Quotation Marks: Are you up to date?

Do you have trouble remembering whether to place the period inside or outside the quotation mark?

If so, relax. The North American rules surrounding quotation marks are now quite simple. All periods and commas go inside the quotation marks; colons and semicolons are placed outside.

Time magazine says it’s “the best ice cream in the world”. (I learned it this way when I went to school — but that was back in the days of the dinosaurs.)

Time magazine says it’s “the best ice cream in the world.”

Time magazine says it’s “the best ice cream in the world,” and we plan to use the statement in our advertising campaign.

In the minutes, she recorded, “Paul Smithers agreed to contribute $100,000 to the fund”; we were extremely grateful.

Note: I realize a number of people will be upset about this change. But grammar is not static; it changes with the time. Please, don’t shoot the messenger! I am supported by any North American grammar book published within the past ten years.

Be careful if you proofread your kids’ homework. Following your old rules may cause your kids grief. One workshop participant told me her son lost five marks when she corrected his essay and moved the periods outside the quotation marks. It would have been okay 10 years ago but not today.

Who Versus That

Theresa’s question: “I wonder if it is acceptable to use the word ‘that’ when referring to people. Usually this happens when referring to a collective noun. An example I find very jarring is the official apology about residential schools given by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.   He states, ‘It has taken extraordinary courage for the thousands of survivors that have come forward to speak publicly about the abuse they suffered.’

“It would seem to me that the word ‘who’ should be used. What are your thoughts?”

BizWritingTip response: I was taught years ago that who is used for people and that for things. But guess what? Times have changed. Now both who and that are used when referring to persons. Usewho when you are referring to specific people and that when referring to a category or type of person.

He is a manager who treats his employees well. (The manager is a specific person.)
He is the type of consultant that I would hire again. (category)*
She is the one who should be going. (specific)
Of all the people that should attend, I decided to send her. (category)
I am shocked by professionals that use improper grammar. (category)
I am shocked by one of our managers who uses improper grammar. (specific person)

Therefore, although it does sound awkward, Prime Minister Harper’s statement is correct.

*Yes, you could remove the word that from this sentence. Grammatically, that is the correct word to use. In the interest of brevity, you could – correctly – remove it: He is the type of consultant I would hire again.

Grammar – Licensing

Brenda’s question: “I understand that ‘licence’ is a noun and ‘license’ is a verb.  Our question is about the word licencing/licensing. For example, would you say ‘Microsoft will be licencing users next year’ or ‘Microsoft will be licensing users next year’?”

BizWritingTip response: The word “licensing” is always spelt with an “s.”

Example (correct)
Microsoft will be licensing users next year.

Note: You are absolutely right. All forms of English spell the word with an “s” if it is being used as a verb.

Example (correct everywhere)
Are you licensed to drive a truck?

However, when it is in the noun form — British, Canadian, and Australian English spell it with a “c.” American English spells the noun with an “s.”

You need to apply for a licence. (noun — British, Canadian, and Australian English)
You need to apply for a license. (noun — American English)

Grammar Tip – When Names Form an Adjective

Monique’s question: “I understand that hyphenation must be used between two words that form one adjective. However, if the words are a person’s name what would be the correct way of writing it, for example, Dag-Hammerskjöld-Honorary-Medal or Dag Hammerskjöld-Honorary Medal?”

BizWritingTip response: You are correct on the basic rule. If two or three words form an adjective, you must insert a hyphen.

Examples (correct)
A three-month vacation
An up-to-date report
German-Canadian relations

However, there is an exception to this rule: If a proper name is used as an adjective, you do not use any hyphens. The capitalization of the first letters shows their relationship.

Example (correct)
Dag Hammerskjöld Honorary Medal


Writing Style – Numbers Beginning a Sentence

Kathryn’s question: “When starting a sentence with a number, should it be printed numerically or alphabetically?”

BizWritingTip response: Here is a great example of how technology drives changes in our writing. The rule in this instance was quite simple. If a number started a sentence, you had to write it out. And you would always rearrange your sentence so it didn’t start with a year.

One hundred and twenty-five people attended the seminar. (correct)
125 people attended the seminar. (incorrect style)
2013 was a year of strange weather patterns. (incorrect style)
Strange weather patterns occurred in 2013. (correct)

This is a rule I still follow when preparing letters, reports, brochures, and more formal emails.
However, when it comes to sending an email from a handheld device, I admit to starting the sentence with the number written as a number. It is faster and less risky with my “fat fingers.” Many people are now doing this. It just makes life easier, and it is becoming common practice.

Word Choice – On Line, Online, or On-Line

Matt’s question: “I have a question on the use of ‘on line’ vs. ‘online.’ In a recent blog post you spelled it ‘on line.’ Was this correct?”

BizWritingTip response: You got me. Thank you. I learn a lot from my readers. Although you often see the two spellings interchanged, I should have written it as one word in the example. British English inserts a hyphen; American English does not.

Politicians should post their expenses on line. (incorrect)
Politicians should post their expenses on-line. (British)
Politicians should post their expenses online. (American)
Do you enjoy on-line shopping? (British)
Do you enjoy online shopping? (American)

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines “on-line” as an adjective or adverb meaning “controlled by or connected to a central processing unit.”

“On line” is defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as “in or into operation.”

The new production system will come on line next week.

