Word Choice – Advice Versus Advise

Tony’s question: “I was wondering if you can explain the difference between ‘advise’ and ‘advice’ and how to use them?”

BizWritingTip response: “Advice” and “advise” are among the most commonly misused words in English. “Advice” is a noun. According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, it means “words offered as an opinion or a recommendation about future action.”

Examples (the noun advice)
She frequently offers unsolicited advice.
You shouldn’t offer advice you wouldn’t follow yourself.

“Advise” is a verb. It means “to give advice to.”

Examples (the verb advise)
Please advise the client of our policy.
My lawyer has advised me to sign the papers.
So that’s my advice for this week.

If you want to test your knowledge, a short quiz follows.


  1. I need to get some advice/advise from you.
  2. What would you advice/advise in this situation?
  3. Take my advice/advise and don’t quit your day job.
  4. That is not good advice/advise.
  5. I don’t advice/advise you to do that.

Answers: 1) Advice, 2) advise, 3) advice, 4) advice, 5) advise

Word Choice – Outside or Outside of

Hilary’s question: “The question I have is the use of ‘of’ in a phrase such as, ‘If you live outside of Canada, a visa is required.’ Is it correct to say, ‘If you live outside Canada, a visa is required’ “?

BizWritingTip response: This is a style issue. British grammar purists consider “outside of” incorrect. However, in North American English, it is deemed acceptable both in written and in spoken form.

I waited outside of his building. (North American style)
I waited outside his building. (British style)

The rational for the North American style is that “outside” can be considered either a noun or a preposition. If the word “of” follows, “outside” is definitely a preposition. Apparently, it makes a subtle change in how the reader understands the sentence.

Personally, I prefer the British style: “If you live outside Canada, you need a visa.” But whatever you decide will be fine.

Word Choice – Number Versus the Number

John’s question: “Last week you gave two examples that appeared contradictory: ‘A small number of branch offices are closing’ and ‘The number of proposals we must write is increasing.’ I thought the word ‘number’ takes a singular verb. Why did you use ‘are’ in the first example?”

BizWritingTip response: Good observation. When you use “the” in front of the word “number,” it implies a singular meaning and, therefore, a singular verb.

Examples (correct)
The number of proposals we must write is increasing.
The number of people who wish to attend is growing.

If you use the article “a” in front of “number,” it implies a plural meaning and requires a plural verb.

Examples (correct)
A small number of branch offices are closing.
A number of people wish to attend.

Isn’t English fun?

Word Choice – Issue Versus Problem

Gerald’s question: “Can you give a couple of examples to distinguish between the words ‘issue’ and ‘problem’? When I am asked my opinion on a bank’s service, can I reply, ‘There have not been any issues with this bank in handling our export documents.’ Or can I simply reply ‘I have never had any problems with this bank in … ’?”

BizWritingTip response: There is a trend today to use these two words interchangeably. No one wants to speak of problems anymore. We call them issues and tell ourselves we are being politically correct. But this can cause confusion.

An “issue” is a topic. It can cause personal annoyance and may even have the potential to cause harm. However, at this stage the impact is slight. When you have an issue, you generally can come up with a solution yourself.

Examples (correct)
There are several issues we should discuss at the meeting. (There are several topics we should discuss.)
I had some issues with the new employee after the first week. (There were some concerns, but they could be easily resolved.)

On occasion, an issue may turn into a problem. A problem is negative. It needs to be solved. Problems usually require the advice and assistance of others.

The speaker had some issues with the microphone so it was difficult to hear the entire presentation. (Incorrect — The microphone needed to be fixed or replaced.)
The speaker had some problems with the microphone so it was difficult to hear the entire presentation. (This is correct.)
I have some problems with the new employee. (This is now serious. Resolution is required.)

You could write, “There have not been any issues with this bank in handling our export documents.” This would imply there have not even been any minor irritations.

Or you could write, “There have not been any problems with this bank.” This would imply although there may have been some minor irritations, there is no need to work on a resolution.

Although choosing the right word may be an issue, choosing the wrong one may be a problem if the reader gets the wrong message.



Word Choice – Pertinent Versus Relevant

Muhammed’s question: “I have a beef about the use of pertinent’ versus relevant.’ Please throw some light on this so I can understand and use these words properly in a pertinent way!”

BizWritingTip response: According to the dictionary, relevant  means “having a bearing on the matter at hand.” Pertinent  means “relevant to the matter at hand.”

Although the definitions seem similar and many thesauruses interchange these words, there is a subtle difference. When something is relevant, it has something to do with the topic. When something is pertinent, it means it is significant. It will have an impact on the decision or the outcome.

Her holiday experience was relevant to our decision on where to vacation next. (We took her experience into consideration.)
We are working with a tight budget so cost information is pertinent. (Financial information is essential.)

I think of relevant information as being nice to know. Pertinent information is need to know.

