Business Grammar

Vertical Lists: Using Bullets or Numbers

13 Jan 2019

Use numbered lists when working with instructions that are to be carried out in sequence. If the sequence of items is not essential, use bullets.

Example of a Numbered List:

Follow these general steps when you plan a database:

  1. Decide on which categories of information you want to work with, and plan a separate database file for each category.
  2. Analyze your current information management system to determine the tasks to perform.
  3. Decide on the data you want the file to contain, and plan the fields to hold the data.
  4. Determine the relationship between your file and other files containing useful data.

Example of a Bulleted List:

Keep these points in mind:

  • Merge fields by typing the field name with symbols.
  • Use a text field to set data in the browser.
  • Add symbols among merged fields on the layout.
  • Format merged fields with the formatting option.

Removing Unnecessary Verb-Noun Combinations

30 Dec 2018

There is something about writing that makes us express ourselves more formally than we would do in speech. For example, you might chat with a co-worker about how you are going to evaluate a marketing campaign. But when you sit down to write a report about it, for some reason you find yourself writing about "the evaluation of the marketing campaign".

This habit, which we call nominalisation, is very common in all areas of government and the business world. What happens is that instead of using a verb, for example, to evaluate, the writer uses the related noun, evaluation.

You're probably thinking that there's nothing wrong with that, but nominalisations appear all over our writing. They lengthen our sentences and make the writing less lively, less human and more official. They prevent our writing being clear as actions are hidden in the nouns.

Here's an example:

Example: The programmer will be a new addition to our staff's expertise.
The programmer will add to our staff's expertise.

Example: On this site you will learn how to find solutions to your writing problems.
Revised: helps you solve your writing problems.

Of the verb-noun problems the "made" trap stands out as the most common:

  • made a suggestion (suggested)
  • made a recommendation (recommended)
  • made a choice (chose)
  • made an agreement (agreed)
  • made a presentation (presented)
  • made a proposition (proposed)
  • made a decision (decided)
  • made a revision (revised)

Other common verb-noun problems include:

  • gave an explanation (explained)
  • submitted a resignation (resigned)
  • expressed opposition (opposed)
  • took under consideration (considered)
  • provided maintenance (maintained)
  • reached a conclusion (concluded)
  • provided information (informed)
  • provided a quotation (quoted)
  • came to a realization (realized)
  • conducted an investigation (investigated)
  • put on a performance (performed)
  • led to a reduction (reduced)
  • had a suspicion (suspected)
  • had an expectation (expected)
  • used exaggeration (exaggerated)
  • gave authorization (authorized)



Usage of Commas

16 Dec 2018



to separate independent clauses

The following conjunctions are used in such cases:

and, but, for, nor, or, so & yet¹

The workers demanded extra pay, but the management refused to give it.


after introductory

a) sub-clauses

b) phrases
c) words

a) If you don't finish it tonight, you'll be late.
b) As a matter of fact, I'm going on vacation to Singapore next week.
c) Unfortunately, we aren't able to agree to all your demands.



a) sub-clauses

b) phrases
c) words

appear in the middle of the sentence.

a) Jill, who was sitting behind her desk, gave Tim a smile.
b) We, as a matter of course, will contact your former employer.
c) We have, however, found a number of errors.


to set off three or more words, phrases or main clauses in a series.

She went into the office, sat down at her desk, and started surfing the Net.
He's lived in London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York.


to set off two or more coordinate adjectives if the meaning does not change when the order is altered.

We had to travel over several narrow, winding, dangerous roads.


at the end of a sentence in order to indicate a pause.

He was just ignorant, not stupid.


to set off a nonrestrictive (also non-defining) relative clause².

Unitech, which was established in 1992, employs over 750 workers.


when someone is addressed directly.

Richard, can you do me a big favour?


to show an appositive³.

Chris Patton, former governor of Hong Kong, is still very popular in Hong Kong.


in dates.

Yes, May 11, 20xx, was the date of the last AGM.


in front of tag questions.

You've met this client before, haven't you?


after digits indicating thousands.


¹ Note that 'but' and 'and' do not take a comma when both clauses are relatively short.
restrictive relative clauses = they tell us which person or thing, or which kind of person or thing, is meant;
non-restrictive relative clauses = they tell us more about a person or thing that is already identified.
When an appositive is only one word, no comma is needed.


Which vs. That

07 Oct 2018

Which and that are difficult to learn for anyone studying English as a second language because no one, not even people who should know better, gets it right!

It all has to do with restrictive (or defining) phrases and clauses.

You use that to introduce a restrictive phrase or clause that describes a place or thing. Another term for restrictive is "defining". "Defining" is an easier way to remember the rule. Defining phrases and clauses add ESSENTIAL detail to a sentence. They are never introduced with a comma, because they are essential to the description.

