Category Archives: Managing Style

Worried about using plain language?

In honor of International Plain Language Day, I’ll address a common concern about using plain language when writing at work. Will plain style make your audience think less of you? With my colleagues, I’ve published two studies that answer your question. The published sources are listed at the end of this post.

The bottom line:
U.S. workers prefer plain style and perceive writers of plain style as more confident and professional.

Study 1: U.S. workers prefer plain style in writing.

Let me start with clear evidence that plain style is preferred by readers in U.S. workplaces. We tested the preferences of 614 workers for two major style categories by showing them two short passages: one in plain style and one that was not.

We found 76% of workers preferred the plain options. This was true for all workers although a little less so for those in blue-collar jobs. Preferences were the same regardless of gender. Preference for conciseness was lowest among those who did not attend college.

I’ve summarized how we defined plain style if you’re interested.


There were four subcategories of conciseness tested with pairs of short passages.

SubcategoryPlain examplePlain preferredNot plain example
Nominals (2 pairs)
The first part of this report defined a portfolio and shows how it can benefit Northern Telecom’s investment decisions.
The first part of this report provides a definition of a portfolio and how it can be beneficial to the investment decisions of Northern Telecom.
Expletives (2 pairs)Fifteen institutions have responded, which should
yield sufficient data to complete our analysis.
79%It is believed that the responses of the 15 institutions we have contacted so far will yield sufficient data to complete our analysis.
Non-requisites (3 pairs)An Information Flow and Technology audit has revealed a computer problem with the
reconciliation process at the end of the banking day.
65%An Information Flow and Technology audit has revealed that there was a computer problem with
regard to the reconciliation process at the end of the banking day.
Hedges (3 pairs)The degree of uncertainty inherent in dispersion
modeling has led to overly conservative decisions
about when to abort a mission
81%I believe the degree of uncertainty inherent in dispersion modeling has led to overly conservative decisions about when to abort a mission.
Overall, 72.62% (95% CI [0.71–0.74]) of respondents preferred conciseness.

Word Choice

There were five subcategories of word choice tested with pairs of short passages.

SubcategoryPlain examplePlain preferredNot plain example
Formality (3 pairs)While working at ACE Electric, I learned much about the electrical trade and believe this experience has given me an appropriate background for the job you’re offering.88%While working at ACE Electric, I learned much about the electrical trade and believe this experience has given me a good feel for the job you’re offering.
Grammar (2 pairs)Although controlled fires are usually designed to serve a single purpose, they frequently have several benefits.85%Although controlled fires are usually designed to serve a single purpose, they frequently benefit several.
Homonyms (3 pairs)The Cahaba River site exceeds all of the minimum criteria for a wetland restoration project.63%The Cahaba River cite exceeds all of the minimum criteria for a wetland restoration project.
Connotation (2 pairs)It may take some time to gain the same product recognition in the foreign market that we have in the US.87%It may take some time to gain the same product notoriety in the foreign market that we have in the US.
Jargon (1 pair)The liquidity of assets, including the balance of the petty cash fund, should be entered in the journal.75%The liquidity of assets, including the balance of the imprest fund, should be journalized.
Overall, 79.76% (95% CI [0.79–0.81]) of respondents preferred plain word choice.

Study 2: Readers perceive plain style writers as more (not less) confident and professional.

Plain style also influences how readers perceive writers. Using the same data collected from Study 1, we investigated those perceptions.

We found statistically significant evidence that writers conveyed

  • confidence by being concise, in particular by avoiding non-requisite words, jargon, and nominals, and by choosing words with standard/plain connotations and grammar
  • professionalism by avoiding non-requisite words and hedges and by using standard/plain homonyms

See sources to learn more.

Campbell, K. S., Naidoo, J. S., & Smith, J. (2021). When Your Boss Says, “You Need to Sound More Professional”: Writing Style and Writer Attributions. International Journal of Business Communication, 0(0).

Campbell, K. S., Amare, N., Kane, E., Manning, A. D. & Naidoo,J. S. (2017). Plain-Style Preferences of US Professionals. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 60(4), 401-411.

