Word Choice – Organize or Organise

Gail’s question: “It is becoming more difficult to remember the correct Canadian spelling of words, especially since Microsoft software only references American grammar and spelling.  For example, I would spell “organisation” with an ‘s.’ Is this correct?”

BizWritingTip response: My favourite reference books for Canadian spelling are The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Both books claim that organize is spelled with a “z.”  This is also the American spelling.

Organise and organize are both accepted in British spelling.  However, a 2004 UK survey stated that 60% of the respondents favoured the –ise ending.

If you want more information on the differences between Canadian, British and American spelling, check out the earlier BizWritingTip Blog: How should I spell it?

By the way, you might want to ask your IT department how to set up a Canadian English dictionary in your version of Word.

Word Choice – Disinterested Versus Uninterested

Rick’s question: “Is there a difference between ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’?  Or are they interchangeable?”

BizWritingTip response:  Thank you for pointing out this common error. Yes, many people do interchange these words. But they have different meanings.

“Disinterested” means unbiased or impartial. In other words, a disinterested person cannot be influenced to his or her own advantage.


We need to find a disinterested person to select the winner.

G.M. Trevelyan said, “Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the life blood of real civilization.”

“Uninterested” means not interested or unconcerned.


I am uninterested in raising funds for an event that is not for charity.

Gilbert K. Chesterton said, “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”

Trust you found this interesting.

RIP Sheet:

OTN Tombstone

I have just posted my popular RIP Tip Sheet on this website. Whenever I deliver a session on business writing, I provide the RIP tip sheet to the participants. But I thought my BizWritingTip readers might like a copy.  The RIP tip sheet lists words and phrases that are clichés in today’s business world and provides alternatives.

Happy reading!

Word Choice – First Versus Firstly

Dominique’s question: “Which sentence is correct: ‘Firstly, I would like to let you know that …’ or ‘First of all, I would like to let you know …’ I wrote to a colleague in the States who claims she has never heard of the word ‘firstly.’ ”

Bizwritingtip response: This is a writing style issue rather than a grammar one. First of all, firstly and first are all acceptable words. However, I don’t like to use words just “to pad” my sentences. Therefore, I would never use first of all. I don’t see the need for “of all.”

For the past 150 years, people have hotly debated the use of “first” versus “firstly.” Which word is the more appropriate?”  First appeared in the English language around 1200, and firstly showed up in the early 16th century.

Modern dictionaries accept both words as interchangeable. Just remember, if you start with “first,” you must continue with “second” and “third.”  If you begin with “firstly,” continue with “secondly,” and “thirdly.” (The same holds true with the words “last” and “lastly.”)

Personally, I prefer the shorter version, first. E.B. White said it well in the chapter he added to Strunk’s book The Elements of Style: “Do not dress words up by adding ‘ly’ to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.”

(The Elements of Style was first written by William Strunk, Jr. in 1918 and updated in 1935. E. B. White, a pupil of Strunk, revised the book in 1959 after Strunk’s death. This book serves as the basis for business writing today, focusing on clearly written English prose.)

Email Tip – Out-of-Office Messages

Gillian’s question: “I am wondering about including the reason for your absence in an out-of-office message if it is of a personal nature other than vacation. Do you require a reason such as a death in the family, medical or maternity leave?  Is it fair or acceptable to say ‘… for personal reasons …’?”

BizWritingTip response: There are no specific rules regarding out-of-office replies. However, I don’t believe in using personal information in generic business emails. The people you work with directly will most likely know why you are away anyway. And as Voltaire said, “The secret of being tiresome is in telling everything.”

In addition, you never know who will end up reading your notices. (Thieves have been known to use personal information gained in auto-replies and to cross reference it to target empty houses.)

Here are two out-of-office replies that I consider professional.


Thank you for your message. I am out of the office until Monday, January 18. In my absence, please contact name, phone number and email address.

I am sorry I cannot respond to you immediately, but I am out of the office from January 5 to January 16. I will review your message upon my return. If you need immediate assistance, please contact name, phone number and email address.

Do Not

  1. Make jokes or say “I am probably by the pool drinking a pina colada while you are reading this.”
  2. Use asterisks, extra punctuation, or text messaging short hand (r instead of are). They are not appropriate and probably do not meet your corporate standards.

Example (incorrect)

………………… on holidays in Panama until January 30, 2011. 🙂 🙂 🙂

****************** need help *********** call Pam at 416-214-5677.

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Sign Errors – A Sign of Our Times

BizWritingTip wants to make a conscious effort this year to clean up the grammar on the signs we see around us. Help us out. Whenever you see an error on a sign or in an article or newspaper advertisement, send us a photo of it. We would also like to know where you saw the problem.

We’ll post the most interesting signs under the “sign errors” category above. There is no prize — just the knowledge you’re making a small difference in the improvement of the English language.

By pointing out the errors, hopefully, we will get them fixed. Additionally, we will put a stop to readers thinking that the error is correct just because they saw it in print.

Here’s an example of what we are looking for.

This is a sign I saw in an office building in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
There are three grammar errors. Can you spot them?


Please send your 1) photo and 2) where you saw it by email to jane@ontariotraining.net

Please send  a photo of errors you spot on signs, packaging, and in newspapers or magazines.

Information/Fun – Season’s Greetings

We are forwarding you this message from Greg as a bit of light-hearted fun for this holiday season. We’ll get back to business in early January.

Some Business Writing Tips:

Avoid alliteration. Always.
Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
Employ the vernacular.
Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
Contractions aren’t necessary.
Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
One should never generalize.
Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
Comparisons are as bad as clichés.
Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
Be more or less specific.
Understatement is always best.
One-word sentences? Eliminate.
Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
The passive voice is to be avoided.
Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
Who needs rhetorical questions?
Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

Fumbler Rules of Grammar
Based on William Safire, “On Language,”
New York Times Magazine, Nov. 4, 1979

May you all live long, write well, and prosper!

If you wish to comment on this newsletter or have a question for a future issue, please leave a reply below.

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 – 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.