Written Communications: Being Heard and Understood
Allison Friederichs, PhD
University of Denver, University College
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription
The advantage of having a Wondrium subscription is that I don’t have to consider whether or not a given course is worth buying. I can simply start streaming the course and see how I like it. With Written Communications: Being Heard and Understood, the course description intrigued me. At the same time, the title of the first lecture put me off: “Impactful Writing.” Impactful? Really? But then the Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary lists the word with no qualification. There is no notation such as “nonstandard” or “informal.” So I forged ahead.
The course was, in fact, very useful. The focus of the course is on business writing, but much of the content is applicable no matter what kind of writing you are doing. Despite her use of the word “impactful” (which she uses often) and despite her charming, witty (I’m tempted to say perky) demeanor, Allison Friederichs is old school and no-nonsense when it comes to grammar and usage. She comes down firmly against the singular “they,” only offering a sort of footnote at the end of the discussion, acknowledging that the usage is becoming accepted in many circles. She favors, as you would expect, the Oxford comma.
Friederichs offers a structured approach to composing any sort of document (email included, she emphasizes). She calls the method ACE: analyze, craft, and edit. Friederichs devotes a half-hour lecture to each step. The middle step, in her view, is the least important and your time should be spent on planning the document and editing your original draft. She discusses the importance of word choice and talks about writing in such a way to maintain a positive relationship with your correspondents.
I thought the final lecture, which was on email, might be less useful than the other lectures. It turned out to have some very practical advice. For example, regarding email attachments Friederichs suggests first adding the attachment, then writing the email, and finally completing to TO: field. That eliminates those follow-up “oops” emails resulting from forgotten attachments.
The lectures on punctuation and grammar provide an excellent review even if you are familiar with the material, and the ACE process for writing is worth taking a careful look at. This is a practical course with material that one can apply to any sort of writing.
The Great Courses released this lecture series in 2016 and I had great things to say about it at the time. I thought this would be a good time to revisit it.
Much has changed in five years. Curzan was then a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, which was for decades my favorite dictionary. Sadly, as I wrote, the usage panel no longer exists and the dictionary is now frozen in time. I now go to Merriam-Webster for my dictionary inquiries. The Chronicle of Higher Education shut down Lingua Franca, the great language blog to which she refers. On the upside, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tracks the use of words and phrases over time, now goes up to the year 2019, and not just to 2008 as it did in 2016. And professor Curzan herself? She is now dean of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.
The passage of time and all these changes notwithstanding, the course holds up nicely five years later. Curzan tells us it is all right to split an infinitive and to end a sentence with a preposition. She says that while it is best to use the active voice in most cases, sometimes flow or style might mean that the passive is more appropriate. There are a couple of things that she emphasizes repeatedly. Curzan tells us that while a certain construction might not be wrong, its use may be jarring to an intended audience and distract them from your message. Or it may simply cause them to view your writing skills negatively. (Depending on your audience, any of the three usage styles mentioned above might be examples.) Curzan also talks about the importance of consistency. Style guides disagree, so she tells us to select one approach and use it consistently.
Curzan does not take a strong stand on the Oxford comma (or serial comma as it is sometimes known). She tells us she prefers it but does not insist on it. Simply be consistent, she says. Personally, I am a big fan of the Oxford comma, as is the Chicago Manual of Style, my preferred style guide. I believe it helps to reduce ambiguity. My favorite example of ambiguity caused by the missing final comma is a book dedication, probably apocryphal (I hate to say): “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Curzan is both a linguist and a professor of English, so she offers a balanced approach to grammar and usage. As a linguist, she also provides a lot of historical background and shows us that certain constructions which we might view as recent and incorrect have been around for centuries. For example, Curzan tells us that Shakespeare used both singular they (which Chicago now accepts) and double negatives (Celia in As You Like It: “I cannot go no further.”). The Bard even uses the subject form of a pronoun where we would expect to see the object: “Yes, you have seen Cassio, and she together.” That’s not to say that we should be doing so in formal writing today.
The course title is misleading. This series is both fun and informative. In fact, of all the Great Courses series that I have purchased, and that number now exceeds one hundred, it is the only one for which I have purchased the full course transcript (as opposed to the guidebook that comes with the course).
