Susan B. Kline ~ Business Communications

As you consider your goals for 2016, set an intention for professional messages that are clear, concise and correct.

You may have a unique product and great service, and you’re likely passionate about what you do. To be taken seriously in today’s market, however, you also need to deliver a consistent, direct and focused message to your target audience.  With Susan's support you can get an objective analysis of your written and oral communications and identify the most cost-effective approach for your organization's professional development efforts. Contact Susan.

Question of the Day PDF Print E-mail
Written by David - a writer on deadline   

Q: I am unable to figure out which is correct:
1. Plummeting sales prompts Pepsi to launch a new drink.
2. Plummeting sales prompt Pepsi to launch a new drink.
Is "sales" singular or plural when used like this?

A: You ask an excellent question. One can argue both as correct, but logic and the "ear" dictate that plural "prompt" sounds better.
The question is one of emphasis. Is it on the word "plummeting" and that fact of plummeting sales is one singular issue? Or is the emphasis on the plural word sales and "plummeting" is simply an adjective? I prefer the plural "prompt."


A recent news headline piqued my interest: Europe Homes In On Terror Network.  I was reminded of how many readers confuse the “home in” and “hone in” – or do not even realize that both verbs exist.  The more popular “home in” refers to directing attention toward a target or destination with accuracy. It clearly reflects the intention of this headline.  (Think of the informal phrase, “zero in.”)  So missiles may home in on targets, animals may home in on their prey, or someone with a sweet tooth could home in on a dish of chocolate candy. There’s also a more abstract sense of “home in” – to focus on or move toward a goal.

“Hone” or “hone in” means to sharpen or to perfect, and it’s not much of a stretch to see its similarity to “home in.” After all, you might sharpen or perfect attention to focus on a target, destination or goal.  Students may be advised to consider various aspects of a career before honing in on a specialty, or house hunters may hone in on particular neighborhoods.

Even though “hone in” gained traction in American English, commentators on language often suggest that it’s a mistake for “home in.”  Yet the standards for acceptable language do change. While “home in” is generally preferred, rest assured that “hone in” is widely used today.


The Pesky Comma

People like their punctuation rules to be definitive and fixed – but the required use of a comma after the final term in a series of items is much debated. The tried and true Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, even in its 4th edition, advises us to insert the comma after every term, always: “red, white, and blue” OR “He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents” (P2).

Yet newspaper editors tend not to put a comma after the last term. The Wall Street Journal , for example, omits it, always.  From recent items, this one about Kansas City: “In this center of Americana, the locals hold barbecue, jazz and even jeans to a much higher standard” OR about the airline industry, “They [the board] accused director of rubber-stamping management decisions even as the airline lost market share, customer service faltered, labor relations worsened and profit and share-price gains lagged behind rivals.” The previous sentence, in particular, causes readers to pause and reread because there’s no punctuation to indicate the logical pause after worsened. How much clearer would it be to insert the comma: “…labor relations worsened, and profit and share-price gains lagged behind rivals”!

As a matter of practicality, a few  guides are veering from tradition. They suggest omitting the comma after the final item – and inserting it  only if the sentence could be confusing, such as  when items are wordy,  interpretation could be ambiguous, or the audience could misread.

Bear in mind that clarity is the goal. These days you are free to omit the comma after the last item in a series if you’re sure the message is understandable.  Unless you are a journalist whose publication edits otherwise, you may also choose, and always be correct, to insert that comma and ensure against misreading.


This week I received a toy store ad featuring kids’ art products stating: Every kid has art in their heart! The grammar problem here is sticky – and universal. “Every kid” is singular. The pronoun “their,” used to refer to “every kid,” is plural. You can’t do this. Correct grammar requires the pronoun and the word to which it refers to agree in number. You can fix the mistake by writing: Every kid has art in his or her heart. But who likes that? Yes, “his or her” counts as singular, but the phrase is awkward and cumbersome. The fact is, the English language doesn’t have a convenient gender-neutral substitute. Fortunately, there are a couple of ways to craft a grammatically correct version, perhaps less than pleasing. 1) Delete the pronoun and use the neutral word “the”: Every kid has art in the heart. 2) Or make the subject plural: All kids have art in their hearts. The problem crops up frequently – a lack of agreement between the plural pronoun “their” and the singular word to which it refers, like anyone, everyone and someone. (Yes, these words are singular because they end in “one.”)

So, with grammar in mind, good writers adhere to the rules and revise for correctness.

This problem of agreement is so knotty and pervasive that we often make a distinction between speech and writing and cut some slack for those who say (but do not write): Every kid has art in their heart!



Mantle…or Mantel?

A recent Wall Street Journal item about fabulous furniture (at left) referred to a 16th century limestone “mantle” from the Island of Malta. Wrong!  The accurate word, needed in both title and text, is mantel – a construction, usually featuring a shelf, framing a fireplace. Reverse the last two letters and you have mantle – a loose sleeveless cloak or cape; also something that covers or conceals, as a mantle of secrecy. Many well-educated people are unaware of the distinct difference between the two words (neither to be confused with the name of baseball star Mickey Mantle)!



A grammar Lesson for Macy's

After my recent purchase, Macy’s sent an email saying that the store “would appreciate you taking time” for feedback. No, Macy’s, the message shouldn’t read “you taking time” but “your taking time.” When a word ending in –ing (taking) is used as it is here – a thing that would be appreciated – it is a noun, not a verb. And when an –ing word is used as a noun (called a gerund), it must be preceded by a possessive word.

A few examples:

I would appreciate your taking time to provide feedback.

Jane objects to Pete’s smoking.

There was a slim chance of the Senate’s accepting the compromise.

This is no trivial point of grammar. It gets to the heart of the structure of the English language, based on rules that enhance its clarity, precision and elegance. So bear in mind the rule you now understand:

The word preceding and related to a gerund must be in the possessive case.


Last Updated on Monday, 18 July 2016 18:27

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Eschew Ambiguity

Whatever else business writing is, it must, first and foremost, be clear. That means that every reader understands a message in the same way. Yet our word choices—and the way we put words together in a sentence—often lead to different interpretations. It’s difficult indeed to totally eliminate ambiguity, but you can reduce confusion significantly by taking these steps.  more

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