Writing Style – Dates

Jolanda’s question: “Lately, I have seen people write: July 3rd, 2010, but I learned in school that it should be July 3, 2010, or 3rd of July 2010. Can you clarify what is allowed?”

BizWritingTip response: The answer to this question is a great example of how spoken and written English do not always mesh. And it also demonstrates how technology can impact writing styles.

First, our BizWritingTip reader is correct. North American writing style states that when a day directly follows the month, ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc.) should not be used. Cardinal numbers are correct (one, two, three, etc.).

August 3, 2010 (recommended — cardinal number)
August 3rd, 2010 (not recommended — ordinal number)

Note: When you read this aloud, you say the number as an ordinal (August third) even though it is not written that way.

Ordinal numbers with dates are used in writing when the number precedes the month. This is British style and is also used in formal North American legal documents.

3rd of August 2010

However, early software packages automatically converted numbers in dates to ordinals, inserting st, nd or rd. Most people did not realize it was a concern. It then became a frequently seen style.

But Microsoft Office 2007 and the new 2010 release do not use the ordinal numbers with dates. They are now using the accepted North American style.

Minute Taking – Minutes and Contracted Words

Karyn’s question: “Came across this in some minutes and it sounded wrong.

Interim Prevention Council
Hasn’t had the first meeting yet, but it will be soon.

What do you think?”

BizWritingTip response: There are a couple of points I would like to address here. First, because the word “Council” is being used as a collective noun, the verb should be singular. Therefore, “hasn’t” works. Think in terms of it hasn’t versus they haven’t.

Second, although the message is reasonably clear, contracted words, such as hasn’t (has not) and haven’t (have not), are not appropriate for minutes.

Minutes – even those of regular staff meetings – should be written formally.

It has not had its first meeting yet, but it will hold one soon.

I also recommend staying away from incomplete sentences and vague timelines in minutes. I prefer:
Interim Prevention Council
Its first meeting will be this month.

Note: Contracted words are great in emails and in some letters – when you want to create a warm tone.

Writing Style – Large Numbers

Harvey’s question:”I was reading your BizWritingTip about starting sentences with numbers, and I noticed the example you provided, “One hundred and thirty-eight people signed up for the conference.’ I was taught when writing (or speaking) large numbers you should never say ‘and.’ I believe the example should be written as “One hundred thirty-eight people signed up for the conference.” In addition, when it’s currency it should be written, ‘one hundred thirty-eight dollars, thirteen cents.’ Is this correct?”

BizWritingTip response: When writing large numbers, the use of “and” is optional. I was taught to put it in. That’s probably why I like it. But whatever you do is fine.

Examples (correct)
One hundred and thirty-eight
One hundred thirty-eight

When it comes to currency, North American business style is to use the numbers.

Example (correct)

Note: Legal writing often requires figures to be presented both as numbers

Writing Style – Starting a Sentence With a Number

Judy’s question: “I was taught that when beginning a sentence with a number it should be written out, regardless of whether it is smaller or larger than nine. For example, ‘Thirteen food handlers successfully certified in our safe food handling course this month.’ Is this still correct? Also, I sometimes see it written as ‘Thirteen (13) food handlers successfully certified in our safe food handling course this month.’ Is this correct or necessary?”

BizWritingTip response: Yes, you are right about the numbers. At the start of a sentence, write the number out. It doesn’t matter whether the number is above or below ten.

Thirteen people certified as food handlers.
Nine proposals were received.
One hundred and thirty-eight people signed up for the conference.

Some style books now allow sentences to start with a year in numeral form.

2012 is a year of unusual weather patterns.
Others advise you to flip the sentence so this does not occur.

The year 2012 is one of unusual weather patterns.

Remember: This is a style issue — not a grammar one. Your organization can choose its own style.

In business writing, never follow a written number with the numeral form or vice versa. It is redundant.

Writing Style – More Redundant Phrases

I asked readers to send me more redundant phrases that irritated them. The venting was amazing.