For example:

A: Which briefcase belongs to you?
B: The briefcase that is marked "KF" belongs to me.

Note: "that is marked" describes the briefcase.

Which introduces unrestricted or undefining phrases and clauses. These phrases add EXTRA detail that you can omit without changing the sentence. They are introduced and concluded with commas.

For example:

A: Tell me about the book you read.
B: The book, which I got from the library last week, is a very exciting mystery.

Note: "which I got from the library" is an unnecessary detail.


Punctuation Tip: Colon vs. Semicolon

23 Sep 2018


Both the colon (:) and the semicolon (;) are used quite commonly in business writing; however, there is often a lot of confusion about  which one to use and when to use them. To avoid confusing you further, here we will just look at the main use of each.

A colon is most commonly used to introduce a list (often after 'for example', 'namely', 'i.e'. 'as follows' 'as in the  following' etc.). Look at these examples:

The quotation has been divided into the following sections: course development, tuition and pre/post-course testing.

The Human Resources Department is comprised of two sections, namely: the Personnel Department and the Training Department.

We offer several types of investment opportunities, for example: income bonds, unit trusts and foreign currency.

However, if the items in a list following the colon are long or contain commas, they ought to be separated from each other using  semicolons. This helps to make the sentence clearer and easier to read. For example:

Please send this letter to the following companies: Hon, Wang and Staunton Ltd.; Baxter-Mackenzie; and Zerox Co. Ltd.

The business writing seminar will cover three main areas: clear, concise and modern English; structure, layout and organisation of business texts; and, business writing styles.





Using Modal Verbs to Express Possibility

26 Aug 2018

There are times when writers are uncertain about what will happen and need to refer to future events as possibilities or probabilities, not as future certainties.

Here, we'll briefly review the language used to show how 'probable' future events are, i.e. what is the chance that they will happen.

We can use certain modal verbs followed by the bare infinitive (i.e. the infinitive without 'to') to refer to the future. These modal verbs can be used in the active and passive voice.

May / Might + bare infinitive

May and might are used to express the uncertain possibility of an action in the future. May expresses stronger possibility than might.

Interest rates may increase in the next few months.
Interest rates might be increased in the next few months.

Could / Can + bare Infinitive

We use can and could to express future possibility when the possibility is related to suggestions, plans or projects.

The company's lawyers think it could take a long time to draw up the contract.
We are expanding overseas, so I could be sent to China or Taiwan in the next few months.

Can expresses stronger possibility than could. However as the can of possibility is easily confused with the can of ability, may/could are usually used to avoid confusion.

They can deliver tomorrow on time. (They are able to deliver on time)
They can deliver tomorrow on time. (It is possible for them to deliver on time)

Which meaning is intended? To avoid such confusion use may.

They may/could deliver tomorrow on time. (It is possible for them to deliver on time)
They may/could attend the meeting on Friday.

Could is also used to express a conditional possibility, i.e. the possibility of something happening or not depends on something else happening.

We could go to Macau next week, if you take Monday off work.
The company could expand if it had more capital.

Using the Past Perfect Tense

15 Jul 2018

The past perfect tense is used to refer to actions that took place and were completed in the past. The past perfect is often used to emphasise that one action, event or condition ended before another past action, event, or condition began.

Each of the highlighted verbs in the following sentences is in the past perfect.

John arrived at 5:00 p.m. but Mr Turner had closed the shop

All the events in this sentence took place in the past, but the act of closing the shop takes place before John arrives at the shop.

After we found the restaurant that Anne had told us about, we ate dinner there every Friday.

Here the praise ("had told ") precedes the finding ("found") of the restaurant. Both actions took place sometime before the moment of speaking or writing.

Bill had used up all the paper so we placed a new order.

In this sentence, both actions take place in the past, but the using up of the paper ("had used up ") preceded the ordering of the new paper.

Common Usage Errors

A common error is to use the past perfect tense unnecessarily to refer to past events.

Yes, I had already given them my reply. incorrect

In the above example, the past perfect is used unnecessarily instead of the present perfect, perhaps because had given seems more 'past' than have given.

Here's another example of misuage of the past perfect:

Several years ago, we had sold fax machines, but we don't any more.incorrect

Here, the past simple sold is sufficient (even though we sold fax machines is before we don't any more) because you are not comparing the two past times.

TIP: It is best to avoid the past perfect tense unless you are sure how to use it. In fact it is not used very much in business writing.


