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First Learning, Basics:Writing Style And Techniques :

Starting Right

We are not in the business of teaching you English grammar here. If you feel your grammar, spelling or punctuation need improving then look back to the Business English course. If you have particular doubts about your spelling always use a good dictionary, and if you use a computer, take advantage of the spell-check facility. But, don’t rely on this as it will not correct your work if you confuse their and there, two and too or any of the other words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings.

As we mentioned in the previous module there are a few points about which we would like to remind you before going any further. If you already feel confident of your writing ability, then skim through them quickly. On the other hand, if you are not so confident then study these points carefully or look back to the Business English course.

The first point is that you must try to write grammatically. You may think that such advice is old fashioned and certainly some of the more pedantic rules can be ignored. Nowadays we do see sentences beginning with ‘and’; we do come across split infinitives. These things are acceptable if they help to make your work flow more smoothly or make your meaning clearer. But, don’t use then simply through carelessness. So let’s now look, for a moment, at the eight parts of speech.

At some time you have probably seen the phrase, the eight parts of speech. This simply means that there are eight different jobs that English words can do. Here is a list of them, with a brief description of each.

NOUNS                             are the names of things. They tell you who or what the sentence is


The secretary typed a letter.

PRONOUNS                  are simply words like he, she and it. They save us the trouble of

having to repeat nouns. For example, instead of:

The secretary typed the letter and the secretary gave the letter to the manager.

we usually say:

The secretary typed the letter and she gave it to the manager.

VERBS                              are action words: they tell what happened. For example:

The secretary typed the letter.

ADJECTIVES               describe other words:

The secretary typed the long letter.

ADVERBS                      describe verbs:

The secretary typed the letter quickly.

PREPOSITIONS          show how a noun is related to another word:

John is in the car.

John is on the car.

John is under the car.

John is beside the car.

John is behind the car.

Those five sentences are all about John and the car. The five different prepositions give us five different meanings, because they place John in five different positions in relation to his car.

CONJUNCTIONS     These words let us add more meaning to a sentence by adding extra bits on to it:

John was in the car when it crashed.

John owns a car and a bicycle.

INTERJECTIONS     Words that people use to show emotions rather than logical thoughts. They have a meaning, but they do not fit into the logical structure of the sentence. For example:

Oh! Really! Nonsense! Hello! Goodbye! My Goodness!

These are used almost exclusively when you are speaking or in dramatic writing. As far as your business letters, memos and reports are concerned you can ignore them.

Most people can write correct sentences if they concentrate on their work and then check it carefully. So we are not going to do the job of a grammar book here. But after saying this, every part of speech has its difficulties or oddities and if you are unaware of these it can lead to poor style or incorrect and unclear writing. So, over the next few pages we are going to point out the main problem areas. We will then show you how to improve your style by being aware of the different parts of speech and how you can use them correctly and to the very best advantage.


The word noun classifies all words that represent people, places, ideas and things. It is the name of something.

As you probably know, there are four types of noun:

  • common
  • proper
  • abstract
  • collective

Common nouns cause few problems for the writer as they are simply the names of everyday things we see around us.

Proper nouns are the names of people, places etc. They always start with a capital letter and this is one area to watch. Only use capital letters where they are necessary (at the beginning of a sentence and for proper nouns). There is nothing more irritating for a reader than to have a letter or report ‘peppered’ with unnecessary capitals. Brussels is the capital of Belgium and needs a capital letter but brussel sprouts don’t. Brazil is a country in South America and needs a capital letter but brazil nuts don’t.

Days of the week and months of the year start with capital letters but seasons and points of the compass do not.

If you are writing a report about a specific organization, you put initial capitals in its title:

Acme Trading Co Ltd.

But when you refer to it later in the report, if the full title is not used, you can say:

…. the chairman said that the company was in a good trading position.

