Many readers of my FedSmith article, “Stuck on a Grammatical Question? Try These Tips,” took me up on my offer to contact me with their nagging grammar and style questions. I’ve paraphrased some of the best questions below, along with my answers.
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!
Note: You can abbreviate several of the months: Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov. and Dec. Spell out the rest.
Debra wants to know which version is correct: “lets” or “let’s.”
My answer is that 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) There are times when the sex of the generic person you’re writing about is simply not important or relevant. In those cases, using “they” makes perfect sense.