Ask a ‘writing’ question!

Get Answers ButtonDo you sometimes have questions about writing but don’t know who to ask?

Then bookmark this page so you can find it quickly. Jot your question below as a comment (“Leave a Reply”), and I’ll either answer it here or in our regular e-zine (I’ll ask your permission first).

Don’t mask it – ask it!

20 thoughts on “Ask a ‘writing’ question!

  1. Jenny Blok

    I constantly confuse the words “stationary” and “stationery”. Do you have any tips for making sure you don’t get similar words (with a different meanings) confused?

    1. magnetoblog

      Hi Jenny,

      A great way to remember the difference between “stationary” (standing still) and “stationery” (paper, pencils, etc) is that the latter is spelt with an “e” for “envelope.”

      Words like this are often commonly confused because they sound the same – they’re “homophones.”

      A couple of other examples are below:

      practise vs. practice – the former is a verb (you “practise” the piano), while the latter is a noun (the doctor’s “practice”). Memory tip: “ice” is a noun, so “practICE” is a noun. This also holds true for advise/advice, devise/device, license/licence, etc – the “s” spellings are verbs, while those spelled with “c” are nouns.

      affect vs. effect – the former is a verb (“I hope to affect the result”), while the latter is a noun (“The effect of her outburst was obvious”). Memory tip: A verb is an “action” word (“a” for action), so “affect” is the verb version. [By the way, this is the most commonly confused word pair.]

  2. Carl Mathieson

    I’ve been accused of being too wordy. I probably ramble on a bit sometimes, but only because I’m trying to explain myself fully.

    Any advice on writing more concisely?

    1. magnetoblog

      Hi Carl,

      Some advice on avoiding wordiness:

      1. Cut to the chase – especially in emails. Put the “big news” first. This explains it well:

      2. Write in plain English. That means avoid redundant words, write with more verbs and fewer nouns (see, use the active voice (put the “actor” of the sentence in front of the “action” it or they are doing), and use natural, everyday language (see “Is your writing old style or new skool?”:

  3. Jeff Maltby

    Thanks for putting this blog together. For most of the words reported above I already knew the difference. I’ll review this page from time to time. Great idea. In the mean time, I’ll continue to thank Bill for his red and green squiggily lines that show up in Word

    Jeff Maltby

  4. Matthew

    1) I sometime read “contract terms and condition” and see contract “Terms and Conditions”, and was wondering when I would use the caps locks version.

    2) When using bullet points what she be at the end of each sentence – a full stop, or a semicolon?

    3) I would like to know when to user a hyphen in the middle of a sentence?

    4) Does the below have hyphens:
    Two-year term and 12-month contract?

    5) Which is correct 100 percent or 100 per cent?

    6) Is the following hyphenated – The five-year contract will be approximately 2 million dollars.

    7) In formal writing when expressing a value i.e. 2.2 million would I write approximately or use the symbol ~

    8) In formal writing when using a dash (/) is there a space between or no space e.g Matt/Jon or Matt / John

    9) Is it one or two ‘Matt’ or “Matt” and what is the difference as I have seen both types in emails.

    10) In emails I have seen the Company Team and the company team and was wondering which one is correct, caps lock or no caps lock?

    1. magnetoblog

      Hi Matt,

      We gave the answers to your questions directly to you in your course, but I meant to add them to our blog for our other readers.

      These have been answered by our copy-editing guru, Sarah Murray-White, who does most of the edits/feedback on our trainees’ pre-course writing samples.

      1) QUESTION: I sometimes read “contract terms and conditions” and see contract “Terms and Conditions”, and was wondering when I would use the caps-lock version.

      ANSWER: Use initial capitals (i.e. ‘Terms and Conditions’) with words that refer to a title (e.g., ‘see attached Terms and Conditions document’), or a section heading in a document (e.g., ‘This information is provided in the following Terms and Conditions section). If you’re writing generally about terms and conditions, don’t use initial capitals (e.g., ‘we’ll probably need to apply some terms and conditions to this’).

      But there’s a grey area (these usually exist—English is an interesting language!): ‘The company’s Terms and Conditions/terms and conditions’. This varies from company to company. You may be lucky and find it specified in your company’s style guide; if not, check your company websites and standard documents. Otherwise, pick one and be consistent.

