Word Choice – Assume versus Presume

BizWritingTip reader: “Can you tell me the real difference between assume and presume? I know presume has a more negative connotation, but the dictionary definitions for them are so similar. The wordassume has been given such a bad rap over the years with the bad joke about what assuming does. What is the correct usage of these words?”

According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionaryassume means “to take or accept as being true, without proof, for the purpose of argument or action.” Presume means “to suppose to be true.”

Although they are not quite the same and neither is listed as a synonym for the other, they are used interchangeably now.

You are right about the bad rap assume has gotten because of the comment: “assuming makes an ass out of ‘u’ and me.” Like many things, this statement has been misunderstood.

The comment relates to the thinking process — not the writing or speaking process. In other words, you should not assume things when thinking or planning. You should check details and ask questions.

You can, therefore, use the word assume when speaking or writing because you are, in fact, checking. The person you are writing or speaking to is supposed to set you straight if your assumption is wrong.

Correct Examples (when writing or speaking)

I assume he will be at the meeting. (You expect the reader/listener to inform you if your assumption is wrong.)
I presume he will be at the meeting.

If the person is important to your meeting, you should never “assume” he will be there. You should check by writing or speaking.

Knowing my BizWritingTip readers, I assume they will let me know if they do not agree with this advice.

Writing Style – Email Salutations

A BizWritingTip reader asked, “Would you happen to know which is better for business emails: opening with Hi Jane, Jane, or Dear Jane? Mostly, I see Hi Jane used in my business.”

BizWritingTip response: There are several options for starting an email in North America as our business culture is not as formal as other areas.

You can use “hi,” “hello,” “good day” or any other variant – including just the first name. I usually tell people to use whatever they would say when they are greeting someone face to face. I recommend staying away from “good morning” or “good afternoon” as the person may not open the email during that time frame.

You could use “greetings” or “hello all” when sending a message to a group.

If I didn’t know the person, and it was my first communication to him/her, I would use both names: John McDonald.

Not putting a salutation on the first message of the day to someone is often considered impolite. As you email back and forth during the day, you can drop the salutation when it feels comfortable.

“Dear” is considered too formal in North America for an email and is reserved for letters. Note: “Dear” in an email is considered appropriate in countries such as Germany, Switzerland, France, Japan and Indonesia.

Bye all!

Grammar Tip – Who Versus Whom

BizWritingTip reader: “Would it be possible to do an article on the proper use of the words who and whom?”

BizWritingTip response: Certainly. Use “who” when the word is serving as the subject in the sentence and “whom” when the word is being used as an object.This rule also works for “whoever” and “whomever.”

Was that helpful? If not, let me show you a trick.

If you can use “he” or “she” in the sentence, then you know “who” is right. If the words “him” or “her” fit in, then you know to use “whom.”


Who is calling? (I could easily say: “He is calling.” Therefore, “who” is correct.)

Whom should I hire? (I could say: “I should hire her.” Therefore, “whom” is correct.

Whom should I send the report to? (I could write: “I should send the report to her.” Therefore, “whom” is correct.

I will hire whoever has the best qualifications. (I could write: “He has the best qualifications.” Therefore, “who” is right. You can’t say: “I will hire him has the best qualifications.” It doesn’t make sense.

There is a famous baseball routine by the comedians Abbott and Costello. Remember “Who’s on first.” Whom never made the lineup.

Word Choice – Who Versus That and Which

BizWritingTip reader: “I always believed that you should use who when you are referring to people and that when referring to things. However, these two words seem interchangeable now. What is correct?”

BizWritingTip response: A few reference books say you can use both words interchangeably. However, conventional thinking supports your understanding. Use who (and its related forms, whose and whom) to refer to people.


Anyone that wishes to attend should send his or her name to HR. ?She is a manager that I would like to work for.


Anyone who wishes to attend should send his or her name to HR. (Who refers to the individual.)
She is a manager whom I would like to work for.

Use that or which for non-human things. If the phrase following is essential to the meaning of the sentence, use “that.” If the phrase following is not essential, use “which” and surround the phrase with commas.


The report that I sent you last week answers your questions. (“That” refers to a thing, and the phrase “I sent you” is an essential phrase. )
The meeting, which was delayed for an hour, featured some interesting speakers. (“Which” refers to a thing, and the phrase “was delayed for an hour” is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.)

In many cases, the decision as to whether a phrase is essential or not is entirely subjective. In other words, the writer gets to choose the points he or she wants to emphasize.

I trust this is a BizWritingTip that will help you with your writing.

Grammar Tip – There Was or There Were

Jo’s question: “Which is correct? ‘There was lightning and thunder last night,’ or ‘there were lightning and thunder.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: This question relates to subject and verb agreement. When a sentence begins with there or here, the actual subject is considered to be the word or words following the verb. Use a singular verb if the actual subject is singular and a plural verb if the actual subject is plural.


There are three proposals to be written. (Proposals — the actual subjectis plural so the verb is are.)
Here is the signed agreement. (Agreement the actual subjectis singular so the verb isis.)
There was lightning last night. (Lightning is singular so the verb is was.)

When you see the word “and” in the subject, it is called a compound subject. Always use a plural verb with a compound subject.


