Report Writing

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About The Author

Jonathan Bishop, Group Chairman, Bishop Phillips Consulting. [1]

Copyright 1995-2019 - Moral Rights Retained

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About This Document

This paper compliments the Internal Audit and Management Consulting guides and discussions throughout the RiskWiki. It presents a brief guide to issues of style and presentation in writing up findings generally and with a very few exceptions applies universally to consultant and management reports (as well as to Internal Audit Reports).

Texts used as the basis for some of the views presented in this document and worthy of further exploration include:

  • The Penguin Working Words (Penguin 1993)
  • Fowler's Modern English Usage 2nd Edition (Oxford University Press 1965)
  • Oxford Dictionary (Oxford University Press)
  • Style Manual 4th Edition (Australian Government Press Service 1988)
  • Practical English Usage - Michael Swan (Oxford University Press 1980)
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language - David Crystal (Cambridge University Press 1987)
  • Deloitte Internal Audit Method, Volume 6 - Report Writing - J Bishop & J Crawford (DTT 1992-3)
  • Stanton Consulting Partners Style Manual (J Bishop 1995)
  • NAB IA Reporting Style Guide ( J Bishop -1999- & an Unknown NAB Staff Member)
  • Bishop Phillips Consulting Style Manual (J Bishop 2000)

Writing Style


Bishop's Writing Rules:

  1. Rule: The Passive puts people to sleep.
  2. Rule: Ending a sentence with a preposition is a situation up with which I will not put.
  3. Rule: Objects like subjects
  4. Rule: One point to a paragraph
  5. Rule: Get to the bottom line first
  6. Rule: Just do it - say what you mean.
  7. Rule: Readers don’t read
  8. Rule: Three sentences are company, four is a crowd
  9. Rule: Conjunctions can't commence (a sentence)
  10. Rule: Conjunction collections confuse
  11. Rule: Personalise people not things
  12. Rule: Negativity negates.
  13. Rule: DON'T SHOUT
  14. Rule: Don't plan to make a plan.
  15. Rule: Consistency is king
  16. Rule: Death is in the details.
  17. Rule: Pronouns need a noun
  18. Don't split the infinitive
  19. Rule: Unintroduced acronyms are antisocial
  20. Rule: Generalities are generally imprecise
  21. Rule: Let the facts carry the case.

In written expression, a few simple rules can make the difference between clarity and confusion. Applying the rules in this section will help us both record our ideas efficiently and convey our meaning clearly.

The rules are a mix of style and traditional grammar identified over many years of reviewing and writing audit reports. We will need a rudimentary understanding of grammar to apply a number of these rules effectively.

Syntax assists semantics. Grammar defines the syntax of the language. Good syntax describes the structures a sentence can follow and still be considered well formed.

Semantics is the meaning of a sentence. Syntax assists semantics by managing the flow of ideas, and distinguishing ambiguities.

Consider for a moment the classic poets' joke "What is this thing called love?" - The plaintive cry of a tortured heart. "What is this thing called, love?" -The question of a curious friend on sighting a never before seen object.

One stray comma makes all the difference to the meaning of the question. In speech we use tone, rhythm, intonation and body language to convey meaning. In written expression we rely on syntax - the rules of grammar

We can not solve all problems of ambiguity in language with punctuation, but with a better understanding of grammar we can avoid the ambiguity in the first place. Take, for example, the sentence: "Flying saucers can be thrilling". This sentence seemingly can have a number of meanings:

  1. The act of flying a saucer can thrill the pilot.
  2. Seeing a saucer in flight can thrill the observer.
  3. The idea of a saucer that flies thrills.

We will see, however, that even in this situation, the judicious application of some simple rules when forming the sentence can result in clarity:

"Flying a saucer can thrill the pilot."

What has changed? We have moved from the general ("flying saucers") to the specific ("flying a saucer") (rule 20). We have also introduced a subject (the pilot) to the sentence where only the object and verb existed (rule 3) and applied plurals consistently (rule 15). Lastly applying rule 1 eliminates the problem entirely:

"A pilot can be thrilled when flying a saucer.."

