Grammar Tip – Quotation Marks: ‘Single’ or “Double”?

Roger’s question: “When do you use double quotation marks as opposed to single ones?”

BizWritingTip response: Quotation marks have three main functions:
1) to indicate exact words
2) to set off words for special effect
3) to show parts of a complete published work

Normally, you would use double quotation marks in all three cases. However, there are specific instances in North America when you use single quotes.

1. Use single quotation marks in headlines in newspapers, articles, brochures, etc., when quotation marks are required. This helps with spacing issues.
2. Use single quotation marks for a quote within a quote.

He said, “My favourite poem is ‘The Raven.’ ”
Marie asked, “Can you please tell me the difference between ‘dislike’ and ‘not like.’ ”

Note: When a word or term is used to imply the word itself – and is not being used in its regular sense — you should put it in italics or surround it with double quotation marks.

Some people say between you and I when between you and me is correct.
Some people say “between you and I” when “between you and me” is correct.

Many people overuse that in their writing.
Many people overuse “that” in their writing.

Exception: It’s common in certain disciplines such as philosophy, theology, and linguistics to use single quotation marks instead of double quotation marks when highlighting words with special meaning. In standard business writing, stick with the double.

Grammar Tip – That Versus Who

Ron’s question: “I often hear (or read) ‘that’ used in place of the pronoun ‘who.’ To my ears, it doesn’t sound correct. For example, ‘I’m always shocked by professionals that use improper grammar,’ versus ‘I’m always shocked by professionals who use improper grammar.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: I agree with you. 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. Use who 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. (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 a professional who uses improper grammar. (specific person)

*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.

Grammar Tip – Subject and Verb Agreement

Debbie’s question: “Should ‘is’ or ‘are’ be used when an inserted phrase changes the subject from singular to plural? For example, if I wrote ‘the version accessed (and features exposed)’ would the verb be ‘is’ or ‘are’?”
BizWritingTip response: This question relates to subject and verb agreement. In the example, the subject “version” is singular. Therefore, the verb is singular – “is.” If “and” appears in the subject, the verb must be plural.

The version accessed is determined by the user credentials. (Singular subject = singular verb)
The version accessed and the features exposed are determined by the user credentials. (Compound subject = plural verb)

If there are any intervening words in a sentence, ignore them when selecting the verb. This rule also applies to phrases surrounded by commas or parentheses.

Her background in banking and mortgage applications makes her an excellent candidate. (The verb —makes — is singular because the subject — background — is singular.)
The salesperson, as well as two of his colleagues, has asked to meet with us. (The subject and verb are singular. Material between two commas does not impact the verb.)
The version accessed (and features exposed) is determined by the user credentials. (The verb is singular because the subject — version — is singular. The material in the parentheses must be ignored.)

Grammar Tip – Periods With Abbreviations

Mary Lou’s question: “Why is it that MD does not have a period after the M. and D. as this is a title?”

BizWritingTip response: The rule for abbreviations is that if they are composed of all capital letters, you do not use periods with them.

SOPs (standard operating procedures)

Exception: Abbreviations that are geographical, refer to a person, or are a single letter, do have periods.

John A. Macdonald
S. (but SW is correct — two letters)

Most abbreviations made up of lowercase letters or that are a mixture of upper and lowercase do contain periods.

i.e. or e.g.
Mr. or Mrs.

However, according to The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling mixed abbreviations that start and end with a capital letter do not contain periods.

U of T

Aren’t you glad you asked?

Grammar Tip – A or An With Abbreviations

Elfriede’s question: “When you are using abbreviations, how do you know whether to put ‘a’ or ‘an’ in front of them, e.g., ‘a MBA’ or ‘an MBA’? Please help. I’m in health care and we use abbreviations ad nauseam.”

BizWritingTip response: When it comes to using indefinite articles (a or an), it doesn’t matter whether you are spelling the word in full or using an abbreviated form; it is all about the sound – not the spelling.