Style Standards for Technical Writing

I’m back (after an extreme hiatus from blogging). Because I’m teaching a new graduate course on style for technical writers, I thought I’d share some of the content I’ve been developing here. If you’d rather watch/listen than read, here’s my 19-minute lecture.

Should professional technical communicators still care about writing style?

Despite the fact that technical communicators do far more than write, there’s evidence that writing skill remains a critical competency. That includes the ability to alter style by manipulating language at the word- and sentence-level. In fact, there’s some evidence that the blending of marcomm (marketing communications) and techcomm (technical communication) within many organizations makes this skill more important than ever. See the results of Lanier’s survey of STC members from a few years ago.

Results from Lanier, Clinton R. (2018). Toward Understanding Important Workplace Issues for Technical Communicators. Technical Communication, 65(1), 66-84.

What is the standard for effective writing style for technical content?

I ask my students to review three sources at the beginning of the course to get them thinking about the answer to this question.

First, I have them watch parts 1 through 3 of the video, UX Foundations: Style Guides and Design Systems, from LinkedIn Learning. Many of our students want to work in UX (user experience) after graduation and most will work with UX professionals. That makes it important to understand what UX has to say about style and standards.

Second, I ask them to read Voice, tone and style: The whys, wheres and hows  by Lauren Pope. Lauren’s a content strategy professional. What students find out is that she talks about style and standards differently from UX pros.

Third, I tell them to study the Mailchimp Content Style Guide. This guide/standard is often held up as an exemplar in the world of web content and UX writing because of its success in establishing a clear brand. They published the 1st version on GitHub in 2015 to make it available to others under a Creative Commons license. Many web content developers have adapted it for their own use.

After reviewing these sources, students should reach several conclusions about the standard for effective writing style for technical content:

  • The terms “style” and “style guide” mean something different to different groups of people.
  • Writing standards are created by people who create and distribute content. They are not handed down from the gods.
  • Organizations create standards to consistently influence the way its employees portray it and the way it is ultimately perceived by the audiences of their communications.
  • There is no single, correct standard for anything related to writing style.

There is no single, correct standard for anything related to writing style.

Let me say a little more about that last point. Here’s an example I share with students.

Standard Chicago Manual of StyleMicrosoft Writing Style Guide
AcronymsA number of expressions are almost always abbreviated, even in regular prose, and may be used without first spelling them out. Many of these will be listed . . . in the latest edition of Webster’s . . .Some acronyms, like USB, FAQ, and URL, are more well known than the spelled-out term. Don’t spell out the term if the acronym is listed in The American Heritage Dictionary . . .
QuotesChapter 13: Quotations and Dialogue with 8 subheadings83 words about pull quotes only
ChatbotsNo contentSection: Chatbots and Virtual agents with 4 subheadings
Demonstrating the lack of a single set of standards for all content

These examples show how standards differ. First, both Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) and Microsoft Writing Style Guide (MWSG) allow authors to use well-known acronyms (or other abbreviations) without spelling them out the 1st time in certain cases where the acronym is considered equivalent to a word. But CMoS refers to Webster’s dictionary and MWSG refers to American Heritage to determine which acronyms are in their list.

In another comparison, CMoS includes an entire chapter on the use of quotations and dialogue, whereas MWSG includes just a few words about the use of pull quotes–the stylized text used as a type of visual to pull readers into the content. On the other hand, MWSG includes an entire section on standards for chatbots, while a search of CMoS finds no relevant content. 

Content creators must first know which guide applies to the material they’re creating. If you’re working on fiction, CMoS will include essential standards for your edits. If you’re working on a chatbot, however, it will be mostly worthless because it doesn’t address the standards relevant to your material.

There is also a lot to say about defining style vs. voice vs. tone. That’s coming soon. I look forward to sharing what comes next in our quest to master writing style for technical content over the coming weeks!

References to learn more

Here are the references I offer students in this first module of the course, many of which are mentioned in my lecture.

Shibboleths & White Shoes: 5 Lessons for Editors

This post is a response to comments from readers about my use of “insure” in Editors insure content matches audience readiness for it. I’m using this as a teaching moment for my technical editing students so it might be too long for others. Skip ahead if you just want to get to shibboleths or white shoes or the 5 lessons.