Of course, if it is your company’s policy to give initial capitals to such words as department, committee, board of directors, chairman, you must obey their rules. But the trend is away from unnecessary capitals in modern English.

In salutations on a letter you use capital letters for both Dear and Sir but when you close the letter use a capital letter for Yours but a lower case (small) letter for both faithfully or sincerely. Note this as you go through the many examples of letters in the course itself.

Abstract nouns (love, truth, honour etc) are the names of things you cannot see, hear, taste or feel. They are essential to express ideas but in business correspondence if you can find a more concrete word to describe your ideas then it will add strength and clarity to your writing. It will also help you to avoid long-winded, roundabout expressions and ensure that everyone knows exactly what you mean. Look at the following:

Rules have been drawn up for the avoidance of disputes. (Abstract)

Rules have been drawn up to avoid disputes. (Concrete)


We expressed our disagreement with the plan that would lead to a reduction in earnings for staff. (Abstract)

We disagreed with the plan to reduce staff earnings. (Concrete)

As you can see, you can often get rid of abstract nouns by turning them into verbs as we have done in this second pair of sentences. As we mentioned earlier, it also produces a shorter sentence.

Finally, we come on to collective nouns – those nouns which describe several people or things as a group: team, crew, staff, audience etc.

But, are they singular or plural?

For example, suppose there is a government with ten people in it. Is the word government singular (because there is only one government)? Or is it plural (because there are 10 people in the government)?

The answer is important, because it affects the rest of the sentence.

If the word government is singular, it is correct to say:

The government is in London.

But if it is plural, you should say:

The government are in London.

The answer is simple. Collective nouns can be singular or plural. It depends on how you use them. For example, lets look at the word ‘team’.

In the sentence:

The team is on the pitch.

we are thinking about the team as one group of men, so it is singular.

In the sentence:

The team are in their rooms.

we are thinking about them as individual players, doing different things in their lesure time. In this case it is plural.

It is sometimes hard to decide whether a collective noun is singular or plural. In such cases, it does not matter which form you choose but make sure you do not change from one to another like this:

The government is in London. They rule the country.

Do you see the mistake? In the first sentence, the word government is singular because the singular form of the verb (is) has been used.

Then, in the second sentence government is referred to as they (which is plural). It should read:

The government is in London. It rules the country.

This is because the word government is generally regarded as being singular.


We use pronouns all the time to replace nouns in a sentence so that we can avoid repetition.

For example:

The secretary types a letter and the secretary gives the letter to the manager.

Two nouns, secretary and letter are both used twice in that sentence. To avoid this clumsy repetition, we can re-phrase the sentence like this:

The secretary types a letter and she gives it to the manager.

The words she and it mean secretary and letter in this case. They improve the expression by cutting out repetition.

Without pronouns – I, you, he, she, it, we, they – it would take much longer to say everything. Pronouns are in effect short cuts that make our writing easier.

There are, however, one or two points you need to be aware of in your use of pronouns:

  • Ambiguous pronouns

Beware of using too many pronouns as this can make your meaning unclear. For instance, the meaning of the following sentence is quite clear:

Jones told Smith that Brown was a good writer.

If we replace Smith and Brown with pronouns, we get a sentence which is much less clear:

Jones told him that he was a good writer.

This is perfectly correct English, but it is not good English, for him and he could be either the same person or a different person. The sentence does not make it clear.

Another common mistake with pronouns is to use them to refer to a noun which appeared much earlier in the sentence, or even in a previous sentence. This causes misunderstanding because your reader has difficulty in knowing which noun the pronoun refers to. So always check to ensure that what is clear to you is also clear to your reader.

Last week we sent you four parcels. Two contained the new samples you requested and two contained the repeat order you kindly sent us. Unfortunately, we have just discovered that we sent you the wrong colours, so could you please return them so that they can be replaced.

