Writing Style – That

Leah’s question: “Would you please write about the overuse of the word ‘that’? For example, shouldn’t ‘Please read the letter that I wrote’ be better as ‘please read the letter I wrote.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: The use of the pronoun “that” is controversial. Fortunately, it is a style issue rather than a grammar one. In other words, grammatically it doesn’t matter whether you include it or not. It is a matter of personal preference.

Some people insist that in the interest of brevity it should always be removed. (Note: I used “that” to create emphasis around “in the interest of brevity.” This was a personal decision.) Another time, I might write “Some people insist it should always be removed.”

I do usually try to eliminate the word as I think it creates a stronger sentence. However, there are times when “that” is necessary:

1. When it makes your meaning clearer


She admits having read the book the movie was easier to follow. (awkward)
She admits that having read the book the movie was easier to follow.

2. When you want to create emphasis with parallel flow


He is working hard to ensure that everyone understands the reasons behind the decision and that they will support it.

If English is your main language, the guideline is to go by your ear. If the sentence sounds better without it, then remove it. This is a much better rule than saying you should always omit “that.”

If English is not your main language, it’s safer to leave it in than to take it out. As you write and read more, you’ll be able “to hear” when it is right to remove it.


Writing Style – Capitalization With Occupations Versus Titles

BizWritingTip reader: “When you are referring to a person’s title, i.e., nurse, doctor, accountant, etc., when do you capitalize the first letter in their title and when do you not?”

BizWritingTip response: According to The Canadian Press style book, Caps and Spelling, the style for capitalization is “modified down.” This means that occupations and job descriptions are written in the lower case.

We need to hire more nurses.
There is a shortage of doctors.
He has been appointed vice president.
Have you met our accountant Susan Smith?

The way to separate occupations from titles is to determine how you would address someone. You would never say, “Good morning, Investment Counsellor Jones.” Therefore, you know not to capitalize “investment counsellor.”

When you would address someone with his or her title, you capitalize the title. But if you are using the plural form of the title, lowercase it.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Mayor McCallion
Monsignor Shields
Sgt. Smith
Dr. Eisen
Councillor Jones
We want to invite premiers Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest. (The title is plural.)

There are a lot more rules with regard to the capitalization of job titles.


Writing Style – Ms.

BizWritingTip reader: “I was told that it is not correct to add a period after Ms as it isn’t a short form of a word as Mr. is for Mister. Is this correct?”

BizWritingTip response: Yes, Ms. is not actually a short form. It was coined by well-known author Germaine Greer and other feminists in the 1970s to match Mr. Their point was that men and women should be treated equally in the workforce. Mr. does not designate whether a man is married. Why treat a woman differently? People should be judged on how well they do their jobs, not on their marital status.

The Canadian Press style guide for CAPS AND SPELLING recommends a period with Ms. I believe it is because with the period it truly does look similar to Mr.

By the way, I just read on an Internet site that Ms. indicates a “divorcee or a woman past a certain age when the word Miss is too youthful.” Wrong!

According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, Ms. (with a period) is “a title prefixed to the name of a woman regardless of her marital status.”

Note: Some women do prefer the term “Mrs.” There is nothing wrong with that. Their wishes should be respected.

Word Choice – Company Name

BizWritingTip reader: “When you close a business letter, does it still need to include the company name typed under the closing line? It seems like it duplicates the letterhead.”

BizWritingTip response: Before letterhead, the courts required companies to put their name somewhere on the document to show they stood behind the correspondence. Most organizations placed it under the closing line.

With the use of letterhead, the custom is outdated. I see very few organizations doing it nowadays. I agree with you. It unnecessarily duplicates information.

Your closing box only needs your name, title, unit or division reference if appropriate, and your phone number if you want the reader to be able to contact you directly.

Writing Style – In Appreciation

BizWritingTip reader: “Please review the following phrase and let me know which one sounds better: ‘in appreciation to’ or ‘in appreciation of.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: When it comes to using the noun “appreciation” meaning “in favourable or grateful recognition,” the correct preposition is “of.”

Therefore, you should say “in appreciation of.”

Wow, that was an easy one this week!

Writing Style – Noon and Midnight

BizWritingTip reader: “How do you record the time between 11:59 a.m. and 12:01 p.m.? Is there a standard other than 12 noon or should it be avoided by altering the time either way by a minute or two?”

BizWritingTip response: This is a question many writers struggle with. But it is actually quite simple. When referring to the times of noon or midnight, use the words alone.


We will meet at noon.
The babysitter is booked until midnight.

Of course, there is an exception. If there is another clock time in the sentence, you must add figures to the noon and midnight designations.


The meeting will run from 10 a.m. to 12 noon.
The store is always closed from 12 noon to 12:45 p.m.

