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Grammar Tip – The Slash

The slash (also called a virgule, diagonal, solidus, oblique, or slant) is a punctuation mark that is often overused. And it often creates the impression of a lazy thinker, particularly when used to imply and/or. Most readers and editors dislike this usage.

Example

We need to get a copy of the presentation in print/electronic form. (This is ambiguous. Can the copy be sent in one form only or are both forms required?)

Revised Examples

We need to get a copy of the presentation in either print or electronic form.?We need to get a copy of the presentation in both print and electronic forms.

Slashes can also be hard on the eye. It is usually preferable to write the alternatives in full. My guideline is that if it sounds strange when you read it, change it.

Examples

Everyone must submit his/her vacation request by Friday. (This sounds odd when you read it aloud.)

Revised Example

Everyone must submit his or her vacation request by Friday.

Here are examples of when slashes can be used in business writing:

To create an abbreviation or to replace the word “per”

Examples

w/ = with

c/o = care of

fiscal year 2007/08

km/hr = kilometres per hour

To show that a person has two functions or a thing has two components

Examples

Owner/operator

Commercial/residential property

Secretary/treasurer

AM/FM radio

On/off switch

Note: There is no spacing on either side of the diagonal.

By the way, this / is a slash; this is a backslash. Backslashes are used only in computer language. Don’t confuse them.

 

Word Choice – Lay Versus Lie

Linden’s question: “The verb I always have trouble with is ‘lay’ and its past tense and past participle. Can you provide some guidance?”

BizwritingTip response: “Lay” and “lie” are two verbs that fall into the irregular category. In other words, the normal rules for changing their tenses do not apply.

But let’s start with their definitions.

According to dictionaries, lay means “to place.” Lie means to “be at rest on something ” or to “be in a certain position or relation.”

The simplest way to remember the difference is to try substituting the word “place” for the verb. If it makes sense, go with lay (and its variations). If it doesn’t make sense, use lie (and its variations).

Examples

Lay the food on the counter.  (Place the food on the counter – makes sense. Lay is correct.)
If you are not well, lie down on the couch. (Place down on the couch – makes no sense. Lie is correct.)
My loyalty lies with my supervisor. (My loyalty places with my supervisor – makes no sense. Lie is correct.)

Now for the confusing part. Both the past tense and past participle forms of lay are “laid.”

Examples

I laid my cell phone here yesterday.
We have laid copies of the minutes on the boardroom table.

However, the past tense of lie is “lay” and the past participle is “lain.”

Examples

As she was not well, she lay down on the couch.
Before the merger, my loyalty lay with my supervisor.
The reports have lain untouched on his desk.

Frankly, I avoid lay and lie whenever I can. And that’s not a lie.

Note: These rules do not come into play when you are using the word “lie” in terms of telling a falsehood. It is a regular verb — lie and lied.

Word Choice – None

BizWritingTip reader: “In a prior BizWritingTip, you wrote: ‘None of these mechanisms have the ability to improve our reading skills.’ Isn’t this an error in subject and verb agreement? Shouldn’t it be: none of these mechanisms has the ability”?

BizWritingTip response: In very formal writing, “none” takes a singular verb. However, in business writing, “none” is considered singular or plural, depending on the number of the noun to which it refers.

Because the word “mechanisms” is plural, I had to go with a plural verb.

Other Examples (Correct)

None of us want to attend.
None of his ideas were accepted.
None of her mail was answered.
None were hurt in the accident (meaning none of the drivers).

Other words that fall into the same category are some, more, most, any, and all. Again, these words may be considered singular or plural.

Examples

Most of the work is complete.
Some of the documents are ready for signature.

Isn’t English fun!

Writing Style – Preposition Placement

A BizWritingTip reader wrote: “In a recent tip, you wrote the sentence ‘Whom should I send the report to?’ In my years of taking English, I would consider re-writing the sentence to read ‘To whom should I send the report?’ If you are so inclined, I would love to know if you have a different opinion about this.”

BizWritingTip response: The word “to” is a preposition. (Some other prepositions are on, in, by, with, from, and at.)

English purists insist that a sentence should never end in a preposition. They would recommend writing “To whom should I send the report?”

Examples (correct from a purist’s standpoint)

I would like to know on what floor he works.

About what were you talking?

On the other hand, if you want to write a business document (a letter or an email) that sounds like a human being has sent it – rather than a computer – it is better to frame your sentences in the same way as you would when speaking. And very few people can mentally reorganize their sentences when they speak so that the preposition doesn’t fall at the end.

Examples (correct in speech and in business writing)

I would like to know what floor he works on.

What were you talking about?

Whom should I send the report to?

One of the prime movers in permitting the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence was Winston Churchill. Frequently criticized for ending sentences this way, he said, “This is the sort of thing up with which I will not put.” It is correct grammatically. But it makes little sense.

Grammar Tip – Hyphens

A BizWritingTip reader wrote to tell me about an article she had just received titled Thousands of Hyphens Perish as English Marches On. I really appreciated it as I try to keep as up to date as possible.

The article discussed why the latest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has removed the hyphens from about 16,000 words. After exhaustive research, the authors decided to write some compound nouns as two words or to combine them into one, e.g., bumble-bee is written as bumblebee, and ice-cream is spelled ice cream.

The reason given is that hyphens look messy and old fashioned. As printed writing is appearance driven, it seemed more appealing to remove them. Interesting. I love to see when changes are made. Then I went to my Oxford Canadian Dictionary.

I was surprised to note that all the changes mentioned in the article already exist in the Canadian edition. In fact, they are also in the 2000 edition. Is Britain following Canada in terms of the English language?

Note: When a word is serving as an adjective and you want to avoid confusion, you will still need a hyphen: up-to-date report, long-term care and environment-friendly packaging. However, when it comes to nouns refer to your dictionary.

All offices should have at least one current dictionary available to staff. If your office dictionary does not contain the word email, buy a new one!

Grammar Tip – Names of Sports Teams and Verbs

Judy’s question: “When writing about a sports team, such as the North Stars, is the accompanying verb singular or plural? Should it be ‘the North Stars consists’ or ‘the North Stars consist’?”

BizWritingTip response: When referring to a collective noun, such as a team, use a singular verb.

Example (correct)

The team is playing tonight.

However, the rules are different when referring to the names of sports teams. According to the CP Stylebook, team names, even singular ones, require plural verbs.

Examples (correct)

The North Stars consist of 34 players.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are a professional ice hockey team based in Tampa, Florida.

But if a city’s name is used as the team name, use a singular verb.

Examples (correct)

Sudbury is first in the standings.

Tampa played its first game.

Don’t you just love English!

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.”

Examples

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.

Incorrect

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

Correct

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.

Examples

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.