Word Choice – Amongst and Whilst

Several BizWritingTip readers have questioned the use of amongst and whilst.

According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionaryamongst is interchangeable with among, meaning between. Normally, among is used when referring to two or more things.


Let’s divide the work equally among us.

Let’s divide the work equally amongst us.

Note: Although amongst is considered acceptable, I do not see many people using it. Personally, I stick to the more frequently-used word among.

Whilst meaning while is used chiefly in British English (and often in Australian and New Zealand English). It is not common in North America. Therefore, I recommend staying away from it.

Remember, while means “during the time that.” Be careful not to use it when you really mean although.


While he missed the meeting, he completed the response to the RFP on time.


Although he missed the meeting, he completed the response to the RFP on time.


While I was waiting for the phone call, I managed to work on the report. (While is being used as during the time that.)

Writing Style – I can no longer write with a pen or pencil!

Whenever a business person says he or she can no longer write with a pen or pencil, I automatically know two things about them.
One, they edit their documents on their computer screens.
Two, their work will most likely contain typos, extra words, or missing words.

It is extremely difficult to edit or to proofread from a computer screen. Your eyes will gloss over the words, and you will read what you think you wrote rather than what is actually there.

Although some people are convinced that the computer can provide a sufficient grammar and editing check, nothing beats proofreading from a hard copy. True, the computer will pick up many errors, but the program is not sophisticated enough to determine how you are actually using the words or if you have omitted any.

Now there are some writers who tell me they just don’t have time to print their documents, particularly if they just want to send a quick email. All right then, for these people here are two ways to limit the risk:

  1. Hold a straight edge (sheet of paper or ruler) against the screen to prevent your eyes from darting.
  2. Enlarge the type to at least 150% so the errors stand out more.

These two techniques will reduce your chance of missing errors, but I still believe nothing will replace editing from a print copy.

Grammar Tip – In regard to …

In regard to and with regard to are two very common phrases in business communication. Yet why do so many people get them wrong? Why do so many writers want to add an “s” to regard?

With regards to compiling the binders …

The correct phrases are with regard to … and in regard to …

With regard to compiling the binders …

The phrase as regards is correct. But there is no preposition after it. Therefore, it often sounds a little odd.


As regards the meeting on Monday, I will be late.

If you don’t want to bother remembering whether to add an “s” or not, skip the phrase entirely and just write regarding. You can’t go wrong!


Regarding the meeting on Monday, I will be late.

Word Choice – First Versus Firstly

Dominique’s question: “Which sentence is correct: ‘Firstly, I would like to let you know that …’ or ‘First of all, I would like to let you know …’ I wrote to a colleague in the States who claims she has never heard of the word ‘firstly.’ ”

Bizwritingtip response: This is a writing style issue rather than a grammar one. First of all, firstly and first are all acceptable words. However, I don’t like to use words just “to pad” my sentences. Therefore, I would never use first of all. I don’t see the need for “of all.”

For the past 150 years, people have hotly debated the use of “first” versus “firstly.” Which word is the more appropriate?”  First appeared in the English language around 1200, and firstly showed up in the early 16th century.

Modern dictionaries accept both words as interchangeable. Just remember, if you start with “first,” you must continue with “second” and “third.”  If you begin with “firstly,” continue with “secondly,” and “thirdly.” (The same holds true with the words “last” and “lastly.”)

Personally, I prefer the shorter version, first. E.B. White said it well in the chapter he added to Strunk’s book The Elements of Style: “Do not dress words up by adding ‘ly’ to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.”

(The Elements of Style was first written by William Strunk, Jr. in 1918 and updated in 1935. E. B. White, a pupil of Strunk, revised the book in 1959 after Strunk’s death. This book serves as the basis for business writing today, focusing on clearly written English prose.)

Word Choice – Until Versus Till

A BizWtitingTip reader wants to know when you use until versus till. Until is a preposition and means “up to or as late as,” “up to the time of,” “up to the time when,” and “so long that.”


We waited until 6 p.m.

The project was on time until the project manager left.

I worked on the computer until my eyes hurt.

Although till is not used as often, it is regarded as an accepted variant for until. However, you should not start a sentence with it.


Till we get the new figures, we can’t complete the estimates.


Until we get the new figures, we can’t complete the estimates.

To paraphrase an old cowboy singing duo, good writing, “until we meet again.”

Writing Style – To Justify or Not to Justify

I recently received an email from someone curious about the rules for justifying reports.

Justification relates to the alignment of text. When the text is aligned at both margins of a document, it is called “fully justified.” When it is aligned only on the left margin, it is said to have a “ragged right” margin. (This is the way this message is written.)

It is surprising how people and organizations differ as to what is considered acceptable. There is really no right or wrong answer. My own preference is to use the ragged right margin style if the text runs more than four inches across. Most readers seem to prefer it. It provides readers who skim with a place for their eyes to hook before moving onto the next line. They don’t tend to skip as many lines.

