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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BizWritingTip response: The comma-with-a-breath rule is outdated.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.

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

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.)

Note:

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

Grammar – Licensing

Brenda’s question: “I understand that ‘licence’ is a noun and ‘license’ is a verb.  Our question is about the word licencing/licensing. For example, would you say ‘Microsoft will be licencing users next year’ or ‘Microsoft will be licensing users next year’?”

BizWritingTip response: The word “licensing” is always spelt with an “s.”

Example (correct)
Microsoft will be licensing users next year.

Note: You are absolutely right. All forms of English spell the word with an “s” if it is being used as a verb.

Example (correct everywhere)
Are you licensed to drive a truck?

However, when it is in the noun form — British, Canadian, and Australian English spell it with a “c.” American English spells the noun with an “s.”

Examples
You need to apply for a licence. (noun — British, Canadian, and Australian English)
You need to apply for a license. (noun — American English)

Grammar Tip – When Names Form an Adjective

Monique’s question: “I understand that hyphenation must be used between two words that form one adjective. However, if the words are a person’s name what would be the correct way of writing it, for example, Dag-Hammerskjöld-Honorary-Medal or Dag Hammerskjöld-Honorary Medal?”

BizWritingTip response: You are correct on the basic rule. If two or three words form an adjective, you must insert a hyphen.

Examples (correct)
A three-month vacation
An up-to-date report
German-Canadian relations

However, there is an exception to this rule: If a proper name is used as an adjective, you do not use any hyphens. The capitalization of the first letters shows their relationship.

Example (correct)
Dag Hammerskjöld Honorary Medal

 

Writing Style – He Versus They

Nicole’s question: “I recently received an email from an employee looking for clarity between he and they.  If you are not sure of the gender would you say ‘He will attend training’ or ‘They will attend training’?”

BizWritingTip response:  The answer to this question has changed over time.  In the past, writers used the pronouns he, his, him or himself when unsure of the gender.   The pronouns were considered all inclusive.   However, this is now considered outdated and sexist.

Examples  (grammatically correct but outdated)
If your child wants to attend med school, he should study hard. (What about your daughter?)
A politician should post his expenses on line.  (What about female politicians?)

There are now other options to make your writing “gender-neutral.”

1.   You could make the noun plural and rework the rest of the sentence.

Examples 
If your children want to attend med school, they should study hard. (And you better start saving.)
Politicians should post their expenses on line.
They will attend training.

2.   You could use he or she or his or her or he/she or his/her.

Examples
If your child wants to attend med school, he or she should study hard.
A politician should post his/her expenses on line.
He/she will attend training.

Although awkward, this can work well — as long as you don’t have to keep repeating he or she or his /her throughout a lengthy document.*

3.   According to the Oxford Dictionaries Online, although it is not grammatically correct, the practice of using plural pronouns to refer to a singular noun is now acceptable. *

Examples
If your child wants to attend med school, they should study hard.
A politician should post their expenses on line.

*      If your organization has a style guide, naturally you would follow its advice.

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.

Grammar Tip – Apostrophes With Abbreviations

Anne’s question: “We would like to ask you for the proper punctuation. In the sentence, ‘We have talked to other CCAC’s about their experience,’ should it be CCAC’s or CCACs?”

BizWritingTip response: This is a great question dealing with a common error. To pluralize capital letters and abbreviations ending in capital letters, just add a lower case “s.”

Examples (Plural words)
CEOs
M.D.s
MPs
Ph.D.s

Correct: We have talked to other CCACs about their experience.

You would only use an apostrophe if you were indicating possession or a missing letter.

Example
Our CCAC’s going to fill two new positions. (missing letter — Our CCAC is going to fill two new positions.)
Would you like to see the CEO’s office? (possession — the office belonging to one CEO)
Would you like to visit the MPs’ offices? (possession – the offices of many MPs)