Word Choice – Can Versus Could

I had a question from a BizWritingTip reader recently. She wrote: “I always have trouble using ‘can’ and ‘could’ in a sentence. Could you please provide some examples?”

Well, not only could I provide some examples, I can.

The word “can” expresses power or ability.


I can provide the answer to your question.?I can finish the report by Friday.

Years ago “could” was the past tense of “can.” However, it is no longer used in this sense. “Could” now implies a probability factor – usually about 50 per cent.


I could provide you with an answer (but I may not).

I could finish the report by Friday. (Using “could” implies the activity is possible but not guaranteed.)

When it comes to asking questions, some writers believe they seem politer if they use “could.”


Could you please send me the figures?

However, this implies the writer is uncertain as to whether the reader has the ability to do so. If this is the way you actually perceive the situation, then stick with “could.” If you want to come across as more forceful and direct, go with “can.”


Can you please send me the figures?

Email Tip – Organizing Letters and Emails

How do people read letters and emails? Remember today’s readers are skimmers, and they want key information quickly. They also try to quickly prioritize a message to determine how much time they need to spend on it.??Because letters have been around so long, people are familiar with their layout. Busy people tend to read the first paragraph and, if the information seems relevant, they will move to the last paragraph to see if they have to take any action. If they can see how the message applies to them, they will then read the middle paragraphs.

But this is a print document. An email is read differently. People read the first paragraph and then decide whether they need to read further or whether they can hit the delete key. Often times, they don’t even get to the last paragraph.

Therefore, the key to a good mail is to put the action you need taken in the first paragraph. From there, the details you use should be put in a descending order of importance – the same as newspaper article.

In my workshops, I tell participants that the last line of a good, professional letter – not one with a clichéd ending – is often the best line to open an email with.

Grammar Tip – Which Versus That

Many people are confused about when to use “which” and when to use “that.” Often times, it is a subjective call on the part of the writer.

“Which” means the words following are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. In other words, the information adds a new element the reader may not need.

Example: We published the information, which was required by law, in the annual report.

Note: There is always a comma in front of “which” and always a comma at the end of the idea it is introducing. (Your grammar check – if it is turned on – will put a green squiggle under “which” to remind you to insert the comma in front, if you haven’t done so. Unfortunately, it cannot tell you where to place the second comma. Don’t forget to add it.)

“That” is used when the information following is essential to the meaning and to the reader.

Example: We published the information that is required by law in the annual report.

Note: There is no comma in front of “that.”

Some editors believe a sentence will be smoother if you remove “that” when it is not needed. ?Example: We published the information required by law in the annual report.

Personally, I delete ”that” whenever I can. It is usually just fluff. If you are uncertain, I suggest you read the sentence to yourself. If it sounds better with the word omitted, remove it. If you need it for rhythm or clarity, let it remain.

Word Choice – Comprise Versus Compose

Marion’s question: “It would be helpful if you dealt with the correct usage of the verb ‘comprise.’ I believe it is incorrectly used in the example from another BizWritingTip: ‘The NAFTA Secretariat is comprised of a Canadian Section, a Mexican Section and a United States Section.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: Back in the days of the dinosaurs, I was taught this saying to remember when to use which word: The whole is composed of its parts, and the parts comprise the whole.

Still confused? Think of it this way. If the whole idea comes first in the sentence and the parts second, then use “compose.”


Our country has ten provinces.

If the parts come first followed by the whole sentence, then use “comprise.”


Ten provinces comprise our country.

Therefore, our reader is right. It should be “The NAFTA Secretariat is composed of a Canadian Section, a Mexican Section and a United States Section.”

But is the NAFTA website really incorrect?

According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, “Such uses as The panel is comprised of five individuals are strongly opposed by some, who prefer The panel is composed of five individuals. The disputed uses are common, however, and considered unobjectionable by many.”

The examples in American Dictionary Online support this. The Oxford Dictionary of English does not.

It seems then that in North American either word is acceptable. In Britain, the distinction is still in place. Personally, I will stick with the Brits on this one.

Grammar Tip – Articles With Acronyms

Terry’s question: “I tend to not use the word ‘the’ in front of acronyms, but I see this used in documents more and more.  Which is correct:  ‘REIP provides regional outreach services to Northeastern Ontario’ or ‘The REIP provides regional outreach services to Northeastern Ontario’?  If the word ‘program’ is added after REIP, I would use ‘the.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: Grammatically, the word “the” is termed a definite article. (“A” or “an” are indefinite articles.) Most of us have been taught to use an article in front of nouns.

However, remember “the exceptions to the rules” I often talk about.

When using an acronym as a noun, do not put an article before the abbreviation. (An acronym is an abbreviated word pronounced as a word.)

Examples (Correct: The acronym is serving as a noun.)

REIP provides regional outreach services to Northeastern Ontario.

I know we need them, but PINs are driving me crazy.

On the other hand, when you are using the acronym as an adjective, you then add “the.”

Examples (Correct: The acronym is an adjective.)

The NAFTA Secretariat is comprised of a Canadian Section, a Mexican Section and a United States Section.

The REIP assessment was carried out last week.

Note: When using acronyms, avoid redundancy. Don’t spell out the final letter in your acronym.

Examples (Incorrect — redundant)

The NAFTA agreement (NAFTA stands for North American Free Trade Agreement)

The PIN number (PIN stands for Personal Identification Number)

And yes. I do recommend defining any acronym before using it — if you suspect the reader is not familiar with the term.

