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Grammar and punctuation tips for business report writing

Business report writing is a balancing act between formality and keeping your audience interested and awake. None of us want to wade through boring, monotonous text, but certain conventions apply in business writing.

Using good grammar and correct punctuation are two of them.

Let’s take a quick look through some of the most common grammar and punctuation mistakes and get you on the right track to excellent business report writing.

Before we go any further, we need to define the term clause, as we will be using it throughout.

To be classed as a clause in English, a piece of text should have a subject and a verb, but not necessarily form a complete sentence.

So, let’s begin.

Bullet points and punctuation

When using bullet points, there are no set rules, which is part of the problem. Do you use capitals, full stops, a colon, or a semicolon? The principal aim is to get the information across in an easy-to-read format. Be consistent and it's okay. Some simple guidelines to follow are:

  • Use a colon to introduce the bulleted list.
  • Only use a full stop if the points form a sentence.
  • If you have over four or five points, use a numbered list instead.

If the points don’t make a proper sentence, using capitals, or full stops is a styling choice. Just be consistent throughout the report.

Semicolons, when and how to use them

The use of a colon, semicolon, or comma often causes confusion. The acid test for a comma is that the sentence should flow. Colons are used to indicate a more decisive break between related clauses, while semicolons occupy the ground between a comma and a colon.

British English and American English writers have differing opinions on its use, but there are some guidelines to follow:

  • If you were reading the sentence aloud, the semicolon would be a good point for taking a breath.
  • The semicolon joins two independent clauses that relate to the same subject or idea.
  • A semicolon is used when a full stop would be correct, but it upsets the sentence's flow.
  • Never capitalise the first letter following a semicolon, except when it would usually be a capital, such as proper nouns.

The mysteries of commas

It's possible to write a complete book on comma use alone. The basic premise is that the sentence should flow naturally, with the comma joining two related clauses separated by a coordinating conjunction.

One common misconception is that a comma is always used before the conjunction "but." We are often taught this rule at school, but the comma is only used when joining two independent clauses.

Commas play a considerable role in the meaning of a sentence and can produce a hilarious result if left out. A very well-known example is "Let's eat Grandma” versus "Let's eat, Grandma."

The Oxford comma

An Oxford comma is a particular use of punctuation, also known as a serial comma. In a list of three or more items, it goes before the conjoining “and.” For example, the flag of the United Kingdom includes the colours red, white, and blue. The use of the Oxford comma is to avoid confusion and ambiguity.

To capitalise or not, that is the question!

Obviously, there are some occasions when you don't have a choice, such as proper nouns or the first word of a sentence, but what about other times? There's quite a long list, actually, but it also depends on the style guide you follow. Some examples:

  • names of days, months, and holidays
  • most words in titles except conjunctions and prepositions
  • historical events or periods of time
  • the first word of a quote
  • nationalities and languages

Such as:

  • days: Monday, April, and Christmas Day
  • titles: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
  • time: Middle Ages
  • quotes: "Life is what happens when you are busy planning."
  • languages: English, Swedish

Are you into or in to something?

This is a widespread error, even for native speakers of English. Into is a preposition: a word that shows a relationship. In this case, it is defining the relationship of something being inside something else. For example, "I put the dishes into the sink."

In and to are also prepositions, indicating a relationship, and often find themselves next to each other in sentences. For example, “I called in to say hi”, or “I logged in to your website.”

Collective nouns – it’s or theirs?

Its and theirs are pronouns that associate ownership to a noun. The choice of using "its" or "theirs" depends on the noun it is referring to.

So, for example, “Aardvark Trading offered all its employees a bonus.” We use “its” here as it takes the place of the singular item, the company name.

If the subject was plural, we would use theirs, for example, “The managers gave their employees a bonus.”

Contractions in business writing – good or bad?

Often the use of contractions will depend on the context and the audience. In general, it's not used in formal writing except when space is limited in a table, for example.

Having said that, it also depends on the style guide you are following. Often exceptions are allowed if the sentence sounds awkward and stilted without the contraction. Some style guides will instruct you to rewrite the sentence to avoid awkwardness.

In general, it is okay if used sparingly.

Some points we've discussed above are set in stone, but many have different interpretations. For business writing, you will often be required to follow a style guide, which will help you find the right level. If not, then assess the audience you are writing for and adjust your style to match.

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