More grammar “rules” that were meant to be broken

(I seem to be very rules-adverse lately. Check out my previous post, Breaking grammatical rules–why not?)

Both my husbanddog with sign and my students have had occasion to think about grammatical rules lately. My students are revising projects to hand in for a grade; my husband is completing a dissertation. Both types of writing place value on correct grammar, but there are some things you just don’t need to stress over.

For years, I was under the impression that there was a rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. I’ve since learned that it is more a matter of style, going back to an attempt to Latin-ize everything back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In fact, according to Oxford Dictionaries, there are times that an ending preposition is completely appropriate:

  • passive structures (she enjoys being fussed over)
  • relative clauses (they must be convinced of the commitment that they are taking on)
  • infinitive structures (Tom had no one to play with)
  • questions beginning with who, where, what, etc. (what music are you interested in?)


Another “rule” concerns the split infinitive. The famous Star Trek example (“To boldly go where no man has gone before”) is arguably weakened when the adverb gets moved (“To go boldly where no man has gone before”). Once again, the attempt to turn English into Latin is at the heart of this rule.

There are times when a split infinitive avoids ambiguity. In the sentence. As Oxford Dictionaries points out:

The sentence 
You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]
doesn’t have quite the same meaning as:
You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’].


Because split infinitives tend to tick people off, experts recommend avoiding the split infinitive in professional writing, including job application letters.

But don’t let anyone tell you that there is a “rule” against split infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition. Rules like that are meant to thoroughly be broken…er, you know what I am getting at.

Another entertaining read about grammar “rules” is available at


Breaking grammatical rules – why not?

WallofTextAfter a long hiatus, I’ve decided to bring my site back to life by sharing a short article about breaking rules. How’s that for a comeback?

Just to be clear, these rules are sort of meant to be broken, at least when it comes to websites. For example, your teachers always told you to write in complete sentences, but on the web–where perhaps only 28% of the words are actually read–a sentence fragment or two might be both acceptable and appropriate.

Writing for the Nielsen Norman Group, Hoa Loranger explains why a one-sentence paragraph is OK and that it’s OK to break that old rule about writing out numerals less than 10. She suggests that to improve scannability and comprehension on the web, writers should adjust their writing to the situation:

The rules that you can violate depend on the context, the target audience, and the brand or tone of voice. For example, the tone applied to professional publications is usually more formal than the tone of blog posts from the same company. Formal tone usually requires adhering to traditional writing conventions more closely, whereas conversational tone allows for greater flexibility (“Break Grammar Rules on Websites for Clarity“).

In about ten days, I’ll be meeting a new group of writing students. Although we will be learning the rules and characteristics of formal writing, I hope that by the end of the class we can talk about when it’s appropriate to break the rules. I can’t wait!

10 great resources for infographics and visuals

Minard infographic 1869Don’t you love a good infographic? According to Wikipedia, infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present complex information quickly and clearly. My favorite part is in that last prepositional phrase: to present complex information quickly and clearly. Yeah!

Infographics aren’t new; they have been around at least since the days of lithography. The famous infographic at top left is Charles Minard’s 1869 chart showing the number of men in Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign army, their movements, as well as the temperature they encountered on the return path.

An infographic can be created in almost any software that offers good support for visuals: Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator, PowerPoint, even Word. Infographics can be poster-sized or notebook-sized. It’s all up to the designer.

Infographics sure are great. But here’s the rub. Not all of us are visual designers–I count myself among the aesthetically challenged.What to do?

Fortunately, there are some great resources for designing infographics and images. Best of all, you might discover that someone else has created the perfect infographic, and with proper attribution, you can borrow it for your own purposes.

In no particular order of favoritism, here are 10 of my go-to sites:

10. Cool Infographics: Randy Krum’s blog highlights some of the best examples of data visualizations and infographics found in magazines, newspapers and on the Internet. This site can inspire you to greater heights in your own visuals.

9. Daily Infographic: According to the founders, “We spend countless hours searching the web for the most interesting, stimulating, mind-blowing infographics. We then curate our findings and choose one infographic to publish every week-day.” It’s true! Much like Cool Infographics, you can gather inspiration or find the perfect infographic for your presentation. Bonus: subscribe to receive a daily infographic in your inbox or feed reader.

8. Not to be confused with Instagram, this site allows you to build infographics and charts from templates. Like most free sites, your options are pretty basic. If you upgrade to pro, you get a few extra perks. But for a quick infographic for school or a business presentation, this site will do the trick.

7. MorgueFile: When you need some free high-resolution stock photographs for your infographic, MorgueFile might be just the ticket. Don’t let the name scare you: in newspaper terminology, a morgue file is a place to keep post production materials for use of reference, an inactive job file. This is one morgue you’ll enjoy visiting!