Use “a” before all words beginning with consonant sounds, including sounded h’s, long u’s (pronounced like “yoo”), and o’s pronounced like w’s (as in the word one).

a day (starts with a consonant)
a union (prounounced as YOO-nion)
a European trip (pronounced as YOO-ropean)
a hotel (starts with a sounded h)
a CGA (starts with a consonant)
a one-week holiday (pronounced Won-week)
a UFO (pronounced as YOO-FO)
a USB key (pronounced YOO-SB)

Use “an” before all vowel sounds — except words that start with a long u (YOO) or a silent h.

an essay (starts with a vowel)
an hour (the “h” is silent)
an MBA degree (pronounced EM BEE A)
an x-ray machine (pronounced EX-ray)
an SOP form (pronounced ES-OP)
an MRI machine (pronounced EM-RI)
an HIV outbreak (pronounced AITCH-IV)

Note: In speech, both an historic occasion and a historic occasion are considered correct. It all depends on how the speaker pronounces the word “historic.” In writing, a historic occasion is more commonly used.


Grammar Tip – Quotation Marks

Gord’s question: “I am mostly on board with writing things American style. But the American practice of including the punctuation inside quotation marks drives me up the wall. What do you think?”

BizWritingTip response: You will most likely hate me for this information; however, the rules for quotation marks in Canada have changed. Check out any North American grammar or style book and you will see that periods and commas are now placed inside the quotation marks.

Examples (Correct)
Time magazine says it’s “the best ice cream in the world.”
The report was clearly marked “draft.”
My article, “Generational Review of Reading Habits,” will run in the next edition of HR Reporter.

Colons and semicolons go outside the closing quotation mark.

Last week you said, “I don’t want to attend the conference”; yet here you are.
I want to read the article “Managing Generational Diversity”: the latest work of Peter Thomas.

The rules for question marks and exclamation points have not changed. Question marks go inside the closing quotation mark when the question applies only to the quoted material. Outside when the question applies to the complete sentence. The same holds true for exclamation points.

Did the clerk say, “You must submit the application today”? (The whole sentence is a question.)
Her first question was, “Who will help me?”(Only the quoted material is a question.)
I am sorry for young people who are moving into the workforce. They lose marks in school for putting periods outside quotation marks. But then when they follow what they have been taught, they often get criticized by their managers who are still using the British style.

The British style places the period outside the quotation mark when it punctuates the whole sentence and inside when it punctuates only the quoted matter. There is more thinking with the British style.

Please do not email me your comments on this grammar change. My role is only to provide grammar information according to the majority of current North American grammar books.

Grammar Tip – A Comma With And

Jennifer’s question: “As I read through cover letters and resumes I’m noticing an overwhelming number of people are putting a comma before ‘and,’ e.g., calculate prices, enter data, and create invoices. Why is this happening? It’s sure not the way we were taught to write when I was in school!”

BizWritingTip response: This is a style issue rather than a grammar one. This means using — or not using — the comma before “and” is not considered an error.

Like our reader, when I went to school, we were taught not to put a comma before the final “and” in a series. I have never figured out why.

Today, the guideline is to insert a comma before the final “and” if it assists with clarity. This is often subjective as the writer must determine how clear the information is.

They will visit London, Paris and Athens. (There is no need for a comma as these are three known cities.)
The American flag is red, white and blue. (This is common knowledge.)

Breakfast consisted of cereal, bacon and eggs, bread and butter, and coffee. (The comma before the “and” tends to chunk the information more clearly.)

Frankly, I like the comma before “and.” Business people tend to skim documents today. The comma creates sound bites and allows for emphasis.

Examples (correct)
You should hire my friend. She is knowledgeable, conscientious and enthusiastic. (This is easy to understand. Therefore, there is no need for a comma.)
You should hire my friend. She is knowledgeable, conscientious, and enthusiastic. (This is also correct and is my preference because the comma before “and” emphasizes three separate but equally important characteristics.)



