Business Writing Style Guide
While discussing new writing projects with potential clients, I am frequently asked which business writing style guide I follow. While I’ve read the style guides from several publishers, I don’t rigorously follow any; style guides tend to be too long and rules too obscure to for me to consistently remember.
For my own business writing style guide, I’ve developed an amalgam of what I feel are common-sense high-level British and American writing rules. I’ve consolidated them here in an informal, concise guide that I can point clients and co-workers to when I’m asked next time.
Since my writing style shares characteristics of both British and American, this document can also serve as a guide to the differences between both styles of writing.
American English requires that acronyms—”F.B.I.”, “N.S.A”., “C.I.A.”, etc—have periods between each letter, since these are abbreviations. British English doesn’t, making “FBI”, “NSA”, “CIA”, etc. all correct. I prefer the look of the British approach, and follow that rule.
Both styles generally require periods for Latin abbreviations, including e.g. and i.e. I follow this rule.
American English likewise specifies that the abbreviation for versus be appended by a period, so, “vs.”. An exception to this is the American Law rule that it be shortened to “v.” (British legal documents use “v” without the terminating full stop). British English rules define “vs”, without the period, as correct. I follow the British rule.
Comma rules are easy enough, except when it comes to separating a list of three or more terms, when deciding whether to place a comma before the conjunction (typically or or and). The issues are consistency and, arguably, clarity.
For consistency, I always place an Oxford comma, also referred to as a serial comma or series comma, prior to the conjunction. If the comma preceding the conjunction doesn’t make sense, I rewrite the sentence.
Everyone’s read funny examples demonstrating why Oxford commas are important. With the Oxford comma, there are clearly at least four people on the invitation list :
We invited the baristas, JFK, and Stalin
However without the Oxford comma, arguably only two people are expected:
We invited the baristas, JFK and Stalin
When Oxford comma use is consistent, there is no question at to intent.
British English specifies that dates should be written in order from most specific to most general, Day/Month/Year, format. American English most commonly requires dates in Month/Day/Year format. While the British style is more logical, unless the audience is global, I follow the American rule.
I never use British terminology like “half five”, “8th of March”, or, for Pete’s sake, “fortnight”, preferring instead to use the more straightforward, “5:30”, “March 8th”, “two weeks”.
Hyphen vs Em Dash vs. En Dash
A reader accurately pointed out that I inconsistently use hyphens and dashes. These are the rules by which I do my best:
- The hyphen is the shortest of the three horizontal marks, and is used primarily to create compound words, e.g. “single-quoted”, “double-quoted”. I don’t use spaces around a hyphen unless its hanging as part of a list, e.g. “single- and double-quoted”. The hyphen key is just above the letter “p” and unshifted.
- En dash is the middle child—longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash, and frequently overlooked. En dash indicates “through”, and is most commonly used to indicate inclusive time, date, and page ranges, (e.g. “Jan–Dec”, “9–5”).
- The em dash is the longest of these marks. I use it to break the end of a sentence out from the main clause, or to enclose a word or phrase. I prefer the emphasis that spaces around an em dash provide—but the correct approach is no spaces.
- Fun fact: the en dash is the width of the letter N and em dash is the width of the letter M.
When counting up to nine things, I spell the words representing the numbers. For 10 things or more, I use the numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style prescribes spelling out numbers up to 100, as well as large round numbers, but that looks old-timey: for example, 52 versus fifty-two.
American English requires that punctuation that is not part of the quotation be inside the quotation marks, making, for example, the following correct: “Describe the risk management strategy used by the vendor,” he said. British English keeps this punctuation outside the quotation marks, making the following correct: “Describe the risk management strategy used by the vendor”, he said. I follow the British style.
Initial quotations are identified with single quotes in British English, with inner quotations surrounded by double-quotes. American English specifies the opposite: initial quotations are double-quoted, with inner quotations single-quoted. I follow the American style.
Semi-colons and Colons
I use semi-colons to separate lists where items themselves include commas; this is pretty normal. I also use colons, a lot– probably too much. I like to use colons where whatever is described in the second phrase is clearly a result from the first.
Spaces After Periods
Modern punctuation rules dictate that there should be one space following a period or full stop, however two spaces looks better and is easier to read. I recognize that the rules have changed but I still use two spaces.
British English rules require that time be shown in a 24-hour, neo-decimal format, e.g. 16.15 or 16:15 instead of 4:15PM, while American English requires a semi-colon separator. While my computer, phone, watch, and alarm clock are all set up to use the 24-hour, military-style time display, for business writing, I follow the American rule.
American English specifies that titles – Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., etc. – require periods, while British English does not, making Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr. etc. all correct. I follow the British rules, which look cleaner.
While spelling rules differences between British and American English, I follow American spelling rules, favoring, for instance, “center” vs “centre”, “honor” vs “honour”, “while” vs “whilst”, “legalize” vs “legalise”. That said, if my client is in a part of the world dominated by British grammar, I follow their local rules.
Differences between British and American vocabulary are too numerous to mention, but unless I know that the local word can be construed as offensive by a non-American reader, I stick to American vocabulary. So “trainers”, “jumper”, and “boot”, get the boot, as it were, in favor of “sneakers”, “sweater”, and “trunk”, respectively. That said, I will use “trousers” instead of “pants” regardless of the locale to which my document is destined.
I avoid empty words, so no “really”, “very”, “virtually”, etc., and obvious phrases, like “honestly”, “in my opinion”, etc.
In American English, plural dates have an apostrophe between the year and the following “s”, e.g. 1960’s, ’30’s, etc., while British English omits the apostrophe, e.g. 1960s, ’30s, etc. Note that both styles require a preceding apostrophe where information is omitted, in this case, “19” denoting the century. I follow British style.
Style Guide References
Here is a list of online and hard-copy style guides worth reviewing.