6. IconsPedia: This site is great for when you need some stick figures, social media icons, or other themed icons for your infographic.

5. Piktochart: A drag-and-drop infographic editor, with several good-looking free templates. One caution: that nice functionality means that the site uses lots of Flash. The paid versions might be worth checking out if you plan to create infographics for your company or school on a regular basis.

4. Wylio: Wylio functions much like a Google image search (it’s not, but you can use your Google login to get up and running quickly). The free version of Wylio allows you to download 5 free images a month. Wylio is a “bootstrapping startup”, so you never know what you’ll find.

3. Mashable Infographics: Need to convince your company to launch a social media campaign? Mashable’s infographics cover every aspect of technology and social media. You’re sure to find something interesting here.

2. CompFight: CompFight searches Flickr Creative Commons images and produces some great hi-res images. You can filter by license, and best of all, they provide the HTML that will allow you to credit your source.

1. Lots of cool infographics to pin, embed, or favorite. also bills itself as the marketplace for infographic designers and customers; you can find each other here.

Bonus:, another do-it-yourself infographic builder, is one I just discovered. It allows you to apply a theme (timeline, maps, etc.) and add objects. Seems like a really user-friendly site!

There you go! Get working on your awesome infographic. And add your favorites in the comments!



Proofreading on a budget

PubicSchoolsI like to think I’m a pretty good proofreader. Assuming I can clearly see the screen or printout–which is more of a challenge as I’ve gotten older–I often find the mistakes that others gloss over. (See the billboard at left; I think I would have caught that one.)

But even with perfect vision, most of us can’t proof our own writing very well. It’s incredibly easy to overlook mistakes if you’re “too close” to the writing. And if you are a good writer, you should get close to your writing!

(Case in point: according to the company responsible for the billboard, the sign passed muster with no less than four other readers. I guess they were having an off day.)

Assuming you have the time and resources to work with a proofreader, that’s your path to error-free writing. Professional proofreaders are worth their weight in gold.

But what’s a conscientious but cash-poor writer to do? Here are some tricks I’ve collected over the years. Some might work better for copy-editing than for proofreading, but hey, it’s all iterative when it comes to writing.

  • Turn on the hidden formatting characters of your word processor. These characters show things like paragraph breaks and spaces. You may find them annoying onscreen, but they won’t print on paper or PDF–try it and see. They are there only to help you find those extra spaces or mismatched font sizes.
  • Manually double-check the spelling of all proper nouns: people, places and things. Spell-Check tools can learn new words, but sometimes my writing contains words that aren’t in its dictionary yet.  If you’re writing something important, such as a job application letter, you’d better know how to spell the employer’s name. If your résumé boasts of your mad PowerPoint expertise, don’t spell it as power point.
  • Run readability tests to tone up your copy. I cringe at the idea of a standard algorithm that rewards word or syllable count–completely antithetical to concise business or technical communication. But if you are looking for some independent verification of the complexity of your writing–and you understand the limitations–a readability test can be useful. An interesting one is The Writer’s Diet. It tells you whether your writing is “flabby or fit” in relation to vocabulary, sentence structure, and more. If you’re interested in the old Flesch or Gunning Fog-type tests, try Joe’s Web Tools or Juicy Studio for starters.
  • Print your paper & read it one line at a time. Time-consuming? You bet. But sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Taking the time to carefully read your writing can help uncover typos and even problems with tone.
  • Read your paper aloud, one line at a time. Why this works I don’t know, but reading my writing aloud always brings problems to the surface.
  • Run your paper through an assistive technology product. This one may sound unusual, but don’t knock it until you try it. Assuming you don’t already use assistive technology, check out the built-in screen readers that exist in Word, Acrobat, Apple OS and other products. When my eyes (or brain) tire, I sometimes turn these on. The computerized voices don’t always give you an accurate pronunciation, but they can alert you to obvious errors by reading EXACTLY what is onscreen. In fact, any way to shake up the standard view of your screen can be useful. Browser extensions on Chrome & Firefox provide not only screen readers, but also the ability to switch to reverse type (black background and white text).
Notice that Spell-Check was not on my list. I’ve saved it for last.
  • Run Spell-Check any time you make changes (but understand & verify its suggestions). Technology is wonderful, but Spell-Check would not have flagged that billboard’s text as an error. All of the words are standard English. On the other hand, my WordPress spell checker doesn’t like résumé or assistive, which are both in a standard English dictionary as well. Use Spell-Check, but be cautious. Understand the reason it wants to change something, and decide whether or not you agree.

Any other ideas? Please add them in the Comments below.

Typography and Web 2.0

Google fonts

A weird thing happened in 2009 when IKEA decided to change from Futura to Verdana. People noticed! And they weren’t at all happy about it.