To understand how to do this, we need a little grammar.

Since we can not avoid grammar if we wish to understand how best to convey our meaning, our discussion will be facilitated by first establishing the definition of a few grammatical terms. This we do in the next sub-section. Armed with a few parts of speech we will then explore the 19 rules over the subsections thereafter.

A Grammar Crash Course


Subject, Verb and Object

'When nine hundred years you reach, look as good, you will not. Strong with the Force you are…."

Remember Yoda ? Among the little, wrinkly, green "Star Wars" character's more distinctive features was "Yoda Speak". To a linguist, Yoda represents an imaginary member of a very rare and select group: races with languages that use an "Object - Subject - Verb" structure.

The understanding of the difference between each of these components is the first step in mastering sentence structure.

The order of subject (S) - verb (V) - object (O) (SVO) is the classic "natural" english sentence:

"Management is adhering to credit policies."
Subject Verb Object

Things work quite well if we think of a sentence as revolving around a verb. The subject of a verb is the noun (or noun substitute ) that directs the action of the verb. The object of a verb is a noun (or noun substitute) that receives the action, is effected by the action, or about which the action is concerned. In the majority of instances a noun substitute is a pronoun.

In the example "management" directs the action and is therefore the subject, while "credit policies" are the things being "adhered to" and therefore the object. As a rough rule of thumb, if the noun phrase starts with a preposition it is a fair bet that the noun concerned is the object. In the example sentence, "to" is the preposition.


A preposition relates a word or phrase to another part of the sentence.

"Management is adhering to credit policies."
Subject Verb Preposition Object

Words that are prepositions include: to, in, into, on, upon, over, before, after, of, with.

In the example the word to joins (or more accurately relates) the noun phrase "credit policies" to the rest of the sentence - "Management is adhering".

A note of caution - a word that is a preposition in one case can be a conjunction in another:

  • The auditor arrived before [preposition] the meeting.
  • The auditor arrived before [conjunction] the meeting began.


Conjunctions are words that join two sentences, or nouns, but not in a causal relationship as with a preposition but either as equals or in a superior - subordinate relationship. Examples of the former include: and, but, or, nor, whereas, however. Examples of the latter include: because, when, where, if, although.

Active and Passive Voices

  • Rule: The Passive puts people to sleep.

Recall the earlier discussion about subjects and objects of a sentence. We observed that the "natural" order in English is Subject - Verb - Object (SVO). This is the active voice:

"This firm will no longer pay for Overtime."
Subject Verb phrase Preposition Object

Now we will switch the subject and the object and contrast this with the same sentence expressed in the passive voice:

"Overtime payments will no longer be made by this firm."
Object Verb phrase Preposition Subject

The passive voice essentially reverses the natural order from SVO to OVS.

There is nothing grammatically wrong with either construct, but even a few lines expressed in the passive voice will bore our readers to tears. This effect arises because the passive voice places the reader at a distance from the action by making the object of the sentence the primary focus rather then the subject. Consequently, things appear to come before people.

Consider the following passage (passive voice).

"Significantly more overtime than the firm average has been incurred by roboteller maintenance staff of the Antarctic Division. A number of anomalies in the time sheets including bank branches that have been closed for many years having work recorded for them by individual staff have been revealed by a detailed analysis of the time sheets. Overtime payments will no longer be made by the Antarctic Division as a consequence."

Versus the following version (active voice)

"Roboteller maintenance staff in the Antarctic Division have incurred significantly more overtime than the firm average. An analysis of the time sheets for individual staff shows a number of anomalies, including work conducted for bank branches that have been closed for a number of years. Consequently, the Antarctic Division will no longer pay for overtime."

Which one did you have to read twice? The passive voice is difficult for the reader taken even one paragraph at a time. Try reading it for an entire report and you will be angry, frustrated and tense (assuming you are still awake by the end of it).

