Better Business Writing at Your Fingertips

​I write fairly regularly as a columnist for the SHRM HR Daily Newsletter, and some of you may know my books, many of which focus on proper workplace documentation: how to draft stronger performance reviews, corrective action notices and scripted tough conversations, and even “wordsmith” books that help you find the right phrase for those difficult-to-describe situations. So I’m probably a little over the top when it comes to appreciating grammar and excellent writing practices, but for this article, that’s likely a good thing. As HR professionals, we can all use a quick review of grammar from time to time as it relates to our daily writing chores.

Following are some simple tips that will help your writing stand out and bolster your professional image. Master these few guidelines and catapult your business writing skills to new heights. Discussing punctuation, grammar and abbreviations may feel a bit like time-traveling back to your sophomore English class, but I’m hoping you’ll enjoy these practical yet nuanced tips that would make not only your English teacher proud, but your boss and your boss’s boss as well.

Possessives, Plurals and Abbreviations

Plural possessives plague many business writers. To get them right, keep this simple example in mind:

  • One employee/singular: the employee’s record
  • Two or more employees/plural: the employees’ records, workers’ compensation, employees’ rights 

Plurals of abbreviations are a little trickier. Here’s the rule: Omit the apostrophe when writing the plural of an abbreviation that does not contain periods:

  • CEOs, CPAs, RFPs (requests for proposal) and CBAs (collective bargaining agreements)

However, include apostrophes when writing the plurals of abbreviations that contain periods:

  • M.D.’s, Ph.D.’s

Likewise, omit apostrophes when referring to a decade. For example: 

  • The 1950s, the 2010s

And if you want contractions of decades, it looks like this: the ’50s, the ’10s. 

Titles and Capitalization

Titles are capitalized when they precede a person’s name and usually are not capitalized when they follow someone’s name. For example,

  • You should send a letter to Vice President Alice Johnson at XYZ Corporation.
  • You should send a letter to Alice Johnson, vice president at XYZ Corporation.
  • Chief Human Resources Officer Paul Falcone wrote this article.
  • This article was written by Paul Falcone, chief human resources officer at The Motion Picture and Television Fund.

What about capitalizing words such as group, department, division or company? As a rule, these words should be capitalized only when they stand alone or are part of an official name. For example:

  • Javier works in the Cedars Sinai Hospital Finance Department.
  • Take your paycheck to accounting to see if they can answer your payroll question.
  • The employee works in the INOVA Department of Advanced Oncology.
  • You should report to the oncology department when you arrive.

Finally, capitalize “board of directors” when it is part of a proper name or part of a heading—for example, “the Acme Corporation Board of Directors.” Apply the lowercase “board of directors” when used alone or before the proper title—for example, “the board of directors of Acme Corporation.”

“These grammatical nuances may appear to be too much work or otherwise too much attention to detail,” said Shaun M. Anderson, assistant professor of organizational communication at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “But like everything else, it depends on your audience. If your goal is to present yourself as a senior leader and executive or at least someone with that potential, mastering these basics will hold your audience and not otherwise detract from the significance of your message.” 

Commas and Semicolons

First, commas are used to separate independent clauses (i.e., full sentences that can stand on their own with a subject and a predicate) that are joined by a coordinating conjunction (i.e., and, or, but, nor, for or yet). Do not use commas to set off dependent clauses (i.e., partial sentences) that cannot stand on their own. Therefore:

  • The employee opted primarily for a stock fund in her retirement account, but she also wants some exposure to bonds.
  • The employee opted primarily for a stock fund in her retirement account but also wants some exposure to bonds.

In the first example, you have two separate sentences that can stand on their own and are separated by a coordinating conjunction; hence, the comma is added. In the second example, there is no comma because the second half of the sentence cannot stand on its own: “wants some exposure to bonds” is not a separate, freestanding sentence or clause.

“Serial” comma users typically include a comma after the penultimate element in a series of three or more elements, as is typically the case found in books: 

  • He’s taking HR, legal, and ethics courses at a local junior college.

News publications, in comparison, typically omit the final comma in a series of three or more elements, as follows: 

  • He’s taking HR, legal and ethics courses at a local junior college.

Both constructs are appropriate as long you apply them consistently.

In addition, semicolons confuse a lot of us but can come in handy to join two shorter, related sentences without using a conjunction. For example, the “however” construct can either lead off a new sentence or continue the ideas of a prior sentence. In the latter case, notice how the semicolon precedes the word however and a comma follows:

  • Martha is the team lead for this exercise. However, she has the least tenure in the group.
  • Martha is the team lead for this exercise; however, she has the least tenure in the group.

In this case, the semicolon is used instead of a period because the two sentences are closely related.

Finally, semicolons can be used in a list to separate phrases or items that contain commas. For example:

  • We have offices in three cities: Brooklyn, New York; Chicago, Illinois; and Springdale, Arkansas.

Special note: When it comes to dates, omit commas between the month and the year, like this: July 2020. 

That vs. Which

I can’t finish this piece without tackling one of the biggest areas of confusion out there: that versus which. Here’s the easiest way to remember how they work.

That is used with a restrictive clause—a clause absolutely necessary to the meaning of a sentence. As such, no comma is needed: 

  • This is the promotion that you’ve been waiting for all your life.

In comparison, which is used with a non-restrictive clause—a clause that is parenthetic and not necessary to the meaning of the sentence. As such, a comma is needed:

  • The compensation committee, which is made up of the CEO, CFO and chief human resources officer, makes all decisions relating to promotions, merit increases and equity adjustments.

I know what you’re thinking: “This is too much fun. Do we really have to stop now?”  Unfortunately, the answer is yes; articles such as this must be limited in length according to publishing guidelines. But don’t let that stop you! There are plenty of excellent writing resources available to you as a business professional, and one thing’s for sure: You’ll never regret the investment in strengthening your professional image as demonstrated by your writing abilities. Happy composing!

Paul Falcone ( is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif., and author of 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees: A Manager’s Guide to Addressing Performance, Conduct, and Discipline Challenges (HarperCollins Leadership, 2019).

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