GRAMMAR

  • Are the pronouns anyone and everyone plural?
    • No, they are plural. Both pronouns anyone and everyone are singular and need to be used with singular references. However, we often use them when referring to a whole group of people, but we treat them grammatically as individual group members.

      INCORRECT EXAMPLE

      Are (plural reference) everyone (singular pronoun) arranged into working groups?

      CORRECT EXAMPLE

      Is (singular reference) everyone (singular pronoun) arranged into working groups?

      So, even though everyone sounds like it should be plural, it is actually singular.

  • Should I use singular or plural verbs after line of products and bunch of keys?
    • Essentially, you are asking about the use of collective nouns (nouns that describe a collection of people or things regarded as one unit) with singular or plural verbs, and this is an interesting (but sometimes tricky) issue.

      When the collective noun refers to the collection considered as a whole or as one unit, use a singular verb.

      EXAMPLE

      The committee (one unit) is (singular verb) meeting in the boardroom.

      In cases where you want the collection to be considered as individuals, it is recommended that you add a (plural) word such as members or keys. In this way, you avoid having to decide if the group is considered as individuals or as a whole, as this can lead to mistakes.

      EXAMPLE

      The committee members (plural) disagreed about the conference venue.

      In the case of line of products, bunch of keys and group of designers, the verbs will be plural because of the additions products, keys and designers after the collective nouns are plural.

      When the collective noun refers to the collection considered as a whole or as one unit, the use of a singular verb is recommended.

      EXAMPLES

      The group (considered as a whole) was weighing up its (singular verb) options. The product line (considered as a whole) is (singular verb) outlined in the brochure.

SENTENCE CONSTRUCTION

  • What is a sentence fragment and how do I get rid of it?
    • A sentence fragment is a part of a sentence, usually a phrase or dependent clause, punctuated as if it were an independent clause (or complete sentence). Notice how the following fragments do not make sense by themselves.

      The underlined fragment in the following example is a series of phrases.

      EXAMPLE

      Persuading employees to support the company team, to learn how to program a computer, or to prepare for an assignment in a different department. These activities all require human change.

      The underlined fragment in the following example is a dependent clause.

      EXAMPLE

      State regulations in the financial field have been changed. Which explains why savings and loans and other financial institutions are now more competitive.

      The underlined fragment in the following example is an incomplete sentence.

      EXAMPLE

      Most attempts at change are likely to meet some resistance. Change that brings about doubt and that may be seen as a threat to a worker’s security and salary.

      Always remember that for a sentence to be complete, it needs to contain a subject, a verb, and it must express a complete thought. If you read the fragments above, you will immediately see that they do not express a complete thought.

  • Should there be a semicolon or a comma before the word however?
    • The word however in the middle of a sentence usually separates two independent clauses (or complete sentences). When this is the case, no punctuation would be incorrect and would create a fused sentence (where two full sentences are fused together).

      A comma before the word however is also incorrect and would create a run-on sentence. A comma is not a strong enough punctuation mark to separate two complete sentences.

      Both a semicolon and a period/full stop are strong enough punctuation marks to separate two complete sentences. When writing business documents, the preference is to use two sentences as this usually keeps the sentences short.

  • When using the word and, when do you need a comma before it?
    • There are two situations where it is correct to use a comma before the word and.

      Use a comma before and in a sentence containing a list where the second last list item contains the word and itself.

      EXAMPLE

      The departments involved in the project are Human Resources, Sales and Marketing, and Information Technology.

      In the above example, Sales and Marketing is considered to be one list item.

      Use a comma to separate independent clauses (or complete sentences) joined by the connecting words (coordinating conjunctions) for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so.

      The comma comes before the connecting word. The connecting word and the comma work together as a team.

      SENTENCE, connecting word SENTENCE.

      EXAMPLE

      Everyone was on time for the conference, and it was a hugely successful event.

      When you use a connecting word but do not have a complete sentence on both sides of it, you don’t need a comma.

      INCOMPLETE SENTENCE connecting word SENTENCE.

      OR

      SENTENCE connecting word INCOMPLETE SENTENCE.

      EXAMPLE

      I first outlined my strategy and then interviewed the teams to try to determine how much resistance we would face.

