The Grammar Factor: numbers in business writing, apostrophes in place names

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The terms ‘numbers’ and ‘numerals’ are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference between these words. A number is a concept and a numeral expresses that concept in writing. For example, the number five is a concept and you can express it in different ways. For instance, you could hold up five fingers, say the word or write it down. Once you have written it down it becomes a numeral, irrespective of whether you write ‘five’, ‘5’ or the Latin ‘V’.

Words for small numbers and digits for large numbers
Most style guides suggest that you use words for small numbers and digits for larger numbers, but the cut-off point varies. In Australia, the most common convention in business writing is to use words for ‘one’ to ‘nine’ and digits for ‘10’ upwards.

Read more

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Verb agreement with company names
Do company names take a singular or plural verb, for example, ‘Apple is…’ or ‘Apple are…’?

Answer: In Australia and New Zealand we treat company and organisation names as singular. I am not sure what the convention is in other countries. (Please email me and let me know.)

We use the singular verb for consistency and to present a cohesive brand. This is a convention rather than a rule because our choice could depend on whether we are referring to the organisation as a whole or to the individuals within that organisation. (Apple is an innovative company. Apple are listening to users’ feedback.)

Similarly, we could say: ‘The team is united in opposing the policy’, but ‘The team are giving each other birthday presents this year’. If you are using the singular and plural within the same section, you can reword a sentence to avoid inconsistency (Team members are giving each other birthday presents this year.)

‘A’ or ‘an’ before ‘h’
Question: I was taught to use ‘a’ in front of a word starting with ‘h’ when the ‘h’ is pronounced (‘a hot day’), and ‘an’ when the ‘h’ is silent (‘an honourable mention’). But recently, I have heard Channel 9 use ‘an’ in front of both silent and pronounced words starting with ‘h’. Has the rule changed?

Answer: No, the rule has not changed, but when I checked the Australian Commonwealth style manual p.72), I discovered a peculiarity I was not aware of.

‘Some speakers and writers nevertheless give special treatment to words of three or more syllables beginning with h, and so are inclined to use “an hypothesis”, “an historical event”. This is a matter of taste and tradition, but not a grammatical requirement.’

I would stick to the rule you were taught!

Apostrophes in place and street names
Question: Apostrophes are no longer used in geographical names in Australia, but what if a road is called ‘Tom’s Farm Road’ and Tom owns the farm?

Answer: You’re right, apostrophes are not used in geographical names in Australia, but I guess if Tom owned the road as well as the farm, he could use an apostrophe. If it was a public road, he would have to write ‘Toms Farm Road’.

This decision to abolish apostrophes in geographical names was made by the Geographical Names Board in 1966.

The rationale is:

  • The people who geographical places are named after don’t own them
  • Names are easier to write without apostrophes
  • Databases are more consistent without apostrophes

Not everyone likes this decision. Here’s an article about Badgerys Creek.

I’ve read that this practice is similar in the US, but in Britain a name can appear with or without an apostrophe in different parts of the country. If you know more, email

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More about ‘chairman’ I wrote about chairman last month and a reader sent me this article. I have heard the argument that ‘man’ in ‘chairman’ came from the Latin word for ‘hand’ and so has nothing to do with gender. I was delighted to read this article and find that argument is not true.

A hatred of ‘comprised of’ Is there a phrase you hate so much it reminds you of fingernails on a blackboard? One guy spent years eradicating ‘comprised of’ from Wikipedia. Read more.

Expand your vocab with a daily email ‘Make Your Point’ is a free daily email that gives you a word a day and shows you how to use it.

Do you use the word ‘huh’? Did you know that ‘huh’ is considered a word and it is used universally? Read more.


‘When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.’

US author Kurt Vonnegut


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