The active voice involves the reader, it flows better than the passive, it encourages the writer to go straight to the point rather than inserting "filler words" whose sole purpose is to make the sentence hang together and it reduces the chance of repetition (as apparent in the passage above). The passive voice, however, is not only difficult to read, but it is far more difficult (and therefore slower) to write.

In the passive voice we express the idea of the sentence before we provide the context (subject). The direct result of this is that our thought pattern is reversed and our ideas do not seem to flow properly. We end up adding extra words, leaving sentences hang in mid air (such as when we finish with a preposition) and, most importantly, failing to convince our audience of our point because they have to try too hard to understand it.

A sentence is a "word painting" of an idea. Well formed it is a thing of beauty and, like a great painting, a joy to behold.

Positioning of Prepositions

  • Rule: Ending a sentence with a preposition is a situation up with which I will not put.
  • Rule: Objects like Subjects.

One of the most common errors in common speech is to place the preposition at the end of a sentence. Prepositions, by definition connect and introduce a noun phrase in a sentence. After the use of the active voice, I consider that this is almost the single most important trick to forming logical, easily understood sentences quickly.

Given that it has become almost standard usage to let prepositions drift to the end of a sentence, why is it such a gross error?

You will recall that we defined a preposition as a word that joins and relates a noun phrase to the rest of the sentence. It literally "leads" a phrase. Without the preposition connecting the two ideas in a sentence the sentence appears stilted (or as in the following example the sentence actually seams to mean something completely different): "Management is adhering credit policies."

Consider a few examples:

Bad FormGood Form
Where have the auditors come from?From where have the auditors come?
Peace is worth striving for.It is worth striving for peace
Firm credit policies must be complied with.Management must comply with firm credit policies.

The first two on the left-hand side are merely untidy, but the third highlights the problem with prepositions shifting to the end of a sentence. The version on the left-hand side leaves the sentence "hanging" and most importantly, leaves out the subject. The lack of a subject in the sentence means that it is unclear who should perform the action. (ie. Objects Like Subjects)

If we use the active voice, and lead the sentence with the subject, we will be far less likely to end up with the versions on the left hand side. Since a preposition generally connects the object to the subject, it is the habit of placing the object at the start of the sentence (i.e. the passive voice) that leads to sentences with the preposition at the end.

The second example on the right hand side is still unsatisfactory, because it does not identify the responsibility of the action, and consequently is a generalisation - which is too easy to fault. For whom is it better to strive for peace? An arms manufacturer may see things a little differently! A better rewrite would have been: "We will benefit both materially and socially if we strive for peace."

It is easy to put prepositions in the right place if we remember to use the words "which" and "whom":

This is the day for which we have been waiting. (Not: This is the day we have been waiting for.) These are the results of which we heard. (Not: These are the results we heard of.)

The rule (attributed to Winston Churchill) "Ending a sentence with a preposition is a situation up with which I will not put" (instead of - "Ending a sentence with a proposition is a situation I will not put up with.") illustrates how to arrange the words to achieve the desired outcome. It also tends to stick in one's mind and so is easily remembered.

The Formula For A Paragraph

  • Rule: One idea to a paragraph
  • Rule: Get to the bottom line first
  • Rule: Three sentences are company, four is a crowd
  • Rule: Just Do It - saying what we mean.
  • Rule: Readers Don't Read

The purpose of dividing a body of writing into paragraphs is to help the reader absorb the points being made, and the writer to formulate them. These five rules are each about how to put together a paragraph that works.

A couple of simple formulae describing the sequence of sentences in a paragraph can show us what to do:

  1. Main Point + Counter Point + Conclusion.
  2. Main Point + Expansion + [Expansion].

In each case we are saying a paragraph should consist of between 2 and 3 sentences. Using more or less sentences in a paragraph is permissible, but to be discouraged unless it is absolutely essential for the purpose of the point. This is particularly true when we a planning to use more than three sentences. (ie Three sentences are company, four is a crowd)

A paragraph end forms a natural break in the flow of though. By implication, we are asking the reader to absorb the entire a paragraph as a single concept before they evaluate it in their minds. The longer is the paragraph, the longer the reader must store the ideas before evaluation.

