Writing Style – Expressing Time

A BizWritingTip reader wanted to know whether to use numbers or words when expressing time.
BizWritingTip response: ?When you are using a.m. or p.m., use the numbers.


We will start the meeting at 8:30 a.m. (Note the space between the number and a.m.)
He can usually be found at the gym between noon and 1:30 p.m.

There is no need to add zeros for time that is “on the hour.”


We will start the meeting at 8 a.m.

When using the word o’clock, you can use either numbers or words.


The ceremony will start at two o’clock in the afternoon. (Used to indicate formality)
You must be ready by 2 o’clock. (Used for emphasis)

If the reader will easily understand whether you are discussing a morning or afternoon timeframe, you can omit the a.m. or p.m. or o’clock. You could either spell the word out for easy reading or use the figures.

Your workday ends at 4:30.
Your workday ends at four-thirty not at four twenty-eight.
Your workday ends at 16 30. (24-hour clock)

Writing Style – Readers’ Pet Peeves Regarding Emails

I recently asked people to send me their pet peeves with regard to emails. My pet peeve was — and is — people who don’t put their phone numbers on their emails. Several BizWritingTip readers supported me.

Marina H. went one step further. Her peeve was people who not include the extension, forcing people to go through a corporate directory. Press one for …

However, the number one complaint — as expected — was receiving too many unneeded messages because senders either “replied to all” or copied people on messages. Kim H. summed up many readers’ thoughts when she wrote: “I can’t tell you how many emails I have deleted that have no interest to me whatsoever, professionally or personally. This just wastes my time!”

The second most frequent complaint was in regard to people who sit near you but insist on sending emails. John W. wanted to know “why would someone walk to my desk and ask me why I hadn’t responded to his message sent five minutes earlier?”

The third most common pet peeve was a surprise. Beverley M. echoed several respondents when she complained about “People who send a thank you for every little notice. This means I have yet another e-mail to open and then just delete.”

Two other common peeves can be linked together: people who reply to emails leaving on the original attachments or failing to remove lengthy earlier messages. Laura E. advised: “When responding to an email, delete the attachment. The original sender and all recipients have a copy already.”

On the other hand, two people complained about getting short answers without the original message so they weren’t sure what the message was regarding. BizWritingTip’ advice: Leave the original message on if the reader will need it. Otherwise, get rid of it.

Other complaints in no particular order were:

No subject lines
Subject lines that were too vague
Bright, articulate people who send undecipherable messages
Lengthy paragraphs
No spacing between paragraphs
Email blasts saying you will be out of the office (instead of using the out of office feature)
Not using the out of office feature if you are away
Lengthy emails with the action request buried at the bottom
Motivational thoughts or proverbs as part of the signature
Colourful fonts and backgrounds
Misspelling of my name (and anyone else’s)
Any email longer than two paragraphs
Not copying secretaries who manage executives’ calendars when setting up meetings
Using emails to relay sensitive information
Not deleting sensitive information from emails that are being forwarded to a third party
Unrecognizable short forms and acronyms
Out-of-date signature boxes

Writing Style – Emails: Pet Peeves

I have found that most people have a love/hate relationship with emails. Here’s an opportunity to vent and to learn. I am conducting a survey of business people’s pet peeves when it comes to this form of communication.

My pet peeve is emails that lack phone numbers. Sometimes if a reply is lengthy or negative, I would rather answer it by phone. However, if there is no phone number, further electronic communication is the only option.

One workshop participant said he never included his phone number because people could always look it up in the company directory. This was the same person who also complained about the number of messages he received every day and questioned why people no longer used the phone.

Relying on people to look up phone numbers during a busy work day is naïve. In addition, if you are accessing your emails from a BlackBerry or other external source, the company directory may not be available.

Please do me, your colleagues and your clients a favour. Add your phone number to your signature box. If you don’t use a signature box, at least include your number after your name.

Don’t consign the readers of your messages to a never-ending email spiral.

Alright, you have heard my pet peeve – let’s hear yours.

Writing Style – Letters and Salutations

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: I am curious as to what salutation should be used on letters when you don’t know the name or gender of the person you’re writing to. Is “gentlemen” passe?

BizWritingTip response: Yes, “gentlemen” by itself is considered passé. You could address the letter to “Ladies and Gentlemen.” (Don’t use the word Dear.”)

However, this terminology is considered very formal. And some women in my workshops have told me they don’t like to be referred to as “Ladies” in the business world.

With a routine or informal letter when you do not know who will be receiving it, I recommend you drop the salutation line altogether and just lead with the subject line. This would be ideal if you were writing a letter that is going into a file.


Re: Employment Reference for Tiger Woods

Another option would be to use a title, if you know it: Dear Human Resources Manager:

Naturally, the best way to get your documents read is to start with the person’s name.

Writing Style – The Plural of Email

A BizWritingTip reader wrote:? I challenged my boss that we can use the word emails when referring to more than one. But he said that there’s no “s” on the end as in paper mail there’s no “s” on the end. We would never say that we received mails today. Please advise.

BizWritingTip’s response: Technically, your boss is correct. The word email stands for electronic mail. It can be used as a verb (meaning sent by email) or as a noun (meaning a message sent by email). To make the noun plural, some writers prefer to use the term “email messages.”

However …

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary now accepts the commonly-used version “emails.”

Therefore, I am going to say you are both correct.

Note: Email can be spelled with or without the hyphen as long as you are consistent. The Canadian style is to use the hyphen. However, I am seeing more and more organizations dropping it.

Writing Style – Copying a Third Party

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: Help us settle a debate: If the letter content is identical and you want two parties to be aware that the other party has received the same information, can you send just one letter and CC: the other person? Or, do you have to send each person two copies of the same letter?