If you use any of the following phrases in your writing, you risk the chance of annoying your reader:
advance planning
at this point in time
basic fundamentals
blunder mistake
communicate in writing
desirable benefits
exact same
extended long weekend
fax back
fact-based evidence
first annual
free gift
for the amount of
in my own opinion
invited guests
key essentials
merge together
month of April
new record
past history
personally, for me
plan ahead
tiny small
great big huge
too too bad
totally unique

And Greg dislikes hearing “That’s a really good question” every time an interviewee is asked a question.

Mary sent in a message from the front of a tee-shirt: Department of Redundancy Department.



Writing Style – Capitalization With Titles

Brian’s question: “I was just wondering if the use of lower case in business titles (e.g., vice president finance or president and chief executive officer) on business cards, emails, and letters is common and/or acceptable business practice?”

BizWritingTip response: First, let’s separate business cards from letters and emails. Business cards are usually planned by graphic designers. These people often tend to let design or branding issues override English style rules. Although I am not happy about it, it’s not something I get worked up about.

Now, for letters and emails, the North American style for titles is called “modified down.” What this means is that when in doubt use lower case. However, there are still a number of rules:

1. You should lowercase occupations and descriptive titles.

doctors, nurses, teachers, auditors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, councillors, ministers
The ministers of Health and Transportation met with the premiers of British Columbia and Manitoba.

2. Lowercase titles of officials of companies, unions, sporting, and political organizations.

general manager Susan Sherlock
CUPE secretary Claude Généreux
Widget president Ian Fleming
Widget vice president Jane Moneypenny
head coach Melody Davidson
forward Hayley Wickenheiser

3. Capitalize formal titles when they directly precede the name – if the name is part of the person’s identity.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Vice President Joe Biden
Mayor Hazel McCallion

4. Lowercase a title that is set apart from the name by commas.


The prime minister of France, Francois Fillon, was appointed by the president.

Note: These are the guidelines of The Canadian Press Stylebook. If your organization has modified these rules to meet its own needs or beliefs, that’s fine. However, all staff should be aware of your specific guidelines. Consistency is important and saves time in the long run.

Writing Style – Capitalization of Hyphenated Words

BizWritingTip reader: “For headings or titles that contain a hyphenated word, do you capitalize the second word in the compound word? For example, would I write: ‘City of Thunder Bay 2010 By-election’ or ‘City of Thunder Bay 2010 By-Election’? Does the rule work the same way for compound adjectives also?”

BizWritingTip response: When writing a heading or a title, you should capitalize all the elements of the hyphenated words — except for short prepositions (e.g., on, out, to, up, by, at, and of) short conjunctions (or, nor, if, as, but, or and), and articles (the, a or an). Naturally, if an article starts the title, it is capitalized.

Examples (Hyphenated words in headings or titles)
City of Thunder Bay 2010 By-Election
Up-to-Date Report on Housing (To and on are short prepositions.)
The Mid-Winter Snow Shovelling Crisis (Title begins with an article.)
Report on the Mid-Winter Snow Shovelling Crisis (The short proposition and article are not the first word.)

If a hyphenated word appears at the beginning of a sentence, however, capitalize only the first part.

Example (Beginning a sentence with a hyphenated word)
Mid-winter is not a great time for golfers. (The second hyphenated word is not capitalized.)

Writing Style – Capitalization of Names

BizWritingTip reader: “I have a question about the capitalization of names. There is a raging debate in our office about the use of capitalization with a word such as ‘town.’ For example, if someone wrote: ‘The Town is responsible for collecting taxes’ should the ‘t’ be capitalized?”

BizWritingTip response: This is a style issue — not a grammar one. In other words, whatever you do will be considered correct from a grammar perspective. Style is what gives writing consistency.

When I went to school, the guideline was “when in doubt — capitalize the word.” Now, it is the reverse. My favourite style guide for capitalization is the small book CP Caps and Spelling produced by The Canadian Press. This book promotes a modified down style. This means that you capitalize names of departments and agencies of government bodies, companies, and associations only if the full name is included. But you should lowercase common nouns when they appear alone.