Problems with Prepositions

17 Jun 2018


Rule 1

You may end a sentence with a preposition. Just do not use extra prepositions when the meaning is clear without them.

tick1 That is something I cannot agree with.
tick1 How many of you can I count on?
tick1 Where did he go (to)?
tick1 Where did you get this (at)?
tick1 I will go later (on).
tick1 Take your shoes off (of) the bed.
tick1 You may not look out (of) the window.
tick1 Cut it (up) into small pieces.

Rule 2

Use on with expressions that indicate the time of an occurrence.

He was born on 23 December.
We will arrive on the fourth.

Rule 3

should never be used in place of have.

tick1 I should have done it.
incorrect I should of done it.

Rule 4

refers to two. Among is used for three or more.

Divide the money between the two of you.
Divide the money among the three of you.

Rule 5

implies entrance, in does not.

Sally walked into the office.
Sally was waiting in the office.
Cut the cake into six slices. (The knife enters the cake.)

Comparison of Adjectives

20 May 2018

When you were at school you were probably drilled in the comparison of adjectives: interesting, more interesting, most interesting; fair, fairer, fairest, etc.

The two examples above are of regular comparative forms. However, a common problem is not knowing when to use -er-, -est- or -more- + adj., -most- + adj.

Actually, there is a very simple rule to help you remember which comparative form to use. Count the number of syllables in an adjective. Syllables are the sounds which make up a word. For example:

big has one sound or syllable,
cle ver
has two syllables,
a rro gant
has three syllables and
in tell i gent
has four syllables.

Adjectives which contain one or two syllables follow the -er-, -est-, form. For example: big, bigger, biggest; and clever, cleverer, cleverest.

Adjectives which contain more than two syllables follow the -more-, -most- form. For example: arrogant, more arrogant, most arrogant; intelligent, more intelligent, most intelligent.

That's an easy rule to remember!


Avoid Using Too Many Negatives

06 May 2018

If you want to annoy a reader, use negative words. Not only are negative words annoying, but research shows that it takes the brain longer to understand a negative statement than a positive one. They cause confusion!

In writing, negatives include 'un-' words like 'unnecessary' and 'unless'; verbs with negative associations like 'avoid' and 'cease'; as well as the obvious ones like 'not', 'no', 'except', 'less than' and 'not more than'. When readers are faced with a negative, they must first imagine the positive alternative then mentally cancel it out.

A single negative is unlikely to cause problems, though many an election voter has paused confronted with the polling booth challenge:

Vote for not more than one candidate. (unclear)
Vote for one candidate only. (clear)

But when two, three or more negatives are gathered together in the same sentence, meaning may become unclear, as in this note from a lawyer to his client, an underwriter:

Underwriters are, we consider, free to form the view that James Brothers have not yet proved to their satisfaction that the short-landed bags were not discharged from the ship, and were not lost in transit between Hong Kong and Singapore, when they were not covered by this insurance policy.

The above sentence is very confusing due to the number of negative words!

Here are some examples of how to rewrite negative sentences more positively:

We will not help unless you give us a special mention.
We will help if you give us a special mention

The corporation will not pay unless employees also contribute.
The corporation will pay only if employees contribute.

Your credit will not be extended until you pay us what you owe.
We will extend you credit if you pay what you owe.
We would be happy to extend your credit once we receive payment for what you owe.

We are not open on Saturdays or Sundays.
We are open from Monday to Friday.

We were not prepared for your request.
Your request caught us by surprise.


Use of Pronouns to Avoid Sexist Writing

18 Mar 2018

Pronouns like he, she, it, we, they, and you stand in for nouns and must therefore match the nouns they are replacing in number (singular or plural) and gender (male or female). If the noun is singular, the pronoun must be too.

incorrect Everyone needs to remove their belongings. (Everyone is singular; their is plural.)
tick1 Everyone needs to remove his or her belongings.

  • Don't use only 'his' to refer to a noun - this is regarded as sexist language!
  • In a short document with a single pronoun reference, we recommend that you use his or her in place of the noun.
  • In a longer document with multiple pronoun references, you could alternate between his and her throughout the document to avoid constant repetition. If that doesn't work for you, simply rewrite the sentence so you don't need to make the choice.

The above sentence could also be rewritten as:

tick1 You need to remove your belongings.
Changing the subject to a plural also works:
tick1 Employees need to remove their belongings.

Three Common Punctuation Problems

18 Feb 2018

Punctuation is important because those little marks are like signs along a roadway, helping your reader navigate your document. When you put punctuation in the wrong place, it can change the intended meaning of your sentence and send your reader in the wrong direction.

Here are three common punctuation problems.

1) Putting a Comma Before 'and' in a Series (or Omitting the Comma)

The company makes pocket calculators, electronic keypads, and pocket translators.
The company makes pocket calculators, electronic keypads and pocket translators.