We risk loosing the reader's attention and comprehension if we ask him or her to temporarily store the ideas for too long a time or to store too many ideas at once. Short, punchy paragraphs built around a single central idea help minimise waffle and assist the reader to rapidly absorb our message. (i.e. One idea to a paragraph))

…short, punchy paragraphs built around a single idea…

It is a courtesy to the reader, to endeavour to minimise the work they need to do to in reading our work. Opening the paragraph with the main point allows the reader to skip the rest of the sentences in the paragraph if they agree with the point. In each of the two formulae we open with the main point (ie. we get to the bottom line first).

The difference between the forms is that in the first formula we offer a counter point in the second sentence, which is then offset by the conclusion. In this case the conclusion should be consistent with the main point (rather than the second or counter point).

In the second formula we are presenting the main point supported by one or two additional arguments. Should we need six or seven sentences to support the point, these should be presented as a dot-point list, or subdivided into two or three logical groups and split across two or three paragraphs.

…the most convincing expression of an idea is usually the simplest…

The essence of these ideas is that the most convincing expression of an idea is usually the simplest. Winning a point through confusion is, at best, a Pyrrhic victory. If the issue is important, the reader will dwell on it, and form their own opinion. If they didn't understand your arguments, you will have no effective input into the formation of their position on the matter, other than to raise it in the first place.


The essence of newspaper journalism is that most readers will not read most of the articles in a paper or magazine completely. Consequently, from the headline down to the end of the article the item is arranged as a series of progressively more detailed "summaries" of the information. There are usually three to four layers.

The first layer is the headline, which attempts to summarise the entire issue in a few words. The second layer is the first paragraph which presents a twenty to thirty word summary of the issue. The third layer is the second, third and perhaps fourth paragraphs, which provide the full story and the fourth layer provides incidental minor details.

The purpose of the structure is to allow the readers to exit at several points when they have collected sufficient information for their interest level. The approach recognises that none of us has time to read every piece of information presented to us, and when we do we tend to skim the information for issues that are relevant to us. (ie. readers don't read)

We should design our reports so that the reader does not have to read all the way to the end to "get" the issue. We can imagine this pattern as a pyramid, with the highest level summary at the top, and progressively more detail to the bottom.

Using Conjunctions

  • Rule: Conjunctions can't commence (a sentence)
  • Rule: Conjunction collections confuse

The Importance of Correct Punctuation

The following two passages were written by Rowland Croucher. They illustrate neatly the importance of punctuation in written expression. Only the punctuation changes between the passages….

Dear Thomas,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, and thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy--will you let me be yours?


Dear Thomas,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind and thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn; for you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?



Conjunctions are important time savers and can help the flow of ideas if used correctly, but should not be used more than once in a sentence unless splitting the sentence would detract from it's meaning.

One example where two conjunctions may appear in a sentence is where the sentence contains both a list and two joined or related ideas:

"The credit approval process involves assessing the amount, viability, merit and purpose of the loan and verifying that the borrower's credit history is of sufficient standing."

In this case the passage would be harder to follow (and perhaps even misleading) if we wrote it as:

"The credit approval process involves assessing the amount, viability, merit and purpose of the loan. The credit approval process should also verify that the borrower's credit history is of sufficient standing."

By splitting the sentence we seem to imply that the credit history is of secondary importance to the information collected about the purpose of the loan.

These situations are generally pretty clear when they arise, but they are rare. A sentence with too many conjunctions suffers from the same problems as a paragraph with too many sentences; we have lost the reader before the end.

Some years ago Professor Manning Clark gave a Boyer lecture concerning the use of English in academic papers. One of his particular annoyances was the use of conjunctions to commence a sentence. His point was simple - a conjunction joins two sentences. If it starts the sentence it is prima-facie not joining two sentences together.