      2) QUESTION: When using bullet points, what should be at the end of each sentence—a full stop, or a semicolon?

      ANSWER: Punctuation of bullets is a ‘style’ issue; i.e., it’s arbitrary. However, the trend is towards minimal punctuation.

      Here’s what the editor’s ‘bible’ says—a.k.a. the ‘Style Manual for authors, editors and publishers’ (published by the Australian Government): If bullets are phrases or sentence fragments, the only punctuation you need is a full stop after the last one. If they’re all complete sentences, then they all need a full stop at the end (but if your company’s style guide says otherwise, follow that). It’s also important that each list has either all phrases or all complete sentences—not a mix.

      Here are some examples, shamelessly adapted from the Australian Government style manual.

      Full sentences:

      The committee came to two important conclusions:
      • Officers from the department should investigate the guidelines.
      • Research should be funded in three priority areas.

      Sentence fragments:

      Help is available in several forms:
      • monetary assistance
      • advisory services.

      3) QUESTION: I’d like to know when to use a hyphen in the middle of a sentence.

      ANSWER: Use a dash, not a hyphen, to separate phrases in a sentence, but use a hyphen for ‘compound modifiers’. For the difference, see

      4) QUESTION: Do the following have hyphens? Two-year term; 12-month contract; the five-year contract will be approximately two million dollars.

      ANSWER: Yes, they do. They’re compound modifiers. Compound modifiers (like these) before a noun need a hyphen to avoid confusion. For example, if you omit the hyphen from ‘small-business advisor,’ you may think we’re talking about a very short business advisor, instead of an advisor to small business.

      5) QUESTION: Which is correct, 100 percent or 100 per cent?

      ANSWER: Both are commonly used. Most media outlets and companies with a style guide specify using ‘per cent’.

      6) QUESTION: In formal writing, when expressing a value, e.g. 2.2 million, would I write “approximately” or use the symbol ~?

      ANSWER: Generally, use ‘approximately’ (unless it’s your company style to use ‘~’). However, when space is cramped (such as in tables), it’s fine to use ‘~’.

      7) QUESTION: In formal writing, when using a slash (/) are there spaces on either side, or no spaces, e.g. Matt/Jon or Matt / John
      ANSWER: Generally, don’t use spaces on either side of a slash.

      8) QUESTION: Should I use single or double quotation marks? E.g. is it ‘Matt’ or “Matt”, and what’s the difference? I’ve seen both types in emails.

      ANSWER: Both are correct, but you must be consistent within a document (and preferably within your company). However, consider using single quotation marks. This is part of the trend towards minimal punctuation. You’d then use double quotation marks only when you have a quote within a quote (unless it’s your company style to use double quotes).

      9) QUESTION: In emails, I’ve seen ‘the Company Team’ and ‘the company team’ and was wondering which one is correct?

      ANSWER: Generally, use initial capitals with proper nouns. Here’s a good link for a bit of quick revision on proper nouns:

      So, unless you’re referring to a team that’s actually named ‘the Company Team’, don’t use initial capitals.

      Dear reader, did this Q&A help you? If so, please ‘like’ it above, and/or rate it. And if you have further questions, ask away!

  5. Kerrilyn

    Hi can you please tell me which is correct?

    The pair were rescued from the water.
    The pair was rescued from the water.

    The general consensus seems to be was, but i was always taught that in the presence of a plural, you need to use the plural sense.

    1. magnetoblog

      Hi Kerrilyn,

      At first, I thought the answer should be ‘was’, because there’s only one pair. But then it sounded better to my ear to say ‘The pair were rescued’.

      Google seems to say ‘were’:

      ‘The pair were rescued’ gets 121,000 hits, while
      ‘The pair was rescued’ gets just 8,000.

      And, in fact, this is backed up by the Australian Govt Style Manual, which says this:

      ‘Singular or plural agreement may be used, depending on whether the meaning relates to the group as a whole or to the individuals within it. Compare:

      The family is the basic social unit.
      His family are not inclined to comment.’

      Going by this, the correct answer is ‘The pair were rescued from the water.’

      1. Dan H.

        Hi Folks. Citations. What is the norm for formal documents ? I have a numbered list of documents, and need to refer to them in short-form elsewhere in the text.

