Writing Style – Closings on Letters

Jean’s question: “Could you please provide some guidance with regard to the closing on a business letter.  My colleagues are no longer comfortable with “Yours sincerely” or “Yours truly” and, to add fat to the fire, they are seeing business letters with no closing at all — just the person’s name, title, and contact information.  Is this the current direction of business correspondence?”

BizWritingTip response: Think of a conversation you have had with a colleague. It usually starts with some sort of a greeting and ends with some sort of closing – good bye, see you later, etc. If you jumped into a conversation without acknowledging the other person or left their presence without some sort of farewell, you would be regarded as arrogant or rude.

The same is true for letters and emails. You need a greeting and a closing. However, these documents are two different forms of communication. Letters are considered more formal and are handled in a traditional manner.

A business letter should be produced on letterhead and contain an inside address, a “dear” line (unless you don’t know who will be reading your document), a complimentary closing line, and a signature box.

The standard way to close letters is “Sincerely” or “Yours sincerely.”

If I received a letter without a closing line, I would assume the sender was either uneducated in business protocol or a careless writer. It would definitely lower my impression of the writer and the organization.

Writing Style – Caring Less

Klaus’s Question: “Here is something I’ve wondered about since I’ve seen it used both ways. When showing lack of concern, which is correct, ‘I could care less’ or ‘I couldn’t care less’?”

BizWritingTip response: The expression “I could care less” has caused a great deal of criticism for many years. The original phrase “I couldn’t care less” was a British creation. It was first seen in print in 1946 as the title of a book by Anthony Phelps regarding his experiences during World War II. The phrase migrated to North America in the ‘50s.

No one is quite sure when the inverted form, “I could care less,” came into being. However, it is common in North American slang today.

If you look at the phrase logically, “I couldn’t care less” means there is no interest whatsoever. “I could care less” means there is a little interest.

Regardless, when someone says either of these phrases, you still get the same meaning because of the inflection they put into the words. They are being sarcastic. They really don’t care.

In writing, there is no voice inflection. The inverted phrase just sits there looking weird. I strongly suggest that, if you feel the need to use the expression in written form, you use the older form “I couldn’t care less.” This does not require a pause for interpretation.

Trust this helps those who do care.

Writing Style – Bunch

Susan’s question: “Could you please let me know when it is appropriate to use the word ‘bunch.’ I often hear it used in conjunction with people, but I find it hard on the ear. Am I just being picky?”

BizWritingTip response: According to the Oxford dictionary, the noun bunch refers to “a cluster of things growing or fastened together.” Therefore, you can talk about a bunch of grapes or flowers growing in bunches.

The dictionary also lists a secondary meaning for bunch: “a group or a gang.”

Example (correct but informal)
I am not happy with her bunch of friends.

However, this secondary meaning is regarded as informal. I agree with the BizWritingTip reader who finds the phrasing awkward. So although it could be used in certain circumstances, I do not recommend using bunch when referring to people in the business world. I prefer the word “group.”

Example (correct)
I am not happy with her group of friends.

Another informal definition of bunch is “lots.”

So thanks a bunch for the question.



Writing Style – Inside Addresses

Kirk’s question: “I am drafting a thank-you letter to two men. In the address portion of the letter, do I write Mr. X and Mr. Y or do I write Messrs. X and Y? And similarly, if the letter was addressed to two women is it correct to use Mmes.?”

BizWritingTip response: Here is another area where styles have changed. Today, if a letter is addressed to two or more people at different addresses, the individual address blocks may be placed under each other with 1 blank line between. Alternatively, you can place the address blocks side by side.

Example (correct)

Mr. Robert Smith                  Mr. George Brown
Finance Manager                 Vice President of Sales
Starbrite Industries Inc.      Glorious Enterprises
234 Street Name                     567 Street Name
City Province Postal Code    City Province Postal Code

If the letter is addressed to two or more people at the same address, list each name on a separate line. There is no need to include their positions unless the titles are very short and can be placed on the same line as the name. Also, leave out the department name unless both people are in the same department.

Mr. Robert Smith
Ms. Georgia Brown
Starbrite Industries Inc.
234 Street Name
City Province Postal Code

Use separate envelopes and give the full address for each individual; omit all reference to other names.

As for the salutation line — if the letter is addressed to two or more men, you have three options:
Dear Mr. Smith and Mr. Brown:
Dear Messrs. Smith and Brown: (formal)
Dear Robert Smith and George Brown:

If the letter is addressed to two or more women, you have four options:
Dear Mrs. Smith and Ms. Brown:
Dear Mesdames Smith and Brown: (highly formal)
Dear Mses. Smith and Brown: (formal)
Dear Claudia Smith and Georgia Brown:

If the letter is addressed to a man and a woman, it is quite simple:
Dear Ms. Smith and Mr. Brown:
Dear Claudia Smith and George Brown:

Note: In selecting Miss, Mrs. or Ms., always use the woman’s preference. If you do not know the preference, use the title Ms. (Ms. merely indicates a female. It does not indicate marital status.)

Writing Style – Dates

Jolanda’s question: “Lately, I have seen people write: July 3rd, 2010, but I learned in school that it should be July 3, 2010, or 3rd of July 2010. Can you clarify what is allowed?”

BizWritingTip response: The answer to this question is a great example of how spoken and written English do not always mesh. And it also demonstrates how technology can impact writing styles.

