Gazing Into A Crystal Ball

Imagine being able to predict the future, knowing what lies ahead in your life and all the amazing changes that are in store for our world. This past week, I found an unread magazine in a kitchen cupboard and glanced briefly at the date, noticing it was from June. I got absorbed in a fascinating feature article about the history and future of Calgary before something suddenly seemed amiss and I checked the publication date again. As it turned out, I hadn’t looked closely enough, because the magazine actually turned out to be from June of 2012. Oops.

Unless you’ve been hiding out in a bomb shelter the last month, you know what kind of unprecedented maelstrom the great city of Calgary has been going through lately. Massive flooding, extended blackouts, a state of emergency and derailed freight trains are just some of the tests the residents have been put through. Somehow, they’ve still managed to pull it all together in time to hold their signature Calgary Stampede, which is a massive tribute to its citizens’ fortitude, resilience and positive attitude.

Of course, reading an article from last year, it was like none of this had ever happened – because, of course, it hadn’t yet. If that same article was written about the city today, it makes you wonder how differently it would have turned out.

Similarly, another article was about the financial and artistic success of Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil, the worldwide billion-dollar entertainment juggernaut. How things have changed in the 12 months since that article came out. In January, the company announced the layoff of 400 employees, close to ten percent of its workforce. On top of that, a veteran Cirque acrobat died during a performance in Las Vegas at the end of last month, the first fatality in the troupe’s nearly 30-year history.

Again, with those earth-shattering changes taking place, how would a story about the Cirque du Soleil be different if it was being written today, rather than being composed a year ago?

All of this made me ponder the precious, unpredictable nature of our lives. Day after day, we go about our business without giving much thought to what could possibly lie ahead. I am guiltier of this than just about anybody. Routinely, I take for granted my family, my friends, my health and, indeed, my very life. And I bet that applies to many people.

When our anniversary comes up each year, we might thank our spouse for being there for us. If our boss gives us a pat on the back or a small raise, it reminds us that we’re lucky to have a job. When Canada Day passes each year, we think about how fortunate we are to live in a free country with universal health care and a decent standard of living. But, for so many of our days we’re content to let life wash over us, without stopping to consider how quickly it could all be gone.

Not to be too dramatic, but everything we have, every single person we hold close to our hearts, all the tiny things that make our lives what they are could be gone in an instant. Boom. That’s it.

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” Although she may not be the world’s most eloquent philosopher, Oprah Winfrey was definitely on to something when she said those words.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big or wanting more, but it’s easy to get caught up in chasing rainbows – when many of those rainbows are already yours to enjoy. Right here. Right now. People used to say, “Take time to stop and smell the roses.” There are likely hundreds of other quotes and song lyrics and philosophies that restate the same premise in a different way.

However you want to say it, absolutely no one knows what’s around the next corner, let alone what the future holds down its long, winding, unpredictable path. All we can know for sure is what we have at this very moment – and how important it is to take every tiny morsel of our lives and celebrate it for all it’s worth. The party starts now.


You Know You’re Getting Old When…

Last weekend, I had the weird déjà vu experience of interviewing an Emergency Services worker who my wife used to babysit many, many years ago when he was just a toddler. It made me realize that not only am I not getting any younger but, consequently, I also happen to be getting a whole lot older. It’s funny how that works, isn’t it?

In any case, that encounter, plus a whole lot of other recent experiences made me start thinking about all those subtle signs that start cropping up at some point in your life and make you realize that, hey, you’re definitely on that slippery slope into agedness.

One sure sign was when my eldest daughter and her boyfriend recently made an offer to purchase their first home. It took me back to when my wife and I were doing the same thing 25+ years ago and considered ourselves to be full-fledged adults. When your kids are suddenly going through the identical experience, it makes you appreciate exactly how far along you are on the journey of life.

Of course, there are plenty of other road signs that you’re getting old. Here are just a few:

1)    The music you listened to when you were growing up is now so old it no longer even qualifies to be played on the oldies radio stations.

2)    Not only are you constantly complaining about your aches and pains, your children have started to complain regularly about theirs, as well.

3)    The old expressions you use are so out of date you constantly have to explain them  – and they don’t even appear in the dictionary anymore. Instead, they’ve now become the conversational equivalent of cave drawings.

4)    When you watch “old celebrities” on television or read about them in magazines, you suddenly realize they’re the same age as you are. And, frankly, none of them are looking all that great anymore.

