Grammar Tip – If I Was or If I Were

Antonio’s question: “In last week’s Biztip you said, ‘If I was writing a report or a formal letter ….’ English is my second language, but I clearly remember being taught that in this kind of structure I should use ‘were’ versus ‘was.’  I believe it should be ‘if I were writing an email ….’ Have the rules changed?”

BizWritingTip response: Wow. That sentence certainly caused a flurry of emails. Here is the rule. When a clause states a condition that is possible or likely, the verb does not require any special treatment. That is why I wrote: “If I was writing ….”

If the condition is improbable, then you would say “if I were.” This verb form is called the subjunctive mood. The most famous use of the subjunctive mood is in the Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof. The hero, Tevye, sings “If I Were a Rich Man.” The whole song is about wishful thinking. He is definitely not wealthy.

Note: The subjunctive mood is not often used in North American English today.

Grammar Tip – Shall Versus Will

Workshop participants often ask me when to use shall as opposed to will. Both words express the following thoughts:

A. future time

B. promise or threat

C. willingness

However, shall is now considered slightly dated and is used more in formal writing and speech. In standard business writing, will is the correct word.

A. Future Time
In standard business writing, use will with all three persons.


I will attend the meeting.? You will want to read this report. ?He will present the findings next week.

In formal writing, use shall with the first person (I or we) and will with the second or third person (you, he, she, it or they).


We shall be pleased to welcome the delegation from China.?He will be able to meet the delegation from China.

B. Promise or Threat
In standard business writing, use will with all three persons.? In formal writing, use will for the first person (I or we) and shall for the second and third persons (you, he, she, it or they).


I will place this congratulatory letter in your file. You shall be responsible for your actions. They shall be escorted from the meeting if they do not remain quiet.

C. Willingness
In both formal and normal business writing, use will with all persons.


I will be able to attend.

They will be available after 5 p.m.

Does all this information sound complicated? Personally, I use will in all standard business writing. But if I am working on a formal document, such as an annual report, I pull out my shall/will information and ensure I am correct.

Like Sherlock Holmes, I believe in memorizing only essential information. On the limited occasions I need this grammar point, I look it up.

Grammar Tip – His or Her or Their

Paula’s question: “This issue has come up often in our organization — the use of ‘their’ for singular instead of ‘his/her.’ For example, many write: ‘This patient needs to follow their diet better.’ I would use ‘his/her.’ What is the acceptable norm now?”

BizWritingTip response: It is difficult to give a straight answer to this question. So I will start with the grammar rules and then state my own thoughts.

Traditionally, ‘his” was considered generic and used whenever you needed a singular pronoun.

Example (dated style)

This patient needs to follow his diet. (Could be male or female)

But many people felt this was an unsuitable, masculine bias. The major grammar books now give four solutions: 1) use “he or she” or “him or her,” 2) change the wording from singular to plural, 3) remove the pronoun, or 4) reword the sentence.

1) Example (use both pronouns)

This patient needs to follow his or her diet. (This can get rather cumbersome.)

2) Example (change the wording from singular to plural)

Patients need to follow their diets. (When referring to a specific case, this doesn’t make sense.)

3) Example (remove the pronoun)

The patient needs to follow the diet. (This sounds vague.)

4) Example (reword the sentence)

The diet needs to be followed by the patient. (This passive voice sentence puts the emphasis in the wrong place.)

The major grammar books (CP, Chicago, APA and AMA) don’t approve of he/she, s/he, him/her or his/her. Nor do they accept their. Yes, it was rumoured several years ago that the plural generic pronoun “their” would become acceptable. Unfortunately, I am still waiting.

My advice: If I was writing a report or a formal letter and didn’t know the appropriate gender for the pronoun, I would use the formal “he or sheand “him or her.”

If I was writing an email or a file document, I might break the rule and use “their” or “he/she” or “him/her.” Normally, I don’t believe in breaking the rules, but, in this instance, it might be the best solution when writing informally.

Note: The style guides of many organizations ignore this issue completely. However, it is a common question. Organizations should decide how they want to handle it, and then everyone can be on same page.

Grammar Tip – A, an and the

I am often asked if we still need to use articles (a, an, and the), particularly when writing an email. The answer is a resounding yes. Without them, a writer looks sloppy.

The articles, a, an, and the, are considered adjectives and they signal that a noun follows.


Are you going to the store? (Store in this case is a noun, so the article the is placed in front of the word.)

Are you going to store the extra binders: (Store in this case is a verb. It does not have an article in front.)

A is called an indefinite article because it refers to a general noun. The is a definite article referring to a specific group.

A report (any report)?The report (a specific report)

An is also an indefinite article. It is placed in front of a noun that has a vowel sound. Note: It is not the spelling of the word, but the sound of the word that determines the use of an.

Use the article a before all consonant sounds and before words beginning with a sounded h, long u, and o with the sound of w (as in one).


A university
An hour
A hotel
An M.B.A. degree?A unit
An honour
A one-week vacation

Here’s the exception to the rule: Don’t use a or an after the word of.


What kind of a position did you apply for?


What kind of position did you apply for?

Grammar Tip – Most Is or Most Are

Deane’s question: “Is it okay to write ‘Most of the population speaks English.’ Or should it be ‘Most of the population speak English.’

BizWritingTip response: This question deals with subject and verb agreement and collective nouns.