Word Choice – Follow Up Versus Follow-Up

Pamela’s question: “In the medical field, you’ll hear ‘follow up’ a lot. For example, ‘the patient was seen in follow up’ or ‘I will follow up with this patient.’ I’ve seen this spelled follow-upfollowup and follow up. Which is correct? Or are they all correct?”

BizWritingTip response: “Follow up” is a commonly misused, abused and misspelled word. When it is used as a noun or as an adjective, insert a hyphen. When it is used as a verb, write it as two words with no hyphen. Some American dictionaries also permit “followup.” However, this is not a recommended Canadian or British style.

Examples (adjectives)
I need you to come in for a follow-up visit.
Did you write a follow-up letter?

Examples (noun)
The patient was seen in follow-up.
The follow-up is often as important as the initial phone call when seeking new clients.

Examples (verbs)
The doctor will follow up with you.
Please follow up with her.
We will start with grammar and follow up with writing style tomorrow.

Note: When you are using “follow up” as a verb, it is normally followed by the preposition “with.”

I trust this issue will not require a further follow-up.

Word Choice – Inutility: Is it a word?

Tony’s question: “I came across a word in a report written by someone. The writer used ‘inutility’ instead of ‘lack of utility’ to describe the use of land. I have always used lack of utility. But is ‘inutility’ a word, and does it have a similar meaning as lack of utility?”

BizWritingTip response: This question was intriguing. I have never heard of the word and two of my dictionaries did not reference it. However, I did find it in some on-line dictionaries.

Apparently, the word comes originally from the Latin word inutilis meaning not useful. It was then used in Old French and Middle English, gaining popularity in the 1400s.

The adjective form is inutile, meaning of no use or service.

Last Christmas, I received a number of inutile gadgets for my kitchen.

It is definitely a word. The writer was correct. However, unless you are positive your reader is familiar with the term, my advice — don’t use it. Remember the key to effective writing: write to your reader. If standard dictionaries don’t carry the word, and your software program has red lined it, chances are your reader will be confused.

Word Choice – Over Versus More Than

Diane’s Question: “I see this all the time: over 100 people attended the event. I was taught to write ‘more than 100 people attended.’ Are both acceptable?”

BizWritingTip response: The answer to this question relies on tradition rather than grammar and depends on whether you are using Canadian, British, or American English. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines more as “existing in a greater or additional quantity.” Over has many meanings including “more than.” It also uses the example of over $50. Therefore, you can interchange the words when indicating “in excess of.” British sources also support this.

Examples (correct Canadian and British style)
We made over $1 million in profit last year.
Over 100 people attended.

However, American style recommends you use “more than” with numbers and never “over.”

Examples (correct American style — also acceptable Canadian and British)
We made more than $1 million in profit last year.
More than 100 people attended.

Apparently, the American displeasure toward using “over” instead of “more than” started in 1877 when William Cullen Bryant was the editor of the New York Evening Post. He refused to let any reporter use “over” before a numeral. Although he never gave a reason, the rule has made its way into many American style guides.

Frankly, I recommend looking over your sentence and picking whichever phrase sounds best.

Word Choice – Have or Got

Jason’s Question: “My question is regarding the usage of the word ‘got.’ My wife constantly corrects anyone that uses the word ‘got’ in a sentence because she believes this is bad grammar.”

BizWritingTip response: Years ago, “have got” and “have gotten” were commonly used in English. About 300 years ago, the British dropped the “got” or “gotten.” However, in North America these phrases are considered acceptable, informal phrases.

You have mail (British).
You have got mail (North American style).
You’ve got mail (contracted North American style).

In North America, it is felt that using “got,” “have got,” or “have gotten” places additional emphasis on the thought being conveyed.

I have your report. (I am in possession of a copy.)
I got your report. (Your report was sent to me, and I have it now.)
He has the answer to your question. (He has it.)
He has gotten the answer to your question. (He has taken the trouble to acquire the answer.)

“Have got” also has another meaning. It is considered a stronger way of saying “must.”

I must leave by 3:00 to catch my train (correct).
I have got to leave by 3:00 to catch my train (correct but stronger).

Frankly, unless I am concerned about the emphasis, I prefer the British way. But I wouldn’t consider the other wrong – just wordy. I have to go now. I have got to go now.

Word Choice – Awhile Versus A While

Barbara’s Question: “When do you use ‘awhile’ and ‘a while?’ ”

BizWritingTip response: Awhile means “for an unspecified period of time.” A while is a noun phrase “meaning a period of time.”

Although the words convey a similar meaning, the structure is different. Awhile (written as one word) has the word “for” built into it. It is used as an adverb phrase. The simplest advice is to use it whenever you can substitute “for a short time.”

Examples (correct)
He read for a short time.
He read awhile.

Example (incorrect)
He read for awhile. (You are duplicating the word “for.” He read for for a short time.)

When a preposition (e.g., for, after, or in) precedes the word, you use the noun phrase “a while.”

Examples (correct)
We will go there in a while.
After a while, the customer left.
We worked on the project for a while.

Don’t you just love English?