While we all recognise words like "and", "or" and "but" as conjunctions, words such as "however" and "because" are more often missed. Consider the following passage:

"Because they operate unattended, Roboteller machines are prime targets for fraud. However, if we attach cameras to them they become leading tools in the capture of the perpetrators."

This can be rewritten to eliminate the problem:

"Roboteller machines are prime targets for fraud because they operate unattended. If we attach cameras to them, however, the machines become leading tools in the capture of the perpetrators."

In rewriting the passage we also (once again) moved the subject to the start of the sentences. The "however": is redundant and the passage can be further simplified by writing it thus:

"Roboteller machines are prime targets for fraud because they operate unattended. The machines become leading tools in the capture of the defrauders if we attach cameras to them."

This passage demonstrates the appropriate use of "however":

"Overall corporate / strategic planning is adequately addressed within Premium and Private, however, management attention is required concerning:…"

A Few Points of Style

  • Rule: Personalise people not things
  • Rule: Don't plan to make a plan.
  • Rule: Negativity negates.
  • Rule: DON'T SHOUT

The three rules of this subsection cover common, but minor, problems of style.

A common written mistake is for a human trait such as "need" or "requiring" to be attributed to an inanimate "thing" such that it takes on the air of an inviolate law. The practice leads to broad statements without justification and hence incomplete argument of a case. Consider:

"The credit approvals process needs to be reviewed."

The credit approval process can not need anything. Only living creatures can experience need. It may be appropriate for the process to be updated and management or the auditors may need this to occur, but the process can't spontaneously need such improvement of itself.

Once again we find, as with so many English language errors, that the problem has arisen because of a subject / object mix-up. In the example the credit approval process, which should have been the object has been transformed into the subject. When we rewrite it the way it should have been we find that we are missing a significant part of the message that should have been conveyed (and is now inserted in the rewrite):

"Management needs to review the credit approvals process focusing on the weaknesses identified in the finding."

The new version both identifies who should perform the action and guidelines they should follow. It also highlights another important rule (not really one of grammar but one of service quality); the recommendation as written is essentially a plan to make a plan.

Either management should make the changes identified, or they should not. If we merely request them to review the situation we are delivering no committed improvement for the current situation to the Board. We should not say "review" when we mean "implement":

"Management should implement the identified corrections to rectify the weaknesses in the credit approvals process identified in this report."

Finally, we briefly consider two ad-hoc matters. The first is to do with capitalisation, while the second concerns the use of negatives.

Capitalising Every Word In a Sentence or even a Random selection Of a few words does not serve to help our presentation. Excessive capitalisation is affronting to the reader. In internet terminology this is akin to SHOUTING AT THE READER. Capitals belong at the beginning of a sentence or when naming a person, place or the title of a "thing". Capitalisation is rarely appropriate in the middle of a sentence.

Secondly, sentences should be expressed in the positive rather than the negative wherever possible. It is a standard sales technique to ask a prospect a question framed in the direction one wishes the answer to go:

"Would you prefer that my quote is open ended?"

As opposed to:

"Would you prefer that my quote is fixed?"

People tend to immediately think in sympathy to the speaker (at least until he or she threatens them with capitals!). If we express our sentences as negatives not only do we lead the reader to naturally disagree (because they have been "trained" to say no by our text, but we also create a sea of double negatives. Which may or may not imply a positive.

Carrying the Case

  • Rule: Death is in the details.
  • Rule: Generalities are generally imprecise
  • Rule: Let the facts carry the case.

Much of what has been written in this goes to the issue of precision. In consulting and audit papers, accuracy of detail can determine the credibility attached to the consultant's/auditor's findings as well as the advice offered. The best strategy is to let the facts, clearly articulated, carry the argument.

The facts should not be embellished with emotional and vague descriptive words such as "large", "most", "substantially". We should state the quanta instead - "70%", "five out of eight", etc.

Try to avoid non-specific or vague words and expressions. This is especially true of quantities and times.


