Checking Your Grammar Knowledge

Rob’s question: I believe my grammar is fairly good. Is there a way I can check if I am as good as I think?”

BizWritingTip response: I am impressed with your interest. Too many writers weaken their professional image through poor grammar. I even had a workshop participant tell me recently that he did not bother with grammar for internal emails as it didn’t matter.

But if managers see sloppy writing in documents sent to them, they automatically assume the writer uses the same style for the public, customers, and clients. This does not go over well – particularly if an organization prides itself in being a leader in its field.

If you want to check your grammar knowledge, try the exercises on these three sites:

Canadian clients can request Ontario Training Network to visit their place of business to deliver either of these workshops:

Grammar Essentials

Post your scores below.

Grammar Tip – Verb Agreement With Per Cent

Louise’s question: “After a % sign should the verb be singular or plural? For example, is it 95% of the population live or lives less than 10 minutes away?”

BizWritingTip response: First, using the % sign in a narrative sentence is considered informal wtiting, e.g., emails. And you would use it in charts and tables. Spelling out the word is formal and more common for letters and reports.

Second, the % sign and the word per cent are exceptions to the standard subject and verb agreement rules. Whether you use the sign or the word, the verb agrees with the “of phrase” that follows.

Examples (Correct)
Ninety-five per cent of the population lives less than 10 miles away. (Population is a collective noun and takes a singular verb.)
Twenty percent of the voters are not happy with the candidate. (The verb are agrees with the plural noun voters.)
Approximately 30% of the mailing list is out of date. (The noun list takes the singular verb is.)


  • Numbers starting a sentence should be written out.
  • Per cent can be written as one word or two.

Grammar Tip – Pronouns With Gerunds

Marie’s question: “Is the following sentence correct? I appreciate your helping me. I have been told by a colleague that it should be ‘you’ not ‘your.’ I think I am right but I don’t know why.”

BizWritingTip response: Yes, you are definitely right. This grammar rule involves gerunds, a term many people are unfamiliar with. A gerund is a word that is normally a verb but is being used as a noun. Gerunds always end in “ing.”  In your example, helping is a gerund.

The trick with a gerund is that when you place a noun or pronoun in front of it, you must make the word possessive. (The possessive pronouns are my, your, his, her, our, and their.)

Examples (correct)
I appreciate your helping me.
Does anyone object to my smoking? (Smoking is a gerund preceded by a possessive pronoun.)
Your complaining about the assignment will not change anything. (Complaining is a gerund preceded by a possessive pronoun.)
The plane’s arriving on time surprised me. (Arriving is a gerund preceded by a noun.)
Our success with this event depends on Roger’s taking charge of the finances. (Taking is a gerund preceded by a noun.)

Isn’t grammar fun?

Grammar Tip – Its Versus Their

Susan’s question: “Please tell me the difference between its and their. For example, would I write ‘ABC Enterprises offered all its employees a bonus’ or ‘ABC Enterprises offered all their employees a bonus?”

BizWritingTip response: As ABC Enterprises is considered a singular noun, you would have to use the personal pronoun “its.”


ABC Enterprises offered all its employees a bonus. (Its is replacing the company’s name.)

You would only use “their” when the noun it is replacing is plural.


The managers offered all their employees a bonus. (Their is replacing the managers.)

Word Choice – Although Versus Though

Irfan’s question: “Please help me understand the use of ‘though’ and ‘although’ and when to add a comma with these words. Here are two examples: 2) Although(,) I have finished your assignment, it was not difficult. 2) I have finished your assignment. It was not difficult though.”

BizWritingTip response:  “Although” and “though” when used as conjunctions are interchangeable. (Conjunctions are words that join two separate thoughts.) Although is generally considered more formal than though. (If you wanted to be emphatic, you could also say “even though.”)

The words indicate a condition with an unexpected outcome. One way to ensure you are using the words correctly is to try to replace them with the phrase “despite the fact that.”

Therefore, neither of these words works with your first example. It would be odd to say “Despite the fact that I finished your assignment, it was not difficult.” You would expect to be able to finish an assignment that was not difficult.

Examples (correct)
Despite the fact that I finished your assignment, it was difficult. (wordy but correct)
Although I finished your assignment, it was difficult. (formal)
Though I finished your assignment, it was not easy. (informal)

Note: The comma is inserted only after the “although” or “though” phrase. It is never placed directly after the word.

Though can also be used an adverb meaning however. (In this usage, though is not interchangeable with although.) Do not insert any commas with the word.

I finished your assignment. It was not difficult however.
I finished your assignment. It was not difficult though.

There is nothing wrong in using “though” as an adverb. Personally, I would have omitted the word as I believe it is not necessary: I finished your assignment. It was not difficult.

Word Choice – Spacecraft Versus Spacecrafts

Deane’s question: “I wonder if it’s acceptable to write spacecrafts (or aircrafts) instead of using the singular. I thought ‘craft’ was similar to the use of sheep – one word functions for both singular and plural.”

BizWritingTip response: Again, another example of our words changing. Most dictionaries, e.g., Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and Cambridge Dictionaries Online, agree with you. “Craft” refers to both singular or plural nouns – the same as the word “sheep.”

