Writing Style – Ms.

Three times in the past two months, I have had a young person in one of my business writing workshops tell me that the word Ms. means the woman is divorced.

Mind boggling! Gloria Steinem would be spinning in her grave – if she were dead.

Ms (UK) or Ms. (North American) is an English honorific denoting a female. It first became popular in the U.S. in the ‘70s when women began entering the white-collar workforce in greater numbers.

Until that time, a woman was identified as either a Miss or as a Mrs. However, many women felt their marital status had no relevance on their ability to handle a career. And as men were identified by only one word Mr., they wanted the same. As a result, the usage of Ms. grew, and — in this day of equality — it is now the default form of address for formal business correspondence with a woman.

(Ms., like Mrs. and Miss, is a contraction of the word “Mistress” — the feminine form of “Mister” or “Master.”)

Another reason for the popularity of Ms. is due to the increasing number of women who want to keep their own last name after marriage. Neither Missnor Mrs. works.

Although the term is often associated with feminism (and Gloria Steinem, the founder and publisher of Ms magazine), it was actually first suggested in the Bulletin of the American Business Writing Association in 1951.

Note: Having read this, remember the underlying rule: write to your reader. If you know from previous correspondence that a woman prefers Miss or Mrs., then use it. But I guarantee you won’t see it often.

Information/Fun – To the Grammar Gurus

A number of BizWritingTip readers were concerned about an example I provided recently to explain the placement of punctuation with quotation marks.

The BizWritingTip said that when using question marks and exclamation points, place the punctuation inside the closing quotation mark, when it applies to the quoted material only; place it outside the closing quotation mark when it applies to the whole sentence.

I then used the following example:

Original Example

If you win the lottery, will you enter her office and yell “I quit!”

Some people felt that as the sentence is actually a question, it should end in a question mark or perhaps two pieces of punctuation.

However, according to grammar books, if a quoted sentence falls at the end of the larger sentence, do not use double punctuation marks; just use the stronger mark. And question marks are regarded as stronger than periods; exclamation marks are stronger than periods or question marks.

Therefore, my original example is correct.


If you win the lottery, will you enter her office and yell “I quit”? (An exclamation mark has preference over a question mark.)”
If you win the lottery, will you enter her office and yell “I quit!”? (Never have two punctuation marks at the end of a sentence.)

Don’t you just love English grammar! Thanks to all the readers who wrote in. I appreciate your comments.

Writing Style – Unnecessary Words

Hilary’s question: “I often see sentences that I think overuse the word ‘of,’ e.g., ‘He lived outside of Canada’ or ‘She peered out of the window.’   Isn’t this incorrect?”
BizWritingTip response: This is actually a style issue rather than a grammar one. The term “outside of” is considered acceptable North American informal speech. However, business writing is all about brevity. Words should be used to convey a meaning, to create a tone or parallel flow, or to link ideas. If a word does not do one of these things, it should be eliminated.

Therefore, when writing in the business world, I would eliminate “of” whenever possible.

Examples (correct)

He lived outside Canada.
She peered out the window.

In the following phrases and sentences, I have italicized other words I recommend eliminating when writing in the business world:

Should we do any advance planning for the ceremony? (Have you ever planned for the past?)
In my past experience (All experiences come from the past.)
What is the current status of the project? (Status means what is happening currently.)
In my personal opinion (If it is your opinion, it is personal.)
We should co-operate together  to find a solution. (If you are co-operating, it is together.)

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician, once stated “I am sorry this is such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” This statement makes sense. It does take longer to write concisely. But today’s business skimmers appreciate reading sentences pared of unnecessary fluff.

Information/Fun – National Grammar Day

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar has declared March 4, National Grammar Day. How do you celebrate it? Speak well! Write well! Read well! And on March 4, if you see a sign with an appalling apostrophe, send a kind note to the owner.

If your local radio announcer says “between you and I,” set him straight with a friendly email. (It should be “between you and me.”)

