Word Choice – Enquire Versus Inquire

Zabrina’s question: “This is something I have run into two days in a row – ‘inquire’ versus ‘enquire.’ Can you explain them and give examples?”

BizWritingTip response: In North America, enquire is just another spelling for inquire. (Inquire tends to be used more often.) According to both the Canadian and American Oxford dictionaries, either word can be used to “ask a question” or to “seek information formally.”

Examples (North American)

He inquired about her health.

She enquired my name.

You should inquire into the accident.

In British English, there is a difference between enquiry and inquiry. If you enquire about someone or something, you ask about them.

Examples (British style)

He enquired about her health.

She enquired as to whether we were going to the meeting.

In Britain, inquiry is used to indicate official investigations.

Examples (British style)

Are the police going to inquire into the accident?

We need to set up a commission to inquire into politicians’ pensions.

However, many British grammar books now say that if you can’t decide between the two words, go with inquire.

Frankly, I don’t see these words a lot in emails or letters. I would save them for when I want a formal tone in my document.

Word Choice – Light Versus Lit

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: “Regarding versions of the past tense of the word ‘light,’ I was taught to write: ‘He lit the candle.’ But I have often seen in books: ‘He lighted the candle.’ Which is correct?”

BizWritingTip response:? We were taught (in the days of the dinosaurs) that lighted was used when a fixture was involved; lit was used on all other occasions.


He lighted the lamp.
He lit the candle.
Her smile lit up the room.

Today, the words are interchangeable. “I lit the fire.” “I lighted the fire.” Both are considered correct.

Note: If the word is being used as an adjective, lighted is more commonly used.


The runner held a lighted torch.

Word Choice – Student Versus Pupil

Odesh’s question: “When would you use the word ‘pupil’ as opposed to ‘student’? I thought ‘pupil’ was more British and referred to younger people. ‘Student’ would refer to people in high school and university.”

BizWritingTip response: According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, a pupil is “a person taught by another, esp. a schoolchild or student.”

It defines a student as “a person who is studying, esp. at university, college, etc.” The dictionary also lists an additional interpretation: a student in North America is “a school pupil.”

Confused? I think the New Oxford American Dictionary explains it best: “A student is a learner, or someone who attends an educational institution. In some nations, the English term (or its cognate in another language) is reserved for those who attend university, while a schoolchild under the age of eighteen is called a pupil in English (or an equivalent in other languages).

“In its widest use, student is used for anyone who is learning.”

Word Choice – Hanged Versus Hung

BizWritingTip reader: I was under the impression that the past tense of “to hang” was “hung,” but I often hear people saying “hanged.” It doesn’t sound right to me. Please help.

BizWritingTip response: Things are hung but people are hanged.

In other words, when you are using the word in the sense of “to suspend,” then hung is the correct past tense. This is the most probable form you will use in business writing.


All attendees hung their coats in the closet.?The chairman’s picture was hung in the boardroom.

When you are discussing how someone was put to death, hanged is the correct past tense.


The criminal was hanged in 2010.

Note: Some reference books say “hung,” when referring to past executions, is not wrong. It is just less customary. Random House Unabridged Dictionary says “hung” is becoming more common; however, a majority of books agree the usual English word is “hanged” when talking about dangling people from a rope.

There, you now know more than some reporters!

Word Choice – More Versus Most

Jane’s comment: “In an earlier tip you said, ‘Which word is the most appropriate?’ Surely you meant to say, ‘Which is the more appropriate’ since you were comparing only two words (‘first’ versus ‘firstly’). Or, like so many other examples of misuse of the English language, has this too now entered into the growing list of what is considered acceptable?”

BizWritingTip response: I am now eating a large slice of humble pie. I am not sure what I was thinking. Yes, I should have absolutely used “more” in this case as I was discussing two words.

Example (correct)

Writers often use “first” or “firstly.” Which word is the more appropriate?

If I was discussing more than two items, then “most” would be correct.


Writers often use “first,” “firstly” or “more important” at the beginning of a sentence? Which word is the most appropriate?

I will have to be more careful.

Thank you.

Word Choice – Their Versus There

Fans of the TV show Sex in the City may remember the episode when Carrie compares herself to her ex-boyfriend’s fiancé. The new woman is younger, prettier, richer, and better educated. Carrie is devastated until – she receives a thank-you note. The “better” woman does not know the difference between their and there. Obviously, Carrie is not a loser after all.Remember, it’s the little things that can spoil your professional image. You may have crafted a clear, concise message, but if it contains obvious grammar errors, you can be guaranteed that’s what your reader will remember.