Example (most dictionaries)
The pilot turned the spacecraft toward earth.
The pilot has spent time on several spacecraft.

However, in researching this question, I found that Webster’s College Dictionary and Wiktionary accept both “spacecraft” and “spacecrafts” as the plural noun.

Seven spacecrafts were successful in landing on Mars.

Therefore, in some situations you might get away with adding an “s” to spacecraft. However, if you stick with “spacecraft” regardless of whether it is singular or plural, you will always be correct.

Grammar Tip – Hyphens With Prefixes

Sandra’s question: “In words beginning with the prefix ‘pre,’ I am having difficulty determining when to hyphenate and when to state them as one word (or two words if that’s an option), for instance, words such as ‘pre content.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: A prefix is a short word (e.g., anti-, ex-, post-, pre-) placed before another word to modify its meaning. It is attached to the following word or joined to it with a hyphen.

anti-inflammatory     pre-war     pre-content     preheat    antitrust

A prefix cannot sit by itself in a sentence, e.g., pre content. (Note: Your spell checker will not identify this error as the two words in themselves are valid. But it is an error.)

Authorities often differ on whether you need to hyphenate the words or run them together. In American English, the guideline is to avoid the hyphen if you can. British and Canadian English tend to recommend the hyphen more often.

The following are some guidelines for prefixes regardless of what form of English you are using.

1.   Use a hyphen to avoid awkward spelling.
Anti-aircraft (Antiaircraft looks awkward.)

2.   Insert a hyphen to avoid duplicating vowels.
pre-exist     co-operate      re-enter    de-emphasize

3.   Use a hyphen if the following word begins with a capital letter or is a number.
pre-Aids era       pre-Confederation      pro-American forces        post-1920 fashion

4.   Use a hyphen after a prefix when an unhyphenated word would have a different meaning.
re-treat versus retreat     coop versus co-op       re-cover versus recover

5.   Do not use a hyphen if the unhyphenated version is common.
prefix      prehistoric     postoperative   proactive    ultraviolet   nonnegotiable

Bottom Line: If these rules don’t answer your specific question, type the prefix and the following word as one word and then rely on your spell checker – set of course to the English dictionary you prefer.

Word Choice – Further Versus Farther

Sharon’s question: “I am always confused over the use of ‘farther’ vs. ‘further.’ Which would be correct in the following sentence? If these dates do not work, we can look further (or farther?) into the year.”

BizWritingTip response: This question is quite interesting. My initial response was to recommend the use of “further.” Further is used for an abstract distance and indicates “to a greater degree” or “to a greater extent.”


If these dates do not work, we can look further into the year.
I wish I was further along in writing the proposal.
What further proof do you need?

Farther refers to actual distance.

The new office location is farther from my home than I would like.
How much farther do we have to travel?

But, in doing an additional check with my dictionary and grammar books, I found that some reference books now consider these words interchangeable.

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary states that “farther” is a variant of “further.”

Frankly, I intend to stick with the traditional way of writing farther and further. However, if you can’t keep them straight, I don’t imagine many readers will call you on it.

Closing Lines in Business Documents

Heather’s question: “In one of your biztips, you closed with ‘Trust this helps.’ Should it not be ‘I trust this helps’?”

BizWritingTip response: You are right in your thinking. “Trust this helps” is not a complete sentence. However, in business writing, it is common practice to be a little less strict with our closing lines in electronic messages.

Examples (informal closes)
Looking forward to seeing you.
Hope you have a good weekend.

All effective business writers understand the three tones of business writing: formal, neutral, and informal. The formal tone is used for reports and for official letters. It rigidly adheres to all grammar rules, but the tone can come across as rather stiff. The emphasis is on the writer or the writer’s organization.

Example (formal close)
I trust this information helps.

When reading most letters and emails, readers tend to prefer a style that sounds more conversational. It usually increases your reader’s buy-in of the message.

Note: I am not recommending disregarding grammar rules in letters and emails. My comments relate only to the closing line.

Who Versus That

Theresa’s question: “I wonder if it is acceptable to use the word ‘that’ when referring to people. Usually this happens when referring to a collective noun. An example I find very jarring is the official apology about residential schools given by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.   He states, ‘It has taken extraordinary courage for the thousands of survivors that have come forward to speak publicly about the abuse they suffered.’

“It would seem to me that the word ‘who’ should be used. What are your thoughts?”

BizWritingTip response: I was taught years ago that who is used for people and that for things. But guess what? Times have changed. Now both who and that are used when referring to persons. Usewho when you are referring to specific people and that when referring to a category or type of person.

He is a manager who treats his employees well. (The manager is a specific person.)
He is the type of consultant that I would hire again. (category)*
She is the one who should be going. (specific)
Of all the people that should attend, I decided to send her. (category)
I am shocked by professionals that use improper grammar. (category)
I am shocked by one of our managers who uses improper grammar. (specific person)

Therefore, although it does sound awkward, Prime Minister Harper’s statement is correct.

*Yes, you could remove the word that from this sentence. Grammatically, that is the correct word to use. In the interest of brevity, you could – correctly – remove it: He is the type of consultant I would hire again.