Business Writing Tip #130—Determiners

the pile of books on my desk

the pile of books on my desk

In my last post I talked about noun phrases. This post is about determiners—the words that come at the beginning of a noun phrase. Determiners indicate whether the noun phrase is general or specific. When the determiner is specific it indicates exactly which particular noun we are talking about.

Determiners are always used in front of a noun.

Common Determiners

Perhaps the English language’s most common determiners are the definite and indefinite articles. These are:

Definite article = the

Indefinite article = a/an

Articles are easy for native English speakers. We just know which ones to use. For non-native speakers, particularly those whose own language doesn’t use articles, life is a little more difficult. The good thing is that in most cases people will still understand you if you get them wrong.

When we aren’t referring to a specific person or thing, we use the indefinite article. When we are referring to a specific item, one that we know about, then it’s the definite article.

  • I’ve got a car. (There are many cars and I have one.)
  • I’m taking the car for a drive tomorrow. (This time I’m talking about my car.)
  • Can I ask a question? (There are many different questions to choose from and you want to ask one.)
  • Could you repeat the question please? (This time it’s the question that you asked. You know which question you want the person to repeat.)
  • A car drove by. (It doesn’t matter which car; it was just some random car.)
  • The car drove by. (This sentence is about a car we know about; a specific car.)

Some other common determiners include words that we call possessives, demonstratives and quantifiers.

Possessive determiners include my, your, his, her, its, our, their, whose. These modify the noun that follows to show possession or ownership: my book, his cat, whose car?

Demonstrative determiners include this, that, these, those (there are a couple more which we rarely use—yon and yonder). They demonstrate which one you are talking about.

  • This book is really great. (The book that is right here.)
  • That book is really great. (The one over there, or the one we are talking about which isn’t physically here.)
  • These books belong to the school. (These books are here.)
  • Those books belong to the school. (This is referring to the books that are over there, or that we are talking about which aren’t physically here.)

Quantitative determiners include all, many, both, either, every, much, more, most, little, less, least, few, fewer, fewest, three, four etc. They say how many of something you are talking about.

Pages have been written on determiners. Pages have been written about when we use different ones. Pages have been written about when we should and shouldn’t use one or the other. For such tiny words they are ridiculously complex and regularly cause confusion, especially with non-native speakers. I suggest that you don’t get too hung up about them unless you’re writing an important document (for example, letter to customer, annual report, etc.). If you are writing an important or formal document, ask someone to read through it before you submit it. If you’re writing an email to your best mate, they’ll most probably understand what you mean even if you use the wrong word. If not, they’ll usually check.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #129—Noun Phrases

You probably know that nouns are words that name things. Noun phrases are groups of words that have a noun as the main word (called the head word), and which function in the same way as a noun.

Noun phrases can be short (the text) or long, and they can perform the same grammatical functions as nouns. That is, they can be the subject, or the object, the subject complement, object complement or appositive. Sorry about all the jargon.

(In case you’re wondering why I’m explaining noun phrases, I’m going to use the term in the next post which is about determiners.)

One way to think of noun phrases is to consider them as elongated nouns. It’s probably easiest if I illustrate this with some examples (I’ve underlined the noun phrases in the following sentences).

The cat sat on the beautiful silk Persian rug.

Almost every sentence contains at least one noun phrase.

The existing and future need of the citizens of Prague to be protected from floods is being debated at the council meeting.Prague floods 2013 (640x480)

Identifying Noun Phrases

The easiest way to identify a noun phrase is to see if you can use a pronoun instead of the noun. (The following examples are from Wikipedia.)

Example One:

a. This sentence contains two noun phrases.

b. It contains them.

Example Two:

a. The subject noun phrase that is present in this sentence is long.

b. It is long.

Today’s Photo: The flooded Vltava River in Prague in June 2013.


Business Writing Tip #128—“But it’s how I speak …”

I was thinking today about the differences between writing and speaking. In emails we often write informally, as though we are speaking to the person. Emails are seen as an informal communication method in most instances, and writing as we speak is usually okay—although if you’re writing to a boss or a client, you may want to be more formal in your writing. But it's how I speak ...

Now, I’m not talking about lots of long words and complicated sentences. I’m talking about being aware of the differences between written English and spoken English, and make choices when you are writing, rather than just ‘writing as you speak’.

Here are a few of the differences.

Spoken languageWritten language
It is mostly spontaneous and contains redundancies (that is, we say the same thing a couple of times in different ways).It is mostly planned and contains very few extraneous words.
The discourse is often ‘untidy’.The discourse if often very organised and observes formal boundaries such as paragraphs and chapters.
A higher likelihood of an informal style or register.It is usually neutral or formal in terms of style and register.
The speaker is usually able to get instant feedback on their message.Feedback is usually either absent or delayed.
Often made up of a series of utterances that are not complete sentences.There is a higher incidence of both simple and complex complete sentences.
Conveys meaning through stress, intonation and pauses.Uses punctuation to help make meaning clearer, and vocabulary choices tend to be more precise.
The speaker can support their message using gesture and facial expression.Writers use layout, headings and different typefaces to support their message.

Business Writing Tip #127—Avoid Expletives

expletiveWhen you look up ‘expletive’ in a dictionary you will find at least two definitions. In this post I’m not talking about the definition that includes swearing and profanity. Of course swearing and profanity don’t belong in business writing so it would serve you well, and may possibly save your career, to avoid using them.

Here we will consider the grammatical term ‘expletive’ and why it’s good to avoid these expletives too.

Expletives are empty words or phrases—they don’t add meaning to your sentence. Empty words make your text wordy. If you’ve been following my writing tips series, you’ll know how I feel about wordiness in business writing.

The great thing about these expletives is that you can cut them out without changing your overall meaning.

Here, There, It Plus “to Be”

One common form of expletive that warrants dismissal from your writing (and not just from business writing) is the structure formed by the words here, there or it followed by some form of the verb to be when to be is used as the main verb of the sentence.

The Postponed Subject

These expletives are sometimes referred to as the null, dummy, or existential subject, because they don’t add anything, rather they take the part of a subject which occurs later in the sentence.

Here’s an example with a postponed subject:

  • It is having the right team that is important. (Having the right team is the postponed subject.)
  • Having the right team is important.

Making Your Sentence More Specific

Starting your sentences with these structures can often make them less specific.

  • There are many things for us to discuss at the meeting.

Revision to make the sentence more specific:

  • Today we need to discuss staffing, the monthly sales figures and consider the proposal for our next marketing campaign.

More Ways to Remove Expletives

  • There are hundreds of people coming to the conference.

Revision to eliminate empty words:

  • Hundreds of people are coming to the conference.


  • It is important to consider all the options before we make our decision.

Revision to eliminate empty words:

  • We must consider all the options before we make our decision.

Happy writing.