About that headline. Yes, it was nonparallel as some of you pointed out. No, I can't blame my editors. It was my headline; it was my error.
The offending headline, which appeared above my previous column, read, "Keep things parallel to be healthy, wealthy and a wise writer." Of course it should have been, "Keep things parallel to be a healthy, wealthy and wise writer."
It was an intentional error, like the headline I used for a 1992 column that read, "How to proofread and never miss a single errror." In both cases, I thought my intent was obvious, but it wasn't, at least not to everyone (and certainly not to those who didn't read past the headlines).
As I explained in the more recent column, parallel structure requires you to maintain the same pattern throughout a series of words or phrases. Sentences like the following jar your reader: "He was wise, judicious and tried to avoid offending people with thoughtless, undiplomatic comments." If you begin your series with adjectives, you must stay with adjectives, as in "He was wise, judicious and circumspect."
Intentional errors are risky. If you're going to break a rule, make sure your reader understands you did it on purpose. But never break a rule? I don't know. As Henry David Thoreau once observed, "Any fool can make a rule and every fool will mind it."
I believe you can break any rule you like as long as you do it for stylistic effect, as a market analyst in my workshop did when he wrote, "The year ain't over just yet." His intent? To relax his tone. To inject some personality into his analysis. To make himself more approachable to his readers. Unlike my error, his was obviously intentional, and it produced a nice stylistic effect.
Of course some readers would object to ain't. It isn't proper grammar. When I type ain't in Microsoft Word, it appears with a red squiggly line beneath it, and when I right-click the underscored word Word suggests aren't, am not and isn't as alternatives.
So I'm going to follow Word's advice, aren't I? Wait a minute. Aren't I? Are I? I are? That's weird. Am I? Am I not? Ain't I? Not so weird.
But a rule's a rule, right? So when Word tells me to "Delete Repeated Word" in reference to "word Word" in the sentence above, I should mind it, as I suppose I should do when Word underscores compliment in a comment I wrote on another workshop participant's writing sample:
"Consuelo, you do a good job of organizing and presenting your information clearly. Mary Munter [author of "Guide to Managerial Communication"] would compliment you for your 'high skim value.' Well done."
Word erroneously suggests complement. If you disagree with Word, I had better compliment you with a complimentary drink.
So now I have two new rules to follow, or perhaps to break. One, always right-click those squiggly lines to see Word's advice. Two, never trust it.
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.