        1. magnetoblog

          Good question, Dan. This answer is written by our famous Magneto copy editor, Sarah Murray-White:

          Sometimes you need to cite a document, and perhaps the individual(s) who wrote it. It’s important to cite (give credit to) original work, to avoid accusations of plagiarism and perhaps some huffy work colleagues.

          If you’re writing an article for a journal, check the journal guidelines as they’ll tell what citation method to use (e.g., APA, Harvard, Oxford). The Internet has a wealth of information (editor-speak for ‘probably too much’) on each citation method.

          If you’re writing an in-house document that references several other documents, you could list the documents in an Appendix (which holds full details of the documents, e.g. title, author, date written, location) with a code. Then use that code to refer to them in the text of the document. It’s best if the code is significant, i.e. gives a clue to what the document is (e.g. OpStds for Operating Standards) rather than a number. The text can also have a link to the document if a document repository exists.

          Another option is to create an initialism for the document the first time you use it, e.g. Instructions for Metasynthesis Tactics to Generate Synonyms (IMTGS), and refer to the document as IMTGS from there on.

  6. Graeme Gibson

    Do you have any helpful hints or tips for writing compelling, concise business cases?

    ‘Agile and aligned teams are more effective and able to deliver marketplace success.
    • Becoming better at project execution will improve our speed to market. ‘

    Thank you

  7. magnetoblog Post author

    Hi Graeme,

    Good to hear from you again. I hope your writing is going well after doing our training.

    Writing compelling, concise business cases is a big topic. Are you interested in any specific areas?

    For ‘compelling,’ I’d say to apply the following from your course:
    – Clear, short, interesting title and subheads (make your subheads tell the story for skim readers).
    – Short and punchy executive summary (they probably won’t read much else).
    – Cut to the chase and put your ‘big news’ first – what’s the main thing a senior exec would want to know about in your business case?
    – Create a strong argument using logic and numbers, but also plug in Aristotle’s rhetorical proofs; ‘consequence’ is the most powerful [we called it FBI in your course], followed by ‘example,’ then ‘authority,’ and lastly ‘definition.’

    For ‘concise,’ I’d say:
    – Again, cut to the chase with your ‘big news’ first.
    – Write in plain English – short words and short sentences. Don’t make your reader ‘crack the code.’
    – Cut redundant words (you’ll only see them when you re-read with fresh eyes).
    – Write in active (not passive) voice – put the ‘actor’ in your sentences, and put him/her/it before the ‘action’ they do.
    – Write with verbs (like ‘recommend’) not nouns/nominalised verbs (like ‘recommendation’).

    Whew! I hope that helps. Let me know if I can help you further, Graeme.


  8. Jackson Bursill


    Firstly, I have really been enjoying this blog, what you’ve got here is more than just an effective style of communication but also a philosophy for life.

    My name is Jackson and I am currently doing a commerce research project for University on how writing efficiently and economically can save businesses money. I have been struggling to find concrete information and statistics on this field and I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of some good sources?

    Thank you

  9. Simon Davie (@Simon_Davie)

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for your webinar, it covered some interesting and very relevant content – I’m taking your advice and getting stuck in with immediate application and it’s thrown up a question I’d be keen to get your thoughts on…

    In your experience, do you find that there’s any distinction between the way introverts and extroverts write? (eg. does one prefer to write in plain english / is one type generally better at writing?)



    1. magnetoblog Post author

      Hi Simon,

      Good question. In a nutshell, I don’t think one type is necessarily better at writing. Some would say introverts must be better because they think more deeply than extroverts, but others would say extroverts are better with people so will be able to connect with them better in writing.

      The main differences I’ve seen are that introverts tend to err on the side of giving too much detail, while extroverts tend to err on the side of being too warm and/or informal. Either is fine if you’re writing to your own type (introvert/extrovert), but will grate on your reader if they’re different to you.

      Therefore it’s better to try to adapt to your reader, and be aware of what your own ‘default’ mode is.



  10. Simon Davie (@Simon_Davie)

    Thanks Paul, that’s great.

    It aligns nicely with what you were saying in the Webinar about how important it is to not just understand your own type and style, but also have the awareness to match it to those you are writing to (as well as the skills to execute effectively!).

    Thanks again,


  11. Grace Cunningham

    Any tips on writing for Gen Z? Most agree shorter is better, but I’m finding that difficult when trying to explain company vision and values.


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