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Grammar Tip – Verbs: Past Tense Versus the Present Perfect and Past Perfect Tenses

With today’s North American business readers, less is usually better. In other words, in Canada and the U.S. — in a business setting — readers prefer writers to use fewer words to convey information. A prime example is the past tense of verbs.

Example (past tense)

I edited the report.

However, people who were educated through a British school system tend to make more of a distinction with their verbs, using present perfect and past perfect tenses.?The use of a present perfect tense of a verb indicates an action occurred in the past and is complete in the present.

Example (present perfect tense)

I have edited the report.

The use of the past perfect tense means an action was completed before another past action.

Example (past perfect tense)

I had edited the report before I went to the meeting.

If you are now scratching your head, don’t worry. North American business writing is simpler. We just use the past tense. The past tense indicates the action is over.

Example (past tense)

I edited the report before I went to the meeting.

Let me reiterate. The present perfect and past perfect tenses of verbs express subtle variations in time. They give a highly educated and formal feel to sentences. Although grammatically correct for all English usage, when it comes to business writing in North America …  simply stick to the past tense.

Writing Style – Why the Rules for Letters Don’t Apply to Emails

We are all familiar with letters. They are a traditional form of communications. However, emails are recently new to the business scene and require their own email-centric form of writing and organizing.

Why? Emails were never designed to be a formal method of communication.

When emails came into being in the early 90s, they were conceived to be a quick form of communication. You ask. I answer. They were not designed to replace formal letters but to provide a speedy response to a quick off-the-cuff question. They have since become an accepted way of communicating on all levels of the business world. But the writing style has never been elevated to a formal, pompous one.

Note, an informal style does not equate to sloppy. Sloppy emails will not get you anywhere. When I talk about an informal style, I mean short sentences, short paragraphs, bulleted lists, active voice sentences and personal pronouns. Abbreviations and acronyms – as long as the reader understands them – are permissible. Spelling and grammar errors are not.

The word “Dear” is traditional in a letter. Not to use it, would be considered discourteous. However, never use it in a North American email. It is considered outdated and overly formal – not reflective of the U.S. and Canadian business cultures.

But an email should start with a greeting – just as if you were meeting the person for the first time that day. You can be specific and start with the person’s name – first name only if you are friendly, both names if you want to be more formal – or be more generic and start with “hello,” “hi,” “good day,” or something similar.

Grammar Tip – Staff Is or Staff Are

The word staff is a collective noun. It represents a group. Some other examples of collective nouns are board, committee, company, organization, department, and faculty.

The trick with these words is that when the group is acting in harmony, you must use the singular form of the verb.

Correct

The customer service staff is not available after 6:00 p.m. (This is correct because we are referring to all staff members – no one is available.)

Incorrect

Staff is arguing about the new parking policy. (This is incorrect because the group is not acting as a unit.)??If the members of the collective group are acting separately, you must use the plural form of the verb.

Correct

The committee are arguing about the succession plan.

Note: Although this statement is correct grammatically, I believe it is awkward. I would suggest adding the phrase the members of.

Correct

The members of the committee are arguing about the succession plan.

Word Choice – Off or Off of

Andy’s question: “Is it proper grammar to use ‘Billy jumped off of the ladder’? I don’t think so. I think it should be ‘Billy jumped off the ladder.’”

BizWritingTip response: “Off” and “of” are both prepositions. A preposition is a word mainly used before a noun or pronoun to show its relationship with other words. Some examples of prepositions are with, by, to, in, to, into, between, on, off and of.

If you keep the placement rule in mind, it makes no sense to have a preposition (off) before another preposition (of). Therefore, grammar books agree off of is superfluous and should be avoided when writing.

Examples (correct when writing)

Billy jumped off the ladder.
The box fell off the shelf.

Interestingly, off of can be found in the works of early English writers going back to the 16th century, e.g., Shakespeare’s play Henry VI. But times change.

In speaking, off of is considered an Americanism. The Brits and Canadians more commonly use off by itself.

Note: Nowadays, a preposition can also be the last word in a sentence whether you are writing or speaking.

Examples (correct)

Is this the report you were referring to?
This is something we need to talk about.

Isn’t English fun?

Tip Sheet with

Sometimes it’s difficult to remember which preposition belongs with a word. If you use the wrong one, you could lose your intended meaning. Therefore, we’ve put together a Free Tip Sheet that lists many commonly used phrases with their necessary prepositions.