Writing Style – The Plural of Email

A BizWritingTip reader wrote:? I challenged my boss that we can use the word emails when referring to more than one. But he said that there’s no “s” on the end as in paper mail there’s no “s” on the end. We would never say that we received mails today. Please advise.

BizWritingTip’s response: Technically, your boss is correct. The word email stands for electronic mail. It can be used as a verb (meaning sent by email) or as a noun (meaning a message sent by email). To make the noun plural, some writers prefer to use the term “email messages.”

However …

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary now accepts the commonly-used version “emails.”

Therefore, I am going to say you are both correct.

Note: Email can be spelled with or without the hyphen as long as you are consistent. The Canadian style is to use the hyphen. However, I am seeing more and more organizations dropping it.

Grammar Tip – The Importance of Spelling

Whenever I ask if spelling is important in business documents, most people immediately say that it is not so important any more. However, upon reflection they begin to change their minds and recall their pet spelling peeves. I find that while spelling may not matter to writers, it certainly impacts readers.

The results of a 2006 survey by OfficeTeam support this. Two hundred and fifty executives in the United States were asked, “How many typos in a resume does it take for you to decide not to consider a job candidate for a position with your company?” The result: more than 80 per cent of the executives surveyed said they would lose interest in a candidate if they found two typos. Of this number, forty-seven per cent had a tolerance level of only one typo.

With spell-check there is no excuse for blatant errors. However, spell-check cannot catch words that are spelled correctly but are not the right words for the sentence, e.g., typing “form” instead of “from.”

To pick up your personal keyboarding “finger slips” in lengthy documents, I suggest you identify the words you frequently mistype and then use the computer’s search option to check for and to correct those particular “typos.”

Spelling may differ from country to country. As discussed in an earlier BizWtitingTip, we have American, British and Canadian spelling. Use the spelling the reader is familiar with, and then you will not distract him or her from your message.??In addition to resumes, I am sure executives are equally disappointed when they find spelling errors in other business documents.

Word Choice – Ensure, Insure and Assure

Ensure, insure and assure are three simple words that are often abused.

Ensure means to make sure. It is a good word, but it tends to be overused. Many writers like to place it before most of their verbs.


If you want to attend the conference, please ensure that you inform Martha Jones so she can submit your name.

However, what is it you really want? Do you want the reader to make sure he or she does it, or do you want him or her to actually do it?


If you want to attend the conference, please inform Martha Jones so she can submit your name.

Note: Busy readers prefer short, to-the-point sentences.

Insure means to provide insurance. It is not interchangeable with ensure.


How can you insure yourself against identity theft?

Assure is to remove worry or uncertainty.


I assure you that the operation is painless.

I assure you that if you ensure your word choice is correct, then it is not likely you will have to insure yourself against job loss.

Writing Style – Copying a Third Party

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: Help us settle a debate: If the letter content is identical and you want two parties to be aware that the other party has received the same information, can you send just one letter and CC: the other person? Or, do you have to send each person two copies of the same letter?

BizWritingTip reply: When you put a copy notation at the end of the letter, it means you have sent two separate documents — the original to the person to whom the document is addressed and a copy to the person at the bottom of the page.

The person to whom the document is addressed is considered the primary reader.

If the two people are of equal importance and you expect a response from both, I would send two separate letters and note the other receiver’s name on the copy to line. However, I would send only one document to each person – even though they have been copied on the other identical letter. After all, we’re drowning in paper. There’s no need to add to it.

Another option would be to mention in the body of the letter that you have sent a duplicate message to the other party. There would then be no reason to use a copy to line.

Note: The term cc (carbon copy or complimentary copy) in a hard copy letter is outdated. I suggest using just one C. or typing out Copy to.

Grammar Tip – Shall Versus Will

Workshop participants often ask me when to use shall as opposed to will. Both words express the following thoughts:

A. future time

B. promise or threat

C. willingness

However, shall is now considered slightly dated and is used more in formal writing and speech. In standard business writing, will is the correct word.

A. Future Time
In standard business writing, use will with all three persons.


I will attend the meeting.? You will want to read this report. ?He will present the findings next week.

In formal writing, use shall with the first person (I or we) and will with the second or third person (you, he, she, it or they).


We shall be pleased to welcome the delegation from China.?He will be able to meet the delegation from China.

B. Promise or Threat
In standard business writing, use will with all three persons.? In formal writing, use will for the first person (I or we) and shall for the second and third persons (you, he, she, it or they).


I will place this congratulatory letter in your file. You shall be responsible for your actions. They shall be escorted from the meeting if they do not remain quiet.

C. Willingness
In both formal and normal business writing, use will with all persons.


I will be able to attend.

They will be available after 5 p.m.

Does all this information sound complicated? Personally, I use will in all standard business writing. But if I am working on a formal document, such as an annual report, I pull out my shall/will information and ensure I am correct.

Like Sherlock Holmes, I believe in memorizing only essential information. On the limited occasions I need this grammar point, I look it up.

Grammar Tip – His or Her or Their

Paula’s question: “This issue has come up often in our organization — the use of ‘their’ for singular instead of ‘his/her.’ For example, many write: ‘This patient needs to follow their diet better.’ I would use ‘his/her.’ What is the acceptable norm now?”

BizWritingTip response: It is difficult to give a straight answer to this question. So I will start with the grammar rules and then state my own thoughts.

Traditionally, ‘his” was considered generic and used whenever you needed a singular pronoun.