We have put the pronouns them and they in bold, but what are them and they referring to? Is it the new samples that should be returned, or the repeat order, or both because the colours are wrong? We don’t know, do we? The passage just does not make it clear – and it does not make it clear, because the pronouns are a long way from the nouns to which they refer.

In this particular passage, it would have been better not to use the pronoun them at all, but to have repeated the noun to make the meaning clear. The last sentence could be rewritten:

Unfortunately, we have just discovered that we sent you the wrong colours, so could you please return the samples so that they can be replaced.

The meaning of this is now quite clear and there is no doubt that the pronoun they refers to the samples.

  • Other problems with pronouns

As you know, most sentences have a subject and predicate.

The secretary                                typed a long letter.

(subject)                                              (predicate)

The predicate usually contains the object of a sentence and in a short sentence can be made up entirely of a verb followed by the object:

The secretary                                   typed letters.

(subject)                                       (verb + object)

When using the pronouns I and me you should remember to use I when you are the subject of the sentence but me if you are the object of the sentence:

I spoke to the client. (HereIis the subject)


The client spoke to me. (Hereclientis the subject andmeis the object)

This is a particularly important point when writing about yourself and another person.

Fiona and I went to the office party. (Correct)

(subject)                                   (object)


He gave the letter to Fiona and I. (Incorrect)

(subject)                            (object)

(Take away the words Fiona and and you will see what we mean!) You should always use Fiona and me if the two of you are the object of the sentence.

Another point worth remembering is that you should say:

She is better than me at writing reports.


She is better than I.

(She is the subject of the sentence and you are the object; so this is why you use me not I.)

The relative pronouns which/that and who/whom can cause uncertainty for some people. Relative pronouns do not replace a noun in a sentence, they are in addition to the noun and refer directly to it. They also have an important role of their own to play, because they connect different parts of a sentence. Look at the following:

Have you received the samples which we sent last week?

Have you received the samples that we sent last week?

Both these sentences are correct as the two words are considered interchangeable when used as relative pronouns. But always base your decision on what you think sounds best in the context in which you are using the word.

The difference between who and whom is now considered largely a fine point of grammar.

You use who as a pronoun when the noun it relates to is the subject of the sentence.

It was the Chairman who decided on the new investment.

In this sentence the Chairman is obviously the subject, therefore we use the pronoun who.

You use whom when the noun it relates to is the object of the sentence.

I spoke to the man whom I saw yesterday.

In this sentence the subject is I. The pronoun is talking about the man. The man is the object; so we use the pronoun whom.

This difference between the use of who and whom is often ignored, many people using who all the time. But at least you will know how to use the two words correctly if youwant to.

Also, try to avoid the following type of expression:

A writer must be dedicated if he or she wants to be successful in his or her chosen career.

Many people, these days, would write:

A writer must be dedicated if they want to be successful in their chosen career.

We know that this is not strictly correct because there is not agreement between the singular subject and the plural they/their. But most people now find it better than using he or she, he/she or (s)he. But if you can avoid this by re-writing the sentence completely,then do so!

Other pronouns that you will see are one, someone, anyone, everybody and nobody. These are often used incorrectly as many people think they must be plural. This is wrong, but there is an easy way to get it right. This is by thinking about the second part of each word.

Anyone, anybody, someone, nobody.

This will help you to remember that there is only one body. This means it must be singular and so you should never make this mistake yourself.

Finally, never mix you and one in your writing:

One should always try your best to achieve good results. (Incorrect)

Sometimes one is a useful word for reports because if you are writing about something unsuccessful or warning of possible problems the use of you all the time can sound critical:

You should be aware that your actions could lead to confrontation.


One should be aware that one’s actions could lead to confrontation.

The second example sounds more objective but you should always bear in mind that over-use of one can sound both old-fashioned and pompous; so use your discretion.

Finally, some people have problems with them and those.

Can you pass me them books? (Incorrect)

Can you pass me those books? (Correct)

Them is a pronoun, not an adjective, and should never be used like one.


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