Tag Archives: tone

The Grammar Factor – who/whom, direct/indirect questions, tone, email signoffs

April 2013

Strike the right tone in your writing

The Harvard Business Review ‘Management Tip of the Day’ on 2 April was about striking the right tone in your writing.

The tip, which was adapted from Bryan A. Garner’s HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, said:

‘Getting tone right takes work – but it’s critical to the success of your business documents. If you sound likable and professional, people will want to work with you and respond to you. If you come off as hyperformal, condescending, or sarcastic, people won’t. Find the right tone by writing your message as if you were speaking to the recipient in person. Refer to people by name, use personal pronouns as you naturally would, and shun fancy substitutes for everyday words. Always use a friendly tone in composing your messages, even if the content isn’t positive. You’ll get better responses from your recipients and keep yourself – and your company – out of trouble.’

This tip is probably more appropriate for emails than reports, which are more formal and objective.

However, tone is an issue in report writing too. One problem I am seeing lately is caused by several short sentences in a row within a paragraph. Such paragraphs are jerky to read and lack cohesion. More common problems are long, convoluted sentences and pompous words. 

On the subject of words, last September I mentioned an article about zombie nouns (aka nominalisations) by Helen Sword. This month, I discovered (thanks to a reader) that she’s created an amusing YouTube on the subject.

Take a look: http://bit.ly/T3TJxD

Punctuation with direct and indirect questions

Reader’s question: Which is correct?

Is it a cab or a minicab, Stella wonders.
Is it a cab or a minicab, Stella wonders?

Answer: The correct version is: Is it a cab or a minicab, Stella wonders.

This sentence does not need a question mark because it is an indirect question. An indirect question is more like a statement than a question and doesn’t have quotation marks. The sentence could be written:

Stella wondered if it was a cab or minicab.

The punctuation is different if you are using quotation marks, because the statement becomes a direct question. The question mark always goes after the question, not after the speaker.

‘Is it a cab or a minicab?’ Stella asked.

Read more about direct and indirect questions at:

Time to kill the email signoff?

Matthew J.X. Malady says: ‘It’s time to eliminate email sign-offs completely. Think about it. Email sign-offs are holdovers from a bygone era when letter writing – the kind that required ink and paper – was a major means of communication.’

If you take his advice, you will no longer have to pause for a moment to decide whether to write ‘Cheers’, ‘Regards’, ‘Kind regards’, ‘Warm regards’ or whatever other signoff you use. Matthew Malady used to signoff with ‘My very best’, which he admits was awful.

A reader sent me this article, so I am waiting to see if his emails have signoffs. I intend to still use a signoff because emails without them look too abrupt – unless I am having an ongoing email conversation with a friend or colleague and then I will often drop the greeting as well as the signoff.

PS The person who sent me this link is still using a signoff. Old habits die hard!

What are your views on email signoffs?

Who and whom

Writing in The Atlantic, Megan Gerber makes a case for saving whom from withering away.

Which would you use?

The guests, who came in limousines, were appalling.
The guests, whom came in limousines, were appalling.

The man who we think the police are seeking has left.
The man whom we think the police are seeking has left.

Who are we looking for?
Whom are we looking for?

Read the article in The Sydney Morning Herald to find out the answers:

My recent blogs

Phrase of the month

Skunked term
A ‘skunked term’ is a phrase coined by Bryan A. Garner for a word that has undergone a change of meaning.

is an example. Media is the plural of medium, but today it is also used to refer to mass communications and takes a singular verb (The media is covering the event.) Some purists think media should always be plural. (The media are covering the event.)

Quote of the month

‘When collating authorities I have found that the most professedly reliable and modern writers have copied the old authors word for word, without acknowledgement.’ 
Pliny the Elder, Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, AD 23–79

It’s still true 2,000 years later!


online grammar
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