      In the above example, the underlined words aren’t a full sentence, so there’s no need to include a comma before the word "and".

      If your sentence is very short (between five and 10 words) and easy to read, you can leave out the comma before the connecting word.

      SHORT SENTENCE connecting word SHORT SENTENCE.

      EXAMPLE

      Joe Bloggs is young and he is inexperienced.

WORD CHOICE

  • Do you live at Boston or do you live in Boston?
    • This is a great question, and one I get asked often. The answer is in and the explanation is as follows.

      IN = large areas (continents, countries, cities and towns)

      I live in the UK.
      I live in New York.
      I live in London.
      I live in Singapore.

      ON = street names, island names and floors

      I live on Seventh Avenue.
      I live on the ninth floor Street. I live on Oxford Road.

      AT = numbered addresses and institutions

      I live at 471 Seventh Avenue.
      I live at 9 Ramsgate Place.
      I live at Boston University.
      I live at the hospital.

  • Do I click on the first icon, or in the first icon in my desktop?
    • The answer is on, and the explanation revolves around the use of prepositions of place.

      IN

      Use in with spaces, or to show that something is enclosed or surrounded.

      … in a room
      … in a meadow

      Use in with bodies of water.

      … in the river
      … in the water

      Use in with lines.

      … in a row
      … in a queue

      AT

      Use at to show a specific place or person.

      … at the door
      … at Vera’s house

      Use at with places on a page.

      … at the top
      … bottom of the page

      ON

      Use on to show position on a horizontal or vertical surface.

      … on the desktop
      … on the icon
      … on the floor
      … on the chair

      Use on with directions.

      … on the left
      … on the right
      … straight on

  • Could you advise me on the difference between error, mistake and fault?
    • Generally, the answer is as follows.

      An error tends to be more impersonal, and a mistake tends to be more personal. An error exists in everything, to some degree. An error is made if something is inadvertently wrong.

      A mistake is clearly made by someone. It arises because something has been done incorrectly by someone, or an action due to bad judgement.

      A fault is the responsibility for a bad situation or event.

      EXAMPLE

      It was his fault.

      Fault is also a noun that means a wrong action caused by bad judgement or inattention. In this respect, it is quite similar to error. It can also mean to put or pin the blame on.

      Do you fill in or fill out a form?

      Both fill in and fill out are phrasal verbs and how they are used can be a little confusing.

      Fill in means to add items to a form, whereas fill out means to complete the entire form by adding in all the items. So, the answer to the above question is out.

      EXAMPLES

      Please fill in your name, telephone number and address in the correct spaces on the form.
      I spent 15 minutes filling in the fields on the Program Registration Form.
      It took me over an hour to fill out the Passport Application Form.

  • Is it correct to say speak to someone or speak with someone?
    • When you speak to someone, you are telling him/her something. It is used when giving a speech or presentation to an individual or group.

      EXAMPLE

      I will speak to the group about the next annual convention during our monthly meeting.

      When you speak with someone, you are having a discussion with him/her. It means you are having a two-way conversation.

      EXAMPLE

      It was lovely speaking with you today.

  • What is the correct word choice: speak to or talk to?
    • Often, the words talk and speak are used interchangeably in sentences. However, speak is often a more formal term. With languages, you use speak, not talk. Talk can also be a noun.

      EXAMPLES

      I must speak with the CEO of the company about the issue.
      The interpreter speaks four languages.
      Do you speak English?
      Let's talk about the situation.

      Examples of when the words speak and talk are not interchangeable are as follows.

      You talk too much during class.
      The man spoke articulately.
      I spoke on my friend's behalf.

  • What is the difference between learned and learnt?
    • The words learnt and learned are both alternative forms of the past tense and past participle of the verb learn. The only difference is that learnt is more common in British English, and learned is more common in American English.

  • How do I know when to use advice rather than advise?
    • Advice is a noun meaning suggestion or an opinion given about what to do or how to behave. It rhymes with ice. Advise is a verb meaning suggest, warn, inform or notify. It rhymes with wise.

      EXAMPLES

      When I give you advice (a suggestion), I expect you to listen.
      The advice I received was sound.
      I advise (suggest) that you accept my recommendation.

