Going Toward, Looking Backward
We'll start with a couple of relatively simple ones. People often ask me whether they should say, "He walked toward the house," or "He walked towards the house." In this case, either one is correct. In the U.K. and Canada, more people say towards; in the U.S., toward. But there are also regional differences, so there is plenty of leeway. One strategy for choosing is to ask which sounds better to you.
Some people also wonder whether backward or backwards is better. When used as an adverb, either one is correct. You can say either "She looked backward" or "She looked backwards." Once again, Americans tend to drop the final "s." When used as an adjective, however, as in, "They were a backward people," only backward is correct.
Take It with You and Rest Assured
Another confusing pair is bring and take. Each word implies motion. If the motion is away from your present location, use take, as in "take this home with you" or "take me out to the ballpark." If the motion is toward your present location, use bring, as in "Please bring me the report."
Some people are also uncertain about the difference between assure, ensure and insure. We use assure when we want to make someone confident - "I can assure you that he'll do the deal." We use ensure when we want to guarantee that something will happen - "My job is to ensure that everyone gets on the bus." Insure means to buy or sell insurance. Here again, however, there are national differences. Every day for several years I walked past the Scottish Widows Life Assurance Society.
Singular and/or Simplistic
Many people these days use the word singular when they mean single. Someone asked me recently if I could give them a singular rule that would cover all the cases we had discussed. Singular in fact means peculiar or remarkable and is not the right word in this instance. It is also, of course, the opposite of plural.
Similarly, many people say simplistic when they mean simple. Something that is simple-minded or has been oversimplified is simplistic. Something that is straightforward and easy to understand is simple. Someone once told me that they liked my writing because I explained everything so simplistically. I smiled and thanked them.
A final usage that business writers should avoid is the expression "and/or." Unless you are writing a legal document, where every possibility must be stated in such detail that no one can possibly misunderstand it, "and/or" is just clumsy, and in virtually every case, can be replaced by either "and" or "or." "Hannah and/or Dave can supervise the trainees" can, for example, be replaced by "Hannah or Dave can supervise the trainees" without any confusion or loss of meaning.