Word Choice – Talk To or Talk About

Nat’s question: “Lately, I have seen quite a few people write ‘I will talk to it at the meeting,’ meaning a particular subject. This sounds weird to me. You can talk to someone but you should talk about a particular subject. Please enlighten me.”

BizWritingTip response: You are absolutely right. The phrase “talk to” is used when you are communicating with a person. It is used particularly when you want to reprimand or scold them. It can also be used in the sense of formal dealings or discussions with another.


She will have to talk to the salesperson regarding the last shipment.

I am unhappy about his performance. I will have to talk to him.

We want to talk to the supplier with regard to pricing.

If you don’t want to give a negative connotation, use the phrase “talk with.”


She wants to talk with the salesperson.

I want to talk with him about his performance.

When you are referring to a topic, the preposition following the verb “talk” should be “about.”


I will talk about it at the meeting.

Let’s talk about it.

There is also the phrase “talk at.” This means speaking to someone but not bothering to listen to their replies.

Is there anyone who talks at you?

Email Tip – Closing an Email

Karen’s question: “I receive numerous emails daily from staff and other community contacts who end their messages with ‘cheers’ or ‘thanks much.’ Whatever happened to closing with ‘sincerely’ or a simple ‘thank you’? What is the appropriate way of ending an internal email or one received by a fellow service worker from outside your business?”

BizWritingTip response: Emails were designed to get away from the formality of letters. Therefore, “sincerely” is considered too ceremonial for most emails.

When you end an email, the complimentary closing line should be based on your relationship with the reader. If I send a message to senior management or to someone outside my organization, I use a more formal close.

Examples of Formal Close for an Email


Best wishes

Thank you

Note: Yes, you can say “Best regards.” It is not my personal choice, but there is nothing wrong with it.

If I write to a colleague within my company, I am less formal.

Examples of a Neutral Close for an Email



If I send an email to a close friend who works for the same organization, I can be very casual and use an ending that means something to the two of us.

Examples of a Casual Close for an Email

Thanks much

TGIF (Thank God, it’s Friday)

TTFN (Ta, ta for now)



Note: Never use a casual closing when writing to an external reader or to a senior manager.

I know some of you are wondering “why bother putting a closing line on at all.” There are two reasons: First, it just comes across as courteous. If you were leaving a meeting, you would not normally just walk away. You’d probably say “good bye” or “see you later.” The same holds true for emails. You want to sound like one human being talking to another.

Second, most organizations have long disclaimers that get added to messages when they are sent externally. The closing line signals to the reader that the message is actually over. The print below is a legal requirement.


Word Choice – Couple and Pair

Jo’s question: “Can you please help me with the following sentences: ?The couple is/are here to see you. ?A couple has/have bought a lot of groceries. ?The pair of shoes are/is gone. ?Whose pair of shoes are/is this/these?”

BizWritingTip response: There are two questions here but both relate to subject and verb agreement. The guideline is that verbs must always agree in number with their subjects. In other words, if the subject is singular then the verb must be singular. The same is true if the subject is plural.

At first glance, the word “couple” would seem to be a collective noun. (A collective noun is a word that is singular in form but represents more than one person or thing.) Therefore, the correct way to write it would be to say “The couple is here to see you.”

However, “couple” is a word that also falls into the category of “it depends.” If you want to emphasize the two people as a unit, use a singular verb. If you want to emphasize their individuality, use a plural verb.

Examples (correct)

The couple are here to see you. (You are emphasizing two people.)

The couple has bought a lot of groceries. (You are emphasizing their unity.)

Therefore, with regard to the word “couple,” it is up to the writer to determine the emphasis desired and then use the appropriate verb.

Now let’s look at the word “pair.” It is considered a straight collective noun. Whenever it appears as the subject in a sentence, you must use a singular verb with it. (Always ignore any phrase following that begins with the word “of.”)

Examples (correct)

The pair of shoes is gone.

Whose pair of shoes is this?

If you had omitted the word “pair,” the sentence would be different.

Examples (correct)

The shoes are gone.

Whose shoes are these?


Writing Style – Rules for Numbers

Laura’s question: “How do you write numbers in sentences? Do you spell out the number or can you write 10. Are there different rules if the sentence starts with a number?”

BizWritingTip response: The guideline for writing numbers in sentences is to spell out numbers from one to nine. Ten and over you use figures.


Three computers

10 pens

Two policies?1

5th hole

The new employees were all born in the ‘80s.

Now for the exceptions to the rules —

Use figures, when writing addresses, ages, measurements, page and figure numbers, votes, scores, clock times, money amounts, and measurements.


3 Bay Street

Children aged 6-9

4 p.m.


Page 9

If you start a sentence with a number, you must spell it out.


Four people arrived late.

Thirty to 40 people is all the room will hold.

When writing about years, reorganize your sentence so it does not begin with the year.

If you are writing numbers in a casual fashion, use words.


The book was read by thousands.

Please note: In business writing, you should never write numbers both ways.


We require 8 (eight) copies of the report. (incorrect)

We require eight copies of the report. (correct)

Word Choice – To Google or Not to Google

Odesh’s question: “Many people now use the word “Google” as a verb to indicate searching the Internet. Is this still informal or is it acceptable in formal writing?”

BizWritingTip response: “Google” became the proprietary name for the popular Internet search engine in the 1990s.

However, according to Oxford Dictionaries Online, it is now used as a verb meaning to “search for information about someone or something on the Internet.” Its usage is still defined as “informal.” Therefore, I would use it in an email and most business correspondence but look for a synonym in a formal report, e.g., Internet search.