5)    Virtually all the technology you grew up with (tape recorders, VHS machines, CD players, home phones, etc.) is now obsolete. Miraculously, the one technology you figured was gone forever, vinyl records, inexplicably lives on.

6)    Inevitably, you have to compare the prices of everything you buy with what it cost when you were growing up. That’s followed by a sentence that goes something like, “Why, when I was a kid you could buy…”

7)    You enjoy playing the “Dead or Alive” game with all the movie stars, singers, and sports figures you grew up with. Not surprisingly, every time you play, you end up with more on the dead list than the live one.

8)    Crooked, inept politicians from years past start to look more and more attractive compared with some of the choices available today. Richard M. Nixon, come back! All is forgiven.

9)    You constantly need to make a list of where you put the list of the lists of all the things you’re supposed to do today. After much searching, you’re able to locate that list in the back of the refrigerator where you mistakenly put it. Now you start wondering that – if the list is in the fridge – where the heck is that jug of milk you were supposed to put away? Once that’s all sorted out, you begin the search for your reading glasses, which are, obviously, required to read the list of the list of the list. Then you forget what you were looking for in the first place and decide to take a nap on the couch. Repeat as necessary.

10) The hapless Toronto Maple Leafs of your youth are now perennial Stanley Cup Champions. Hmmm. Apparently, I’m not as ancient as I thought.

There’s a silly old expression that goes something like, “You’re only as old as you feel.” In case you’ve already forgotten, check out #3 on the list above and see why it’s an old expression. Who actually uses that phrase when, instead, you start feeling old pretty much all the time and the first question you pose to your spouse each morning is, “How’d you sleep last night?”

In any case, if you’re feeling old today, take solace. You’re not alone. It happens to all of us and it’s pretty much unavoidable, no matter how much you fight it. So, to everyone reading this, here’s to getting old. Cheers! May you enjoy every moment of it. Now, with all due respect, “Get off my lawn.”

The Dark Side Of The Web

A police officer I spoke with several months ago compared the Internet to a dark alley where every criminal in the world is lurking, just waiting for you to enter. Think about that for a second. It’s true. Every scam artist, sexual predator, thief and other scoundrel you can imagine has you and every other potential victim right at his or her fingertips online. And they’re all just waiting for you to slip up in some way to take advantage of the opportunity to wreak havoc on your life.

The officer’s warning came back to me this past week when I read about the devastating circumstances of 32-year old Tim Bosma, who was murdered after two men answered an ad for a pick-up truck Bosma was selling online. Allegedly, the people involved stole the truck and burned the body of the churchgoing, married father of a two-year old girl to cover their tracks. The bizarre circumstances of the crime captivated Canadians – and also made us question the safety of online advertising sites.

If people have problems with legitimate sites run by honest people, such as those used by Bosma, just imagine the problems created by the millions of questionable sites and the unscrupulous people who operate them. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received almost 300,000 reports from fraud victims last year totaling over a half-a-billion dollars. Obviously, that’s just a tiny fraction of the worldwide scams that are being run.

After reading Will Ferguson’s frightening novel “419” last year, I realized what a scary business this can be. Although it’s a fictional book, the title refers to a section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with fraud. If you’re not sure what I’m referring to, think of the hundreds of emails you’ve received from “Nigerian princes” and you’ll know what I mean. It’s hard to believe people are actually taken in by these scams, but the fact that they’re popular in dozens of countries and “employ” thousands of people worldwide must mean they’re also pretty effective.

On top of the hundreds of millions of dollars involved every year, they’ve also led to kidnapping and murder, along with suicides by the victims whose lives have been ruined.

If scams don’t scare you, what about cyberstalking and cyberbullying? One of the most worrisome parts of the Internet is its anonymity. It’s been well-documented that people say and do things on the web that they wouldn’t dream of doing in person. During a recent session on cyberbullying, I learned how easy it is to decipher someone’s identity through chat rooms, Facebook and other social media. Yet, time and time again, people let down their guards online and give out personal details to virtual strangers whose real identities they have no clue about.

In one horrifying incident, a male teenager befriended someone online who he thought was a friend his own age and shared the same passions and sensibilities. The boy revealed personal details of his life he thought would remain private. Suddenly, the “friend” turned against him and revealed all those details to his friends and family, turning him into a social pariah. The initial damage that was done and the bullying that followed led the youngster to commit suicide, bringing a tragic conclusion to what had begun as an innocent friendship.