Which is correct? Both are. Whether you use the serial comma is entirely up to you. The key is to be consistent. Make a decision and stick to it throughout your document. Inconsistency is the grammar mistake.

2) Using Two Spaces after a Period or Colon

The two-space rule is a hold-over from the days when printing presses and typewriters used letters that were all the same width. Today, computers compensate for the varying widths of letters and only one space after end punctuation is the preference.

3) Putting a Comma Between the Subject and the Verb

incorrect I suggest that Billy, Pete and Mary, attend the conference.
In this sentence, a comma splits the clause's subject Billy, Peter and Mary, from the verb attend.
tick1 I suggest that Billy, Peter and Mary attend the conference.
A comma after Peter would also be OK in the above sentence.

A Little" vs "Little" vs "A Few" vs "Few

04 Feb 2018

A Little

Use a little with uncountable nouns, e.g. a little help, a little progress, a little information, a little advice, etc.

A Few

Use a few with plural countable nouns, e.g. a few days, a few meetings, a few employees, a few sales, etc.

Little and Few

Little and few tend to be rather negative because they mean not much or not many, while a little and a few are more positive and mean some. For example:

incorrect We have few clients. (sounds negative)
tick1 We have a few clients (sounds more positive)

incorrect There is little time to complete this. (sounds negative)
tick1 We have a little time to complete this. (sounds more positive)


When you are speaking to someone, it is better to use not much/not many or only a little/few instead of little and fewLittle and few tend to sound more formal and are better used in writing. For example:

We haven't had many enquiries about our new product. (not many/informal/spoken)
We have had few enquiries about our new product.

We haven't sold many properties in the past month. (not many/informal/spoken)
We have sold few properties in the past month.


General Grammar and Writing Tips

21 Jan 2018

Subject Headings and Titles

Regarding titles and subject headings for business documents, remember that the first and last words are always capitalized, as are all nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

Prepositions of four or more letters (or five, depending on the style guide you use) are also capitalized.

"A," "an," and "the" are not capitalized unless they are the first word or follow a colon.

The coordinating conjunctions: "and," "or," "nor," "but," "for," "so," and "yet" are not capitalized unless they are the first word or follow a colon, but other "little" words, like "it," "be," and "is," are capitalized.

Comparative Adjectives

To make the comparative forms of one-syllable adjectives, add "-er" and "-est" rather than using the words "more" and "most." Examples: "purer" and "purest," not "more pure" and "most pure."

Phrases Starting with 'Including'

A phrase beginning with "including," which usually appears at the end of a sentence, is almost always set off from the rest of the sentence by a comma. Example: "Provide a detailed explanation, including projected costs and schedule."

Whether....or Not

Most of the time, the words "or not" are useless after the word "whether," as in the sentence "I can't tell whether or not the coast is clear." The sentence is perfectly clear without "or not." However, in the following sentence, "or not" is grammatically necessary: "The goal is to ensure that all participants benefit from the workshop— whether or not they attend all sessions."

A Lot

"A lot" is always written as two words. Many people write it as one word, perhaps because of words like "among," "about," and "along." As a subject, "a lot" is plural when it refers to a plural word ("A lot of people are waiting in line"), but it is singular when it refers to a singular word ("A lot of information was lost when the computer crashed").


The word "only" should be placed immediately before the word it modifies. In speech, we rarely pay attention to this rule. In writing, we should. Example: "The chairman was given only one week to come up with a plan" (not "The chairman was only given one week to come up with a plan"). "Only" clearly emphasizes "one week."


Should vs Ought to vs Must vs Have to

24 Dec 2017

The modal verbs should, ought to, have to and must are all used to show obligation. The tone and strength of the obligation can vary based upon which modal is being used.

Should vs Ought to (for mild obligation / strong advice)

Look at the following sentences:

You should go to hospital with that wound.
You ought to go to hospital with that wound.

In these two sentences the function of should and ought to are interchangeable. Both focus on a strong advisability, or in other words a mild obligation. You are obligated to care of yourself. Nowadays, the use of ought to has lessened and should is commonly used in its place.

Have to vs Must (for strong obligation / necessity)

Here are the same sentences using the modal verbs have to and must:

You have to go to hospital with that wound.
You must go to hospital with that wound.

Have to and must are considered stronger than should and ought to. Both modals carry the function of necessity, obligation or even advice, but mustHave to, is normally reserved for expressions related to the law. For example: If you own a car, you have to pay an annual road tax. On the other hand, must is normally reserved for giving orders that people are obligated to follow. Here are some further examples of more typical usage of have to and must: is considered the strongest modal.

You have to pay income tax.
You have to pass your driving test before you can drive alone.
You have to show your passport when you pass through immigration.

You must get to work by 9am.
You must get this report finished by 30 June.
You must attend the meeting.