Business Writing

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Syntax Training | Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

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August 24, 2012


Adrian Brooks

Hi Lynn, I've been reading your blog for a while now and I think it's brilliant. Thank you.

I have a similar issue in the user manuals that I write for various companies. Some companies prefer that I address the reader in the second person ("You should...") and others prefer that I don't use the second person at all. Do you know of any specific guidelines for software/hardware user manuals?

Very best, Adrian

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Adrian. For specific guidelines, I recommend the "Microsoft Manual of Style," which came out in a fourth edition this year.

The manual uses both. For example, it shows "A user can change the default settings" and "You can change the default settings."

The problem with avoiding "you" is that the third person "a user" quickly becomes awkward when it is repeated. And "his or her" is clumsy as a pronoun replacement for "a user."

Good luck!



I like the use of third person as a means to avoid the stiff-sounding repetition of the company name. I have seen some colleagues use it or its (possessive) frequently when referring to a company. What guidance can you offer on when to use it vs. we to refer to a business?


I agree with your rankings based on your examples. I think Chuck's question can have different answers based on what the purpose and audience for the document is. Do you want an intimate communication or are you trying to intimidate people? I'm betting marketing people would want the company name mentioned as much as possible for branding purposes.

This issue is minimal for me because most of my writing and editing is done for administrative legal proceedings. In these documents we use a much more formal third person style because we are speaking on behalf of the company. No one cares what my opinion is, they care what the company's position is. I find myself rearranging sentences to avoid the use of me, I or my.

For example, "I compared X and Y" becomes "X was compared to Y."

Lisa Marie

Isn't there some sort of grammar rule that makes it acceptable to "mix" first and third person when the third "person" is actually a company? It seems to me that it should be acceptable in that case, because a company is an entity made up of many people, rather than just one individual.

For example, I certainly would not say, "I am a good listener. Lisa will always listen when you need a friend." That just sounds silly and doesn't make sense. However, it sounds correct to write, "Acme Company can help you with your inventory control needs. We are experts at designing inventory systems." The person writing that statement is part of Acme Company, so they can use the name of the company as well as express their participation in the company with the word "we."

Does anyone know of any specific rules that would apply here? Now I am very curious!

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Chuck. Thanks for your comment. I believe you meant to write "I like the first person" rather than "I like the third person," since third person would include repetition of the company name.

One bit of guidance I can offer on using "it" or "we" when referring to a company, is to choose one of them rather than mixing third person and first person. Such a mix can lead to subject-verb agreement problems and convoluted sentences.

You've given me an idea for another blog post. Thanks!


Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Jennifer, thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree that a document's purpose and audience are decisive factors when choosing "we" or "it."

Thanks for your x and y example. If you want to avoid passive constructions, you can write, "In a comparison of x and y, y showed a higher . . . "


Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Lisa Marie. I was curious too. However, I could not find any rules on the topic George raised. That is why I explored the topic for him and suggested guidelines.

Your example with "I" and "Lisa" reminds me of parents who refer to themselves as "Daddy" or "Mommy" when they talk to their small children. Such parents are the only people I can think of who mix "I" with the third person effectively. It's all about the audience!

Thanks for commenting.


Lisa Marie

Lynn, thanks for your response and for giving me a good laugh this morning- I love that example of parents using the third person to talk to their kids! It truly is all about the audience, I guess!

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Lisa Marie. Don't tell anyone, but my husband has had a difficult time breaking that parental habit, and our daughter is now 18!



I talk in third person in my kindergarten classroom often. "Mrs. Smith loves the color yellow, too!" and also with my own children as you mentioned above. "Mommy said so, that's why." However, I am in the process of writing a cookbook and have given myself a ficticious name to match the title. Ex: Little Miss Mixing Bowl. Because I want the title and concept to be carried throughout the book but not every single time I tell a story or give a tip, I have been mixing first and third person and am starting to wonder if it sounds strange. Example: Little Miss Mixing Bowl knows a good batch of frosting when she sees one. Followed by- I recommend using butter instead of margerine. What are your thoughts on this? Looking forward to hearing your advice!

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Randi. My first thought is that your "Little Miss" statements should be useful gems that appear separate from the text, for example, in sidebars. In sidebars, you would not need to worry about mixing "Little Miss" and a first-person pronoun.

To be useful, your sample sentence would need to be something like this: "Little Miss Mixing Bowl recommends using butter instead of margarine."

I hope this suggestion helps.


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