Grammar Tip – Rules for Capitals

The North American trend for capitalizing words is now “modified down.” What this means is that if you can’t decide whether to capitalize a word or not, you should probably leave it in lower case.

A good guideline is if you are using the official name of the organization, use capital letters. If you are shortening the name, choose the lower case for the common noun.

Government of Ontario

Ontario government

Words such as city, town, bank, committee, department, company, staff, board and administration are always lowercased.

Only the articles (a, an, the) that are part of an organization’s proper name should be capitalized.

I am going to visit The Hospital for Sick Children.

There is a regional cancer centre at the Credit Valley Hospital.

If you are not sure that an article is part of an organization’s proper name, then check their letterhead or website.

Formal titles directly preceding a name are capitalized: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mayor McCallion, Sgt. Fournier.

Occupations or job descriptions are lowercased: doctors, nurses, lawyers, auditors, chairman John Roberts.

* These rules are based on The Canadian Press book Caps and Spelling, 19th Edition.

Sign Errors – A Sign of Our Times

BizWritingTip wants to make a conscious effort this year to clean up the grammar on the signs we see around us. Help us out. Whenever you see an error on a sign or in an article or newspaper advertisement, send us a photo of it. We would also like to know where you saw the problem.

We’ll post the most interesting signs under the “sign errors” category above. There is no prize — just the knowledge you’re making a small difference in the improvement of the English language.

By pointing out the errors, hopefully, we will get them fixed. Additionally, we will put a stop to readers thinking that the error is correct just because they saw it in print.

Here’s an example of what we are looking for.

This is a sign I saw in an office building in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
There are three grammar errors. Can you spot them?

Sign-Error-Attitudes

Please send your 1) photo and 2) where you saw it by email to jane@ontariotraining.net

Please send  a photo of errors you spot on signs, packaging, and in newspapers or magazines.

Sign Errors – Goodlife Fitness Club Sign

Location: GoodLife Fitness Club in Mississauga

GoodLife

Error: Pluralization of an upper case abbreviation

Tip: There is no apostrophe after an upper case abbreviated word.

Corrected Version: Plasma TVs just installed for your enjoyment.

Word Choice – Might and May

A BizWritingTip reader asked, “Can you explain the difference between might and may?”

Yes, I can. Both might and may imply permission or possibility. And might is the past tense of may.

Examples

The figures may be accurate. (possibility)

You may include the cleaning bill in your expense account. (permission)

I might have been able to attend, but I had forgotten about the meeting. (past possibility)

Incorrect

I might be able to attend the meeting next week.

Correct

I may be able to attend the meeting next week.

Writing Style – A Business Case in the Real World

In today’s workplace, it is a wonderful skill to be able to write a business case.

In fact, many business schools spend weeks training their students how to write a comprehensive proposal that covers all angles: Situational Assessment, Problem Statement, Project Description and Objectives, Solution Description, Cost and Benefit Analysis, Financial Assessment, Implementation Timetable, Critical Assumptions and Risk Assessment and Recommendations.

Yet in reality, few managers have time to read such detailed documents. Therefore, the reports are often ignored, placed on the back burner or referred to someone else or to a committee to explore. The best business cases are those that can be read and understood quickly by the recipient. The preferred length is one page.

This does not mean that all the information mentioned earlier is not considered and researched. In fact, a one-page proposal normally takes longer to prepare, because the writer has to fully understand the idea being proposed and all of its ramifications. Then she has to focus on the reader, his needs and his “fear factor.”

Remember it is always easier for a reader to say “no” when it comes to a proposal. Saying “no” often means no complications, nothing to go wrong, and no financial downside. Therefore, to persuade a busy reader every detail must present a strong argument for him to say “yes.”

A good business case includes all the details that will sell the idea to the specific reader, and it can be done in one page!

Grammar Tip – Dot, Dot, Dot the Ellipsis

People often want to know about the punctuation they refer to as dot, dot, dot. It is actually called an ellipsis. It is formed by using three spaced periods and indicates there are missing words.

As one of my workshop participants said, “It is really saying yada, yada, yada.”

Correct – As usual, the weekly meeting was boring, irrelevant, a waste of time … . I don’t know why we keep having it.