If you’re appalled by this story, wait until you hear the ending. It turns out the cyber-friend who the boy thought was someone in his own age group was actually an ex-friend of his mother. When the relationship between his mother and the friend ended, the spurned acquaintance decided to get back at the mother by exacting revenge on her former friend’s son. The story is almost as unfathomable as it is heartbreaking, but provides a valuable lesson for everyone who surfs the net.

When my kids first started going online, I’d often tell them, “Never believe anything you read on the Internet.” They thought I was just being facetious but, as they’ve grown older, they’ve realized what I meant. The message I tried to impart was, simply, to question everything, to assume that there may be an ulterior motive or unsavoury purpose for every online offer, invitation or solicitation you receive.

Recently, one online shopping network that offered unbeatable prices on high-ticket items received some bad attention in the media. People were buying up jewelry, designer clothing, and other outrageously expensive products for pennies on the dollar and were surprised when the items they received were actually cheap knockoffs worth exactly what they’d paid for them.

In the article I read on the scam, the vast majority of commenters said the problem wasn’t with the sellers but with the buyers, who believed naively that someone would be selling $2,000 diamond rings for $25.00. Although the expression “You get what you pay for” may be an old one, it still applies quite nicely to what’s happening more and more frequently online today.

Perhaps it may seem like pretty cynical advice but, honestly, it makes good sense to trust no one, question everything and expect the worst when you’re dealing with people you don’t know online. After all, if you’re going to enter that dark alley where all the criminals in the world hang out, it makes sense to be well-armed before you wander in. Beware.


Tax This! Tax That!

A reader sent me an interesting article last week about a new report from the Fraser Institute that says, “Canadian families are spending more money on taxes than on food, clothing and shelter combined.” The Yahoo story says that almost 43% of the average family’s income went to pay federal, provincial and municipal taxes, while less than 37% went to the other three necessities.

Furthermore, it says that Canadians’ tax bills have gone up almost 1800% since 1961 – and that the balance between taxes and necessities has changed dramatically in the last half century. They claim that food, clothing and shelter accounted for 56.5% of the family budget back in 1961 and taxes took up just 33.5%.

The conservative think-tank, which often comes up with such alarming statistics, also says their numbers don’t include government deficits, which aren’t covered by taxes today but will have to be paid off somewhere down the road.

Scary stuff, for sure. And it makes it sound like life was pretty rosy back in the early 1960’s.

But, hold on for a second. Before you get your bags packed for a trip in the “wayback machine,” you might want to check out a counterpoint offered by the left-wing Broadbent Institute, run by former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent. In rebutting the Fraser Institute’s claims about the exploding 1800% tax bill, Broadbent says, “While that’s a clear exaggeration that ignores inflation, what is astounding is that their numbers don’t even remotely hold up.”

Broadbent says the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development indicates Canadian tax bills are a bit over 38% of GDP and that, rather than increasing, the percentage has actually dropped from a high of about 45% back in the late 1990’s.

As well as failing to take inflation into account, Broadbent also reminds us how different life was back in 1960 when there was no universal health care, no Canada Pension Plan and paltry Old Age Security benefits. Additionally, his report says access to post-secondary education was mostly limited to the rich and there was a massive wage gap between men and women.

Broadbent also questions why it’s considered a good thing that 56.5% of a family’s income went to basic necessities back in 1961, while it’s only 37% now. He makes a good point. When you add up the totals, 90% of income went to taxes and necessities in the old days, while only 80% is allocated now. That leaves a larger chunk of disposable income for the average household, on top of the fact that we have universal health care, a national pension system, more security for seniors, better access to education and a host of other social services already being factored into our tax dollars.

The Broadbent Institute concludes, “The fundamental point is that we are much richer as a society than we were back in 1961. Not only do we have more to spend on consumer goods today, we also choose to spend a bigger slice of the pie on social programs, education, and public services.”

Looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses or bending numbers to make things look better is nothing new. It happens all the time. When people talk about “the good old days,” they’re often just remembering the positive points about the past, while conveniently sweeping all those pesky negatives under the rug.