Words such as all, none, any, some, more and most are considered pronouns. The verb following may be singular or plural depending on the noun these pronouns represent. (The noun usually shows in the of phrase that follows.)


None of us are going to the conference. (The “of us” phrase makes the pronoun and verb plural.)

Some of the report was inaccurate. (The “of the report” makes the pronoun and verb singular.)

Most of the people are available. (The word “people” is always treated as plural.)

However, the word “population” may be treated as a single or as a plural noun. If the writer is using it in the sense of a whole unit (a collective noun), the word and the following verb are singular.


The population speaks English. (Everyone does.)

But when you place most of in front of “population,” you are no longer referring to a whole unit. Therefore, the word and the following verb are plural.


Most of the population speak English.

Grammar Tip – Commas — are they important?

Some people don’t see the necessity of commas. However, a telecommunications company has recently had a $2 million lesson on why they are so important.

It seems that, in 2002, a telecommunications company contracted an infrastructure company to string cable lines across the Maritimes for a fee of $9.60 a pole. The telecommunications company believed the deal was for five years, and that it could be potentially renewed for another five years. However, the infrastructure company backed out halfway through the first period, and it was supported by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The sentence that allowed for the cancellation read as follows:

“This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

Grammarians agree that when you enclose words between two commas, the words are not essential and can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Therefore, the infrastructure company is correct in interpreting the sentence as “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

If the comma had been deleted after the word “terms,” the contract could not have been broken.

The telecommunications company is now no longer protected from the rising costs for stringing the cable, and it is estimated the comma problem may cost them over $2 million.

This story, sent to me by a BizWritingTip reader, is a wonderful example of why punctuation is so important. How much care do you take with your commas?

Incidentally, in this example the numbers for the years are written two ways: five (5) years. This is because it is a sentence in a legal contract. In standard business writing, you would never write numbers both ways.

Grammar Tip – Hyphens with Numbers and Nouns

Jan’s question: “When referring to a 21 bed unit or a 2 year term contract, is it 21 bed or 21-bed? And is it a 2 year or two-year contract?”

BizWritingTip response: Again, great questions — taking two different rules into account.

First, when a number (e.g., 21) and a noun (e.g., beds) form one thought and come before another noun (e.g., unit), you do two things: 1) make the first noun singular (bed), and 2) place a hyphen between the number and the first noun.

Examples (correct)

21-bed unit

24-hour day

60-kilometre-an-hour speed limit

If the number and noun construction does not have a noun following it, omit the hyphen.

Examples (correct — no nouns following)

The unit has 21 beds.

We will meet in 24 hours.

The speed limit is 60 kilometres an hour.

Second, according to The Canadian Press Stylebook if the number is under 10, write it out – if over 10 use the figures.*


We have a two-year contract.

Please sign the 10-year agreement.

Three-week vacation

Five- or 10-page document (There is a hyphen after five because the word “page” is understood.)

Exception to the rule: Do not hyphenate percentages or money.


12 percent increase

$2 million loss

* For more information on whether to write out numbers or use the figures, please visit the earlier BizWritingTip blog on The Rules for Numbers.

Grammar Tip – Between you and …

One of my grammar books states that people who say “between you and I” commit an error of “unsurpassable grossness.”’

I think this statement is overkill. However, “between you and I” is an undeniable grammar error. “Between” is a preposition. The pronouns following must be in the objective form. Therefore, the correct answer — the only answer — is “between you and me.”

Watch for it over the next week. Between you and me, there are a number of people who don’t get it right.

Grammar Tip – Single Quotes or Double Quotes

I am noticing a tendency for writers to use single quotes in their documents. However, this is lazy. Double quotes should be the norm. Single quotes are used in two places.

1. Use single quotes to set off material already inside double quotes.

At the last strategic planning session, the chair said, “We should review our mission statement and incorporate it in the new brochure ‘The Company That Grew.’ ”

Note: When a sentence ends with both single and double quotation marks, separate them by a space.

2. Use single quotes within a headline of a document. This allows you to save space.

Example (Newspaper Headline)
UN’s ‘mission impossible’

Mission impossible has quotes around it to indicate the words were being used ironically. Single quotes were used to save space on the line.

Readers of previous columns will remember that periods and commas always go inside closing quotation marks and colons and semicolons go outside. Yes, the placement of periods within quotation marks is a change. It occurred about 10 years ago.

Grammar Tip – Text Style Guide

Carlene’s question: “I am trying to find a good reference for a text style guide. I want to address readability of word-based text documents. Are you aware of a guide that provides information on how to use headings, bolding, font size, etc.?”

BizWritingTip response: Design is a very personal thing, and many organizations have even developed their own style guide.

You might find my article  Twelve Ways to Increase the Readability of Your Business Documents helpful.

These thoughts are based on my own research, experiences and discussions within my workshops. If your organization has a style guide that differs — follow it. (Always go with whoever pays your salary.)

In terms of a reference guide, I like  Looking Good on Paper by Garrett Soden. Writing in Bullets by Kim Long is also interesting. They are both available through Amazon. However, I am sure there are other guides out there. If anyone has a favourite book that deals primarily with fonts and layouts, I would love to hear from you.

Jane’s onsite workshop  Writing for the Web also explores the differences in writing for print as opposed to screen.