BizWritingTip reply: When you put a copy notation at the end of the letter, it means you have sent two separate documents — the original to the person to whom the document is addressed and a copy to the person at the bottom of the page.

The person to whom the document is addressed is considered the primary reader.

If the two people are of equal importance and you expect a response from both, I would send two separate letters and note the other receiver’s name on the copy to line. However, I would send only one document to each person – even though they have been copied on the other identical letter. After all, we’re drowning in paper. There’s no need to add to it.

Another option would be to mention in the body of the letter that you have sent a duplicate message to the other party. There would then be no reason to use a copy to line.

Note: The term cc (carbon copy or complimentary copy) in a hard copy letter is outdated. I suggest using just one C. or typing out Copy to.

Writing Style – Emails — A Dangerous Document

Of all the business documents you prepare (letters, emails, memos, reports, business cases, briefing notes), which one is most likely to have a negative impact on your professional image?

The answer: short emails. Why? Because the one- or two-line email is the one we write most often and with the least amount of thought. Someone asks a question, and we quickly reply – a common knee-jerk reaction to emails. Initially, we feel great. We are productive. We have done “the job.” We can cross one more thing off our “to do” list.

However, this quick one-liner can get us into trouble. Grammar errors or typos are much more evident in a short message. If you have a grammar error in a long report or business case, it is not looked upon favourably. But one error among 1000 words does not have the same negative impact as one error in 20 words.

That one error can project the image of a harried individual who is careless and disinterested in his or her work.

It may not be fair but that’s life in the business world. Never hit the send button until you have reread your message. It may take 10 seconds longer, but it’s your image you are protecting.

Writing Style – Do you treat your readers like sheep?

If not, you should.

C.S. Lewis once said, “I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road, if there is any gate to the left or right, the readers will most certainly go into it.”

This statement is particularly true in the world of business writing. As our readers are impatient, pressed for time, and overloaded with things to be read, they skim documents. As a result, they often jump to conclusions. If the writer has not taken time to explain him or herself clearly, readers will often take “the wrong gate.”

Here are six tips to ensure your reader gets the right message quickly.

1. Keep your sentences short. The ideal average length is about 18 words. There will be fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

2. Use verbs over nouns. It will shorten your sentences and make them more powerful.

Example (Original)

We intend to bring it to completion by the end of the quarter.

Example (Revised)

We intend to complete it by the end of the quarter.

3. Be precise in what you need from your readers. Tell them what they are going to see and what you want.


I’d like your input on the following five recommendations I wish to present to the board. As my presentation is later this week, can you get back to me by Wednesday?

4. Get to your main point quickly. Avoid starting with a “bed time story.”

Example (Original)

Last week I attended a seminar in Winnipeg. It was highly informative.

Example (Revised)

At last week’s seminar in Winnipeg, I learned of new scheduling software that would make our salespeople more productive.

5. Keep your paragraphs short. Lengthy paragraphs intimidate a busy reader. Keep paragraphs to less then eight lines in a print document and less than five lines in an email. The first paragraph in any business document should never exceed three to four lines.

6. Provide subconscious reading instructions to the reader by using connecting words. Examples of connecting words are in addition, however, first, therefore, and in conclusion. In informal letters and emails, you may use and and but. These words help receivers to read documents faster and to quickly understand your thought processes.

These simple rules will keep your sheep/readers on the path you want them to take.

Writing Style – Expressing Numbers

Just as some grammar rules have changed, so too are numbers in for an overhaul. Several BizWtitingTip readers have pointed out that many of the blue population signs on major highways are missing the commas that designate thousands.

This is the international way of expressing numbers. When numbers run to five or more figures, spaces (not commas) are left between groups of numbers.

Example (on a blue highway) sign

Population ?44 000

When numbers run to only four figures, the space is unnecessary unless these numbers occur together with larger numbers that require spaces.


We were pleased to hear that 5430 people participated in the marathon.

We were pleased to note that of the 10 500 people who attended the concert over 5 000 purchased our tee shirts.

When expressing money amounts using the international style, a comma replaces a decimal point.


$12 671,17 (international style) $12,671.17 (standard style)

In Quebec, the French-language media has already adopted the international style. The media in the rest of Canada is not using it yet. It is, however, coming into the country slowly. It is being taught in many of Canada’s elementary schools.

Don’t shoot the messenger!

Writing Style – International Numbers

Just wanted to point out a truly Canadian company – Tim Hortons.

Tim Hortons ' Roll Up The Rim" CupIf you ever participate in their Roll-Up-the-Rim-to-Win contest, you will notice the numbers on their disposable coffee cups do not have commas to indicate thousands.

This is the metric way of writing numbers and also the international style. Canada went metric in the 1970s with the disclaimer that it was phasing in the metric process. Now some organizations and provinces are encouraging the rest of the phase-in.

Under the metric system, large numbers are not separated by commas but are written as groups of three with a space separating each group. A four-digit number may be grouped together:

25 000
47 000 000

When it comes to dollar amounts — according to international style — a comma is used to replace a decimal point and the currency symbol is placed after the amount.


16,17$  instead of $16.17

Note: Quebec fully adopted the international standard in the ’70s, and metric measures are more consistently used there than anywhere else in Canada.

Will Canada ever go completely metric? I don’t know. The CP Stylebook still uses commas rather than spaces. However, in Ontario the commas have been removed from many of the blue population signs. And many elementary school teachers are teaching the international method.

I would love to hear what is happening in other provinces, the U.S. and other parts of the world.

But remember: Follow your organization’s style guide!