Life today certainly isn’t perfect. If you want to, it’s not too difficult to compile a massive list of all the bad things about the world we live in. But, if you honestly believe you’d be better off living back a half-century ago or in some other long-past era, maybe you should take the time to start an alternate list of how much better life is today. Once you do, chances are you’ll cancel your plans for that trip in the wayback machine. As Broadbent says, “The Fraser Institute can stay in 1961 if they want… but I’m happier to be living in 2013.”


Who Cares?

When you’re out and about in the community as much as I am, you meet a lot of different people from every walk of life – and you discover very quickly that plenty of them are pretty frustrated these days. Speaking with a reporter is a pretty good way to vent their concerns, so I hear a lot of sad stories about people who are falling through the cracks, feeling helpless with their circumstances and, generally, having a difficult time finding anyone who will listen or help offer solutions to their problems.

There are people who have lost their jobs and don’t know how they’re going to survive, who worry about paying their bills and feeding their families, who are suffering a variety of illnesses, who are dealing with the health effects of industrial wind turbines and cell towers, who feel the government has taken away their rights and who are concerned for the future of our region, our country and the planet itself.

It really all comes down to a feeling of being powerless. These people feel abandoned and don’t know where to turn. Sure, there are plenty of social programs and help lines and government-sponsored initiatives, but often they’re restricted to certain groups or individuals, are inaccessible, or are already over-utilized. Sometimes, pride or fear come into play, preventing people who need help from reaching out for it.

And sometimes it all comes down to a lot of buck passing. The people talk to their Municipality, but are told the issue is out of their hands and is a provincial or federal concern. So, they climb the next rung in the ladder, perhaps calling their local MP or MPP or attempting to deal with someone in Toronto or Ottawa. Often, they’re passed around and around from one department or civil servant to another, each one more disengaged or disinterested or incapable of dealing with the problem. That’s when the real frustration sets in.

Service Canada’s motto is “People serving people.” If you’re lucky and you hook up with the right person, that can sometimes be the case. However, from my personal experience and that of many others, more often than not you’re left to deal with someone who truly doesn’t seem to care. As far as Service Ontario, I haven’t had the pleasure of dealing with them lately, but I’d be willing to bet that many of the same issues exist there.

In any case, the end result after trying to deal with three levels of government is a sense of total frustration and abandonment. Of course, it’s often no better with private companies. Have you ever tried to get a straight answer from your cable or cellphone provider? Navigating through a seemingly endless series of phone mazes or, when you finally get to speak with a human being, getting shunted from one buck-passing employee to another, most people give up eventually, knowing the problem will likely never get solved anyway.

When you do come across a helpful employee or civil servant, you almost feel like jumping through the phone and giving them a giant hug. It’s becoming such a rarity, it’s almost a cause for celebration. I guess you could rationalize the poor service by saying that these people are humans too and, consequently, are used to getting the same service when they have a problem that they’re giving you.

But, if that’s their excuse, it’s a pretty lousy one. Instead, maybe they should look in the mirror and ask themselves if they’d appreciate being neglected, insulted, made to feel worthless and, eventually, getting passed along to the next uncaring person down the line. That is, if they cared enough to take five seconds to think about it. Even that may be asking too much.

Let The Sunshine In

Ontario’s annual Sunshine List was released last week. If that’s not ringing any bells, it’s a record of every public employee in the province who made more than $100,000 in 2012. This time around the list totals over 88,000 individuals, which is a double-digit jump from the previous year. In fact, since 2009 there are nearly 40 percent more public employees topping the one hundred grand mark. And, remember, these are only public service employees. There are none of the high-priced executives from private companies included.

As noted by the CBC in an online article published last week, many of the usual suspects are on the list, including the two biggest earners in the province, Tom Mitchell, the president and CEO of Ontario Power Generation, who made $1.7 million, and Hydro One CEO Laura Formosa, who pocketed just over a million. Combined, OPG and Ontario Hydro had over 11,000 employees on the Sunshine List. And we wonder why Ontario has some of the highest electricity costs in North America.

Some of the other big money makers included most of the CEOs of the province’s larger health networks, the president and CEO of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health ($746,321), the head of Ontario Lottery and Gaming ($672,989) and the presidents of most of Ontario’s larger universities. Across the board, employees at Ontario’s universities were pretty well rewarded, with almost 15,000 of their staff on the list or about 17% of the total.