Non-specific or vague  Could mean or become
increased volumes300 or more
drop in profitprofit was 20% lower
rarelyonce a year/decade
recentlyyesterday/last week/month
shortlytomorrow/next week/month

In the absence of statistical support for a finding, generalisation emerges. The discussion of the matter with the client becomes sidetracked over the meaning of words like "large" or "significant", rather than focussing on the issue identified and the solution required by the adviser.

Linked to these ideas is the form of words used to convey your point. Never use a long word where a short word will do. Long words may be interpreted by the reader as a deliberate attempt to mask purility with false grandeur, because the underlying point is decrepid or flawed. (See what I mean?).

Having said that, do not be frightened of using a long or technically correct word, simply because it has more than one syllable. Your can always provide a clossary of terms at the start of the document (and frequently that is a good idea for even some commonly missused terms). If your reader needs to get a little more educated to understand your work then fine.

Writing is not about stooping to the lowest common denominator, but it is about communicating your point accurately and effectively. That is: you must actually get your point across; not merely make your reader feel inadequate. There is no point in being right, if nobody realises.

The point, then, is to use the shortest possible correct word - not merely the shortest word.

As a rule-of-thumb, if your reader has to seek out the meaning of more than 2 or three words in your report you have probably lost them...and they will probably resent you for it. Know your audience, prepare your audience for your language, and make sure they don't feel stupid by the end of it.

The customer for a consulting or audit report needs to be assured that adopting recommendations based upon the consultant's finding will add value to the business.

Auditors (particularly) need to go well beyond describing what is wrong. They need to explain the meaning of any finding: how it affects the organisation’s bottom line; estimating the potential cost of not addressing a problem; predicting the likelihood of exposure or error.

Likewise, consultants need to go well beyond simply parroting back the latest theory they discovered in the bottom of a glass of scotch or on the back of the cereal packet that morning. Consultants need to do a little more of the 'audit' thing and actually analyse what is really the issue/wrong before agruing convincingly for change.

Wherever possible in all such instances, be specific. Numerous, several, many are words lacking in specifics. If this flies in the face of other advice to be brief, so be it.

The auditor/consultant should attempt to quantify the financial impact of a finding. While it may not be possible to arrive at a figure with mathematical precision, an informed guess can help management make a decision.

To be specific, following are some examples of content.


Differences exist in the cost of processing biscuit requisitions in various regions.


The cost of processing biscuit requisitions differs from region to region. Vancouver can process a cheque for AUD 8 cents while the equivalent in Australia is AUD 15 cents. Australia might save up to AUD $15 million by adopting Vancouver’s methods.


There is a lack of adequate management information to support activities and to facilitate meaningful comparisons between regional units.


Management information is inadequate: staff costs are not analysed for benchmarking across various offices; calculation of product profitability does not include processing costs; and there is no allocation of fees and interest income by product type.

Finally, summaries are meant to be just that: a tight condensation of the main point or points of an issue. Be ruthless in getting rid of perhaps interesting but non-essential pieces of additional information – but retain the specifics.

Tense, Pronouns and Infinitives

  • Rule: Don't split the infinitive
  • Rule: Consistency is king
  • Rule: Pronouns need a noun
  • Rule: Unintroduced acronyms are antisocial

"To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before…" Perhaps one of the most recognised phrases in the English language, this bight of the Star Trek prime directive is also a prime example of atrocious English! This is a classic example of the split infinitive (not to mention the redundant preposition at the end of the sentence).

The directive should have read:

" Boldly To Go Where No Man Has Gone…" or less poetically, " To Go Boldly Where No Man Has Gone…"

Perhaps, it would be best as:

"Go boldly, where none have gone.."

The infinitive is the basic form of verb invariably commencing with "to". It generally has no subject, and should not be split according to luminaries on the subject. The reason is more stylistic than grammatic. The problem with split infinitives is more obvious when a few words are inserted between the "to" and it's verb:

"The Roboteller machines are expected to really try hard to accurately and silently recognise the customer's identity."

