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Grammar Tip – Is it I? Or, is it me?

Here is a prime example of how language is changing. Traditionally, whenever the verb in the sentence was a variation of the word “to be,” the pronoun following always had to be in the subjective case (I, you, he, she, we, or they) whether you were speaking or writing.

Incorrect

It is me.
It was them.

Correct

It is I.
It was they.

However, the correct way does sound overly formal in a normal conversation. Therefore, when speaking you can get away with this error.

Correct (only when speaking)

Last month the people with the most sales were you and me.

On the other hand, when writing, the grammar books recommend you stick with the rule.

Correct (when writing)

Last month, the people with the most sales were you and I.

Some variations of the verb to be are am, is, are, was, and were.

Isn’t grammar fun?

Grammar Tip – Possession With Compound Nouns and Pronouns

Kim’s question: “In both writing and speaking, how do I refer to something that belongs to more than one person? For example, a report that Bill and I worked on – ‘the report is Bill’s and mine’ or ‘the report is my and Bill’s.’ What is the correct way to state this?”

BizWritingTip response: This is a great question. It involves a standard rule and then the exception.

First, when you have two nouns, it is considered a compound noun. If you need to show possession with a compound noun, use an apostrophe. But where does the apostrophe get placed?

If both nouns own the same thing, the apostrophe is placed after the last noun. If both nouns possess different things, then an apostrophe must be added to each.

Examples

Bill and Susan’s report will be ready for printing tomorrow. (One report)

Bill’s and Susan’s reports will be ready for printing tomorrow. (Two reports)

The report was Bill and Susan’s. (One report)

The reports were Bill’s and Susan’s. (Two reports)

However, when a personal pronoun (I, you, he, she, we or they ) is involved, there is a slight difference. You place the apostrophe on the noun only. Personal possessive pronouns never have an apostrophe as they are already possessive (my, mine, his, hers, ours, yours). Note: The noun comes first.

Example

Bill’s and my report will be ready for printing tomorrow.

The report is his and mine. (Never use an apostrophe with a possessive personal pronoun.)

The report is Bill’s and hers.

The report is Bill’s and mine. (The noun is always placed first.)

Word Choice – May, Should, or Must

Some writers are a little confused as to when to use may versus should versus must. However, golfers should find it easy as the rules of golf explain these words perfectly.

May = optional

Should = strongly recommend

Must = mandatory instruction (a penalty is involved)

Therefore, when the rules book state: “A ball on the putting green may be lifted and, if desired, cleaned,” it does not mean it has to be done. It is the choice of the player.

When it continues to state: “The position of the ball must be marked before it is lifted,” it means you cannot lift it without marking it. If you do, you incur a one-stroke penalty. (For non-golfers, this means you have to add another stroke to your score – something you don’t want to do.)

Another rule: “Each player should put an identification mark on his ball.” The player doesn’t have to; however, if you don’t do it, it may lead to potential trouble later, e.g., mistakenly hitting someone else’s ball. (This is something that must not be done.)

BizWritingTip believes you should apply these guidelines to your business writing. Otherwise, you may confuse your reader.

Writing Style – McLuhan and Emails

Emails have only been an official tool of the workplace since the mid 90s. However, the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan seemed to be referring to them in the 60s when he said, “We shape the tools and they in turn shape us.”

Emails were designed to make us more productive. We can send and receive information at the touch of a button. We can write joint reports with people in other offices – or even countries. If someone is “on the road,” no problem. We’ll just send him an email and expect a reply within a few hours. And we can ignore time zones. They are no longer a communications problem.

Moreover, if we think of an idea or a problem to address when office hours are over, we can pull out our laptops/Blackberries and handle it immediately.

But McLuhan was right. This productivity tool is also shaping us. There is more stress in the workplace today because of emails. People are overusing them — sending both relevant and irrelevant messages with little thought. The number one complaint people have with emails is that there are just too many. In fact, handling emails has added one hour to the workday. (If you did the math of this, you’ll be amazed at how much of a company’s corporate payroll goes toward the handling of emails.)