As mind-boggling as some of these huge numbers are, it’s when you get further down the list that the salaries start to really hit home. Would it surprise you to know that many of our local school principals also topped $100,000 last year along with a large number of secondary school teachers? Between the Thames Valley and Lambton Kent District School Boards, 472 employees enjoyed some sunshine in their 2012 pay packets, with another 155 from the area’s two Catholic school boards.

As expected, health care workers had a large number of entries on the list, nearly 8,500 in total, with our area well represented. Over 400 employees combined at the London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care were on the list, along with over 40 at Bluewater Health.

On the political front, salaries for the CAOs of most local municipalities topped $100,000, including John Byrne, the former boss of Lambton Shores, who received over $155,000. Lambton County had 21 employees on the list and the County of Middlesex another five.

In any case, you get the picture. If you’d like to find out more, the CBC has compiled a complete list of all the top earners divided into a variety of sectors. Visit and search for “ontario-sunshine-list” – you can filter by names, employers, salaries, etc.

No one begrudges people making a decent living. We all have to eat and pay for housing and provide for our families the best we can. However, we also have to remember that all 88,412 of the people on the Sunshine List are paid from taxpayers’ pockets. There are some pseudo-exceptions to this, I suppose. If you want to say that OLG generates income and pays its employees out of that money, I imagine there’s an argument to be made there.

But, for the most part, every dime that’s paid to a politician or an educator or a health care worker comes directly from our tax dollars. Of course, all the people on the Sunshine List pay taxes, too, so they’re contributing in some circular way to the whole process. However, the rest has to come from the pockets of companies and individuals working in the private sector –like me and many of you. Personally, in all my years in the workforce, I’ve never come close to being on any Sunshine List. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even made the Cloudy With A Few Sunny Breaks List.

Ontario’s private economy is struggling – and that’s putting it mildly. Most of the job growth in this province is in the retail and service sectors where wages are low. High paying manufacturing jobs are virtually a thing of the past as employers look to the U.S. and offshore countries where workers are willing to be paid far less than here. And so, with the number of high-income private workers shrinking, it becomes more and more difficult to pay the salaries of all our public sector workers, especially those on the Sunshine List. It doesn’t take an economist to figure this out. Heck, I just did – and I can’t even figure out how much to tip in a restaurant.

This year, Ontario is running a deficit of about $12 billion. Our provincial debt is $255 billion. In technical terms, we’re paying interest out the yin-yang on that debt. Our economy is in the dumpster. And yet, somehow, we’ve managed to find a way to add nearly 10,000 new public service workers to the $100,000+ club. Think about that for a minute. Exactly where is all this money coming from? Let’s be honest. Something just isn’t adding up here and, as they used to say, “You can take that to the bank.” Well, maybe not you. But, someone on the Sunshine List certainly can.

Equality For Women? Not When It Comes To Violence

How did you celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this month? International ‘What?’ Day, you ask? Apparently, you’re not the only one who didn’t attend all the parades, do all the dances and enjoy a day of celebration. Seriously, there are so many holidays and special days, it’s understandable that International Women’s Day may have zipped by without you even noticing.

If you think this is one of those ridiculous ‘made-up’ events like Earmuffs Day (March 13th) or Lips Appreciation Day (March 16th), you couldn’t be more wrong. Originally called International Working Women’s Day, it all began back in 1909 and has been celebrated ever since, with the United Nations General Assembly officially designating March 8th as an international day to celebrate women’s rights and world peace back in 1977.

During the century of celebration, there have certainly been many changes in the lives of women around the world in terms of economic, political and social advancements. On the other hand, there’s still a long way to go, especially in many underdeveloped countries or those where ultra-conservative religions control the power.

But, how about back here in Canada? Should we all be collectively patting ourselves on the backs for how far we’ve come and how much we’ve achieved? Perhaps we should hold off on celebrating quite yet.

In terms of earnings, the median full-year, full-time wage for Canadian males in 2008 was $50,600, while women’s pay was just $38,600 – 76% of their male counterparts. That’s according to Statistics Canada numbers used in a 2010 survey by the federal government. If it’s any consolation, the situation has improved slightly since the government studied the issue back in 1978, when women earned only about 62% of the median income of men.

On the other hand, if you assume it’s just as bad in most other countries, you’d lose that bet. Canada has the fourth worst gender gap in median pay among 22 surveyed countries, trailing just Korea, Japan and Germany. In some countries, including New Zealand and Belgium, the average woman earns 90% of her male equivalent.