I will now remember to use “online” or “on-line” if there is a connection to computers. Anything else will be “on line.”

Writing Style – He Versus They

Nicole’s question: “I recently received an email from an employee looking for clarity between he and they.  If you are not sure of the gender would you say ‘He will attend training’ or ‘They will attend training’?”

BizWritingTip response:  The answer to this question has changed over time.  In the past, writers used the pronouns he, his, him or himself when unsure of the gender.   The pronouns were considered all inclusive.   However, this is now considered outdated and sexist.

Examples  (grammatically correct but outdated)
If your child wants to attend med school, he should study hard. (What about your daughter?)
A politician should post his expenses on line.  (What about female politicians?)

There are now other options to make your writing “gender-neutral.”

1.   You could make the noun plural and rework the rest of the sentence.

If your children want to attend med school, they should study hard. (And you better start saving.)
Politicians should post their expenses on line.
They will attend training.

2.   You could use he or she or his or her or he/she or his/her.

If your child wants to attend med school, he or she should study hard.
A politician should post his/her expenses on line.
He/she will attend training.

Although awkward, this can work well — as long as you don’t have to keep repeating he or she or his /her throughout a lengthy document.*

3.   According to the Oxford Dictionaries Online, although it is not grammatically correct, the practice of using plural pronouns to refer to a singular noun is now acceptable. *

If your child wants to attend med school, they should study hard.
A politician should post their expenses on line.

*      If your organization has a style guide, naturally you would follow its advice.

Thank-You Emails

Mary’s question: “Is it always appropriate to send a ‘thank you’ email as a response to any email providing information? I am receiving more and more of these. It seems to me that email senders could set up automatic receipt notices if they wanted to be sure that their emails were received.”

BizWritingTip response: I did a survey just over a year ago regarding people’s pet peeves when it comes to emails. I was surprised so many people complained about thank-you emails. It seems when people are having a busy day, they don’t want to waste their time opening non-essential messages.

However, if you don’t send a thank you how will the senders know you received the information? I don’t recommend receipt notices. When I conduct an email-writing workshop, most participants claim they dislike the receipt request. They feel the senders are checking up on them; many receivers hit the “no” button (don’t tell the sender I have read this) just out of irritation.

I recommend a practice used by many organizations in both the public and private sectors: Insert the words “thank you” in the subject line in front of the original wording. Then place one of the following abbreviations at the end of the subject, END, EOM (end of message) or NT (no text).

Example (subject lines)
Your original email: Required: Logistic Requirements for Writing Workshop
Receiver’s response: RE: Logistic Requirements for Writing Workshop
Your return email: Thank you – Logistic Requirements for Writing Workshop – END

There is no need for you to add anything else to the body of the email. The receiver can read your thank you in the subject line and then quickly delete or file the message.

Some of you may be wondering what would happen if the reader does not understand END, EOM, or NT.  Well they might go ahead and open the message.  But they will know the next time.

Note: I am not saying  every provision of information requires a thank you. This is just an effective way to do it, if you wish to thank the receiver but have nothing else to add to the message.

Text Shorthand in Emails

Robert’s question: “We are having a debate in our office as to whether it is acceptable to use ‘r’ for ‘are’ and other similar shortcuts when sending emails internally.”

BizWritingTip response:  Emails are a standard form of business communication, and they should be treated the same as any business document. People expect to read them the same way as they would read the morning newspaper.

The letter “r” for “are,” and other short cuts such as BTW for by the way, are considered text messaging short hand. Please don’t use this shorthand in a business email – even though it is to a colleague. It is considered disrespectful. Save your text shorthand for chat rooms, text messages, and instant messaging.

I often compare writing styles to clothing. When you write a lengthy report, you are in formal attire – a tuxedo or ball gown. When you write a letter or short report, you are wearing standard business attire. Emails are dress down Fridays – but no jeans. Think golf attire. Instant and text messaging are your bathing suits.

All forms of writing and dress are appropriate at the proper place and time. Just as you would never wear a tuxedo to a pool party, you would never wear a bathing suit to the golf course.

Word Choice – Whoever Versus Whomever

Evelyn’s question: “Can you please describe when to use ‘whomever’ and when to use ‘whoever’?”

BizWritingTip response: If I said whoever is a pronoun in the nominative form and whomever is a pronoun in the objective form would it help?  I thought not. But let me show you a trick to help you easily determine the right word.

Mentally rearrange the part of the sentence containing the problem and try substituting the words he/she or him/her.

If he or she sounds right, then use “whoever.”
If him or her sounds better, then use “whomever.”

In the following examples, I have put the parts of the sentence you are working with in italics.

Example (whoever = he or she)

Whoever or whomever can play well in these conditions will win the golf tournament. (He can play well in these conditions; therefore, use whoever.)
Correct: Whoever can play well in these conditions will win the golf tournament.

We will give the job to whoever or whomever you think is the most qualified. (You think she is the most qualified; therefore, use whoever.)
Correct:  We will give the job to whoever you think is the most qualified.

Example (whomever = him or her)

Please call whoever or whomever you think can fix the problem.  (Please call her; therefore, use whomever.)
Correct: Please call whomever you think can fix the problem.

We will give the job to whoever or whomever submits the lowest bid.  (We will give the job to him; therefore, use whomever.)
Correct: We will give the job to whomever submits the lowest bid.

I trust this simple trick will help you get it right every time.