  • When should I use would, could and might?
    • The words would, could and might express probability and possibility. They are all used to express degrees of certainty (unlike the word will, which expresses absolute certainty).

      If we want to say that something will possibly happen or we are less than certain, we use could or might. Unlike can and may, which express ability in a straightforward way, could and might express ability under a definite or possible/implied condition.

      Could brings into question the ability to do something.

      EXAMPLES

      John might think he’s off the hook, but he isn’t.
      That kind of driving might cause an accident.
      I could finish writing the report, but it’s unlikely because it is a long weekend.

      In the last example, the use of could shows the inability to finish writing the report under the condition of limited time to do it. Even without the ... but it’s unlikely… phrase, could still conveys an implied condition.

      Would is a word that has many uses. As with the word could, you use would to indicate uncertainty, or to express a possibility or likelihood. Would questions the intention to do a task. It shows the likelihood of an action, or the preference for the action (rather than the ability to do it).

      EXAMPLE

      The team members would have attended the meeting if they had been notified earlier.

      In the above example, the team members are expressing the preference to attend the meeting, provided the condition of being notified earlier was present, which it wasn’t.

      There are more uses of the word would.

      You can use would to make a polite request.

      EXAMPLE

      Would you please send me the action items before noon.

      In this example, the writer is questioning the intention to complete the task. If you replaced would with could, then the writer would be questioning the reader’s ability to complete the task.

      You can use would to mean used to (where it is used in the past tense). 

      EXAMPLE

      The manager would call the meeting to order.

  • Is it agree with or agree to?
    • If we have the same opinion as someone, we agree with them. If we approve of an action or proposal, we agree with (doing) it. If we accept a plan or proposal, we agree to it.

      EXAMPLES

      The manager didn’t agree with some of the proposed actions.
      I don’t agree with the way the incident was managed.
      He agreed to begin the partnership a month late.

  • When can that be used instead of who?
    • Who always refers only to people. That usually refers to things, but it can also refer to people when they are written as groups.

      For example, you can use students that, groups that and teams that. Even though using that in these situations is not incorrect, the preference would be to use who.

  • How can I ensure I use stationary and stationery correctly?
    • Stationary is an adjective that means fixed or unmoving. Stationery is a noun that includes writing materials. Pens and pencils are stationery. 

      Tip: look out for the e – and you’ll never make a mistake again.

      EXAMPLE

      The car was driven around the stationary structure in the road.
      It was my responsibility to ensure the office didn’t run out of stationery.

  • With between, which word choice is correct: and or to?
    • There must have been between fifty and sixty people at the cocktail party.
      There must have been between fifty to sixty people at the cocktail party.

      The first option is correct. After between, you need to use and (and not to). Use to when you use from (and not between).

  • Is there a word alright?
    • The following terms are always split into two words.

      All right (not alright)
      A lot (not a lot)
      Thank you (not thankyou)

  • What is the correct word choice: whom or who?
    • If you have ever wondered about the use of the above words, please read the following explanation and examples.

      Correct usage of the who/whom pronouns present difficulties for many writers. The following guidelines and examples may help you determine which one to use.

      If a pronoun (he, she, it, they) could serve as the subject of the who/whom clause, use who or whoever. When a pronoun functions as the object of a clause, use whom or whomever.

      EXAMPLES

      Who (could serve as the subject) is that masked man?
      The men, four of whom (could serve as the object) were at the scene, were indicted for fraud.

  • Advertisement for or about which is correct?
    • Always use for after the word advertisement.

      INCORRECT EXAMPLE

      In the business magazine, there was an advertisement about a new online course.

      CORRECT EXAMPLE

      In the business magazine, there was an advertisement for a new online course.

  • Why do we say an RTA road not a RTA road, and yet we say a rat?
    • The appropriate rule is as follows. Use an in place of a when it precedes a vowel sound, not just a vowel.

      The rule causes confusion most often with shortened forms and other abbreviations. Some people think it's wrong to use an in front of an abbreviation (like RTA) because an can only go before vowels. This is not the case; it is the sound that matters. It's an RTA assuming you pronounce it ar tee aye.