Even if doesn’t register in a concrete “Wow, look at that cool font” kind of way, the ethos of a font family is present in thousands of intrinsic little ways: the curve of a letter, the thickness of a line, the feeling that it invokes. College Humor took that idea to a new and silly level in its personified “Font” videos: check out Font Fight.

If you still think that a font is a font is a font, allow me to explain a little more about IKEA’s situation.

IKEA had a very good business reason to switch from Futura to Verdana: their website was already using it, and they wanted their print materials to match. Verdana is a fine font for the web: it’s available on almost any computer, and it looks clean and modern. It’s even a sans-serif font, just as Futura is. But the big difference was that Futura was not a web-friendly font (ironically, that isn’t the case now.)

So let’s take a look and see what the controversy was about. Below is an image of the two fonts, courtesy of Shocking differences, yes? 🙂

IKEA font

In a National Post excerpt of his book Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield explained more about the true source of the controversy:

Like the bookcase, Verdana was also in almost every home, and becoming something you barely noticed. But that, for dissenters, was the point: Verdana was everywhere, and now it was in one more place. It was becoming a non-font that we don’t even register [emphasis added]. Which is precisely why it was so effective, and exactly why it was chosen (Garfield, 2011).

Typography really does set a mood–it almost affects the way we speak the written words. Remember when LeBron James left Cleveland to seek his fame elsewhere? Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ majority owner, wrote a scathing open letter about James’ ‘shameful display of selfishness and betrayal’ (Gilbert, 2010). Very harsh words indeed.

The kicker? The letter was written in Comic Sans, one of the most reviled and ridiculed fonts on the planet.

It’s worth a short digression to read the letter in its original Comic Sans glory. Try reading it aloud without laughing. Was this font chosen in a show of disdain or in a tone-deaf move by an angry Clevelander? Or was Comic Sans one of five fonts that could be chosen in a basic web editor? You be the judge.

So this brings me to templates. Templates forsake individual control in favor of stability and consistency. As Kristin Arola explains in The Design of Web 2.0: the Rise of the Template, the Fall of Design, this separation of content and form means that the rhetorical choice behind a particular font, for example, is now taken away from us.  Much like the IKEA “fontroversy”, we are now presented with “non-fonts that we don’t even register”:

In the late 1990s, creating a web page through either hand coding or a WYSIWYG program necessarily included choices of how and if to incorporate graphics, colors, fonts, sounds, and hyperlinks. Today, our students still choose photographs, words, sounds, and hyperlinks (clearly all rhetorical choices), but they choose colors, fonts, and shapes less and less. Instead, the platform, or more specifically the design template, is chosen for them (Arola, p. 6).

Like most social media sites, my WordPress template works well for me because the creators took out some of the guesswork. There is no need for me to use HTML or CSS to structure the page; the template takes care of that for me. My site will look pretty much the same on Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. It’s a good thing, right? Maybe not.

Perhaps we all need to guard ourselves and our friends from the misuse of  Comic Sans (except on April Fools Day), but the very nature of Web 2.0 means that we must understand exactly what we lose: the ability to rhetorically create the space and ethos of a communication.

Come to think of it, that little bit of ethos might be worth fighting for.


Arola, Kristin L. (2010) The design of Web 2.0: the rise of the template, the fall of design. Computers and Composition 27 (2010) 4–14.

Garfield, Simpson (2011). IKEA’s epic Swedish fontroversy. National Post
Gilbert, Dan (2010). Open letter to fans from Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert | THE OFFICIAL SITE OF THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS.

LinkedIn: more than a job-hunter’s paradise

career books on shelf

When it comes to LinkedIn, most of us think of it as social media beacon for job-hunters. Indeed, an infographic published by Business Insider states that almost 90% of job seekers have a profile on a social media site (“Infographic”). If you are looking for a job, clean up your Facebook and Twitter profile, build up your LinkedIn profile, and seek out more connections.

Of course, recruiters sometimes look for profiles, even when you aren’t looking for a job. Not interested, guys! But here’s some food for thought:

“Many potential recruits also use LinkedIn as a research tool. For instance, suppose a person had two good job offers. Which organization will be a better match for them? What will their new boss or colleagues be like? What is the corporate culture like? LinkedIn can help them to find out ” (“Using LinkedIn”).

Even if you are not looking for a job, LinkedIn can be useful to polish your professional image. As Liz Ryan of Business Week put it, “It showcases not only your name, photo, and professional credentials but also your colleagues’ recommendations, your brilliant thinking, and your excellent roster of connections” (“Ten Ways”).

In my case, I’ve used LinkedIn Groups to learn more about topics like higher education, knowledge management, web accessibility, and social media. I’ve read articles by people I follow, networked with women who graduated from my old high school, and I’ve featured my presentations in a way that (I hope) establishes my professional brand.

