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I Should Have Known Better

As a business writing expert, I should have known that I'd get the wrong response. I had written the email in a way that was easy for me but misleading for my reader, a woman named Lea. 

Requesting a tour of a retirement home for my elderly friend, I wrote:

Please let me know if you have any time this week. The only impossible day for us is Wednesday.

Do you see what's wrong with my request? 


If you don't see it yet, you will recognize it when you read Lea's reply:

I can do Wednesday. We can have lunch also. Can you both be here by 11:30 a.m.?

And before I even had a chance to respond and clarify, I received another email from Lea:

Sorry, I read it to be the only possible day. How about Thursday at 10:00 a.m.?

With the way I had written the message, Lea had seen Wednesday and chosen that day.

The truth is, I did know better. I knew I should tell Lea when we were available–not when we weren't. I just didn't feel like taking the time to type all the days we were free. But I should have written this:

We are available on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday.

Here's a best practice: Tell them when you are available–not when you aren't. Tell them what you want–not what you don't want. Although it may take a moment longer, it will save time for everyone when your clear message gets the right response.

I wrote about this best practice almost 12 years ago here in Make No Exceptions.

Do you have any writing rules you sometimes ignore even though you know better? I welcome your confession.

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.

10 comments on “I Should Have Known Better”

  • This is a great confession! I experience a similar concern when trying to book meetings with clients. I’ll email them, “I’m available after 12 p.m.” implying 12:15, 12:30, etc. 9/10 times, they respond, okay, let’s meet at 12 p.m.

    Something else I run into is asking too many questions, or phrasing a question incorrectly. When I include “or,” I often get a yes or no answer, instead of the client choosing an answer. “Would you like to enable this, or would you like to edit the settings?” “Yes.” It’s definitely something I try to rephrase now!

  • Stating availability in a negative way is often more concise. Saying a museum is open “daily except Mondays” is clearer than saying it’s open “Tuesdays through Sundays”. The problem in your example may be that “impossible” is too close to “possible”. You could instead say “any day except Wednesday”.

  • Hi Kelly,

    I like your 12 p.m. example. How do you write it to get the answer you need? I would try “I’m available from 12:15 on” or “I’m available from 12:15 to 2 p.m.”

    The “or” situation is familiar in my personal life. After I get the yes or no answer from my husband or daughter, I find myself saying, “That was an OR question.”

    In business writing, I would probably phrase that with bullets, like this:

    Which would you prefer:
    — Enable . . .
    — Edit the settings

    Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your input.


  • Hi George,

    I agree with you about the value of brevity. I also agree that the word “impossible” was a problem.

    Still, in my experience “any day except” often doesn’t work either. In the blog post I linked to from many years ago, here’s what happened:

    I wrote, “I can get together any day except Friday.” She wrote back, “Great! I’ll come to your office on Friday.”

    When I see “open Tuesday through Sunday” at a museum, I realize immediately that Monday is excluded. Although longer, I think that phrasing works in general writing too.

    As always, I appreciate your views.


  • Hi Lynn,

    Thanks for the feedback. That’s very helpful! The 12 p.m. feedback you provided seems like an easy adjustment: “I’m available from…” but it’s something I hadn’t thought of.

    I like the idea of using bullet points for the “OR” questions. That might make it easier to read too, visually. I’m certainly going to try both of those. Thank you!

    P.S. After reading your post title again today, I’m now singing the Beatles in my head. 🙂

  • When I list times that I’m available, for clarity I add my end time. In one of the examples above, does being available from 12:15 to 2 p.m. mean that you are available to start the meeting, tour, etc., between those times or does it mean you have to leave by 2 p.m.? Using that same example, I’d say that I’m available anytime starting at 12:15 p.m., but must leave by 2 p.m.

  • Isn’t it sad that we have to adjust to lazy readers? Ok, it’s easy to read “possible” instead of “impossible”, but how can you skip a whole “any day except”?

    People who care the most, always have to make up for those who can’t be bothered reading all the words in a sentence. If I took the time to write them, why can’t they take the time to read them?

    I know this is a pointless rant… Thank you for your advice, as always it’s going to be useful and make our communicative lifes easier!

  • Hi Deborah,

    Thanks for stopping by. It’s not a pointless rant–you make good points.

    I agree that those who care the most have to do the most work. That seems to be true in many aspects of life.


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