Grammar Tip – All Staff Is or Are

Loreen’s question: “In our organization, I often see phrases such as ‘All staff is required to complete the questionnaire.’ That just doesn’t sound right to me. Shouldn’t it be ‘All staff are required…’?”

BizWritingTip response: This question relates to both collective nouns and subject and verb agreement. “Staff” is often used as a collective noun. (A collective noun is a word that appears singular but represents an entire group.) If the group is acting as a unit – in other words, everyone – you use a singular verb. In this case, the singular verb is “is.” It implies all members must do this. Including the word “all” would be redundant.

In any case, any time you use the word “all,” the verb must be plural.

All staff is required to complete the questionnaire. (incorrect – The word “all” must be followed by a plural verb.)
All staff are required to complete the questionnaire. (correct — The staff are considered individuals.)
Staff is required to complete the questionnaire. (also correct — The word “staff” is being used as a collective noun.)

Some people believe the sentence is smoother, if you insert the words “members of.” This is also fine.


All members of staff are required to complete the questionnaire. (correct)

Grammar Tip – Apostrophes with Dates and Acronyms

Nancy’s question: “I have a question regarding the use of the apostrophe after dates and acronyms. It used to be standard, but I’ve noticed some lapses lately, e.g., 1900’s is now 1900s, and she grew up in the 80’s is now she grew up in the 80s. And what about plural acronyms? LED’s are the new light source is now LEDs are the new light source. What is correct?”

BizWritingTip response: This is an area that causes a lot of confusion. Apostrophes are used to show possession or to indicate a missing letter(s) or number(s). I am not sure why people would insert an apostrophe when a word, acronym, or number is merely plural.

For instance, if I wrote she grew up in the ’80s, there is no need for an apostrophe after the number as there is no possession or missing letters implied. It is simply plural. (There is an apostrophe before the number to indicate the missing 19.)

I am glad I did not live in the 1900s.
My grandparents came to this country in the early ’60s.

The same rule holds for the plurals of capital letters.

Correct (when the abbreviation is simply plural)
Did you find the CDs?
LEDs are the new light source.
There are three MDs in the building.

Correct (when the abbreviation is plural and possessive)
Did you find the five CDs’ cases?
There are three MDs’ offices in the building.

Correct (when the abbreviation is singular and possessive)
Did you find the CD’s case?
There is an MD’s office in the building.

Exception: Use an apostrophe with an initialism, if the meaning would be unclear without it.

Please cross your t’s. (Ts would look like a typo.)
Mind your p’s and q’s.

Getting A’s in the course is difficult.


Grammar Tip – Apostrophes With Plural Possessive Words

Gillian and Char’s question: “What are the rules today to indicate a plural possessive (e.g., six hats that belong to girls)?  We have come across situations where the apostrophe is left out or appears before the ‘s’ in girls, e.g., “six girl’s hats.”  Which is correct?”

BizWritingTip response: First, you are right. “Six girl’s hats” is incorrect and confusing. Because we are talking about a number of hats — six to be exact— “girls” must be plural.

Now here’s the fun part.  Do you add an apostrophe or not? Yes, if you wish to indicate possession, you add an apostrophe. If you place the apostrophe outside the “s,” then you make the word plural: girls’.  If you place the apostrophe inside the “s,” the word is singular: girl’s.

Examples (correct)
Six girls’ hats are in the lost-and-found box.  (Six hats belonging to girls are in the lost and found.)
A girl’s hat is in the lost and found. (One hat belonging to one girl is in the lost and found.)

However, if you wish to indicate that the hats are designed for girls – they don’t belong to anyone – do not use an apostrophe.

We sold six girls hats today. (Six hats for girls were sold.)

Often, the choice is going to be the writer’s decision. Remember, add the apostrophe to indicate possession. Omit the apostrophe if you can mentally insert the word “for.”