Posts

I Versus We

Marina’s question: “When do I use ‘I’ in a document and when do I use ‘we’? Are they interchangeable?”

BizWritingTip blog response: First of all, yes, you can use both I and we in the same business document. Years ago, you were only supposed to use “we.” Nowadays, I means you personally. We refers to everyone who works for your organization.

Examples
If you have any questions, please contact us. (Someone in the organization will help you.)
If you have any questions, please contact me. (I will help you.)

It’s interesting how personal pronouns tend to increase your reader’s “buy in” to your message. The more personal pronouns, the warmer the tone — particularly the pronoun “you.” A great guideline is to aim for seven personal pronouns per 100 words.

Examples
As per your request (boring and outdated)
As requested (cold)
As you requested (warm)

Note: Have you ever wondered why you get bored reading formal reports? It’s normally because there are no personal pronouns.

Effect as a Verb

John’s question: “A colleague and I are having a dispute. Is there ever a time when you can use the word ‘effect’ as a verb?”

BizWritingTip response: Normally, effect is a noun meaning “result” or “consequence.”

Examples (correct)
What effect (result) will the holiday schedule have on staffing?
We need to assess the effects (consequences) of the decision on workload.

However, effect can also be used as a verb meaning “to bring about.”

Example (correct but used infrequently)
The manager effected (brought about) a change in the hiring policy.
When it comes to verbs, most people use affect. Affect means to “influence,” “change,” or “assume.”

Examples (correct)
The change will not affect  (change) his salary.
The decision affects (influences) hiring policy.
She affects (assumes) a disinterested air.

Other examples (correct)
There are a number of holidays that don’t affect (influence) trash collection schedules.
There are a number of holidays that don’t effect (bring about) changes in trash collection schedules.

Opening Lines in Emails

Ildar’s question: “I have been noticing emails from some of my colleagues and clients that start with ‘Hope all is good and you are doing well.’ Is this an appropriate start of a business inquiry?”

BizWritingTip response: Thank you for bringing this up. I dislike this opening and so do many of the people who attend my email classes. It reminds me of those annoying calls you get from telemarketers during dinner. “Hello. How are you? I hope you are doing well. We are in your neighbourhood cleaning ducts this week.”

There are other reasons why this is not a good opening for business emails.

First, although some writers think it will make their emails sound warm and friendly, it often backfires. If the writer is not close to the reader, it comes across as insincere. Does the writer truly care or is the writer just lazy and using it as a start to all emails?

Second, business people are busy. They prioritize when they will read their correspondence. In fact, they often have their messages set up in preview mode so they can read the first few lines without opening the email. The hope-you-are-well opening does nothing to help the reader decide whether they actually need to read the message.

The best business emails start with the action request and then “the why” the request was made. Any social niceties, such as “hope you are well” or “hope you had a good weekend” should be left to the last paragraph. Personal emails can be handled any way you wish.

Grammar Tip – Commas With Introductory Phrases

Robert’s question: “My manager has told me to insert a comma after the first few words in a sentence. However, I was taught to use commas wherever I would take a breath. I don’t often take a breath at the beginning of a sentence. What do you think?”

BizWritingTip response: The comma-with-a-breath rule is outdated. As people have different breathing/speaking patterns, it really doesn’t work. There are now very firm rules on when to use commas.

The first rule is to insert them after introductory phrases in a sentence. Think of an introductory phrase as one that sets the stage for the upcoming message.

Examples
Based on our findings, we decided to proceed with the project.
As you requested, I checked our files.
At the June 2 meeting, the board requested staff to …

It makes you, the writer, look lazy when people omit the commas.

Word Choice – Next and Last

Lesley’s question: “Please volunteer your opinion on next or last. For example, if in 2014, I said I saw her last Christmas, I take this to mean I saw her at Christmas 2012, not Christmas 2013.”

BizWritingTip response: When next or last are used to describe a time, things get complicated. They mean different things to different people – even dictionaries cannot agree. I was taught to mentally add an additional word, such as year or week, to determine the meaning.

Examples (North American)
I saw her last (year’s) Christmas. (This would make it 2013.)
Today is Monday. I want to meet next Wednesday. (Next week’s Wednesday would be nine days from now.)
Today is Monday. I want to meet this Wednesday. (This week’s Wednesday is two days from now.)

However, this seems to be a North American custom.

The Oxford Dictionary states that next relates to the nearest following day.

Example (British)
Today is Monday. I want to meet next Wednesday. (This would mean in two days.)

My advice: Don’t use this and next when referring to a certain day without clarifying the date.

Example
I want to meet next Tuesday (the 12th).

Or, only talk to people who think like you.

Writing Style – To Verb or Not to Verb

Deane’s question: “In sports, news nouns, such as ‘summit’ and ‘medal,’ are often treated as if they were verbs. For example, someone will write: ‘I don’t expect them to medal in that tournament,’ or ‘he is expected to summit Mount Everest this afternoon.’ Is this correct in formal writing?”

BizWritingTip response: What you are concerned about even has a name. It is called “verbing.” Verbing is a way of creating new words out of old ones. Nowadays, we might head up a task force, hand over an assignment, or referee a game. We might also email or text a friend.

It has been estimated that up to a fifth of English verbs are derived from nouns — including verbs such as rain, snow, and hail.

New forms of words take some getting used to. But the truth is if those forms stick around for a while, we do get used to them.

However, when writing in the business world — regardless of whether you are preparing a formal or informal document — I would not recommend getting creative with your word choice. (I once received an email recommending we Calvinize at an upcoming conference. In other words, wear jeans.) Stick with words that would be familiar to your reader. In business writing, your role is to inform your reader – not distract them with your “brilliance.”

Have you been verbed lately?

Fingers Crossed

Tracey’s question: “Is it fingers crossed or finger’s crossed or fingers’ crossed?”

BizWritingTip response: This idiom describes a hand gesture in which the middle finger of either hand is crossed over the top of the index finger of the same hand. When we cross our fingers, we are hoping or wishing that things will happen the way we want them to.

Apostrophes indicate either possession or a missing letter or letters. In this phrase, neither possession nor missing letters occur. Therefore, it would be incorrect to insert an apostrophe.

Examples (correct)
Are your fingers crossed for the return of good weather?
I’ll cross my fingers that it stops raining.

Writing Style – Capitalization

Pam’s question: “Please provide a simple explanation on when federal should be capitalized and when it shouldn’t. The question applies to other modifiers like state or national.”

BizWritingTip response: Years ago, when in doubt you were told to capitalize a word. Now the guideline is when in doubt use lowercase.

When it comes to words such as federal, state, provincial, government, or national, only capitalize the word when it is part of a proper noun. A proper noun is the official name of a person, place, or thing.

Examples
He wants a job with the federal government. (general category)
She will contact the Federal Trade Commission. (proper name)
I have worked for the Ontario government. (non-official name)
I worked for the Government of Ontario. (proper name)
Is the issue subject to federal, state, or local laws? (general categories)

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:

https://twitter.com/StaplesCanada/status/398970716605128705
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22512744

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

Grammar Essentials

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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.)

Note:

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