On the political front, the situation seems to be improving in this country. In 2011, we elected more female Members of Parliament than ever before, 76 in total, which is up from 69 in the 2008 election. This includes one female party leader, Elizabeth May. Of course, May leads a party of one in the House, so it’s not like she gets a chance to wield a whole lot of power.

And, of the remaining 75 females, only 28 are in the ruling Conservative’s 167-member caucus – less than 17%. It’s probably much easier to get yourself heard if you belong to the NDP, where 40 of its 102 members are female, nearly 40%.

Socially, Canadian women appear to fare better than they do in many countries. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole lot of issues that still need addressing.

For instance, Canada’s theme for this year’s Women’s Day was “Working Together: Engaging Men to End Violence against Women.” According to the Status of Women Council, “As this theme suggests, violence against women affects us all, and everyone – men and women – must be part of the solution.”

Referencing a brief prepared by the White Ribbon Campaign for the Council, over half of Canadian women have experienced at least one incidence of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. Furthermore, “Every minute of every day, a Canadian woman or child is being sexually assaulted.”

The report goes on to note: “In 2009, victims of spousal violence were less likely to report the incident to police than in 2004.” Only 22% of victims said the incidents were brought to the attention of police. And, despite the number of homicides in Canada dropping over the past several decades, women are still three times more likely to be murdered than men.

Add it all up and it’s obvious that violence against women is one area where there’s no equality with men. But, at least it appears that men understand there’s a problem. In a survey by the White Ribbon Campaign, 75% of men said it was very important to speak out about violence against women. And two-thirds of the men surveyed said they felt they could be doing more.

Canada’s Women’s Day theme is in sync with that of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which has called for the “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.”

Returning to the original question, even if you never managed to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th in any specific way, it’s never too late to do your part. As the Status of Women Council said, it’s time for all of us to “reflect on the impacts of violence against women and commit to helping end it.” An end to violence. That’s something we can all celebrate, any time of the year.


Declining Grammar Skills Are No LOL Matter

Most people would agree there’s no shortage of problems with the Internet, social media and all the technology that’s associated with them – viruses, scams, pornography, phishing, cyberbullying, identity theft – we could go on all day. Now there’s another evil to worry about: declining grammar skills among teenagers.

If that doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous as some of the previously mentioned issues, consider the fact that, unlike most adults who have already acquired a good writing foundation before they start texting or using e-mails, teenagers are still learning the fundamentals of how to write properly.

The problem starts with a whole new language called “techspeak” that’s been created using a variety of abbreviations, acronyms and emoticons in place of traditional words and phrases. That’s all fine within the context of e-mails, text messages and social media, but now it’s starting to spread to students’ essays and exams, a troublesome sign that the barrier between our actual language and techspeak is already starting to disappear.

In the new language, entire words are turned into letters, numbers or combinations of both (e.g., “are” becomes ‘r”, “to” turns into “2” and “great” morphs into “gr8”). On top of that, a dictionary’s worth of abbreviations have been created, including the popular “LOL” (laughing out loud), “TMI” (too much information) and “OMG” (oh my god). Hyper-savvy kids have hundreds of these at their fingertips, including ones like “POS” (parents over shoulder), which alerts teens who are sending messages about the presence of adults lurking near the recipients.

The problem is especially critical among teenagers, an age group where students are in the midst of learning proper grammar use and starting to compose more formal papers and write more involved exams. In a recent study, noted by, it was discovered that students who use techspeak frequently have difficulty switching to proper grammar when it’s needed. That’s very troublesome.

Not only are 13-17 year olds more than twice as likely to send text messages than any other age group, they’re also inclined to respond in the same way their friends send them messages. In the study, 64% of teens admitted to using techspeak in their writing assignments and 38% say they’ve used abbreviations like “LOL” in their papers.

The study concluded, “A decline in grammatical skills is attributed to the use of techspeak in most daily communications.” In particular, teens are more prone to making punctuation errors, using sentence fragments, inserting emoticons (such as ❤ for heart), misusing apostrophes and using inappropriate abbreviations.

Still, you may be asking yourself, what does it all matter? Does anyone care if students can’t spell or write properly or compose complete sentences? Yes, they do, especially post-secondary institutions that frequently ask students to submit written material as part of their entrance requirements. An article in The Globe and Mail said recently that texting is actually killing students’ grammar skills, not just harming them. Students themselves realize there’s an issue, with 86% saying that proper writing skills are essential for success in life.