      With a rat the sound is rrrr, which is a consonant (not a vowel) sound. Therefore, it is a and not an.

  • What is the correct use of your and you're?
    • Let’s consider the following sentence. See how the word your is used incorrectly.

      INCORRECT EXAMPLE

      Your never going to believe who is standing next to Joe Bloggs.

      CORRECT EXAMPLE

      You’re never going to believe who is standing next to Joe Bloggs.

      Your is a possessive pronoun that means belonging to you. You’re is a contraction for the words you are. Substitute the full phrase you are in each case and you’ll never make a mistake.

      EXAMPLES

      Is this your (belonging to you) book?
      As you’re (you are) the one in charge of the project, it would be preferable for you to explain the proposal to the team.

PUNCTUATION

  • Does a polite request need a question mark?
    • QUESTION: In my messages, I often use polite requests. MSWord Grammar Checker wants me to end the sentence with a question mark, but it just doesn’t look right to me. Does a polite request need to end in a question mark or a period?

      ANSWER: Let’s use the following example to help answer this question.

      Example: Could you please send the agenda items by noon today

      In fact, you don’t need to use a question mark at the end of a polite request (even though technically it is a question). A period is the more appropriate terminal punctuation.

  • Should something owned by a business be business' or business's?
    • In the majority of references we read, the answer was as follows.

      Form the possessive of plural nouns by adding ’s if the word does not end in an s or z sound.

      EXAMPLES

      men’s jobs
      women’s children

      If the plural noun does end in a sibilant (or end in an s or z sound that has a hissing sound), make it possessive by adding only an apostrophe.

      EXAMPLES

      the businesses’ managers
      the Joneses’ garden
      three dollars’ worth

  • What is the difference between a hyphen and a dash?
    • A hyphen is used between parts of a compound word or between the syllables of a word when the word is divided at the end of a line of text. There is no punctuation space before or after the hyphen.

      EXAMPLE

      mother-in-law

      A dash is used to emphasize a point or to set off an explanatory comment. There is a space before and after the dash (unless the explanatory comment is at the end of the sentence). Be careful to avoid overusing dashes, as they may lose their impact.

      EXAMPLE

      Amy Smith – the director’s assistant – will arrange the convention.

      In most business writing scenarios, it is preferable (as is the case in the above example) to use commas to offset explanatory comments.

  • Which punctuation option is correct?
    • The firm will sponsor the men and women's tennis competitions.
      The firm will sponsor the men's and women's tennis competitions.

      The correct answer is the second one, because the competitions are owned separately by men and women.

  • Why is there only one space required after a period/full stop?
    • Traditionally, only one space is used after a period in typewritten material. The convention that called for two spaces after a period was a response to mechanical typewriters and is unsuited to the proportional spacing formats offered by word processors and computer typesetting.

  • Why do we need a comma before which and not before that?
    • Generally, we use which to introduce clauses that can be removed from the sentence (called non-essential clauses) without changing the meaning of the sentence. For that reason, a which clause is set off from the sentence with a comma before it, or one before and one after it.

      Generally a that clause cannot be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence (called an essential clause), and therefore the clause is not set off from the rest of the sentence with commas.

  • Can I use contractions (such as you're, it's, don't) in my written documents?
    • The short answer to this question is yes. Contractions are grammatically correct and there is no reason why you shouldn’t use them in your business writing.

      I know that contractions are sometimes said to be incorrect in writing as they are commonly associated with speech. In fact, the objections are more stylistic, based on the feeling that using them makes your writing too informal.

      Research shows that these forms of writing are being used more and more. When writing business documents, where a friendly, brief, interactive and personal plain English style is encouraged, contractions become useful.

      A word of caution: if you are going to use contractions in your business writing, be sure you are careful to place the much needed apostrophe in the correct place.

  • What is the correct use of single and double quotation marks?
    • The primary function of quotation marks is to show direct speech and the quoted work of other writers. Other uses are for enclosing the title of a song or an article, or for drawing attention to a term that is unusual or recently coined. Double quotation marks are recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style. Single quotation marks are then used for quotes within quotes.

