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Looking for a Babysitter. Call Jane.

Katherine, a reader, sent me an excellent example of the confusion that can result from messages that are stingy with words and punctuation. Katherine saw this handwritten advertisement on a bulletin board:

Looking for a good, responsible babysitter. Call Jane.

Underneath the announcement were small slices of paper, each with Jane's phone number, for people to tear off.

Is Jane a responsible babysitter looking for work? Or is she a parent in search of a sitter?

Katherine described the confusion: "The punctuation suggested that she was looking for a babysitter, but the nature of the sheet with tear-off slips and the fact that most advertisements of this sort are for people trying to find work as a babysitter led me to believe that perhaps it was a punctuation error."

These two revised signs clarify the situation:

Looking for a good, responsible babysitter? Call Jane.

If you are a good, responsible babysitter, call Jane.

You might wisely argue that neither version says enough. What about the hours, days of the week, number of children, geographical location, or other details? But in both versions at least we can tell whether Jane is seeking work or seeking a babysitter. 

Do you have an example of business writing that confuses by saying too little? Please share it, as Katherine did. Thanks, Katherine!

Syntax Training

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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.