But, how can you solve a problem that’s so widespread? Kids aren’t going to give up sending texts and they’re certainly not going to stop using techspeak and risk looking uncool to their friends. On top of that, e-mails and text messages have an inherent problem, in that they often don’t communicate someone’s mood or tone, something that is often solved by using “LOL” or a similar interjection. Without these abbreviations, a “conversation” can run seriously off-track and lead to major complications – friends breaking up, couples splitting, etc. – all because someone got the wrong impression from a text message.

In the end, parents and teachers have to make students aware that there are two languages and that the real one, not its techspeak counterpart, should always be the default when it comes to doing schoolwork, applying for a job or completing any other task that operates outside the realm of cyberspace or text messaging amongst their peers.

Years and years ago, the common belief was that proper spelling and grammar would gradually become a thing of the past. Although language has continued to evolve over the last two thousand years, that prediction has never become a reality. You can LOL all you want, but proper writing is here to stay.

Don’t Be Scared of Homophones! Part 2: “there” versus “their” versus “they’re”

Those nasty homophones. Why do they torment us so with their soundalike-ness when they’re all spelled differently? And why can’t we ever remember the right one to use?

If you joined us for Part 1 – the death match battle between “it’s” and “its,” welcome back.

We’ve got the big granddaddy of them all today – the epic three-way struggle that continues to confound people around the globe. Yep, that’s right, we’re talking about that tri-nasty head scratcher: there, their and they’re.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Probably the easiest way to begin is by separating the odd man out, which is “they’re.” Like “it’s,” this is a contraction, so if you can replace it in a sentence with its uncontracted version, “they are,” you’re using the right one.

Example – “They’re flying to Mars to pick up groceries” can be replaced by “They are flying to Mars to pick up groceries,” so we’ve used the right one!

As far as “their/there,” think of “there” being related to place and remember that it contains the word “here.” Once you do that, you’ll know which one to use.

Example – If you’re writing, “Put the book over there,” replace the last word with, “here” and, obviously, “there” is the correct choice.

On the other hand, “their” also contains its own word: “heir.” An heir is someone who will, eventually, own something through inheritance. Similarly, “their” also implies ownership, as in “their monkey sandwich.” So, if you’re referring to something that someone owns, use the one that has the word “heir” in it.

Hope that helped you sort out these three troublesome bad boys.

Which homophones do you have the most problems with? Let me know and, in future posts, I’ll try to come up with some easy ways to help you remember the right ones to use. Or maybe you have an easy way of remembering some tricky homophones yourself? I hope you’ll share them with my readers and me – we could all use the help!

Don’t Be Scared of Homophones! Part 1: “it’s” versus “its”

What are homophones – and why do people have so many problems with them?

If you’ve forgotten all those lessons Mrs. Whackruler taught you back in Grade 5 grammar class, I’m here to simplify your life. Homophones are just the fancy schmancy name for words that sound the same but have a different meaning and/or spelling (it’s/its, they’re/their/there, etc.).

Maybe you’re someone who never has a problem deciding which homophone to use. If that’s true, you must be in the minority, because I see these darned things spelled incorrectly almost every day.

Or maybe spelling isn’t really a big deal in your life, especially if most of your conversations involve versions of “lol” and “wtf.” That’s cool.

However, if you’re someone who’d prefer to get the spelling right (writing a blog, sending an important email, creating a 50 foot billboard that’s going to be seen by a million people), I’m going to help make your life a little easier with some easy ways to remember the trickiest, most-often confused homophones.

First up, the ever-popular “its” and “it’s.”

This one is dead simple. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is.” That’s the only time you use it. If you can’t replace “it’s” with “it is,” you’re using the wrong one.

For example, “The dog scratched its fleas,” cannot be replaced with “The dog scratched it is fleas,” so there’s no apostrophe.

If you’re not using the contracted version, you want to use “its” in every other situation. That’s all there is to it.

“It’s” versus “its” – It’s a no-brainer that its use is ever a problem!

Which homophones do you have the most problems with? Let me know and, in future posts, I’ll try to come up with some easy ways to help you remember the right ones to use. Or maybe you have a simple memory trick to remember some tricky homophones yourself? I hope you’ll share them with my readers and me – we could all use the help!