DOCUMENT PARTS

  • When should I use the salutations Sir and Dear Sir?
    • This question is very interesting, and I’ve given it quite a lot of thought. Generally, when using Dear Sir as the salutation, it shows a more formal response, and that would mean that using Sir is less formal. For example, in an electronic mail message (which itself is a less formal way of communicating), it is quite acceptable to omit using the Dear in the salutation. 

      However, in this case, we have to assume that even though the writer knows the reader is male, s/he doesn’t know the reader (or the writer would use the reader’s name in the salutation), and this is where I am having trouble with the question. I am trying to think of a situation where a writer would use Sir in a less formal (but, of course still professional) correspondence.

      My recommendation would be to write Dear Sir in the salutation when writing to a male reader when you don’t know the person’s name, no matter what type of business document it is.

  • When should I use Regards, Cheers or Sincerely?
    • There is no hard and fast rule for using these sign offs. These are my thoughts.

      For more formal business documents including letters, reports and proposals, and in particular when the relationship with your reader is new, use Sincerely. In addition, when the reader has written to you and used Mr. X or Ms. Y, you should respond in the same way, and the sign off should be Sincerely.

      For less formal business documents (such as brief electronic mail messages), and when the person has an established relationship with you, then you can use Regards. Be careful to avoid confusing less formal with unprofessional. Even when writing a less formal messages, you need to ensure it remains professional. Do this by following the rules of effective writing. It is also quite acceptable (and possibly even preferable) to use Regards in response to a message where the person used Regards as a sign off to you.

      The work environment is becoming a more friendly place and developing relationships with people you communicate with is vital to success. This concept, together with the introduction of electronic mail (and the reduction in telephone communication), has resulted people feeling comfortable with using sign offs like Regards and Cheers. Writers feel the need to develop rapport, even without face-to-face or telephone contact. In fact, many of our participants say that they feel uncomfortable using the stuffy (their word, not mine) words Sincerely and Faithfully.

      Years ago, I would have insisted on the use of Sincerely rather than Regards or Cheers, but things are different now. We have to change with the times. 

SAMPLE DOCUMENTS

  • TESTIMONIAL FOR A SECRETARY
    • Use the following example to help you the next time someone asks you to write a testimonial.
      __________________________________________________________________________________

      Terry Peters was employed as a Senior Secretary at the ACB Corporation from July 2010 until she resigned one month ago.

      Terry’s responsibilities included general secretarial duties as well as attending meetings, transcribing minutes, writing reports and general correspondence, managing incoming calls, liaising with senior staff, arranging travel and supervising junior administrative staff.

      Terry performed her work exceptionally at all times. She was an excellent secretary with superior typing and computer skills. Her verbal and written communication skills ensured work of a very high quality and accuracy. She worked at a fast pace, but this did not in any way detract from the very high standards she set for herself.

      It was a great loss to the company when Terry left. She never missed a deadline, was always on time and was personable, friendly and sociable.

      It is with great pleasure that I highly recommended Terry for the position for which she has applied. We will miss her dedication and professional approach to work.

      Please contact me if you would like additional information.

  • UNSUCCESSFUL JOB APPLICANT
    • Use the following example to help you the next time you need to write to applicants who weren’t successful.

      __________________________________________________________________________________

      Thank you for attending the interview for the position of Senior Secretary to the Marketing Director. It was lovely to meet you.

      I am sorry to inform you that we are unable to offer you this position. Although you have excellent qualifications, we have decided to appoint someone with knowledge of the specific software we use in the department.

      We wish you all the best for the future.

  • OFFER OF EMPLOYMENT: OPENINGS AND CLOSINGS
    • To make things easier for you, I have included examples for both the openings and closings for an offer of employment letter.

      EXAMPLE OPENINGS

      Thank you for attending the interview last …. I am pleased to offer you the position of ….
      I am pleased to be able to confirm the offer I made to you when you came in for an interview on …
      I am pleased to offer you the position of … commencing on…

      EXAMPLE CLOSINGS

      Please confirm in writing that you accept the offer on the terms stated above, and that you can begin your duties on ….

      We look forward to welcoming you to ABC Corporation and hope you will be very happy in your work here.

      I hope you will be able to use these expressions.

 

Do you have a question? Please send an email with your question to verne@businesswriting.biz.