Can be improved by:

"The Roboteller machines are expected to try really hard to recognise the customer's identity accurately and silently."

There are two common ways to fix avoid the split infinitive. Both are presented in the rewrite above. The first is to simply move the offending adverb after the verb, although sometimes this leads to a stilted speech pattern. The second is to move the adverb(s) to the end of the sentence as above.

Pronouns are words like he, she, it, etc that substitute for a noun like Jim, Phred or bank branch. The noun to which a pronoun relates is established by the context in which the pronoun is placed. Consequently, if too many pronouns are used together it becomes very difficult to determine for which noun an individual pronoun substitutes. As a general rule the target noun should immediately precede it's related pronoun and be refreshed at least every two pronouns.

Similarly, and acronym (abbreviation substituting for a noun or phrase) should be preceded immediately the first time it is used by the originating word or phrase. For example:

"The National Australia Bank (NAB) is a large and wonderful establishment. The NAB has an effective and happy audit team."

A completely unrelated matter (but grouped here for convenience) is that of consistency in the use of plurals and tense. It should be apparent to all authors, that the use of the singular in a sentence should be reflected continuously throughout the rest of the sentence. It may be less obvious that the same rule applies to verb tense.

If we express a verb in one tense, such as the present continuous as in "I am having a good day", the balance of the argument should normally be presented in the same tense. This is not a strict rule, because there will be situations in which a finding will relate a historic situation in the lead sentence, while the discussion relates an assessment that is in the present tense.

It is reasonable to say that within a sentence changes in tense will generally create confusion, unless separated by a conjunction. For example:

"In Antarctic Division wire transfer requests were accepted via e-mail and customer signatures were not obtained at all times."


"In Antarctic Division wire transfer requests were accepted via e-mail and customer signatures are not obtained at all times."

But the following would be ok because the first part states a continuous state, while the latter part describes an historic observation relating to the first situation.:

"In Antarctic Division wire transfer requests are accepted via e-mail and customer signatures were not obtained at all times."

Agreement of subject and verb: A singular subject demands a singular verb; a plural one demands a plural verb. Many such problems are caused by long sentences overloaded with adjectives and subordinate clauses where the subject is separated from its verbs. This is another reason for keeping sentences short.

Sometimes the rule is not immediately obvious, such as in the case of "None": "none were" should be "none was" (none=not one or no one)

Example None of us is perfect.

Confusing Words

These words are often confused

  • Affect (to impact upon, to assume) / effect (to bring about a change in)
  • Object (the purpose)/ objective (the point of an exercise - usually military)
  • Idol (a religious artefact, or object of worship) / Idyll (an imaginary ideal, or pastoral setting) / Idle (lazy, not in motion)
  • Whom (the objective form of the relative pronoun) / who (the subjective form of the relative pronoun)

A note about affect & effect

A frequent source of error is confusion in the use of the similar-sounding words affect, affected, effect and effected and continual and continuous.

A cause for confusion is that affect is always a verb while effect can be either a noun or a verb. Both continual and continuous are adjectives.

Affect is a verb in the sense of being to influence. Effect as a verb means to bring about; as a noun it is equivalent to the word result.

The following represent correct usage.


  • Errors in computing affected the accuracy of the result.
  • The effect of errors in computing was to produce an inaccurate result.
  • Smoking cigarettes may affect your lungs.
  • Giving up smoking had no effect on her general health.
  • I didn’t finish the report because of continual telephone interruptions.
  • Lights are left on in traffic tunnels to provide continuous illumination.

A note about "due to"

"Due to" is often used in the sense of through, because of or owing to. Mostly those alternatives are to be preferred. But it is correct to use due to in the sense of being attributable to.

Example The plane crash was due to bad visibility.

Don’t rely on your computer’s spellchecker for advice on grammar or correct spelling. Some systems are misleading. For example, you may be advised to change personal to personnel (or the other way round).

