Your Writing Questions, Answered

By on June 5, 2012 in Current Events, Leadership with 24 Comments

Many readers of my previous FedSmith articles have taken me up on my offer to send me their nagging grammar and other writing questions. (That offer stands, by the way. Email me your questions anytime.) I’ve paraphrased some of the most common questions below, along with my answers.

Paul wants to know which is grammatically correct: “Neither is…” or “Neither are…”

Excellent question, Paul.

Turns out it’s “neither is,” because the word “neither” calls for a singular. Example: “It doesn’t matter if you eat X or Y. Neither is healthy.”

Paul’s question is also great because it gives me a chance to offer two pieces of advice for dealing easily with tricky grammar questions like this.

1) You can often quickly find the answer using Google. One way is to simply ask Google directly. In other words, type in the question, “is it neither is or neither are?” Often you’ll find several reputable sources offering the answer – such as a university’s English department website or a grammar book online.

Another way to use Google to find this answer would be to type in one formulation (say, “neither is”) and see what sites have that phrase. The more reputable the sites with “neither is” on their pages, the more confident you can be that’s the correct way to write it. If you find a newspaper like the Wall Street Journal with an article using “neither is,” you can probably trust that’s the right formulation.

2) You can also write around the problem – a common writer’s trick. If you’re not sure which is correct, can’t find the answer and are afraid to write it incorrectly, you can rewrite your phrase to avoid the formulation altogether.

In the case of my “Neither is healthy” example above, you could simply rewrite it as, “Both choices are unhealthy.” Problem solved.

Carolyn asks if she can write dates using a numbers-only format (03/09/2009), or if the only acceptable way is to write out the month (March 9, 2009).

It’s best to write out the month (March 9, 2009), and for good reason. Different regions of the world read dates differently. Europe, for example, uses dd/mm/yy, as opposed to the mm/dd/yy that we use stateside. So “07/03/10″ would mean March 7 in France but July 3 in the US.

Imagine trying to arrange an international conference call this way. Some poor attendee is going to be months late!

Debra wants to know which version is correct: “lets” or “let’s.”

Both are correct, in different contexts.

If you’re using it in the “let’s go” or “let’s have a party” context, use the apostrophe. That’s because “let’s” is a contraction of “let” and “us.” You’re actually saying let us go or let us have a party. Think of “let’s” as a suggestion or instruction.

You’d use “lets” (without the apostrophe) as a verb – as in, “This printer lets you print two-sided color documents.” Think of “lets” as a substitute for “allows.”

Mary asks a terrific question: Is it acceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun (“An employee must inform management of a change in their status…”) in work-related documents?

This is a great question – and tough to answer. The topic has been hotly debated for decades among very smart people. And they’re still debating it.

But the bottom line is, yes, using “they” or “them” for a singular pronoun is acceptable, for a couple of reasons.

1) Political correctness today dictates that a writer cannot use “he” and “him” repeatedly to refer to a generic person. But using “she” over and over isn’t much more acceptable. And alternating between the two sexes is just confusing. So an acceptable solution is to use “they” and “them.”

2) Often the sex of the generic person you’re writing about is simply not important or relevant. In those cases, using “they” makes perfect sense.

The example I used earlier to illustrate Mary’s question is a case in point: “An employee must inform management of a change in their status.” Doesn’t matter whether the hypothetical employee in that sentence is a man or woman, so using “their” does not confuse the issue at all.

Note: Here’s another instance in which you can just write around the problem if you’re not sure how to deal with it. Not comfortable using “their” for a singular pronoun? Rewrite your statement to make the pronoun plural. You could simply rewrite my example to read, “Employees must inform management of a change in their status.” Problem solved.

As always, I welcome your questions about grammar, style or other writing-related issues. Email me at robbie@robbiehymancopywriting.com.

© 2016 Robbie Hyman. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Robbie Hyman.

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of www.MoneySavvyTeen.com, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.

Robbie is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies. Visit RobbieHymanCopywriting.com for more information.

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