Relaxing the rules for ­business writing

Carolyn Lavin, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Some live by the saying “rules are meant to be broken,” while others follow rules to the letter. Grammar gurus and lawyers alike typically fall into the latter camp. After all, the rules of writing, style and grammar are there for a reason: to make writing clear and effective.

But even the strictest stickler for punctuation and subject-verb agreement can acknowledge that certain rules can be, if not broken altogether, at least relaxed in the interest of contemporary writing and reading.

The Associated Press Stylebook — the bible of writing style for journalists, public relations specialists and all-around good writers — has in recent years made several changes reflecting a more relaxed approach to writing. Other updates come from contemporary culture and society.


Bring on the bullet points

Once relegated solely to the BuzzFeed realm, bullet points, subheadings and listicle-style blogs have made their way into contemporary business and news writing. Not only do such tools make it easier for the writer to organize thoughts into separate sections, they offer a format far less daunting to most readers, breaking up big blocks of text into bite-sized nuggets of information.

Of course, it’s important to pay close attention to parallel structure when using bullets to be sure the format does, indeed, clarify your messaging.


The singular “they”

An important update to the traditional “he” and “she” singular pronouns, “they” is now widely accepted as both a plural and a singular pronoun referring to an unspecified gender. For example, my law firm is looking for one new associate. They will work with an amazing team of super-savvy lawyers.

This change is, in part, a result of gender fluidity slowly making its way into our mainstream culture, from driver’s licenses to doctor’s office forms. Employment law attorneys have always been at the forefront of emerging gender-inclusive practices, which now include neutral pronouns such as the singular “they.”


FYI re that memo

In general communications, acronyms and abbreviations were once a decided no-no, at least in first references. Now, commonly used acronyms and abbreviations, such as “FYI” (for your information) and “re” (regarding), are becoming more widely accepted both in informal vernacular and in general writing. Use your best judgment — taking into account the subject matter, writing outlet and intended audience — when deciding whether to replace full words with acronyms or abbreviations.

(Legal documents with complex terms and details will continue to use acronyms to define parties and legal structures, with the caveat that all acronyms are spelled out clearly in the first reference.)


Long live the 99%

One of the most significant changes the AP Stylebook ushered in of late involves writing percentages. Rather than requiring the word “percent” spelled out each time, AP style now allows for the “%” symbol. As with other grammar rules relating to numerals, best practices that formerly called for spelling out the word “percent” were often disregarded. And use of the percentage symbol did not necessarily inhibit clarity … another situation in which personal preference reigns.


Drama from the AP

Other AP style changes include allowing the Oxford comma in certain instances to connect long and complicated phrases. Previously, the stylebook banned all use of that last comma before the “and.”

In addition, editors for the stylebook recently condoned removal of hyphens from certain two-word adjectives commonly used to describe a singular noun. However, in a dramatic move, they subsequently reversed that advice after an outcry from writing gurus. Sunday football fans will appreciate the initial thinking, which decreed that a first quarter touchdown, for example, no longer needed a hyphen between the words “first” and “quarter.” But further refinement by the AP and writers now reaffirms the use of hyphens, unless the phrase is part of common vernacular, such as “chocolate chip cookie.”

In today’s competitive legal marketplace, effective writing — in everything from work-centric emails, to marketing and business-building communications, to proposals for new clients — is vital to the reputations of lawyers and law firms. Keeping up with the changing world of writing and style can be a never-ending job. When in doubt, it is always safe to refer back to the old standby rules of good grammar.

The end goal, regardless of style changes, is to inform and engage readers by using a clear, concise format. For those lawyers used to the old-school ways, it may take some practice to feel comfortable relaxing the rules.


Carolyn Lavin is president of Lavin Marketing Communications at