Insure vs. Ensure

On Twitter, one of my blog readers wrote,

I wonder, based on today’s heading, whether you ever make a distinction between insure and ensure.

This comment is similar to an author query by an editor. It’s a good query, in this case, because it can be interpreted as a simple question, and it’s carefully indirect if meant as a suggestion. After all, I didn’t enlist the reader to serve as my blog editor. And, even if I had, a good editor knows that ownership belongs with the author.

My immediate reaction to the query was to reflect on my usage: I use these two terms as synonyms and, for me, “ensure” is more conservative. I would use it in a context more formal than my blog. Later, I checked a couple of dictionaries to make sure my use of “insure” in the heading was standard. (The habit of looking things up is one sign of a good editor.)

My preferred dictionary, Merriam-Webster, as well as the Oxford Dictionary, lists multiple definitions for “insure.” The following ones are relevant to my headline choice:

  1. to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions (M-W)
  2. to secure or protect someone against (a possible contingency) (Oxford)
  3. as a synonym for “ensure” (Oxford)

Here’s what Oxford says about “insure” and “ensure.”

There is considerable overlap between the meaning and use of insure and ensure. In both British and US English the primary meaning of insure is the commercial sense of providing financial compensation in the event of damage to property; ensure is not used at all in this sense. For the more general senses, ensure is the more usual word, but insure is also sometimes used, particularly in US English, e.g. bail is posted to insure that the defendant appears for trial; the system is run to ensure that a good quality of service is maintained

I was surprised to read “ensure” is more common so I investigated a little more. The chart shows the ngram of usage for the two words in books over the past 200 years.

The use of “ensure” increased dramatically around 1950. I’m not sure how my own idiolect diverged from the norm except that I grew up surrounded by linguistically conservative speakers whose usage must have reflected the equivalency of the two terms. “Ensure” is definitely the more recent usage.

As a result of this investigation, I’ll be more discriminating in my use of “insure” in the future. More importantly, this reader’s comment gave me the chance to show my students that, even with almost 30 years of editing experience, I am still actively learning how to do my job better.


Another reader’s comment on my use of “insure” was more like an edit than a query.

You may wish to change your headline to fix the misspelling: editors ENSURE content matches audience readiness

The phrasing “may wish” makes this an indirect suggestion. But the use of “fix” and “misspelling” clearly classify my word choice as an error, and that prompted me to revisit the topic of shibboleths.

As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

The second reader comment categorizes my use of “insure” instead of “ensure” as a shibboleth. My usage signals I’m an outsider. If I want to be an insider, I have to change my language. I’ve already said that, although two dictionaries support my choice of “insure,” my investigation will make me more discriminating in my use of that word in the future. This additional teaching moment concerns the presumption of my error–the judgment about my lack of proper etiquette.

This is where my beliefs probably diverge from those of the reader who made the comment. My training as a linguist means I don’t believe anyone’s language is wrong. Ever. But I know our language can be ineffective in meeting our goals. That belief underlies my career as a writer, editor, and a teacher or coach of writers and editors. Many, perhaps most, editors share the worldview of prescriptive grammar–that language choices can be wrong. For a more detailed discussion of prescriptive grammar within the context of professional writing/editing, see my earlier post about grammar rules. Here’s a summary.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. So did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette. And such breaches are simply wrong. Like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.

White Shoes

A condescending attitude based on arbitrary rules of etiquette continues and is pervasive among editors. A notable exception, editor Stan Carey writes,

Editors are prescriptive by definition, and many would happily call themselves prescriptivist. Outside of work too, some are linguistically conservative by nature, or rather habit. But this is not a necessity for the job, nor, to my mind, does it automatically confer advantage.

I agree a prescriptive attitude is no advantage. In fact, I would say it’s a disadvantage to an editor.

You may wonder how editors can do their work without telling authors they are wrong. Let me make two points.

The first point is that I do recognize most shibboleths. As an editor, I suggest how authors can alter their language in order to pass through the gate if it leads them toward their final destination. If I’m working on behalf of the author, I do not dictate those changes. If I work on behalf of the publisher, I do. But my directives are based on compliance with the chosen style guide–not on judgments of proper etiquette. And I offer suggestions only to people who have invited me to.

