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?

How to explain almost anything to almost anyone

Practical writing is often intended to provide information, instructions or advice. Whether you’re writing a report on your department’s sales, an instruction manual or a post on search engine optimization, you need to decide on the best framework before you begin.

This framework, which you’ll probably outline in the first paragraph, will kick start your writing. It will also make it easier for your readers or audience to understand and remember.

Although there is an infinite number of possible structures, here are some of the main ones to consider. The point is to have a framework.

Provide information
*by region
*by product or service
*from top to bottom or bottom to top
*under a memorable acronym, e.g. a CRAP month for sales (Cautious and Reactionary, Abysmal but Promising)

You can help your readers scan through your document, with subheads, bullet points and numbered points that reflect your framework.

You can reinforce these points visually through charts, graphics or photos.

You can provide context by
*comparing the new to the known
*explaining how the pieces fit into the puzzle
*emphasizing what the information means to or how it benefits your readers or audience

If your objective is to explain how to do something, as in manuals, recipes or processes
*Start with anything the reader needs to do in advance. For example, recipes list the ingredients and the oven preheat temperature first.
*Use numbered steps dished out in chronological order.
*Explain each step separately, clearly explaining and deleting any unnecessary or unhelpful wording, but repeating any vital points as needed.
*Add simple illustrations to help readers identify parts or check that they are correctly following your instructions.
*Remember that your readers will likely refer back to the instructions. So make them easy to review, with subheads, diagrams, indexes or helpful reminders.

For tips on how to succeed at almost anything, where priorities are more important than steps in a process
*Use numbered points, but limits them to no more than five points; three are even easier to understand and remember.
*Lead with your most important point and conclude with the second most important point.

Although a popular blogging technique, this approach has been around for a long time. Who hasn’t been intrigued by those covers of Cosmopolitan magazine promising 5 Ways to Tell if Your Man is Cheating?

Long numbered lists work for instructions because readers continue to refer back to them as they assemble their furniture or set up their computer. With advice, they think about what they remember, not the whole list, so keep your advice short and focused. If you have lots of points to cover, consider breaking them into separate posts.

People reading yet another post called 10 Tips for Blogging Success will likely recall only the one or two tips most relevant to them. The same goes for the people who read your emails, reports and proposals. So make it easy for them to understand and remember.

Bloggers and a kid who annoyed me



I see it all over lately, as in Monetize your Blog. But for the sake of clear communication, why not simply say make money? Monetize means to establish as legal tender. I don’t mind stretching a traditional definition if we need to describe something new. But making money? That’s been around since cave people  monetized whatever they were trading.




Unnecessary quotation marks

Check out this web site,  Lots of funny examples. I plan to contribute.

It’s versus its

I may well start a similar blog to embarrass people who confuse it’s, the contraction of it is, with its, the possessive of it. It’s the most common mistakes I see, even with normally articulate writers. Bloggers are the biggest offenders, I think.

It’s understandable. We normally use apostrophes with possessives, but this is one of the many exceptions that makes English so challenging. There’s no excuse if English is your first language, especially if you want to look professional. The rule provides an important distinction that help us communicate clearly.

So if you want to be understood and look  good, never use an apostrophe with it, unless you mean it is. Got it?

The kid

Last night my 13-year-old son pried off the keys on my keyboard and rearranged them to spell April Fool. This morning, I was very annoyed, as I delayed the start of my work day to rearrange them. Then I laughed.

Feed blogs, newsletters fresh content

To keep up with the need to regular update their blogs and newsletters, many writers opt for canned content. But this make your content look like a can of generic vegetable soup instead of a melange of garden-fresh ingredients.

Most businesses insist their brand is unique. Yet, they go with generic content.  Worse still, some want to can a year’s supply.

But if you’re telling the world what’s special about you, generic content makes no sense. Neither does too much canning.

Your brand is all about you and the people who are important to you. It talks about your area of expertise and your perspective.

Your brand breathes. It responds to external issues as they arise and converses about bright ideas that have popped into your mind.

Can you imagine if you’d automatically sent out material you’d written before the economy tanked?

Can you imagine missing that opportunity to share your latest epiphany? Or failing to answer the same questions that have recently kept you tied to the phone and email?

Sure, I understand why people want to prepare in advance. I even advise people to can a few newsletters, blogs or other articles for when they are too busy.

But lose the spontaneity that enables you to reflect your world and respond to your people? No way.

Besides, there’s little point in generic content when almost anyone can google on any topic. People will read your content for your individual expertise and opinion.

Although many experts understand the importance of staying in touch, some simply don’t have the time or comfort level to write. But canned content isn’t the solution to their dilemma. Professional support  is.

Few of the people I’ve talked to who want to use canned content are lacking in expertise and opinion. They just need someone to pull it out of their brain and package it. That starts with a telephone conversation with a writer.

What could be simpler — and more delicious?

Recession: gloom or boom for knowledge workers?

I have to confess I’ve been a little smug when reading about the thousands of auto workers laid off recently. Their union leaders’ insistence on top dollar for relatively low-skilled work made it inevitable that the struggling multinationals would move to lower-cost countries.


Of course, I feel compassion for anyone who has lost a job. But I figured I was safe because I’m an independent corporate writer who bought into the long-standing advice of educators and business gurus: that the information economy values knowledge workers who spend years at university, then continue to learn on and off the job.


Right? Maybe not.


Thanks to the auction psychology spawned by the Internet, we North American communication professionals are facing competition from sites that auction off writing and other services to the lowest bidder, often from India. I am starting to feel like an auto worker.


Trying to stay smug, or at least calm, I pondered the unique qualities that I, and most experienced corporate communicators, bring to the table.


  • We are well-versed in the rules that help people understand what they’re reading, such as the difference between it’s (contraction for it is) and its (possessive).
  • We know when and how to break the rules to make our writing more compelling and easier to understand.
  • We have a firm grasp of North American idiom.
  • We understand how to use communication to serve clients’ strategic objectives and produce results.
  • We are masters at saying much in few words, increasing in value with Google ADWORDS, Twitter and other mini, text-based communication.


However, I know that if I don’t deliver on these promises, I could perish in the Internet auction pit.


Knowledge workers in different professions I’ve spoken to report that work continues to flow. But many are looking behind them to see what could be sneaking up.


Smart clients know they get what they pay for. Cheapest is rarely best. But if you’re a Macy’s or a Bay, more Walmarts are always a worry.


So I’m looking on the bright side. During a recession, the reasonable rates of independents often win business over the higher-priced agencies.


And maybe Lou Dobbs will champion our cause. Or we can ask the government for a bail-out package. How many billion?


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