Word Choice in Email
As you edit your email, consider your word choice carefully, examining whether in any given case there is another word that could express an idea more clearly. Avoid the word choice problems described below.
5.2.1 Vague Language
Much business writing, email included, suffers from a lack of precision. Why? In part because it is more difficult to be specific than it is to be vague. Specific writing requires more careful thought and more thoughtful writing and rewriting.
Compare the following two sentences:
Jon does consistently sloppy work.
Jon’s reports consistently contain statistical and other factual errors.
In the first example, you have no way of knowing what exactly is meant by sloppy. Does Jon have messy handwriting? Does he spill his lunch on his reports? Or — a horrifying possibility — does he fail to proofread carefully?
The second example, by contrast, clearly identifies the problems with Jon’s reports.
Editing for word choice problems requires a critical eye and attention to detail. It also requires a good dictionary. Most first drafts of email messages will contain wording problems; the challenge is to revise so that the version you actually send says exactly what you want it to say.
5.2.2 Wordiness and Ornate Language
Writers sometimes use a hundred words where fifty would do. This tendency, known as wordiness, weakens writing in several ways.
First, it shows a lack of respect for the reader’s time and suggests that the writer has not bothered to revise sufficiently. In business, wasted time means wasted money.
Second, verbosity obscures the writer’s ideas by hiding them amid a word surplus. Is it easier to find a needle in a haystack or to find a needle amid a few wisps of straw?
Finally, wordiness frequently signals to the reader that the writer is seeking to hide a lack of substance.
Related to wordiness is the tendency to use unnaturally ornate expressions in an effort to dress up a piece of writing. Why write is cognizant of when you can substitute is aware of or knows about? Why write due to the fact that when because will do? Straightforward, succinct language will draw less attention to itself and keep the reader’s attention on your message.
Email correspondence frequently contains unnecessarily ornate expressions such as please find attached or pursuant to your request. Just as these expressions would sound stilted in speech, they sound stilted in written communications. Replace them with more direct, natural language, as illustrated in the table below.
|Ornate Expression||More Natural Alternative|
please find attached
attached please find
|I have attached or attached is|
|please be advised that||[nothing] or please note that|
per your request
as per your request
pursuant to your request
|as you requested|
per our conversation
as per our conversation
|as we discussed|
Eliminating problematic phrases can dramatically improve your writing style. Consider the effect of a few simple word-choice substitutions in the following pairs of sentences.
|Pursuant to your request, please find attached the status report.||As you requested, I have attached the status report.|
|Please be advised that the conference will end at 4:00 instead of 3:30.||The conference will end at 4:00 instead of 3:30.|
|As per our conversation, I have asked Deirdre to research the new location.||As we discussed, I have asked Deirdre to research the new location.|
5.2.3 Too Few Words
In trying to combat wordiness, many emailers head the opposite direction, using so few words that the reader can’t understand what they are trying to say. Being concise doesn’t mean using few words; it means using as few words as are needed. If you end up having a five-message exchange, spread out over two days, because your original email was too terse, you haven’t saved anyone any time.
The moral: don’t be brief to the point of incomprehensibility. Your reader needs enough information to understand what you need or want.
Another often problematic habit in email is to leave out words that are necessary grammatically, such as articles (a, an, and the) and direct objects. For example, certain verbs require a direct object to complete their meaning, but direct objects are frequently omitted by emailers seeking to save keystrokes. Consider these sentences:
The attorney questioned her client.
The manager disappeared.
In the first sentence, client receives the action of the verb questioned. Client is thus the direct object; without it, the sentence is incomplete. In the second sentence, there is no noun or pronoun to receive the action of the verb disappeared; a direct object is unnecessary.
Depending on your company’s culture, it may be acceptable to omit articles or direct objects for the sake of time or space in short, quick email messages to longtime colleagues, particularly when you are all working on iPhones or similar devices. For example:
Missing Direct Object
Please review report.
The problem is, many people don’t shift out of this mode when they are writing important emails that require more care and attention. In such email messages, you should write the complete sentence, with no missing parts:
Please review the report.
5.2.4 Trite Language
Trite language is language that has become stale through overuse. For example, clichés — trite expressions or sayings — are victims of their own popularity. If, at a meeting, you caution your colleague, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” you are using a cliché to express your point. Trite language acts as a kind of verbal sedative. If the wording is that familiar to your reader, he or she will be able to complete your sentence without even bothering to read what you have written. That in turn suggests that what you have written is not necessarily all that original or important.
Trite language can also involve repeated words or phrases. There is a particular category of trite language common in email and typically appearing at the end of messages in the form of stock phrases or sentences. For example:
Please feel free to call or email me with any comments, questions, or suggestions.
The sentence is a bit wordy, though in isolation it is not terrible. The problem is that some people will use the identical sentence in virtually every email, sometimes even embedding the sentence into a signature file to save time. If the emailer puts the same sentence in every email, what is the effect? The etiquette benefits erode, and the sentence strikes the reader as insincere.
The idea behind such a sentence is a good one, but you might want to consider varying it, paring down the number of words, and excluding it from emails where it simply isn’t relevant. Here are variations that could work in different emails:
I would be glad to answer any questions.
Please feel free to call or email me with any comments or questions.
Please call or email me with any questions.
Please call me with any suggestions.
You are welcome to call with questions or suggestions.
Writing can’t always be automated, and when you do automate, you risk sounding inauthentic. Even subtle variations can make a big difference in your overall email style.