If you are just starting out on LinkedIn, there are many resources for you. Not all of them are available in LinkedIn, so if you really want to do a thorough job on your profile, I suggest first visiting these three sites:

  • Slideshare: If you have ever designed and presented a PowerPoint, Slideshare is a place to upload, share, and comment on your deck. You can upload a native PPT file or a PDF. At one time, LinkedIn had a nice app to integrate content from Slideshare, but now you simply add a link in one of your profile sections, such as Experience or Education. I was confused by this, since I expected something different when LinkedIn purchased Slideshare, but it is what it is.
  • Twitter: Some in the Twitterverse were disillusioned when Twitter made changes to its API. But never fear: you can share your thoughts to Twitter from LinkedIn. Like any social media site, there is a place for you to share a status, call out a friend, or attach a file. You can decide whether or not to share this status update with all of LinkedIn, only your Connections, or with LinkedIn + Twitter. That sure makes it easy to cover the professional bases when you want to publicize a conference or update colleagues on a new initiative.
  • WordPress: Blogging isn’t just for bands. By setting up a professional blog in WordPress, you can set up an automatic notification that informs your LinkedIn network of new posts. Better still, add a link to your blog in your status so that you can personalize the message around the blog.

You can keep going: add, your website, your online portfolio…ah, you get the idea.

Inside of LinkedIn, there are many other ways to build expertise and share ideas:

  • Join an interest group. As I mentioned, I’ve joined several groups that relate to my professional interests. I’ve even joined groups for my outside interests, such as animal welfare. In some groups I’m a lurker, but in others, I like to participate by answering questions, following discussions, and “bookmarking” interesting topics. This has actually formed some of my professional development, as I’ve learned about new software and sites that I can use.But be careful: Liz Ryan cautions against inviting random people from your groups to join your network (“Ten Ways”). Take your time and get to know them a bit first. And it goes without saying that some groups can backfire when seen by a professional contact. I dropped out of the “Grammar Nazi” group because I didn’t like the sound of that group’s name.  But I kept “Grammar Geeks,” at least for the time being. Better a Geek than a Nazi, I guess.
  • Customize your home page. As the screen capture below illustrates, I like a lot of info on my home page. Your mileage may vary.

HOmePageThere are several other notifications that can be customized: you can receive emails to alert you to various actions, or you can view your group’s activity in a weekly digest. It all depends on your comfort level.

  • Follow influencers. I can’t get enough of Guy Kawasaki and Pete Cashmore, but that’s just me. To hear more from the people that interest you, hover your mouse over the word “Interests” at the top of your LinkedIn screen, and choose from scads of channels that are available to you. Then move to the next page, where you can follow individual influencers.If you don’t know who to follow, don’t worry. LinkedIn is getting to know you day by day, and it will keep suggesting people to you!

LinkedIn has something for everyone. If you were waiting for graduation to join, change your strategy and begin building your professional profile today.


Business Insider (2011). INFOGRAPHIC: Can Facebook, Twitter And Linkedin Really Get You A Job?

Mindtools (n.d.) Using LinkedIn Effectively

Ryan, L. (2010). Ten Ways to Use LinkedIn in Your Job Search

Web Designers: Don’t Ignore Seniors!

With any luck, one day all of us will be seniors: the demographic that includes people aged 65 or older. Even if you are far from reaching this milestone yourself, there are good reasons to consider this demographic when designing web content.

Full disclosure: this topic is a pet research interest of mine. About ten years ago, I researched this subject thoroughly and published Curb Cuts on the Information Highway in Technical Communication Quarterly. In short, I argued for more resources and better attention to this age group, offering some examples of sites that were “getting it right.”

In technology terms, my article is ancient; my interests have turned now toward using the iPad as a bridge for adults with age-related disabilities. But according to Jakob Nielsen, a renowned usability expert, one thing hasn’t changed: websites are still not “senior-friendly,” and designers are missing out on a growing (and often wealthy) group of customers. (Read Jakob Nielsen’s article Usability for Senior Citizens.)

It’s not that hard to make your site more usable. If you code to standards (particularly WCAG 2.0), most of the work is pretty basic: avoid tiny fonts; use white space around clickable links, etc. Some of it is pure common sense: keep text to a minimum, write simply, make it easy to recover from mistakes. Shouldn’t you already be doing that?

And if you’re not already designing for mobile, here’s another reason to get started: who do you think is buying all those iPhones? According to another Nielsen, the one that tracks marketing and spending, Baby Boomers are “marketing’s most valuable generation.” They spend close to 50 percent of all CPG dollars yet less than 5 percent of advertising is geared toward them.

The oldest Boomers are now past 65; maybe it’s time to get ready for this amazing opportunity for your online marketing.

What do you think? Is your site ready for the Boomers?