Incorrect – As usual, the weekly meeting was boring, irrelevant, a waste of time… I don’t know why we keep having it.

Note: According to grammar books, there should be spaces before, during and after the periods. If the ellipsis ends the sentence, there is no need to add a fourth period.

Be careful when using an ellipsis. At times, it could make you look lazy, particularly if the reader is not sure what the missing words are. Some email writers use it instead of periods. They believe it emphasizes their points. It doesn’t. Most readers find it distracting.

Another way of adding an ellipsis is to go to the Insert menu on your Word program and select Symbol. The ellipsis produced by the font designers has shrunk the spacing between the periods, but as long as you put the spaces before and after it is acceptable.

Word Choice – Talked To Versus Spoke To

A BizWritingTip reader asked me to explain the difference between talked to and spoke to.

Both words are the past tenses of words with similar meanings.

Spoke to means “held a conversation with.” Talked to means “communicated ideas, information, or feelings in spoken words.”

However, talked to is deemed a little more forceful as it implies more of a one-sided conversation. Spoke to conveys the impression of a dialogue.

Examples

I talked to him about the poor quality of his work. (conveyed information)

I spoke to them regarding the department’s reorganization and how it would affect them. (sought information)

Writing Style – One Space or Two

Whenever I conduct a grammar workshop, a participant will invariably ask, “How many spaces should you leave after a period?” The answer is one — for a computer. (You use two spaces after a period when working on a typewriter.)

It is amazing how concerned some people are about this issue. Frankly, I don’t seriously believe a reader will be distracted from your work whether you leave one or two spaces — just be consistent. However, some people do tend to focus on this item. That’s probably why you have a feature on your software program to assist you.

Click on Tools / Options / Spelling and Grammar / Writing Style: (set for Grammar and Style) / Settings / spaces required between sentences.

You then have three options: check for one or two spaces or don’t check. I would recommend setting the feature to either the one or two spaces. That way, at least, your material will always be consistent.

Here’s something interesting though. People often wonder why grammar changes. One of the reasons is technology.

We were taught to always put a punctuation mark at the end of every sentence. But what happens if the sentence ends in a website or an email address. If I add a period, I may confuse my readers about the address. Therefore, in these specific instances (websites and email addresses) I would not put anything at the end of the sentence. Hopefully, I am at the end of a paragraph.

Word Choice – I or We

Aarani’s question: “I always find myself wondering whether to use ‘I’ or ‘we.’  I was writing an email just a few minutes ago and wrote ‘I appreciate your help.’  This was directed to an external contact. Would it be better to use ‘I’ or ‘we’ — as in my collective team/company?”

BizWritingTip response: “I” means you personally and “we” means your organization. I assume in this situation it is you directly and not all your colleagues who are grateful. Therefore, I would stick with the “I.” But if everyone in your office is jumping for joy, go with the “we.”

I recall being told years ago never to interchange “I” and “we” in the same document. If you remember this – let it go. You can mix it up now.

Oftentimes, in public letters written by organizations to explain a problem or justify an action, you see them start with a general remark such as “we are sorry.” In other words, the whole company is remorseful. Then near the end — close to the signature of the “writer” — the phrase changes to “I apologize.” This creates an even more personal note. It is highly effective.

Note: The more personal pronouns (I, you, or we) you use in a document, the warmer the tone and the greater the likelihood of your readers paying attention. That is why formal reports are often boring. The only personal pronoun they contain is “it.”

Grammar Tip – What intimidates today’s readers?

When people take a writing course, they expect to hear a lot about the importance of clarity and conciseness. However, in my mind they are out of date on their emphasis.

Fifteen years ago, everyone was concerned about plain language and getting a message completely on one page. And often times to do this, they merely reduced the type font, decreased the margins and collapsed the paragraphs. But this is the one way to guarantee your ideas will not get read.

Today’s business readers are easily intimidated by a busy-looking page – whether it be a paper or screen document. They glance at the first paragraph and, if it appears lengthy, they immediately decide the document is going to be difficult to read so they skim it or put it aside for when they have more time. (And “more time” seldom happens.)

Now don’t get me wrong – clarity and conciseness are important in a business document. But if your document does not have visual appeal, readers will not take the time to find out you can write clearly and concisely.