There were lightning and thunder last night. (Lightning and thunder form a compound subject so the verb is plural.)

Frankly, although this is grammatically correct, it sounds awkward. I would rewrite the sentence.


We had thunder and lightning last night.

The same rule (when “and” is in the subject, the verb is plural) holds true even if the sentence does not start with there or here.

Thunder and lightning are expected today.

Grammar Tip - There Was There Is


Writing Style – Prepositions: essential

Recently, we discussed the overuse of prepositions, and how they did not help if you wanted to write concisely. (Some common prepositions are in, of, at, on, for, with, to, between and by.) On the other hand, you must not omit essential prepositions.

Words such as “type” and “couple” always require the preposition of.

Examples (Poor)

What type binding do you require?
I need a couple minutes.

Examples (Revised)

What type of binding do you require?
I need a couple of minutes.

Note: It is not wrong to end a sentence with a preposition today. It all depends on the emphasis and effect you want to achieve.

Example (correct)

He wanted to know which project I was involved with.

If I was working on a report and wanted to achieve a formal tone, I would write:
“It is essential to understand to which decision he was referring.”

To write with a more informal tone— in a letter or email — I would write:
“It is essential to understand which decision he was referring to.”

We trust these couple of pointers will help you with your writing.

Grammar Tip – The slash (/) and when you use it

Slashes have several meanings: and, or, both, to, or per. Be careful when you use them. They can make your sentence difficult to interpret.

1. You can use a slash to indicate a time period that extends beyond a single year.


Fiscal year 2010/11

2. Use it to replace per in measurements: 40 km/h (40 kilometers per hour).

3. You can use it to replace and/or. However, many readers dislike this usage as it can be ambiguous.

Example (awkward)

You can attend the presentation and/or the dinner. (Is this easy to read? How many options is the writer offering?)

Example (better)

You can attend the presentation or the dinner or both.

4. Although I have seen it, I don’t recommend that people write he/she or s/he. This is awkward and distracting. It draws attention to political correctness at the expense of the message.

And if that’s not enough – it’s difficult to say/read aloud.

Grammar Tip – Your Versus You’re Welcome

Wilma’s question: “Please send out a segment on ‘your’ versus ‘you’re.’   Almost daily, I get emails from people who answer me with ‘your welcome.’  This is one of my pet peeves!  It really makes us look inept when we send out things like that.”

BizWritingTip response:  I agree with you. “Your” used in place of “you’re” is a common mistake, and it makes the writer look both disrespectful and careless.

The problem is that the words sound the same. But their meanings are different. “Your” is a possessive pronoun. It will always be followed by a noun. And because it is “born possessive,” there is never an apostrophe with it.

Your expense account must be submitted tomorrow.
We enjoyed your presentation.

“You’re” is a contraction of two words: “you are.”

You’re going to be late for the meeting.
I trust you’re able to work late this evening.

Note: To check if you are using the right word, don’t use the contraction. Mentally, say “you are.” If “you are” fits in, then use the apostrophe. If it doesn’t, then use “your.”

I think you are qualified for the job = I think you’re qualified . . .  .
You are meeting was a success. (This thought makes no sense. Therefore, the words cannot form a contraction.) Correct: Your meeting was a success.

You are welcome. You’re welcome.

Word Choice – Learned Versus Learnt

BizWritingTip reader: “My colleagues and I were astounded to learn that “learnt” is an acceptable British variation of “learned,” to express past learning. It is accepted by MS Word in its “Spell-check.” However, the MS Word thesaurus does not offer a synonym. Is this widely used and accepted as proper English in North America, or is it only when using the Queen’s English?

BizWritingTip response: I have always been told that in the U.K. the past tense of “learn” is “learnt,” but in the U.S. it is “learned.” And Canadian usage follows the American style — in this instance.


I learned the new procedure in under an hour. (North American style)

I learnt the new procedure in under an hour. (U.K. style)

However, someone with obviously way too much time on his hands did a Google search for the two words. His findings were as follows:

U.S. sites: “I learned” appeared 611,000 times versus “I learnt” that appeared only 12,300 times.

U.K. sites: “I learned” appeared 19,300 times versus “I learnt” — 13,400 times.

This shows “learned” is growing in popularity in the Queen’s English. Language constantly evolves. This is a prime example.

Frankly, my call would be to stick to a consistent use of the word “learned.” However, if I saw “learnt,” I wouldn’t raise a learned eyebrow.

Writing Style – Prepositions: useless

Prepositions are important words in a sentence. They link words or phrases to other words in terms of time, space or relationship. Some common prepositions are in, of, at, on, for, with, to, between and by.

However, some writers tend to overuse them. Your sentences will become stronger if you omit prepositions that add nothing to the meaning.

Examples of useless prepositions

Where are we at?
Where did he go to?
Please continue on with what you were saying.
Don’t forget to fill up the gas tank.
Return the form on or by May 3.
We should be finished at about 4 p.m.


Where are we?
Where did he go?
Please continue with what you were saying.
Don’t forget to fill the gas tank.
Return the form by May 3.
We should be finished about 4 p.m.

Remember in business writing: Don’t waste your reader’s time with useless, irrelevant information. On the other hand, you must not omit essential prepositions.