Example (dated style)

This patient needs to follow his diet. (Could be male or female)

But many people felt this was an unsuitable, masculine bias. The major grammar books now give four solutions: 1) use “he or she” or “him or her,” 2) change the wording from singular to plural, 3) remove the pronoun, or 4) reword the sentence.

1) Example (use both pronouns)

This patient needs to follow his or her diet. (This can get rather cumbersome.)

2) Example (change the wording from singular to plural)

Patients need to follow their diets. (When referring to a specific case, this doesn’t make sense.)

3) Example (remove the pronoun)

The patient needs to follow the diet. (This sounds vague.)

4) Example (reword the sentence)

The diet needs to be followed by the patient. (This passive voice sentence puts the emphasis in the wrong place.)

The major grammar books (CP, Chicago, APA and AMA) don’t approve of he/she, s/he, him/her or his/her. Nor do they accept their. Yes, it was rumoured several years ago that the plural generic pronoun “their” would become acceptable. Unfortunately, I am still waiting.

My advice: If I was writing a report or a formal letter and didn’t know the appropriate gender for the pronoun, I would use the formal “he or sheand “him or her.”

If I was writing an email or a file document, I might break the rule and use “their” or “he/she” or “him/her.” Normally, I don’t believe in breaking the rules, but, in this instance, it might be the best solution when writing informally.

Note: The style guides of many organizations ignore this issue completely. However, it is a common question. Organizations should decide how they want to handle it, and then everyone can be on same page.

Word Choice – Similar Sounding Words

The world can be an amusing place when you think as you read.

The headline of a community newspaper recently stated: “Two criminals are on the lamb!” Interesting. It leads one to question the wisdom of the escapees. Wouldn’t it have been easier to use a car or to just run? And “the sheep.” Was there a special sheep always parked outside the penitentiary waiting to assist escaping prisoners. By the way, how many criminals can a sheep carry?

The correct phrase is “on the lam,” meaning to flee from the police.

How about restaurants that advertise complimentary wines with their entrees? Complimentary means it’s free. Complementary means the wine will go well with your selected dinner.

Have you ever read a book with a forward (a movement to the front) instead of a foreword (introductory remarks at the front of a book)?

English contains a number of similar sounding words with different meanings (homophones). Your spell-check cannot catch many of these as they are valid words. It is, therefore, important that you proofread your work so you can protect your professional image.

Do you have an example of the misuse of the English language that makes you chuckle? We would love to hear from you and to publish your observations in a future BizWritingTip.

Writing Style – Emails — A Dangerous Document

Of all the business documents you prepare (letters, emails, memos, reports, business cases, briefing notes), which one is most likely to have a negative impact on your professional image?

The answer: short emails. Why? Because the one- or two-line email is the one we write most often and with the least amount of thought. Someone asks a question, and we quickly reply – a common knee-jerk reaction to emails. Initially, we feel great. We are productive. We have done “the job.” We can cross one more thing off our “to do” list.

However, this quick one-liner can get us into trouble. Grammar errors or typos are much more evident in a short message. If you have a grammar error in a long report or business case, it is not looked upon favourably. But one error among 1000 words does not have the same negative impact as one error in 20 words.

That one error can project the image of a harried individual who is careless and disinterested in his or her work.

It may not be fair but that’s life in the business world. Never hit the send button until you have reread your message. It may take 10 seconds longer, but it’s your image you are protecting.

Grammar Tip – A, an and the

I am often asked if we still need to use articles (a, an, and the), particularly when writing an email. The answer is a resounding yes. Without them, a writer looks sloppy.

The articles, a, an, and the, are considered adjectives and they signal that a noun follows.


Are you going to the store? (Store in this case is a noun, so the article the is placed in front of the word.)

Are you going to store the extra binders: (Store in this case is a verb. It does not have an article in front.)

A is called an indefinite article because it refers to a general noun. The is a definite article referring to a specific group.

A report (any report)?The report (a specific report)

An is also an indefinite article. It is placed in front of a noun that has a vowel sound. Note: It is not the spelling of the word, but the sound of the word that determines the use of an.

Use the article a before all consonant sounds and before words beginning with a sounded h, long u, and o with the sound of w (as in one).


A university
An hour
A hotel
An M.B.A. degree?A unit
An honour
A one-week vacation

Here’s the exception to the rule: Don’t use a or an after the word of.


What kind of a position did you apply for?


What kind of position did you apply for?

Word Choice – Possession With Words Ending in “S”

BizWritingTip reader: “I get mixed up regarding apostrophes with names ending with an ‘s’ or ‘iz’sound. Is it Ross’ book or is it Ross’s book? What about: I’m sending greetings from the Joneses and me?”

BizWritingTip response: To make a word ending in s possessive, you must count the syllables. If the word is only one syllable, you add an apostrophe plus an s.If the word is two syllables or more, then you just add an apostrophe.


Jones (one-syllable word) becomes Jones’s diary

Ross (one-syllable word) becomes Ross’s book

Thomas (two syllables) becomes Thomas’ report

Words ending with an “iz” sound are normally two syllables so you add an apostrophe.


Moses’ laws (Moses ends with an “iz” sound and contains two syllables.)

Note: If you make Jones plural, it is spelled Joneses. It is now a two-syllable word and does not require an s after the apostrophe.


The Joneses’ cottage (Several Joneses have a cottage.)

Jones’s cottage (One Jones has a cottage.)

“I am sending greetings from the Joneses” is correct without an apostrophe because there is no possession involved.

Jane’s advice: Limit your socialization with the Joneses.