The second point is that editors whose attitude is descriptive distinguish between shibboleths that matter and zombie rules.  I know rules about ending a sentence with a preposition and using passive voice are the latter type. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

John E. McIntyre, editor at the Baltimore Sun, makes the same points in this video.

Some of us choose not to carry on the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day.  As a teacher, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices. I want them to understand what it means to choose white shoes on a whole range of occasions. There is no simple right vs. wrong. I want students to learn how to think about language, how it can be managed to achieve rhetorical aims. Then they will be educated enough to make their own informed choices about shoes or language.

As McIntyre says, we should be capable of “judgment rather than adherence to some set of shibboleths.”

5 Lessons for Editors

  1. Authors own their texts.
  2. No editor can ever stop looking things up.
  3. Editors must continue to improve their craft.
  4. Editing often requires choices among multiple, viable options.
  5. All good editorial suggestions are based on an understanding of a text’s rhetorical context.

Further Reading

For those of you who are interested in more thoughtful editing,  here are some of my favorite sources:

Here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

Readers label you based on your style

I’m in Seattle at the Association for Business Communication conference. Erin Kane and I will present “Reader Perception of Workplace-Writer Attributes” this afternoon. (Our fellow researchers, Nicole Amare and Alan Manning couldn’t make the trip.)

We had more than 600 working adults in the US tell us

  1. whether they preferred the more plain or less plain version of 21 written passages
  2. what two labels described the writer of their preferred written passage
  3. what two labels described the writer of the written passage they did not prefer

Good news for those who promote a plain style in their teaching or consulting. People do think plain style is more appropriate in a routine workplace email. The plain passages were preferred 80% of the time (±3.17 at a 95% confidence level). While you might think this is obvious, we have found little research that clearly establishes the style we recommend is actually valued by workplace readers. Most existing evidence is anecdotal.

Good news for those who write in a plain style, too. For example, results for one pair of passages testing nominal usage are shown in the bar chart: 70% of our participants preferred the plainer style without nominals (“defines” over “definition”).

The writer of the plain passage was most commonly described as clear and straightforward. The writer of the passage that was NOT plain as inefficient. Telling writers that, based on empirical research, they will be labeled as “inefficient” by most workplace readers when they use nominals is qualitatively different that telling them they shouldn’t use nominals.

We have lots of interesting results to share. Some today. Some in future publications. Thanks to the ABC’s C.R. Anderson Research Fund for supporting our work.

Choose active vs. passive voice strategically

No grammatical construction raises the ire of writing “experts” like the passive. Geoff Pullum (a regular contributor to Lingua Franca at the Chronicle of Higher Education) provided two marvelous examples in a research paper titled “Fear and loathing of the English passive.”

The passive voice liquidates and buries the active individual, along with most of the awful truth. Our massed, scientific, and bureaucratic society is so addicted to it that you must constantly alert yourself against its drowsy, impersonal pomp.


A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

Take a second to let those sink in. We are talking about sentence structure, aren’t we?

Pullum’s research article concluded by noting that advice to avoid passives is “bogus” and often provided by people who are “commonly hopeless at distinguishing passives from actives.” As I’ve written here before, any “expert” who focuses on limiting your stylistic choices should be ignored.  Real experts have many tools to accomplish their goals. It’s the same with expert writers. Language allows us multiple ways of saying the same thing for a reason. Every style is appropriate in some context–otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

Now that I’ve acknowledged the vitriol surrounding passive voice, let’s move on to some guidance backed by research. Here are two versions of the same fictional news story from the Stroppy Editor:

  1. Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a drug that cures AIDS. Clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS have shown it to work. Just three injections completely cured all 900 of them. The healthcare regulator is likely to approve the drug for clinical use within months.
  2. A drug that cures AIDS has been discovered by scientists at the University of Birmingham. It has been shown to work by clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS. All 900 of them were completely cured by just three injections. The drug is likely to be approved by the healthcare regulator for clinical use within months.

