Word Choice – I or We

Aarani’s question: “I always find myself wondering whether to use ‘I’ or ‘we.’  I was writing an email just a few minutes ago and wrote ‘I appreciate your help.’  This was directed to an external contact. Would it be better to use ‘I’ or ‘we’ — as in my collective team/company?”

BizWritingTip response: “I” means you personally and “we” means your organization. I assume in this situation it is you directly and not all your colleagues who are grateful. Therefore, I would stick with the “I.” But if everyone in your office is jumping for joy, go with the “we.”

I recall being told years ago never to interchange “I” and “we” in the same document. If you remember this – let it go. You can mix it up now.

Oftentimes, in public letters written by organizations to explain a problem or justify an action, you see them start with a general remark such as “we are sorry.” In other words, the whole company is remorseful. Then near the end — close to the signature of the “writer” — the phrase changes to “I apologize.” This creates an even more personal note. It is highly effective.

Note: The more personal pronouns (I, you, or we) you use in a document, the warmer the tone and the greater the likelihood of your readers paying attention. That is why formal reports are often boring. The only personal pronoun they contain is “it.”

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?

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.

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?

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?


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.