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.

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.

Grammar Tip – Colons

Danielle’s question: “We are having a debate in the office as to whether you can use a colon after the word ‘including’ in the middle of a sentence. Can you please help us?”

BizWritingTip response: A colon signals to the reader that an explanation follows.  You can only use a colon if a complete sentence precedes it.

Example (incorrect)
Our trip covers many countries including: England, France and Germany.  (The words before the colon — our trip covers many countries including — do not form a complete sentence. You cannot use a colon.)

Example (correct – without a colon)
Our trip covers many countries including England, France and Germany. (The words form a complete sentence and do not require any punctuation after including.)

Example (correct)
Our trip covers many countries: England, France and Germany. (By omitting the word including, you have a complete sentence.)

Word Choice – Come Versus Go

Roger’s question: “I hear and see people misusing ‘come’ and ‘go.’ Can you please explain the differences?”

BizWritingTip response: When choosing between these words, you must consider your location and your receiver’s location. Come means move toward. Go means away from.

Examples (when communicating with someone at your location)
I hope the server comes soon. (The destination is toward you.)
I will go to the airport to pick her up. (The destination is away from your location.)
I would have gone to their open house if I had known about it. (The destination was away from your location.)

Exception: If you are communicating with someone who is at your destination — not your location — use their location to choose the word. Therefore, the word would be come.

Examples (when someone is at your destination)
I will come to your office tomorrow. (The receiver is at your destination.)
I should have come to your open house. (The destination would have been at the receiver’s location.)

Grammar Tip – Hers Versus Her’s

Barb’s question: “I was in a store recently and saw two signs: ‘his’ and ‘her’s.’ Is this correct?”

BizWritingTip response: We have all been taught to use an apostrophe to show possession. However, as I keep saying, there is always an exception to every rule. And, in this case, it relates to personal pronouns.

The following personal pronouns never require an apostrophe to show possession because they are already possessive: my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our, ours, their, theirs and whose.

Examples (correct)

The proposal is his. The business plan is hers.
My passport arrived ten days ago, so she should get hers this week.
Our two cars look alike so it’s hard to tell ours from theirs.

Note: Her’s is never correct.

Grammar Tip – Apostrophes

Russ’s question: “My manager just told me I am not using apostrophes in the right place. I believe I was taught to add them whenever a word ends in ‘s.’ But she says this is wrong.”

BizWritingTip’s response: I have noticed this grammar problem a lot lately: apostrophes being misused and abused. Apostrophes have two uses. First, they indicate a missing letter or letters.

Can’t versus cannot
It’s versus it is

Second, they replace the word “of” thereby showing possession.

In today’s business world (the business world of today)
Over 15 years’ experience (the experience of 15 years)
The firm’s assets (the assets of the firm)

The trick is where you place the apostrophe. It changes depending on what you are trying to say. Inside the “s” means there is only one item — outside the “s” means there are several items.

The firm’s assets (the assets of one firm)
The firms’ assets (the assets of more than one firm)

Note: Do not use an apostrophe if there is no possession involved.

Example (incorrect)
I have designed websites for all the clubs’ I have managed. (An apostrophe after clubs is wrong because no letters have been omitted and there is no possession.)

Example (correct)
I have designed websites for all the clubs I have managed.