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Sweating Bullets or Very Anxious: You Choose

The other day I received an email reply from a client. Here is the entire message:

PHEW. I was sweating bullets over that one. . . . Story later.

I understood exactly what she meant. Here is a translation into explicit business writing:

I am relieved. I was very anxious about that situation. I will explain later.

Which version is better?

My client’s message was perfect for me. It gave me a vivid, quick picture of how she had felt. But it would not have been appropriate for an international audience.

First, readers around the globe might have been puzzled by PHEW. In all capital letters, the word looks like an acronym.

Then there’s the idiom "sweating bullets." Both sweating and bullets evoke strong images. Without knowing the idiom, readers would need to make sense of those words together. They would probably turn to a dictionary or a list of idioms to be certain of the meaning.

Even the fragment "Story later" would require thought for someone who speaks English as a second, third, or fourth language.

Which message is better? It depends on the reader.

In a Better Business Writing seminar last week, an attendee was puzzled by my suggestion that we avoid sophisticated language, figurative language, and jargon if we want to reach our readers. She was certain her writing would be boring to her readers if she omitted those elements.

And she was right. That’s because her readers are the owners of the company. As brilliant, sophisticated people whose first language is English, they would easily tire of bland prose.

For any writing rule, decide whether it applies to your message for your readers. Then choose to follow it or ignore it.

This month’s issue of my free monthly e-newsletter, Better Writing at Work, focuses on writing for readers around the globe. The lead article is "How to Write to 26,000 People–or 1." Subscribe.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

5 comments on “Sweating Bullets or Very Anxious: You Choose”

  • I am working with an Anglo-American congregation which is renting space to a Korean congregation. At our first meeting with some of their leaders, there were some moments of serious non-communication because of our use of idioms. It took us a while to communicate clearly with eachother.

    I will keep this in mind for writing, too.


  • I work at a university, where we have many faculty who come from all over the world where English is not their first language.

    I often think hard about the words I use when talking with them. It makes me realize how often I use idioms in everyday speech. It takes care and practice to avoid it!

  • Robin and Kathy, thanks for your comments. They reminded me of the Japanese girls who stayed with us for a couple of days this summer. They looked surprised and worried when we offered them root beer floats. Finally one of them said “Alcohol?” How does one convincingly explain that root beer is not beer?


  • It can even be confusing in two English speaking countries! I’m from the UK, and now live in NZ, and I’ve managed to put my foot in my mouth a few times. For instance, you don’t “root” for your home-team here.. root means something very, very different!!

    Love the blog btw,
    Helen Leggatt

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