Version 2 is superior if the writer’s goal is to convey a message to readers clearly and efficiently. Yet each of its four sentences is constructed in passive voice (i.e., …been discovered…been shown…were…cured…be approved…). Readers of Version 2 can’t miss the focus of the passage: a new drug.  Not so in Version 1, where all four sentences use active voice but focus on different things.

It turns out that passive voice is useful in some situations–like maintaining thematic flow. Active voice is useful in others–like establishing a personal style or tone. Your choice should be strategic. That means based on the rhetorical context: your purpose, your reader’s needs, and the content of your message.

Active/passive voice is explained in Chapter 13 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to distinguish between active and passive voice and then choose between them for strategic reasons. Here are some additional resources to help you master the choice:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with other resources.

Sample Document

Review the document below. It is based on one from Susan M. Heathfield for on Human Resources, but it has been adapted specifically to show how pros use active and passive voice in workplace documents.

  • Writer: a hiring manager at a publishing company
  • Readers: an applicant for a sales manager position
  • Bottom line message: while the applicant was rejected for the management position, the company would like to interview her for a different position

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with strategically chosen active/passive voice.

Video Tutorial

The letter is included in this ~13-minute video about voice in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with passive vs. active voice. Just enter “passive” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might begin with the following sources.

Kies, D. (1985). Some stylistic features of business and technical writing: The functions of passive voice, nominalization, and agency. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 15, 299-308.

Millar, N., Budgell, B. & Fuller, K. (2013) ‘Use the active voice whenever possible’: The impact of style guidelines in medical journals. Applied Linguistics, 34(4), 393–414.

Pullum, G.K. (2014). Fear and loathing of the English passive. Language and Communication, 37, 60-74.

Riley, K. (1991). Passive voice and the rhetorical role in scientific writing. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21, 239-257.


More on word choice in evaluations of men and women

Today, I’m following up on a short post about the use of the word abrasive in performance reviews for women. Similar discussions of word choice in student evaluations of college professors have been a hot topic in the past week. See Is the Professor Bossy or Brilliant in the New York Times. Or in Inside Higher Ed yesterday:

A law dean last month urged students to stop commenting on female professors’ attire in reviews, noting that they don’t do so in the same way for men.

Professor Benjamin Schmidt provides an interactive chart for viewing the distribution of words used to describe male and female instructors in a range of disciplines based on reviews from Use of abrasive, although relatively rare (e.g., appearing twice per million words for accounting instructors), still appears to be linked to gender. The chart plots its use in negative reviews. What’s up with students of criminal justice and political science?

Here are the results for rude. Note that this word is far more commonly used (e.g., between 250 to 850 appearances per million in negative reviews). And it is clearly attributed more often to female than male instructors across nearly every discipline.

I encourage you to do your own searches. And, for those who want to investigate Schmidt’s methodology, he explains details of the sample, etc. on his website

If the tool itself interests you, it’s called Bookworm. You can use it to explore lexical trends in texts collected by the developers or even in your own. 

What word is used only in a woman’s performance review?

Wanted to share this piece from Fast Company even though I have no time to elaborate today. (Tip o’ the hat to Marie Paretti for sharing it!) Those of you who write performance reviews for women need to reflect on your word choice. And what it says about you!

The answer = abrasive. 

Friday fun with a passive quiz

I’ve been meaning to send you over to this grammar quiz from James Harbeck. But first let me remind you to avoid listening to any “expert” who focuses on limiting your stylistic choices by telling you to “avoid passives.” Here are the items you must judge as passive — or not.

  1. An accidental discharge of the firearm occurred.
  2. Palestinian boy, 10, dies as Israeli troops fire on demonstration.
  3. Boy killed in West Bank protest.
  4. It’s fashionable to make the most expressive wine possible.
  5. There should not have been any physical contact in this incident.
  6. In this final dance move, a snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore.
  7. The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq.
  8. Did you let him go all the way with you?
  9. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.

You’ll have to visit the quiz published by The Week to get Harbeck’s answers. They’re accurate and entertaining. What more could a word nerd want for some Friday fun? (If you like Harbeck’s style, check out Sesquiotica for more.)