On the other hand, some writers feel that a fully justified report appears more attractive and looks highly professional.

By the way, whether you are using either style, I recommend using 1-inch margins on both sides if the report is unbound or stapled at the top right. If the report is bound, use a 1.5-inch left margin and a 1-inch margin on the right.

Grammar Tip – i.e. Versus e.g.

Some business people are confused about when to use i.e. as opposed to e.g. The abbreviation i.e. is from the Latin phrase id est. It means that is. On the other hand, ?e.g. is from the Latin phrase exempli gratia, meaning for example.

When deciding which one to use, think in terms of inclusiveness. If you want to indicate everything following, use i.e. If you mean just some of the items, use e.g.


You must be tested in computer programs, i.e., Lotus Notes, Word and Excel (all the programs).


You must be tested in computer programs, e.g., Lotus Notes, Word and Excel ?(some of these programs).

Punctuation: The Canadian Press Stylebook requires periods between the letters. Also, note that there must be commas before and after the abbreviations.

Email Tip – Out-of-Office Messages

Gillian’s question: “I am wondering about including the reason for your absence in an out-of-office message if it is of a personal nature other than vacation. Do you require a reason such as a death in the family, medical or maternity leave?  Is it fair or acceptable to say ‘… for personal reasons …’?”

BizWritingTip response: There are no specific rules regarding out-of-office replies. However, I don’t believe in using personal information in generic business emails. The people you work with directly will most likely know why you are away anyway. And as Voltaire said, “The secret of being tiresome is in telling everything.”

In addition, you never know who will end up reading your notices. (Thieves have been known to use personal information gained in auto-replies and to cross reference it to target empty houses.)

Here are two out-of-office replies that I consider professional.


Thank you for your message. I am out of the office until Monday, January 18. In my absence, please contact name, phone number and email address.

I am sorry I cannot respond to you immediately, but I am out of the office from January 5 to January 16. I will review your message upon my return. If you need immediate assistance, please contact name, phone number and email address.

Do Not

  1. Make jokes or say “I am probably by the pool drinking a pina colada while you are reading this.”
  2. Use asterisks, extra punctuation, or text messaging short hand (r instead of are). They are not appropriate and probably do not meet your corporate standards.

Example (incorrect)

………………… on holidays in Panama until January 30, 2011. 🙂 🙂 🙂

****************** need help *********** call Pam at 416-214-5677.

Writing Style – Than Versus Then (plus appropriate pronouns)

A BizWritingTip reader wants to know the difference between than and then. ?Than is a conjunction and is normally used with comparisons. ?Then is an adverb meaning soon afterward.


He believes a consultant could prepare a better report than we.* (A comparison is indicated.)


After hearing his news, we then began to question the estimated costs for the project. (A time frame is indicated.)


Can we meet sooner then Saturday?


Can we meet sooner than Saturday?

Note: Then is often the cause of many run-on sentences.


The presentation went on for over an hour then the speaker asked for questions.


The presentation went on for over an hour. Then the speaker asked for questions.

* Some readers may be shocked by the use of the word we in this example. However, whenever a pronoun follows than or as, you must mentally supply the missing word.


He believes a consultant could prepare a better report than us.


He believes a consultant could prepare a better report than we (can).


He is not as experienced as him.


He is not as experienced as he. (The word is mentally follows the word is.)

Minute Taking – What to record/what to ignore

A woman in Florida asked, “Not receiving proper training, I’ve been resorting to recording verbatim minutes which can take hours, sometimes days. I’ve come to realize this is unnecessary and impractical … When there is a discussion, do I need to include who is commenting on what?”

This is a very good question – and a common one. In my experience, many minutes are just too long. Committee members don’t have time to read them. But what do you cut out? There are no hard or fast rules here, and there is no template that will fit every meeting.

My starting point is the purpose of minutes. Minutes are to be a communications tool for people who were not present, a history for the group, and a mechanism to assign and check on future actions.

Therefore, for the most part, few organizations require verbatim transcripts of a meeting. (There are exceptions, e.g., legal proceedings, union negotiations.)

When I conduct a minute taking workshop, my overall advice is to record a point only once. Do not belabour arguments and do not record names unless:

  • Someone asks to have their own or someone else’s name included for s specific purpose.
  • A person has been assigned a task.
  • Your group’s chosen parliamentary rules require it with a motion.
  • The name is needed for the history of the group.
  • It is to list who was present.

He said/she said dialogue and repetitive arguments or discussion are not needed.?The minute taker’s role is to provide a summary of what occurred at the meeting – not a regurgitation.

My book, The Minute Taker’s Handbook, provides more information for note takers. It is available at www.csae.com