be. Use a space instead, and the meaning will still be clear.
The same applies when using a similar phrase as an adjective that comes after a noun, for example:
❌ The customer was logged-in at the time.
❌ The data is fully backed-up.
❌ The formation was more spread-out.
But it’s different if you use this kind of phrase as a noun, or an adjective preceding a noun:
✔ There was a mix-up in the orders.
✔ Please go to the check-in desk.
✔ They used a more spread-out formation.
Here, the hyphen clarifies which words belong together, and how they fit into the sentence structure. Sometimes, though, especially in US English, it’s normal to use a single word such as ‘login’ or ‘setup’.
Rule of thumb: cut out (but don’t ‘cut-out’) the clutter when you can.
7️⃣ Don’t write words that you wouldn’t normally say out loud, unless you’re sure there’s a good reason.
A few examples:
OK, so people do sometimes say ‘circa’ together with a year: for example, ‘circa 1980’. But have you ever heard anyone say that a company has ‘circa 200 employees’? Probably not, but I often see this in business reports.
The trouble is that this kind of wording will make your writing appear stiff, stilted and unnatural. Your readers might well be jolted for a moment when they ‘hear’ one of these words in their head as they read it. Anything that would make them stop in their tracks – even for a split second – is best avoided, as it would distract them from the message you’re trying to get across.
There’s always a more familiar, natural-sounding alternative:
▶ circa → about, around, roughly, approximately
▶ moreover → and, also, additionally
▶ notwithstanding → despite, in spite of
So, why not use one of these instead? There might be times when those not-so-familiar words are appropriate because of the level of formality that’s needed. Unless you feel sure that this is the case, though, I suggest you steer clear of them.
8️⃣ Don’t write a hyphen in an adjectival compound (that’s a pair of words used as an adjective) if the first word is an adverb ending in ‘ly’.
❌ the newly-formed company
❌ a widely-used method
❌ her carefully-written letter
This isn’t an absolute rule, but it’s a common convention that makes good sense.
Hyphens do have their uses. If the first word in an adjectival compound is itself an adjective, things can get confusing without a hyphen. It’s clear what a ‘black-cab driver’ is, but what exactly is a ‘black cab driver’?
But if they’re used where they’re not helpful, they’re just clutter, making the writing look ‘fussy’.
With adverbs ending in ‘ly’, I think it’s safe to say that there’s never any ambiguity without a hyphen:
✔ the newly formed company
✔ a widely used method
✔ her carefully written letter
In the first case, for example, we can’t be saying a ‘formed company’ is ‘newly’ – it wouldn’t mean anything. We clearly mean the ‘company’ is ‘newly formed’. A hyphen would just be a minor distraction, and we’re better off without it.
However, some adverbs don’t end in ‘ly’, such as ‘well’. These tend to be used differently, so this guideline doesn’t usually apply to them – this is a grey area, though …
9️⃣ Don’t write ‘as well as’ when you just mean ‘and’.
❌❓ The company has a head office in London as well as regional offices in Birmingham and Leeds.
Now, I’ve flagged this with ❌❓ because it might be OK. If we expect the reader to be aware of the Birmingham and Leeds offices already, this is a conventional use of ‘as well as’, so there’s no problem.
But if that information is new to the reader, they’ll be wondering, ‘Should I already know about Birmingham and Leeds?’
I suspect that people tend to do this when they think ‘and’ would make for awkward reading, like it does here:
❓ The company has a head office in London and regional offices in Birmingham and Leeds.
This isn’t wrong, but it isn’t ideal either, as the double use of ‘and’ might cloud the meaning slightly. There are other fixes, though: you can add a comma before the first ‘and’, or use something like ‘along with’ or ‘together with’ instead (with or without a comma):
✔ The company has a head office in London, and regional offices in Birmingham and Leeds.
✔ The company has a head office in London along with regional offices in Birmingham and Leeds.
✔ The company has a head office in London, along with regional offices in Birmingham and Leeds.
Some reference sources say ‘as well as’ can mean the same thing as ‘and’. But why confuse your readers by using an expression with a double meaning?
1️⃣0️⃣ Don’t use three-letter codes for currencies in normal sentences (unless you're required to do so, or there's a compelling reason for it).
I’ve seen this kind of thing in business writing:
❌ a turnover of USD 3 million
❌ a GBP500 fee
This is like writing ‘a flight to LHR’ when you mean a flight to Heathrow Airport. It gives the reader too much work to do. They’ll probably read these pieces of text as ‘U S D three million’ and ‘a G B P five hundred fee’. Nobody would say those things out loud, so they’ll ‘sound’ odd in the reader’s head.
It’s better to stick with convention:
✔ a turnover of $3 million
✔ a £500 fee
People will read these as ‘three million dollars’ and ‘a five hundred pound fee’. As the format is so familiar, they’ll be used to interpreting it that way.
If you need to clarify which country’s dollars they are, you could initially use ‘US$’, ‘C$’ etc. But this isn’t much more readable, and should only be done sparingly. Or you could put ‘US’, ‘Canadian’ etc. in brackets after the amount – this might not disrupt the flow so much.
OK, so these codes can be useful in stored data, and in tables, graphs etc. – but they don't work well in normal text.
Likewise for two-letter country codes: in normal text, it’s far better to write ‘Germany and Japan’ than ‘DE and JP’ – another dubious notation that I’ve come across lately.
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.