Note: For time on the hour, do not add zeros to indicate minutes.


Our website was down from 12 midnight to 7 p.m.
You can have the conference room from 2 to 3 p.m.

And please don’t ask me whether noon is 12 a.m. or p.m. No one seems to be able to agree on this. However, the U.K. National Maritime Museum does state: “The abbreviation a.m. stands for ante-meridiem (before the sun has crossed the line) and p.m. for post-meridiem (after the sun has crossed the line). At 12 noon, the sun is at its highest point in the sky and directly over the meridian. It is therefore neither ‘ante-‘nor ‘post-.’ ”

Trust you find this information timely.

Writing Style – Cont. or Cont’d.

Connie’s question: “I was wondering what you thought the correct abbreviation for continued would be?  Is there a standard?”

BizwritingTip response: Some words have set abbreviations, e.g., Mr., Sr., and Inc. You will find official abbreviations in the dictionary. Other words are abbreviated by leaving out letters and inserting an apostrophe, e.g., can’t or it’s. We also call them contractions.

According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style, the abbreviation for continued is cont.

However, some writers also use cont’d. They have abbreviated the word by omitting letters.

This is a style issue. As long as your reader understands your meaning, you could use either word. When deciding whether to use an official abbreviation or a contracted word, the guideline is to choose whichever one is the shortest and the most clear.

Note: Contracted words should only be used in informal writing, such as letters or emails, or in tables when space is limited.

Information/Fun – To the Grammar Gurus

A number of BizWritingTip readers were concerned about an example I provided recently to explain the placement of punctuation with quotation marks.

The BizWritingTip said that when using question marks and exclamation points, place the punctuation inside the closing quotation mark, when it applies to the quoted material only; place it outside the closing quotation mark when it applies to the whole sentence.

I then used the following example:

Original Example

If you win the lottery, will you enter her office and yell “I quit!”

Some people felt that as the sentence is actually a question, it should end in a question mark or perhaps two pieces of punctuation.

However, according to grammar books, if a quoted sentence falls at the end of the larger sentence, do not use double punctuation marks; just use the stronger mark. And question marks are regarded as stronger than periods; exclamation marks are stronger than periods or question marks.

Therefore, my original example is correct.


If you win the lottery, will you enter her office and yell “I quit”? (An exclamation mark has preference over a question mark.)”
If you win the lottery, will you enter her office and yell “I quit!”? (Never have two punctuation marks at the end of a sentence.)

Don’t you just love English grammar! Thanks to all the readers who wrote in. I appreciate your comments.

Information/Fun – National Grammar Day

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar has declared March 4, National Grammar Day. How do you celebrate it? Speak well! Write well! Read well! And on March 4, if you see a sign with an appalling apostrophe, send a kind note to the owner.

If your local radio announcer says “between you and I,” set him straight with a friendly email. (It should be “between you and me.”)

If you receive a message from your bank saying, “After reviewing the file, please send us …,” then tell the writer about misplaced modifiers. (It should be “Having reviewed the file, I need you to send me …”)

Use the 4th as a day to upgrade your grammar skills. Read business correspondence with particular care, looking for errors. If something does not look right, check it out.

Why not have a grammar potluck lunch at your office and spend the time discussing the grammar errors that “set your teeth on edge.” Here are some questions for discussion:

1. Are grammar and spelling regarded as important skills within your organization?

2. What are your thoughts about the sender of an email message that is riddled with punctuation errors?

3. Which grammar errors irritate you the most?

4. Do you know of any grammar or spelling error that has caused a significant problem?

5. Is there a grammar point you are not sure of?

6. What is your favourite grammar book? When was it published?

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who decides to celebrate National Grammar Day.


Writing Style – Addressing Letters

A BizWritingTip reader has asked us to review the best practices for sending letters to people you don’t know.

In years past, it was acceptable to begin a letter to someone you didn’t know with Dear Sir/Madam or Dear Ladies and Gentlemen. (Note: There is no “e”on madam.)

However, the North American business culture is less formal today. In addition, many participants in my workshops have told me that they dislike being called “madam” or addressed as “ladies.” Therefore, salutations have changed.

If you are sending a letter to a position or a category rather than a known person, use a title or group name.


Dear Human Resources Manager:
Dear Customers:

If, however, you don’t know the title, then omit the salutation line. Use a subject line only.


Subject: Employment Reference for Susan McCarthy
Re: Request for Information on Licensing Requirements
Subject: Update on Requirements for Housing Applications

Whether you center your subject lines or start them on the left side (or underline or bold them) is up to you.

Remember, it is always better to use a name. This personalizes your business document and creates better reader buy-in. This information only relates to when you cannot find out the name or you are addressing a large number of people.