If you receive a message from your bank saying, “After reviewing the file, please send us …,” then tell the writer about misplaced modifiers. (It should be “Having reviewed the file, I need you to send me …”)

Use the 4th as a day to upgrade your grammar skills. Read business correspondence with particular care, looking for errors. If something does not look right, check it out.

Why not have a grammar potluck lunch at your office and spend the time discussing the grammar errors that “set your teeth on edge.” Here are some questions for discussion:

1. Are grammar and spelling regarded as important skills within your organization?

2. What are your thoughts about the sender of an email message that is riddled with punctuation errors?

3. Which grammar errors irritate you the most?

4. Do you know of any grammar or spelling error that has caused a significant problem?

5. Is there a grammar point you are not sure of?

6. What is your favourite grammar book? When was it published?

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who decides to celebrate National Grammar Day.


Writing Style – Addressing Letters

A BizWritingTip reader has asked us to review the best practices for sending letters to people you don’t know.

In years past, it was acceptable to begin a letter to someone you didn’t know with Dear Sir/Madam or Dear Ladies and Gentlemen. (Note: There is no “e”on madam.)

However, the North American business culture is less formal today. In addition, many participants in my workshops have told me that they dislike being called “madam” or addressed as “ladies.” Therefore, salutations have changed.

If you are sending a letter to a position or a category rather than a known person, use a title or group name.


Dear Human Resources Manager:
Dear Customers:

If, however, you don’t know the title, then omit the salutation line. Use a subject line only.


Subject: Employment Reference for Susan McCarthy
Re: Request for Information on Licensing Requirements
Subject: Update on Requirements for Housing Applications

Whether you center your subject lines or start them on the left side (or underline or bold them) is up to you.

Remember, it is always better to use a name. This personalizes your business document and creates better reader buy-in. This information only relates to when you cannot find out the name or you are addressing a large number of people.

Writing Style – Grammar or Style

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: I often see sentences that end in a preposition or hear commercials that do the same. Am I out of touch? Is this acceptable? Not when I went to school.

It makes me wonder just how much attention is given to the correct use of the English language in both written and spoken terms. As a life-long professional, I often wonder about the quality of current education.

BizWritingTip response: Ah, Mary, you raise so many issues. (I will not get into the spoken area as that is not my area of expertise.) With writing, there are two issues: grammar and style. Grammar relates to the rules surrounding the form and arrangement of words in a language. Style relates to how a message is conveyed. Grammar rules – although they continually change because of social customs and technology – remain the same for all forms of a language.

Style, however, varies according to the type of writing. Academic writing is more formal and relies heavily on nouns. The readers of academic documents usually have more time to read a document and to think about its meaning. The readers of business documents are usually skimmers and require clear, concise documents that are persuasive. Therefore, business writing is less formal and makes more use of verbs and active voice sentences.

Think of writing in terms of clothing. We must all wear clothes; yet the style must change for the event. The dress for academic writing and for formal business reports is tuxedos and ball gowns. Letters are normally business suits; emails are usually business casual (golf shirts), and text messaging would be a bathing suit. There is nothing wrong with each style of clothing. But you must wear the right style to the function. The same holds true then for writing styles.

As for whether you can end a sentence in a preposition, this is a style issue – not a grammar one. This was handled in a previous BizWritingTip on Preposition Placement.

Writing Style – “And” and Commas — Part 2

In a previous blog of BizWritingTip, we looked at placing a comma before “and” when you are using it to join two separate thoughts. Now we will look at how to deal with it when you are using it to separate items in a series.

Use a comma when you are writing about a series of three or more items.


The plane landed in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.

I recommend her for the job. She is professional, educated, and knowledgeable.

Do not use a comma, if there are only two items.


I would like you to attend the meeting and the dinner.

Do not use a comma, if the conjunctions “and,” “but,” or “or” are connecting all the items in the series.