First, our BizWritingTip reader is correct. North American writing style states that when a day directly follows the month, ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc.) should not be used. Cardinal numbers are correct (one, two, three, etc.).

August 3, 2010 (recommended — cardinal number)
August 3rd, 2010 (not recommended — ordinal number)

Note: When you read this aloud, you say the number as an ordinal (August third) even though it is not written that way.

Ordinal numbers with dates are used in writing when the number precedes the month. This is British style and is also used in formal North American legal documents.

3rd of August 2010

However, early software packages automatically converted numbers in dates to ordinals, inserting st, nd or rd. Most people did not realize it was a concern. It then became a frequently seen style.

But Microsoft Office 2007 and the new 2010 release do not use the ordinal numbers with dates. They are now using the accepted North American style.

Writing Style – Large Numbers

Harvey’s question:”I was reading your BizWritingTip about starting sentences with numbers, and I noticed the example you provided, “One hundred and thirty-eight people signed up for the conference.’ I was taught when writing (or speaking) large numbers you should never say ‘and.’ I believe the example should be written as “One hundred thirty-eight people signed up for the conference.” In addition, when it’s currency it should be written, ‘one hundred thirty-eight dollars, thirteen cents.’ Is this correct?”

BizWritingTip response: When writing large numbers, the use of “and” is optional. I was taught to put it in. That’s probably why I like it. But whatever you do is fine.

Examples (correct)
One hundred and thirty-eight
One hundred thirty-eight

When it comes to currency, North American business style is to use the numbers.

Example (correct)

Note: Legal writing often requires figures to be presented both as numbers

Writing Style – Starting a Sentence With a Number

Judy’s question: “I was taught that when beginning a sentence with a number it should be written out, regardless of whether it is smaller or larger than nine. For example, ‘Thirteen food handlers successfully certified in our safe food handling course this month.’ Is this still correct? Also, I sometimes see it written as ‘Thirteen (13) food handlers successfully certified in our safe food handling course this month.’ Is this correct or necessary?”

BizWritingTip response: Yes, you are right about the numbers. At the start of a sentence, write the number out. It doesn’t matter whether the number is above or below ten.

Thirteen people certified as food handlers.
Nine proposals were received.
One hundred and thirty-eight people signed up for the conference.

Some style books now allow sentences to start with a year in numeral form.

2012 is a year of unusual weather patterns.
Others advise you to flip the sentence so this does not occur.

The year 2012 is one of unusual weather patterns.

Remember: This is a style issue — not a grammar one. Your organization can choose its own style.

In business writing, never follow a written number with the numeral form or vice versa. It is redundant.

Writing Style – More Redundant Phrases

I asked readers to send me more redundant phrases that irritated them. The venting was amazing.

If you use any of the following phrases in your writing, you risk the chance of annoying your reader:
advance planning
at this point in time
basic fundamentals
blunder mistake
communicate in writing
desirable benefits
exact same
extended long weekend
fax back
fact-based evidence
first annual
free gift
for the amount of
in my own opinion
invited guests
key essentials
merge together
month of April
new record
past history
personally, for me
plan ahead
tiny small
great big huge
too too bad
totally unique

And Greg dislikes hearing “That’s a really good question” every time an interviewee is asked a question.

Mary sent in a message from the front of a tee-shirt: Department of Redundancy Department.



Writing Style – Redundant Phrases

Klaus’s question: “Every morning I hear an announcer on the radio broadcast what is upcoming by stating ‘coming up in a moment’s time … .’ Is this grammatically correct?”

BizWritingTip response: Your announcer is being redundant. I would call his phrase a doublet. A moment is a short period of time. Therefore, he is actually saying in a short period of time of time. He really should say: “coming up in a moment is … .”

There are two other doublets I find irritating. The first is “current status.” Status means the current state of affairs. Does the writer or speaker really mean to imply “what is currently happening currently”? Why can’t we just use “status” by itself?

Or how about “in my past experience”? How many experiences have you had that were not gained from your past?

Are there any other redundant phrases that bother you?


Writing Style – Capitalization With Titles

Brian’s question: “I was just wondering if the use of lower case in business titles (e.g., vice president finance or president and chief executive officer) on business cards, emails, and letters is common and/or acceptable business practice?”

BizWritingTip response: First, let’s separate business cards from letters and emails. Business cards are usually planned by graphic designers. These people often tend to let design or branding issues override English style rules. Although I am not happy about it, it’s not something I get worked up about.

Now, for letters and emails, the North American style for titles is called “modified down.” What this means is that when in doubt use lower case. However, there are still a number of rules:

1. You should lowercase occupations and descriptive titles.

doctors, nurses, teachers, auditors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, councillors, ministers
The ministers of Health and Transportation met with the premiers of British Columbia and Manitoba.

2. Lowercase titles of officials of companies, unions, sporting, and political organizations.

general manager Susan Sherlock
CUPE secretary Claude Généreux
Widget president Ian Fleming
Widget vice president Jane Moneypenny
head coach Melody Davidson
forward Hayley Wickenheiser

3. Capitalize formal titles when they directly precede the name – if the name is part of the person’s identity.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Vice President Joe Biden
Mayor Hazel McCallion

4. Lowercase a title that is set apart from the name by commas.


The prime minister of France, Francois Fillon, was appointed by the president.

Note: These are the guidelines of The Canadian Press Stylebook. If your organization has modified these rules to meet its own needs or beliefs, that’s fine. However, all staff should be aware of your specific guidelines. Consistency is important and saves time in the long run.