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.

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.

As per your request (boring and outdated)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.

Grammar Tip – Proper Adjectives

Pam’s question: “What is a proper adjective and should you capitalize it?”

BizWritingTip response: A proper adjective is a word derived from a proper noun. For example, Canadian and American are proper adjectives because they are derived from the proper nouns Canada and America. Proper adjectives are always capitalized.

I love Italian desserts. (Italy)
We are going to see a Shakespearean play. (Shakespeare)
He employs Machiavellian tactics. (Machiavelli)

Note: In some cases, the suffix (end of the word) does not change when it becomes a proper adjective. You still capitalize the word.

I like to play Texas poker. (Texas is a proper adjective.)
She is a recognized Hollywood star. (Hollywood is a proper adjective.)

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 – 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.

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.

Grammar Tip – Apostrophes

Russ’s question: “My manager just told me I am not using apostrophes in the right place. I believe I was taught to add them whenever a word ends in ‘s.’ But she says this is wrong.”

BizWritingTip’s response: I have noticed this grammar problem a lot lately: apostrophes being misused and abused. Apostrophes have two uses. First, they indicate a missing letter or letters.

Can’t versus cannot
It’s versus it is

Second, they replace the word “of” thereby showing possession.

In today’s business world (the business world of today)
Over 15 years’ experience (the experience of 15 years)
The firm’s assets (the assets of the firm)

The trick is where you place the apostrophe. It changes depending on what you are trying to say. Inside the “s” means there is only one item — outside the “s” means there are several items.

The firm’s assets (the assets of one firm)
The firms’ assets (the assets of more than one firm)

Note: Do not use an apostrophe if there is no possession involved.

Example (incorrect)
I have designed websites for all the clubs’ I have managed. (An apostrophe after clubs is wrong because no letters have been omitted and there is no possession.)

Example (correct)
I have designed websites for all the clubs I have managed.

Word Choice – If Versus Whether

Pam’s question: “Please do a future issue on ‘if’ versus ‘whether.’  When asked to review documents, I often see my associates using ‘if’’ incorrectly. I would like to be able to give them a simple explanation.”

BizWritingTip response: There are several rules regarding “if” and “whether.” I have tried to simplify them as much as possible. The first rule is the easiest.

1.   If you are expressing a simple condition, use “if.” (This is a good example.)
If you can’t attend, please let us know.  (Contact us only if you can’t attend.)
If you are going to attend, do you want to carpool? (We won’t expect to carpool, if you are not going.)

2.   Use “whether” if there are two alternatives – even if the alternative is only implied.
Please let us know whether you can attend. (You should let us know your plans either way.)
Let’s discuss whether this is the right thing to do – or not.

3.   Use “whether” after the infinitive form of a verb. (These are the verbs beginning with “to.”)
I am trying to decide whether I should work overtime.
I need to know whether we can hire a part-time person for the summer.

4.   “Whether” and “if” are interchangeable if the answer would be yes or no.
Examples (correct)
She tried to remember whether she had replied to his email. (Yes, she did.)
She tried to remember if she had replied to his email. (Yes, she did.)

5.   “Whether” and “if” are interchangeable in whether/or or if/or constructions.
I would like to know if the figures are accurate or they are estimates.
I would like to know whether the figures are accurate or they are estimates.

Note: “Whether” is considered the more formal word. If you are writing a report or a formal letter and have the option of using “whether” or “if” (rules 4 and 5), I would use “whether.” If you are writing an email or an informal letter and have the option, then use “if.”

Word Choice – Safety Versus Security

Paulo’s question: “In the sense of protection from danger, are the words ‘security’ and ‘safety’ interchangeable?”

BizWritingTip response: People often confuse these words. Although the thought process is close, the words are not interchangeable. Safe comes from the Latin word salvus meaning “uninjured, healthy.” Secure comes from Latin securus, “free from care.”

“Security” refers to a condition used to ensure safety or protection from outside sources. It deals with external factors. “Safety” has more of an emotional context and relates to protection of self or property. It is internal.

Another way of looking at it is that safety involves feelings and security involves conditions.

Security measures must be in place to protect your possessions. (to protect from thieves)
We have installed additional lighting in the parking lot for employee safety. (physical protection)
We are concerned about the safety of the staff. (physical protection)
We are concerned about the security of the event. (protection from outside threats or danger)
The streets are safe because of the security measures we have instigated. (measures taken to  protect from outside sources)

Grammar Tip – Hyphens with Adjectives

Todd’s question: “Would you hyphenate ‘cost effective’ in the following sentence? ‘He has designed cost effective training and consulting programs.’”

BizWritingTip response: Words change according to their use in sentences. Normally, you would consider the word “cost” as a noun or as a verb.

In the sentence provided, “cost” is now serving as an adjective – along with the word “effective” – to describe the type of “training.” I would, therefore, place a hyphen between “cost” and “effective” turning them into one word. After all, it is not “cost training” nor “effective training.” It is “cost-effective training.”

Correct: He has designed cost-effective training and consulting programs.