Chapter 12-2: Professional, Academic, and Business Language

Writing > Writing Style > Professional Language


Formal English is the common language used in elevated contexts, whereas informal English is used in more casual conversation. Avoid using informal English in formal situations.

Here are some tips on how to sharpen your professional writing skills.

Avoid Contractions

Contractions are a feature of informal and spoken language, along with other features like slang. Avoid using contractions in formal writing.

Formal language should be clear and precise, which is why full word forms are usually preferred. Contractions can sometimes create ambiguity.

For example, the 's could be a contraction of is or has. It could also be the possessive 's.

  • David's tired. (David is tired.)

  • David’s been waiting all day. (David has been waiting all day.)

  • David’s taxi has arrived. (Possessive)

It may be possible or appropriate to use contractions in some types of formal writing.

Contractions could possibly be used in these situations:

  • Writing that is supposed to be light and conversational, like some personal writing tasks

  • Direct quotations that include contractions

The Minister for Health said, “There won't be any major changes."

  • Using set idioms that contain a contraction

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

  • Making a special comment in your own voice, such as in a footnote

Avoid Double Negatives

English is sensitive to double negatives. They occur when two negative forms appear in the same clause. In standard English, one single negative form is enough to give a negative meaning.

Standard Negation: I did not see anything.

Double Negation: I did not see nothing.

Standard Negation: The train is never late.

Double Negation: The train is not never late.

In standard English, double negatives will create a positive meaning, as each negative form challenges the next one.

I didn’t see nothing = I saw something

For this reason, double negatives are considered to be confusing and incorrect in standard English. This is especially true in formal English.

Double negatives are common and acceptable in some varieties of informal English. They are often used in set expressions, particularly in quotes from popular music and movies.

When double negatives are used in this way, or in their original informal context, they are understood as a functional negative.

“We don’t need no education” (song Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd)

“I can’t get no satisfaction” (song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones)

Ain’t nobody got time for that” (popular Youtube clip – original creator unknown)

Double negatives functioning as informal negatives may appear in formal writing in some cases:

  • In direct quotes

  • In idiomatic phrases

English negation needs to be logical, even if the grammar seems acceptable.

Illogical: I bought nothing.

("Nothing" is a zero object. It is illogical to use the affirmative action verb "bought" with the zero object.)

Correct: I did not buy anything.

(It is better to negate the verb in this case.)

Avoid Wordiness

Wordiness occurs when communication is over-complicated with words or structures that are excessive, unnecessary, or poorly placed.

Ideas can sometimes be expressed in different ways. Keep formal writing clear and concise.

Wordy writing: Bindi is not as short as she used to be.

Clear writing: Bindi is taller than she used to be.

Especially in formal writing, it is important to choose words carefully. Every word should clearly express its own meaning and be important. If you take a word away, it should change the meaning of the sentence.

Sometimes people try to improve descriptions by using extra adjectives or adverbs. This can be a problem if they use too many synonyms that give the same information. When the extra synonyms are not helpful, this is called redundancy.

We can test the usefulness of each word by taking one away.

The meal was tasty and delicious.

The meal was tasty and delicious.

Both sentences have basically the same meaning, so we should avoid repetition by only choosing one adjective.

Adjectives and adverbs can be strengthened with modifiers like very or really. This can be too wordy. When writing professionally, choose a stronger descriptive word that can give the same meaning with one word instead of two.

He is very funny. -> He is hilarious.

The children are very tired. -> The children are exhausted.

Phrasal verbs are generally more informal. There is usually a single verb that can be used in the same place.

I dropped in at John's house. -> I visited John's house.

Stephanie is going out with Pete. -> Stephanie is dating Pete.

Sometimes it is sentence structures and poorly organized information that cause wordiness.

The Passive Voice involves a grammatical structure that can create a wordier sentence. Changing these to the Active Voice may create a clearer sentence.

Passive: The towels have been folded and the floor has been vacuumed.

Active: We folded the towels and vacuumed the floor.

The Passive Voice is not always incorrect in formal writing, but it is often discouraged.

Other confusing structures include awkwardly placed clauses. It may be necessary to remove certain information, or restructure sentences.

Wordy Structure: Those diplomats with red ribbons, who can speak more than four languages, are absolutely dedicated to their work.

Concise Formal Structure: Those diplomats with red ribbons can speak more than four languages. They are absolutely dedicated to their work.

In formal English writing, express your ideas in a logical order. If every word is important, every idea should also be relevant, well-presented, and go directly to the point.

TIP: Asking somebody else to read your composition can show whether it is clear and easy to understand.

Avoid Repetition

It is better not to repeat the same words and phrases very often. Too much repetition makes a text seem simple and poorly written. On the other hand, using synonyms shows that the writer has a good range of vocabulary and can write confidently. If the text is clear and easy to understand, the reader will enjoy variety in how information is presented.

Repetition: I love cats. Cats are fascinating and cute. Many people find cats to be wonderful pets.

Varied Forms: I love cats. Felines are fascinating and cute. Many people find these unique animals to be wonderful pets.

Notice that repetition can be good for emphasis, particular when used in expressive communication. This is generally for more informal or spoken communication.

A dramatic event occurred in January, and that event changed history.

When writing, it is important to use different sentence lengths and varied structures. These make the text flow better.

Repeated structures: Scrambled eggs taste good with spinach. This is a healthy idea for breakfast. You can enjoy it every day.

Varied Structures: Scrambled eggs taste good with spinach. This is a healthy breakfast idea that can be enjoyed every day.

TIP: Test for repetition by reading your work out loud. Repetitive words and structures are usually very clear when you hear them.

Avoid Vague Words

Choose precise words that give your intended meaning with strength and clarity.

Avoid using general words when there could be specific word choices to give more complete meaning. Basic nouns can be modified with adjectives, or exchanged for more descriptive ones.

Vague: He felt like having a drink.

Specific: He felt like having a nice, cold beer.

Choose descriptive verbs when possible.

Vague: The cat climbed up the tree and moved along the branch toward the bird.

Descriptive: The cat leapt up the tree and stalked along the branch toward the bird.

Remember that additional information can improve a description, but that every word should be uniquely helpful. It may be important to write more expressively, but care should be taken to avoid wordiness.

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