Language FAQs from yore and yon

By January 31, 2010Language

Here are the answers to some of the language and related questions I am regularly asked by clients, colleagues and the public:

Q: Please tell me if the use of RSVP has changed? To my knowledge it is French for respond if you please, and I have never added ‘kindly’ or ‘please’ for that reason.

A: You’re right; it stands for repondez s’il vous plait (respond please), but because most people don’t know that, it’s probably safer and more polite to ask that they ‘Kindly RSVP’.

Q: HIV/AIDS or HIV/Aids or HIV and AIDS? Please explain to me the correct way of writing this out and maybe an explanation of why it has to be written that manner.

A: It’s HIV/Aids or HIV and Aids. An acronym is usually expressed in uppercase, but if it has four letters or more and is pronounceable, we use upper and lowercase: Aids; Nasa; Asgisa; Nepad. As for HIV/Aids vs HIV and Aids, that depends on your company’s preference. It is currently a matter of discretion.

Q: There is something that is bugging me like crazy and it is the writing of the date. It seems to have become the norm to write “…on Thurday, November 2…”, instead of 2 November – I see this in the newspapers, too. Please confirm which is correct, as I change it in my editing to some people’s dissatisfaction!

A: The global standard at the moment, and for a while, I predict, is: Thursday 6 November 2008. Anything else is horribly old-fashioned!

Q: Please remind me what a passive sentence is…

A: Here’s a tip: To have a passive sentence, you need 3 elements: 1 BE (is/ are/ was/ were/ been/ be) + 2 VERB + 3 Past Form; e.g., He was elected; The results are being calculated; The study has been completed.

Q: Please give me the correct way to write ‘EXCO’ or ‘Exco’. This is a tricky one causing a lot of debate.

A: Exco is four letters and pronounceable, therefore it’s ‘Exco’, not ‘EXCO’.

Q: Does one add an apostrophe to the following? Hospital Manager’s Conference (used as a title and as part of a sentence). Let me know; I think it should be there, but some of my colleagues believe it should not, as it is a title of a conference.

A: The correct version is: Hospital Managers’ Conference. You must use an apostrophe and it goes after the ‘s’, because there is more than one manager attending.

Q: When should you use the words ‘shall’ and ‘will’?

A: The old rule dictated that we use ‘shall’ for the first person (I shall leave when I am ready) and ‘will’ for second and third (Both you and he will want to know what happened). But in modern English, ‘shall’ is outdated and pretentious. Use ‘will’ across the board.

Q: Should the word ‘communication’ be singular or plural?

A: ‘Communication’ refers to written, spoken or non-verbal communication, whereas ‘communications’ refers to technological communication.

Q: One of our directors believes that when we refer to Werksmans in the possessive, it should read ‘Werksmans’s’ e.g. In terms of international tax services, the Werksmans’s Tax practice area has… The director states that it should read like St James’s Palace. Could you kindly confirm which is correct, so that I can advise him?

A: Like Siemens and St James, Werksmans ends on a ‘z’ sound, not an ‘s’ sound. Harris and Francis, for instance, end on an ‘s’. The rule is that proper nouns ending in a ‘z’ sound, like Werksmans, require just an apostrophe (no extra ‘s’) on the final s, to create a possessive.

Q: Someone has asked me to explain why the following sentence should take the word allows, and I’m not sure how to explain it. Can you help? Our ability to meet their demands, combined with our ongoing commitment to service standards and measuring these, allows us to XYZ.

A: The verb ‘allows’ could be replaced by another verb phrase (‘means that we can’, ‘translates into the ability to’, etc.), but a verb is certainly needed there to qualify the ability…

Q: I have for a while now been ending letters with ‘Sincerely’ – is this correct or should it be ‘Yours sincerely’?

A: Either one is fine. I’d use ‘Yours sincerely’ if you’re not familiar with (i.e. haven’t met) the recipient. Use ‘Sincerely’ or ‘Regards’ if you have met, and ‘Kind regards’ if you’ve known each other/been corresponding for a while.

Q: The word ‘Chairman’ – is it for both males and females? This is my way of using it, but I see there are those who refer to ‘Chairperson’.

A: ‘Chairperson’ is certainly preferable. Use ‘Chairman’ if he’s a man and ‘Chairperson’ if it’s a woman, it’s irrelevant or you’re not sure.

Q: You say that we write Grootegeluk Mine in Title Case but what about Grootegeluk Coal Mine? It seems to me that it is a descriptor and not a proper noun. It is also called Grootegeluk Coal, which I think is fine in Title Case.

A: Both of the examples you’ve given are proper nouns; i.e. the names of the mines in question. Therefore, they need to take Title Case.

Q: Would we use italics for internal group publications? And how about the name of our intranet site (xxchange)?

A: I’d use double inverted commas for both of those, as the former tend not to be long publications (like books, for example) and the latter is really just a proper noun.

Q: I saw a Vodacom advert that said “100 BMW’s available”. I think it should be the plural, i.e. “… BMWs”. Just want to make sure so that I don’t make a totty of myself when I blog it.

A: You’re right. SKAAM!

Q: I have been having a disagreement with a staff member regarding the way we write the time – in the book you handed us it says that the “h” denoting hour is just as acceptable as the “:” and the spacing between the number of kg, ml etc does not have a space. She disagrees. Help.

A: You are right. The way I taught you to handle it represents the most updated editorial standard in global editing, as follows: 2pm, 14h00, 2km, 3ml. There are always going to be disagreements and modern punctuation is a matter of discretion – but the above is on-trend right now.

Q: When do you use “compared to” and when do you use “compared with”? Please see the sentence below and let me know which is correct. The GMCs were lower for all seven-studied serotypes among HIV-infected children compared with HIV-uninfected children that were previously vaccinated with PCV-9 (table 2).

A: “Compared to” emphasises similarities in the comparison while “compared with” is more appropriate to show the contrast. So, in your example, it should read, “The GMCs were lower for all seven studied serotypes among HIV-infected children, compared with HIV-uninfected children who were previously vaccinated with PCV-9 (table 2).”

Q: Should this sentence read: ‘It may not be well known that brandy and chocolate ARE a match made in heaven.’ OR ‘It may not be well known that brandy and chocolate IS a match made in heaven.’? I though it would be IS but I’m looking at it and it looks very odd.

A: Technically, “…brandy and chocolate IS a match made in heaven” is correct (match is singular), but you’re right: it does sound funny. Today, to avoid the archaic expression of the alternative, it’s okay to use the plural verb, “are”. Think about “Katie and Tom are a match…”, not “is a match…” The implication is that together, they (pl) make a match…

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