Part of the problem with emails is that business people have not been officially trained on how and when to use emails. They don’t know how to mange their inboxes. And they have not been taught that the rules for letters do not work for emails, nor do they understand that tone is much more important with emails than with other forms of writing.

Emails are a wonderful tool. But they are forcing us to think outside the standard writing/organizing boxes we have previously relied on for business communications.

Grammar Tip – 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.

Incorrect
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.)

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

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

Correct
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.

Word Choice – Enquire Versus Inquire

Zabrina’s question: “This is something I have run into two days in a row – ‘inquire’ versus ‘enquire.’ Can you explain them and give examples?”

BizWritingTip response: In North America, enquire is just another spelling for inquire. (Inquire tends to be used more often.) According to both the Canadian and American Oxford dictionaries, either word can be used to “ask a question” or to “seek information formally.”

Examples (North American)

He inquired about her health.

She enquired my name.

You should inquire into the accident.

In British English, there is a difference between enquiry and inquiry. If you enquire about someone or something, you ask about them.

Examples (British style)

He enquired about her health.

She enquired as to whether we were going to the meeting.

In Britain, inquiry is used to indicate official investigations.

Examples (British style)

Are the police going to inquire into the accident?

We need to set up a commission to inquire into politicians’ pensions.

However, many British grammar books now say that if you can’t decide between the two words, go with inquire.

Frankly, I don’t see these words a lot in emails or letters. I would save them for when I want a formal tone in my document.

Word Choice – Light Versus Lit

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: “Regarding versions of the past tense of the word ‘light,’ I was taught to write: ‘He lit the candle.’ But I have often seen in books: ‘He lighted the candle.’ Which is correct?”

BizWritingTip response:? We were taught (in the days of the dinosaurs) that lighted was used when a fixture was involved; lit was used on all other occasions.

Correct

He lighted the lamp.
He lit the candle.
Her smile lit up the room.

Today, the words are interchangeable. “I lit the fire.” “I lighted the fire.” Both are considered correct.

Note: If the word is being used as an adjective, lighted is more commonly used.

Correct

The runner held a lighted torch.

Writing Style – The Most Detested Canadian Cliché

When I conduct a workshop on business writing, I often ask the participants which cliché they dislike the most. The most common answer is Thanking you in advance for your anticipated co-operation.

Why? There seem to be two reasons:

First, it is normally used after a question, such as “Would you please send me the following documents?” The question implies the reader has a choice. Then the writer finishes the request with the words “thanking you in advance for … ” Now the request has become a demand, and demands tend to irritate stressed business people.

Second, people have trouble with this phrase as it implies the writer is grateful at the moment of writing but will not care when the task is actually done.

Instead of “thanking people in advance,” why not write “I would appreciate your …” ?or “I look forward to …”

Grammar Tip – While … Time goes by

Here’s a challenge for you. For the next week, watch for the word “while.” How is it used? Is it being used in its correct sense of “during the time that”? If not, it’s the wrong word.

Incorrect

While I would like to work on the proposal today, I am too busy.?(There is no time frame.)

Correct

Although I would like to work on the proposal today, I am too busy.

Correct

While I was reading the report, I came up with three new ideas.?(During the time that I was reading the report … )

While you are watching for while, you may catch other errors also.

Word Choice – Student Versus Pupil

Odesh’s question: “When would you use the word ‘pupil’ as opposed to ‘student’? I thought ‘pupil’ was more British and referred to younger people. ‘Student’ would refer to people in high school and university.”

BizWritingTip response: According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, a pupil is “a person taught by another, esp. a schoolchild or student.”

It defines a student as “a person who is studying, esp. at university, college, etc.” The dictionary also lists an additional interpretation: a student in North America is “a school pupil.”

Confused? I think the New Oxford American Dictionary explains it best: “A student is a learner, or someone who attends an educational institution. In some nations, the English term (or its cognate in another language) is reserved for those who attend university, while a schoolchild under the age of eighteen is called a pupil in English (or an equivalent in other languages).

“In its widest use, student is used for anyone who is learning.”