Please send a copy of the letter to the board members and the finance department and the chief of staff.

Do you want me to notify all the department heads or their assistants or only the managers concerned?

Do you have any more comments, questions, or concerns regarding “and”?

Writing Style – “And” and Commas

BizWritingTip Reader: “I have a question for you – when is it OK to use commas before ‘and.’ I find this to be a very subjective question and am looking for some clarification.”

BizWritingTip Response: There are several rules surrounding “and.” And that’s probably why the issue can be confusing. It all depends on how you are using the word. I will explain how to punctuate “and” when you are using it in a compound sentence in this BizWritingTip. I’ll show you how to deal with it when you are using it in a series of ideas in the next issue.

A compound sentence consists of two independent clauses joined by the co-ordinating conjunctions andbutor or nor. Place a comma before the conjunction.

Examples (Correct)

The report was lengthy, and I did not have a chance to read the entire document. (There is a comma before “and” because it is joining two separate thoughts. I could have also written: “The report was lengthy. I did not have a chance to read the entire document.”)

Do you plan to attend the conference, and will you attend the final dinner? (This is also a compound sentence. There are two subjects: you. That’s why there is a comma before “and.”)

Note: If your two thoughts are quite short, you can omit the comma. For example: The food is good and the service is excellent.

However, sometimes you might use “and” in a sentence that does not contain two separate thoughts. It just has one subject and two predicates (verbs). In this case, do not place a comma before the conjunction “and.”

Examples (Correct)

The report is lengthy and has a number of spelling errors. (There is no comma before the “and” because there is only one subject: the report.)

Do you plan to attend the conference and to stay for the dinner this year? (There are two predicates, plan to attend and to stay, but only one subject, you. Therefore, don’t put a comma before “and.”)

At this point, you may be saying to yourself: “Why is this important? Does it really matter?” The answer is yes. It does matter. By putting in the comma, you are breaking your thoughts into sound bites and making it easier for the reader to follow your reasoning.

Happy commas!

Writing Style – Anglophone/Francophone: To Cap or Not to Cap

Deane’s question: “Should terms such as francophone and anglophone be capitalized. I don’t think so as they do not refer to races of people per se. However, especially in the case of francophone, people in government and in the press often write Francophone.”

BizWritingTip response: My first inclination was to say “no.” Do not capitalize these words.

Languages, groups of people and geographical locations are always capitalized. However, anglophone (someone who speaks English) and francophone (someone who speaks French) are descriptors. They do not directly refer to a nationality or a location.

The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling and the Oxford Canadian Dictionary both agree: lowercase.

Note: They do capitalize these words when combined with a location, e.g., Anglo-Quebecer, Franco-Manitoban.

But the Merriam-Webster dictionary accepts both the lowercase and uppercase versions.

The Gregg Reference Manual says the words should be capitalized, and the standard dictionary in Microsoft Word calls for a capital for Anglophone but accepts the lowercase  francophone.

The only thing I can now say is to pick your preferred style and be consistent with it.

Writing Style – Business Writing Guidelines

I thought I would start offer some ideas on how you can ensure your writing style meets the needs of today’s business readers.

Please note that these tips are not hard and fast rules but only guidelines. They come from my years of experience in teaching business writing and from my research into the reading habits of business people.

Your chances of writing clearly and concisely will improve if you keep these numbers in mind:

  • The average number of words per sentence = 18
  • The average number of pieces of punctuation in a sentence before a reader jumps to the next sentence = 4 (A period counts as 1.)
  • The average number of lines per body paragraph in a print document = 8
  • The average number of lines per body paragraph in a screen document = 5
  • The average number of lines per introductory paragraph in a print document = 3-4
  • The average number of lines per introductory paragraph in a screen document = 2-3
  • The average number of ideas a person can hold in their heads = 7 (This is useful information when writing bulleted or numbered lists and when planning sections in a report.)
  • The appropriate grade level for business writing when using the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level on your computer = 12