Examples (official names)
Government of Ketchup
Town of Salsa
Region of Tabasco
City of Mustard

Examples (not official names)
Relish government
The town
The region
The cities of Salt and Pepper
The company
The department

On a side note: There is an interesting thought in the marketplace today. Using all lower case letters for a company’s name may make the company seem more hip and friendlier to its customers. If you drive through any industrial area today, look at the signs on the buildings. You’ll be surprised at the number of companies whose names no longer start with a capital letter.

However, let’s recap. This is a style issue. If your college, town, department, or government agency decides it wants to make an exception and capitalize a common noun that refers to itself, then that’s fine. “The town is responsible for collecting taxes.” “The Town is responsible for collecting taxes.” Both are correct.

But in the interest of fairness — and in reducing “raging debates,” I believe all organizations should have a short style guide that states their preferences.

Writing Style – Viz. versus i.e.

BizWritingTip reader: “I have recently seen what appears to be a different version of the i.e. guideline. The short form was viz. followed by a group of names or items. ‘There were three people elected to the 2010 board of directors, viz., Mr. Smith, Mr. Hall, and Mr. Kelly.’ I cannot think of any Latin term for this abbreviation.”

BizWritingTip response: The abbreviation “viz.” is from the Latin “videlicet.” It means “namely” or “precisely.” Therefore, the example you provided is correct, and I have seen the word often in academic writing.

However, my feeling is that viz. is a little like saying something is “whiter than white.” The abreviation extends the meaning of i.e. The abbreviation i.e. (from the Latin “id est”) means “that is.” It denotes everything that follows.

Example (correct)
There were three people elected to the 2010 board of directors, i.e., Mr. Smith, Mr. Hall, and Mr. Kelly.

Viz. means “precisely everything that follows.” It emphasizes your exactness.

Example (correct)
There were three people elected to the 2010 board of directors, viz., Mr. Smith, Mr. Hall, and Mr. Kelly.

You would never use viz. if you were referring to examples. It would be better to use e.g. (for example).

Example (correct)
Three people may be elected to the 2010 board of directors, e.g., Mr. Smith, Mr. Hall, and Mr. Kelly.

Although viz. is a stronger abbreviation than i.e., there are a number of readers who might not recognize it. My preference is to stick with i.e. But that’s me!

Note: There is always a period after the abbreviation. And if you were reading it aloud, it is an English language custom to verbally substitute the word “namely” instead of saying “viz.”

Writing Style – Abbreviations: Acronyms and Initialisms

BizWritingTip reader: “In a publication we are currently editing, the first program/service sometimes is written with the first letter of each word capitalized and then the acronym in all caps. At other times, it is written all small caps with the acronym in caps. Which way is correct?”

BizWritingTip reader: It is often easier to shorten a long title by using an abbreviation — a shortened form. Some abbreviations are acronyms; some are initialisms. An acronym is an abbreviation pronounced as a word. It is formed from the first letter of each word.

Examples (acronyms)
AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome)
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

An abbreviation made up a group of initial letters that are each pronounced is called an initialism.

Examples (Initialisms)
CD (compact disc)
YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association)
a.m. (ante meridian)

Whether you are using an acronym or an initialism, if you know your readers understand the term, there is no need to explain it.

However, if you are introducing a new program or service or have any doubt your reader will know the abbreviated form, it is best to write the name in full (capitalizing the initial letters only) and then follow it with the abbreviation in brackets.

Golf Life Management System (GLMS)

Note: Almost all abbreviations made up single lowercase letters require a period after each initial. But do not put a space after the first period.


Abbreviations made up of all capital letters do not require periods.


Exceptions: Keep the periods in the abbreviations of geographical locations (B.C., U.S.), academic degrees (M.Sc.), expressions (A.D., V.P.), and in the names of products and organizations if the company uses them.