A note about who & whom

"Captain Kirk is the man whom the federation pays to fly the Enterprise." (Whom is the object of pays - the pronoun effected by the action of payment)


"Captain Kirk is the man who we think flies the Enterprise." (Who is the subject of flies, not the object of think).


Punctuation matters.

  • "What is this thing called love?" (As in: Let me count the ways...)
  • "What! Is this thing called love?" (As in: Let me out of here...)
  • "What is this thing called, love?" (As in: OMG! You are not comming near me with that!)


Used when essential for clarity or to indicate a small interruption in continuity of thought. Short sentence construction reduces the need for commas.


Using a semicolon indicates a pause greater than a comma but less than a colon or full stop. Often a semicolon helps to alert the reader to an alternative or compensating thought.

Example: The risk of lost muffins was high; however, quick action averted this crisis.

Semicolons should be used at the end of each line in a series of bullet points as an alternative to commas. (see later).


The following actions are planned to clear the biscuits:

  • Engage two temporary staff for six months;
  • Schedule extra training for these and permanent staff;
  • Upgrade software in the Biscuit Dispensing Machine;
  • Simplify the standard form used for requisitioning for biscuits from the kitchen from ten pages to five; and
  • Remove the requirement for VP Supply, VP HR, and CEO counter signing of all biscuit requisitions.


The colon is used to introduce a quotation, summary, conclusion or list of bullet points (as in the example above); or to introduce a list within a sentence.

Example: The report contains the following sections: employment, training, promotion, legal compliance, relations with other departments.

Full stop

(Period in U.S. usage)

As well as indicating the end of a sentence, full stops are used in some abbreviations. It has become common for periods to be ommitted from word abreviations. We counsel against such a style because: with the plethora of acronyms and technical jargon in today's language signalling that a word is an abreviation of a possible familiar word, with the use of the period; rather than a technical term unknown to the reader, adds to clarity.

Where a bulleted list includes points that have more than one sentence, it is preferable to separate the points with full stops, not semi-colons as set out in the previous example.


The following actions are planned to clear the biscuits:

  • Engage two temporary staff for six months. Qualifications include large appetities and general slothfullness. It is estimated that salaries will be approximately $13,000 per month each plus biscuits.
  • Schedule extra training for these and permanent staff. It is anticipated the training officer will need to allocate three hours weekly to the task.
  • Upgrade software . . . (etc)

Note that where a full stop is used in a dot-point list, no conjunction is used to join the last to items.

Regardless of which dot point separater is chosen, it MUST be used consistently throughout the list and ideally the document.


General usage previously demanded that a hyphen be used if a prefix or suffix had the same letter as the word to which it was attached. So cooperate and coordinate generally were spelt co-operate and co-ordinate; hyphens in these instances are unnecessary. While reinforce and react are other examples where hyphens are not needed, sometimes a hyphen provides a warning that a word should not be read as a single syllable (e.g. re-use). Words formed by using the prefix non- should nearly always be hyphenated (e.g. non-compliant, non-aligned) as with some words prefixed by pre- (e.g. pre-existing).


Used to indicate possession or the omission of letters in a contraction.


  • Bill’s car was taken to the wreckers.
  • Bill hasn’t had time to replace his car yet.

There is often confusion about its and it’s. The simple test is whether the construction of a sentence means it is (or it has etc). If so, it’s is a contraction and needs an apostrophe; if not, its is a pronoun and needs no apostrophe. (Warning: Don’t get fooled by some computer spellchecking systems which get this wrong.)

A rough rule of thumb: if we are using "it" in the possessive sense (as in "its red tyre"), leave out the "'".


  • It’s been a long time between drinks.
  • The engine was tuned but its vibration wasn’t greatly reduced.


This is the term to indicate words have been omitted from a quotation and is represented by three full stops separated by spaces.


Now is the time . . . to come to the aid of the party.

Quote marks

These should not be used for emphasis. Use bold type or italic instead. Use quotation marks only when you are quoting or, after very long consideration of alternatives, when you are using a word or phrase you consider less than ideal for the situation.