Friday fun with translating economic jargon

If your brain isn’t too tired yet, check out this quiz from the Washington Examiner and do your best to translate statements from the current and former Federal Reserve Chair(wo)man into plain language.  Somehow I got 5 out of 5.  It was sheer luck!

If this jargon was used only with other economists, it would be forgivable. But these are remarks aimed at Congress or the press. I think that’s supposed to mean a U.S. citizen should understand it.

Thanks to the folks at Write in NZ for pointing me to the quiz. Happy weekend to both Southern and Northern Hemispheres!

Choose your words carefully — when it counts

Which should you write: “Jane is an adequate team member” or “Jane is an OK team member”? The adjectives in the two options are synonyms.  So how do you choose? Are you wondering about “OK” in a written message at work?

Here’s a list of readers’ attributions made about writers based on a choice to use one of two different words in a workplace email. (These were collected during our own current research project.):

  • unsure
  • reserved
  • vague
  • passive
  • insecure
  • timid
  • confused
  • wordy
  • uncertain
  • showoff

So how much does it really matter whether you choose “adequate” or “OK”?  The answer is a lot. Sometimes.

As I wrote in The psychology of word choice, a writer has two options when deciding whether to use a word s/he has recognized as “questionable”:

  1. To satisfice by deciding the benefits of using it outweigh the costs
  2. To optimize by deciding to search for a better word

No doubt satisficing is the choice when speed is critical to the writer. Optimizing is worthwhile only when the cost of choosing the questionable word is significant enough to trump speed.

Here’s an example from the video tutorial on word choice you’ll find below. The word choice in question is “peril.” It denotes the same meaning as “danger” or “risk,” but also connotes the sense of life and death. There is simply no way to make a good choice without thinking about the context in which the word is being used. In this case, a technology consultant is writing a recommendation report to finalize his work for a client. Because of the connotation of “peril,” its use is questionable in the document. And because the writer wants to convey an impression of himself as careful, accurate, etc. to his client, he decides to optimize by searching for a better word.

Here’s another example involving the choice between “peril” or “risk.” In this situation, however, a technology consultant is writing an email to a friend and colleague about the client project.  The use of “peril” is still questionable. Because the writer is busy with more important things and isn’t worried about his friend’s impression of him as careful, accurate, etc. in this situation, he decides to satisfice by leaving the word in his email. The cost of searching for a different word in this context is too great.

Language choices cannot be accurately described as right/wrong.  They are ALWAYS more/less appropriate for or successful in a specific rhetorical context. You need to think strategically about whether you will ignore the cost, the speed, or the quality for every document you create. You can’t deliver all three. Don’t feel guilty about satisficing when the situation calls for it.

But keep in mind that everything you write — even the dozens of daily emails — has consequences for your reader, your organization, and you. Just think carefully BEFORE you satisfice!

Principles for optimizing word choice are explained in Chapter 14 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition).You’ll find many exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you recognize and fix problems with your choice of words in workplace documents. Here are some additional resources:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this page from a recommendation report based on a sample from David A. McMurrey’s Online Technical Writing textbook. It has been adapted specifically to explore how pros choose words in workplace documents. I summarize the rhetorical context as:

  • Writer: a technology consultant
  • Readers: managers for the client, a commercial brewing company
  • Bottom Line Message: a specific product is recommended for the company’s use

Here’s a revised version of that report excerpt with better word choice.

Video Tutorial

The recommendation report excerpt is included in this ~10-minute video about choosing words for workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with word choice in workplace documents. You can search for “word choice” or more specific topics like “jargon.” There are zillions of studies of the effects of word choice on readers. You could start with the following sources, which provide support for my guidance.

Biber & Conrad (2009). Register, Genre, and Style. Cambridge University Press.

Bremner (2012). Socialization and the acquisition of professional discourse: A case study in the PR industry. Written Communication, 29, pp. 7-32.

Thrush (2001). Plain English? A study of plain English vocabulary and international audiences. Technical Communication, 48(3), pp. 289-296.

Zhang (2013). Business English students learning to write for international business: What do international business practitioners have to say about their texts? English for Specific Purposes, 32(3), pp. 144-156.