How to proofread: advice from a looser

This post has moved to

Top 10: 7. and 6. Write like you talk–only better

I love the conversational style of bloggers. But many could improve their writing dramatically if they’d think more about what they’re saying and the best way to say it before they hit the keyboard. After they’ve written, they should shorten, fix and improve.

To you bloggers, I stress the only better part of my advice.

The companion post Write Like You Talk–easier, faster, friendlier was intended more for the corporate, healthcare and academic people I’ve written for.

Their writing would become so much more engaging if they’d learn some lessons from the social media chatter. They’d also find it much faster and easier.

I’m so enthusiastic about this approach that I’m expanding it into a book that will be published in 2010. Much of the content has been drafted in many places on this blog, so explore more posts if you don’t want to wait.

Finally, happy solstice and first day of winter.

Top 10 posts for 2009: balance grammar rules and writing flow

Now that I’ve been blogging for a year, it’s time to figure out what attracts readers and to share some of the posts you might have missed.

I’ve analysed my stats and come up with my top-ten posts, which I’ll feature throughout the holiday season. No rest for the wicked blogger, but at least an easier pace.

I’m leading off the series with the 10th most viewed, Too many grammar rules dam the writing flow, about the need to balance rules that support clear writing with the natural flow of conversation.

Written in July, this was one of my first posts to attract significant page views outside my personal sphere. What’s more, I actually received comments from people I did not know, a major milestone.

Mind your Ps and Qs, not your P’s and Q’s

This post has been updated and moved to

Don’t play god with capital letters

The single largest ongoing debate I’ve had with clients over the years revolves around when they should capitalize words. My two big pieces of advice:
1. Capitalize sparingly, as it’s more difficult to read and can appear intimidating. Worse, it can lead down a slippery slope.
2. Be consistent. Pick a style guide and use it all the time.

Capitalize sparingly
In Canada, most writers and editors use the Canadian Press Stylebook, which keep capitals to a minimum, even in titles and headlines. Some other guides use caps in the main words of headlines. Take your pick.

I prefer to reserve capital letters for the first letter in a sentence and proper names. Zealous capitalization can imply a God-like status, or should I say god-like.

What irks me most is the Slippery Slope of Capitalization, irony intended. This happens when people, often executives, try to bestow significance on their ideas by capitalizing them.

If their ideas become a project worthy of a proper name, that’s okay. But if they keep writing about Business Transformation, Structural Reinvention, Systems Synergy and Product Innovation, their caps become less meaningful. Even worse, they don’t help regular people understand what the heck they’re talking about. In fact, they can scare them.

If they want to inject gravitas, a better approach would be to clearly explain what they mean and how it benefits the reader. Important though these concepts may be to leaders, capitalizing is a lazy and ineffective way of helping their audience appreciate what they mean, let alone its significance.

Capitalize consistently
Another ongoing debate is the need to capitalize job titles and departments, treating them like proper names.

Although I prefer lower case, I’m fine with people who insist on the capitalization, as long as they’re consistent and drop the capital when they’re using plurals, as in “Director, IT” but “The directors attended the meeting.”

I know I’m not the only one dealing with the issue of when to capitalize. Recently it came up on a discussion on my IABC Linkedin group about my posts on the biggest grammar mistakes to avoid.

Because of strong personal preference and varying standards, the debate is bound to continue. But I know my tired eyes would like more people to use capitals sparingly and consistently.

The war on bad grammar: the next big targets

This post has been updated and moved to

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?