The their and there problem is easy.

Their is a personal pronoun. A noun will follow: their offices, their skills, their clients


Their offices are on the 2nd floor.
Their skills must be updated.
Their clients appreciate the change.

There, when it is used to indicate a fact or existence of something, is usually followed by a verb, such as is or are.


There are too many editors and not enough writers.
There was a grammar error in her thank-you note.

There is no reason for people to make this mistake in their documents.

Word Choice – Less Versus Fewer

Deborah’s question: “I see and hear in the media, and in conversations the word ‘less’ being used instead of ‘fewer.’  It is a pet peeve of mine, and I see it on T.V., in print, on packaging, and I hear it on the radio – the CBC no less! Has there been a change in grammar?”

BizWritingTip response: No, there has not been a change in grammar. However, when it comes to the words “less” and “fewer,” “less” is the more commonly heard word. But this is not always correct.

You should use fewer when referring to plural nouns, e.g., reports, forms, templates, people or books.


I would prefer to write fewer reports.

Fewer employees want to attend the conference.

Fewer than fifty people signed the petition.

I should consume fewer calories.

Use less when you’re referring to singular nouns or when referring to amounts, e.g., snow, money, time, hope, or rain).


It’s a great job, but you will earn less money.

I hope we have less snow next year.

They were out of the country for less than six months.

Here’s an easy way to remember this rule. If you can insert a number before the noun (three reports, five cars,) use fewer. If you can’t add a number, then go with less.

Because there are fewer cars on the road at 6 a.m., it takes less time to get to work.

Grammar Tip – Verbs: Past Tense Versus the Present Perfect and Past Perfect Tenses

With today’s North American business readers, less is usually better. In other words, in Canada and the U.S. — in a business setting — readers prefer writers to use fewer words to convey information. A prime example is the past tense of verbs.

Example (past tense)

I edited the report.

However, people who were educated through a British school system tend to make more of a distinction with their verbs, using present perfect and past perfect tenses.?The use of a present perfect tense of a verb indicates an action occurred in the past and is complete in the present.

Example (present perfect tense)

I have edited the report.

The use of the past perfect tense means an action was completed before another past action.

Example (past perfect tense)

I had edited the report before I went to the meeting.

If you are now scratching your head, don’t worry. North American business writing is simpler. We just use the past tense. The past tense indicates the action is over.

Example (past tense)

I edited the report before I went to the meeting.

Let me reiterate. The present perfect and past perfect tenses of verbs express subtle variations in time. They give a highly educated and formal feel to sentences. Although grammatically correct for all English usage, when it comes to business writing in North America …  simply stick to the past tense.

Word Choice – Impact: The Verb

A BizWritingTip reader wrote, “One of my pet peeves is the use of impact. More and more, I see and hear it being used as a verb. It seems to even have a past tense – impacted. My experience is that people are using impact in place of affect (as a verb). My only knowledge of impact is as a noun. Do I need to update?”

BizWritingTip Response

I hate to tell you this but …

According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, impact can be used as a verb. It means “to come forcibly into contact with a usually larger body or surface.” It is usually followed by a preposition, such as by.

Example (Correct )

Our department was impacted by the changes.

Although some people object to this use of impact, it is now well established in both spoken and written English and, therefore, is perfectly acceptable.

I would use impacted over affected if I wanted to indicate the effect was particularly strong.

Trust this update doesn’t affect or impact your day!

Word Choice – Advice or Advise

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: “A colleague and I are trying to decide what is the appropriate use of the words advice and advise.

When signing off on an email, that required a response, my colleague used the term “Please advise” to which he got a grammar error (green squiggly line).

Could you please clarify this for us?

BizWritingTip response:

Advice is a noun and means “words offered as an opinion or recommendation.”

Correct Example

Because of her experience, the manager will give you good advice.

Advise is a verb meaning “to give advice to.” It is usually followed by of or a that phrase.


She advised him that the project needed funding.

She advised him of the need for additional funding.

In your case, although the statement is an abrupt short form, grammatically it is correct: Please advise.

You will, however, get a green wavy line. A green wavy line indicates a possible grammar error. The program has looked for another word (e.g. of, or that) after advise. It can’t find it, so it is wondering if you meant to type the noun advice.

In my experience, writers often make a change in their document because they see the green line. They don’t stop to think. On several occasions, I have seen writers change a correct expression to a wrong one.

Grammar checks are not perfect. Writers must still rely on their own knowledge for the final edit.