Too many grammar rules dam the writing flow

Pretty much every week I am riveted by a great blog debate about the fine points of grammar. Last week, it was Don Ranly on Ragan Daily Headlines going on about pronouns.

Good points, Don and the many people who commented. You’re right: Observance of grammar rules has plummeted, especially since teachers began ignoring them in favor of creative flow.

Unfortunately, there’s a generation of people who missed out on the protocols that help us understand each other. On top of that, many people seemed to have forgotten what they were taught, just like I no have clue about basic calculus or the periodic table of elements.

We tend to remember what’s easy for us and relevant to our lives. If I tried to remember everything I’d been taught, my brain would explode.

But when the pendulum swings back to grammatical purity and people insist on a return to the rules-for-the-sake-of-rules school of grammar, I am left shaking my head.

Having edited business people for many years, let me tell you that misused pronouns are the least of our worries. In most cases, the misuse is so commonly accepted that it does not interfere with understanding. Whether you read “it’s him” or “it’s he” makes little difference, though the “he” example may sound a little pretentious.

I would prefer to focus on the rules, such as the difference between “it’s” and “its”, that make a difference to our understanding and let go of the ones that just aren’t worth debating.

Another example of rules that I often ignore is subject-predicate agreement when the subject is singular but people think of it as plural. Take the example of “The team celebrated its project completion” versus “The team celebrated their project completion.”

Most people would say the second example sounds right. Plus “its” turns people into objects, making the writing less human. Taking liberties with subject-predicate agreement also lets writers and editors side step awkward “he or she” constructions.

When most people are uncertain about how to write something, they go back to what sounds right in speech, not what their teacher said. We learn our first language orally, long before we can print, let alone understand the rules. If our parents speak well, we do too.

When I first learned French in school, it was all about memorization and learning the rules and the long lists of exceptions. But my French became so much better once I was able to converse, even badly, watch television or listen to client conversations, which many of us have opportunity to do in officially bilingual Canada.

With German, which I studied for five years, there was little opportunity for this kind of immersion. I am in awe when I hear German people speak, because I don’t know how they can so quickly process all the language’s complicated rules. But of course they don’t think of the rules. They just talk, as they have since they learned how to speak.

People do need to follow many of the grammar rules so they won’t look stupid, as Seth Godin reminded us in a recent post. But there’s a a more vital imperative for the rules that help us understand each other.

So let’s not get rid of all the rules. But let’s focus on the ones that help us communicate. And let’s remember that most people consider what sounds right, not the rules, when they are making writing decisions.

Besides, as bloggers and other social media people know, writing that is conversational is far friendlier than stilted, grammatically correct sentences.

Language evolves. As a community, we need to provide direction on which rules to strengthen and which ones to allow to die quietly. What do you think?

Rescue me from cell hell

All I want is a new cell phone. Everyone wants to sell me one, so why is Bell Mobility making it so difficult?


Being without a phone is a growing problem because I can’t find the charger for my old one. A new one costs almost as much as a new phone.


Fortunately, I have a home office and a quiet life so I figured I could  manage for a little while with only the landline and the internet. Though I would have felt safer driving through last Saturday’s blizzard if I had had a cell phone to call 9-1-1 or impart my dying wishes.


I first tried to buy a new phone a few weeks ago in a Bell Mobility store. I shopped in a store instead of online so I could have a better look and feel. Love at first sight with the Purple LG Reveal.


Unfortunately, the store people would not let me buy the phone because I had not yet paid my bill.  I offered to pay, but they accept only cheques and money orders, which I didn’t have. Silly me.


So I went home, paid the bill online and decided I would order the phone that way, as I had the last time. Delivery in three to five business days, they promised. Billed to my account. Brilliant.


Seven business days later and still no phone. I went the web site and click ‘track your order’ and it sent me to Canada Post, which required an order number. The trouble is I had never received one.


So I emailed Bell. Days later I received an email that told me I had emailed them twice (shame on me) and reminded me about all their great online features. Only it did not answer my question: where is my phone?


So I called the number listed on the web site. After many minutes listening to canned music and being transferred, a nice young man told me  he could not track my order because it had been done on the internet. He was sending the online folks a note and they should get back to me. I thanked him for not helping me.


When I have technology problems, I often blame myself. Queasy pit of the stomach feeling. A sprinkling of sweat. Temple tom tom. Gender, age and self-esteem issues no doubt. So I figured I had made a mistaken in ordering and would simply have to order again.



But the next day, I got an email, saying the phone was out of stock, on back order. Why had they not told me before? Maybe a phonebot tried my dead cell phone, but not the landline or email address I had so obediently entered into my account profile.


My spirits lifted that evening when I spied the coveted phone at a Bell kiosk at my local shopping centre. The trouble was, they couldn’t sell it to me on my existing plan. Try a corporate store, kiosk guy suggested.


So I did, the next day. Although the store had plenty of the phones, they couldn’t sell one to me until I cancelled my order, which they couldn’t do. The yawning sales person suggested I do that by telephone, but she did not know the number and did not offer to help.


Back at the office, I called the main number on the site for Bell Mobility. The pleasant agent said she could not help me without the order number. I again sifted through my email, even the deletes. Not there. She confided that she had spoken with many other people who had the same problem. Perhaps the order number email had gone astray. Only she couldn’t blame my internet service provider, because it’s Bell.


So I sent an email with the information the pleasant agent suggested to the address she suggested. This morning I received a reply, saying it was the wrong address, but they would forward it to the right one and get back to me in 72 hours. Sigh.


Some of you are probably asking why I don’t just switch to Rogers, Bell’s main competitor here in Canada. Even after this hassle, the fact is I hate Rogers more.


Several years ago, I used Rogers for internet services and it kept going down, for days at a time, which is a real problem if that’s how you conduct much of your business. Sometimes they’d make me drive my modem up to some obscure suburban location, so they could check it and tell me there was nothing wrong.


Other times they would tell me to call the TV cable department and lie, pretend my cable wasn’t working. A few days later, usually after the eight-hour service window I’d been assigned, a cable guy would come out and jiggle something and it would work again.


I still hold a grudge. And now I also despise those Rogers telemarketers who seem to call me several times a day. I’m convinced that switching would only encourage them.


I could try other competitors, but I have this great long-distance plan, vital to my business, that I would lose if I change anything in my service bundle, or so I was told by my last account rep. Besides, I like these reps, who call every now and then and make practical suggestions without any sales pressure. If I knew who my rep is now– they keep changing—I would call and he or she would be there for me.


If upgrading my phone is this difficult, I’m filled with terror about trying to cancel my contracts and account. What’s more, my heart is heavy. Bell is like a long-time boyfriend. I’ve had a few flings with other guys, but had worse experiences and ultimately returned. But finally, divorce is starting to look good.


This reminds me of the old days, when Bell was in the phone business only, when I had to go to the Bell store, not over the telephone, to change my service when I moved.


It also reminds me of Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine the phone operator on Laugh In. Today that character would be combine Ernestine’s officious nature with the hollow cheer of a robot and a polite yet unhelpful Indian call centre rep, who cannot communicate with the other Bell mutants.


Then there’s Stephen Leacock story about the frustration of trying to open a bank account. This must be some universal experience lesson that I should learn. Enlightenment, maybe later. For now, I’m just pissed.


I know that big companies like Bell trawl the blogosphere. Bell, if your bots find me, please tell my account rep to get in touch and solve my problem, including canceling my charges for the time I have been without a cell phone. A few perks for all this hassle would also be appreciated.


You can even write an apology feedback. Of course all those other people who feel like me about Bell can write too.