If you are a grammar or language nerd you will find English Grammar Boot Camp well worth your time.
I had some reasonable freelance income for the first five months of the year, though things have quieted down considerably here in June. I was looking at income versus business expenses, and I realized I had booked very little on the expense side. Now, I don’t mind paying taxes with the current administration in Washington, but I still like to minimize how much I do pay in taxes. So I decided to indulge myself.
I bought a one-year subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud suite. Now the consensus in the forum for writers and editors to which I belong is that the Adobe pricing is expensive (perhaps bordering on unreasonable). Still, I had a few reasons for making the purchase. One was access to the full-featured version of Acrobat, including the ability to edit PDFs and create fillable PDF forms. Another was Photoshop. I bought a new computer last September, and even if I could have located the CD of my ancient Photoshop version, I had no idea of where to find the license key. Then there’s the web-based portfolio development tool, which allows one to create a visually appealing web portfolio. Finally, there is InDesign, the direct lineal successor (as my classics professor in college would say) to PageMaker. Not sure I’ll do a lot with that, but it might be fun to dabble.
I no doubt will discover other cool things that I can do with Creative Cloud. For example, sometimes I find a recipe in a magazine that I want to add to my recipe software, but which is not on the magazine’s web site. I often scan such things with my Dropbox iPhone app and create a PDF, but the PDF is an image, not copyable text, so I would need to open it in Word or some such thing. I just discovered that the full Acrobat can run OCR on the PDF so I can copy and paste the recipe text into my software. Very useful.
There is nothing in Creative Cloud that directly supports my writing. But with all the tools available, and there are many more than I enumerate here, perhaps I will find some inspiration to give me a kick start and get me back on track with my own writing. Given that my contract writing work has slowed down considerably and I’m feeling somewhat at loose ends, that would be a Good Thing.
I am a word nerd. I love language. Given that, it should be no surprise that I love dictionaries. (But you likely knew that.)
My favorite dictionary has long been The American Heritage Dictionary. You may have noticed that is the American Heritage Dictionary (or AHD) next to me in my profile picture. It was something new and different when it was first published in 1969. The development of the AHD was prompted by what was conceived of as the permissiveness of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. What made the AHD unique was its usage panel. The editors polled a group of writers as to the acceptability of the usage of certain words, and from those responses usage notes were created for certain entries.
For example, with respect to the word hopefully meaning “it is to be hoped,” the usage note states:
In 1999, 34 percent of the Usage Panel accepted the sentence “Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified.” In 2012, 63 percent accepted this same sentence.
I bought a copy of the first edition of the AHD when I was in high school. During my B. Dalton Bookseller years sales reports showed that I swung sales away from the Merriam Webster Collegiate and to the AHD in whatever store I happened to be working. (That ended up being a total of five.)
Alas, it seems that the days of the American Heritage Dictionary being actively maintained have come to an end. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has made no proactive announcement, but the evidence is clear. The usage panel appears to have been disbanded. The last blog entry was published February 2018, and the most recent list of word additions were announced in January of that year. The most recent print edition is the fifth, published in 2011, with a “50th Anniversary Printing” of the fifth edition published in October 2018.
My first email to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt asking them about the status of the AHD went unanswered. The response to the second came several days after I sent the email.
As of January 2020, we do not have any new print editions planned at this time. However, the website is being occasionally updated, including for biographical changes (e.g. death dates/political terms ending), and sensitivity issues (most recently updating the word Black to show the racial/ethnic group sense can be either upper or lowercase and be equally valid).
Note the word “occasionally.” That means no active maintenance. No updates as meanings of words change. No additions of neologisms as they come into common use. No new polls of the usage panel as a particular usage of a given word becomes more common or less frequently used.
That leaves the Merriam-Webster family as the only dictionaries in the United States being actively maintained. Since I began doing freelance work I have subscribed to the online edition of the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary. It is now my go-to reference.
Ah, but American Heritage, we knew you well.
Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do
Plume (January 29, 2013), 250 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $10.98
As one who loves reading about writers and writing I found this book absolutely delightful. Meredith Maran asked twenty writers for their reflections on the writing life. The commentaries are arranged alphabetically so as to not inadvertently imply any sort of hierarchy, and Maran includes writers of both bestsellers and literary fiction (with a few nonfiction writers thrown in as well).
Each chapter is structured the same. Maran begins with an excerpt from that author’s work, followed by a generally witty and entertaining introduction. She then provides some biographical information and a complete (as of the 2013 publication date) bibliography of each writer’s works. Next she gives us the writer’s reflections in his or her own words, and concludes with the author’s advice to aspiring writers.
The book is a bit dated, having been published in 2013. For example, Meg Wolitzer was one of the writers included. Her novel The Interestings was one of the most enjoyable and engaging novels I have ever read, but it was published in 2013, the same year as Why We Write, so that novel wasn’t part of Wolitzer’s corpus as listed in her bibliography.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of interesting stuff here. And there are many common threads. Most of the writers offered some version of “I write because I have to” or “I write because I don’t know anything else.” With respect to advice, there were a number of variations of both “If you want to write well do a lot of reading“ and “If you want to write then keep writing. Don’t worry about whether you get published.”
That last bit of advice provides me with the impetus to keep on blogging. It’s time for me to get back to writing my blog more frequently.
“Some things are best not written down.” That’s how I started my speech at Toastmasters two weeks ago. And that is why I gave a speech instead of writing a blog about that particular topic. I pointed out that what you put out there on the internet is there forever—even if you think that you’ve deleted it.
The subject in question had to do with the behavior of a family member that was, well, inexplicable, and the repercussions that resulted from that behavior. It made for a good speech; I received the best speaker ribbon and people were visibly moved. But I made the speech and now it is lost to the ether. It was not recorded in any way.
Which makes me think of a pledge I made here some years ago. I was listening to a series from The Great Courses about writing nonfiction and I had read about works published as nonfiction that were in fact mostly fabricated. (Conversely, some novels are actually more memoir than fiction.)
My pledge was that everything I tell you is the truth. I will, not, however, tell you everything.
That pledge still stands.
It’s time for a short blog hiatus. I am having surgery on Wednesday for an object on my intestinal tract that should not be there and needs to be removed. I expect to be back blogging in a couple of weeks, the Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, along with your prayers and good thoughts, of course.
That may well be all you care to know, and that makes perfect sense. If you choose to keep reading, however, I can fill you in with a little more background, but I will endeavor to avoid the slippery slope of TMI.
It’s been quite a journey, going back nearly a year. After my annual physical last year my primary care physician ordered a blood cell count, presumably because I told the medical student who saw me before he came into the exam room that I had lost weight for no apparent reason. My white count came back high, which resulted in an ultrasound and a referral to urology as the issue appeared to be kidney-related. A CT scan followed, with the urologist saying, “You don’t need me” and referring me to gastroenterology. Those folks told me that I had a GIST, a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. The medical team ordered two different endoscopic procedures to confirm that it was only that. The gastrointestinal surgeon partnered with the oncologist (head of oncology at Kaiser Riverside, by the way!) who prescribed a medication to shrink the GIST. No effect, the second CT scan revealed. Bad news: larger rather than smaller is harder to remove. Good news: the medication not shrinking it means it’s probably not cancerous.
So here we are. Think of me (as the song from Phantom of the Opera says), and my intent is to be back with you soon. I have cleared out my queue of backlogged blog entries and will be starting fresh when I return. Once restarted, this blog may take a slightly different approach or focus but I do plan to keep blogging. Writing is central to who I am, and I have much to write about.
I had the privilege for several months of writing customer success stories for an agency in Silicon Valley. I really enjoyed the work. It was interesting and it kept me on my toes. I also had to keep in mind which client I was writing for. All of the agency’s clients except for one used the Associated Press Stylebook (AP). The one holdout client used the Chicago Manual of Style, which I prefer.
There are differences between the two styles. Chicago supports the serial comma and says to spell out numbers under one hundred. AP tells us to omit the serial comma and to spell out numbers one through ten.
There are other style guides, of course. The Modern Language Association has its own style guide, but that is followed mostly in the academic world and not so much in business writing. The Council of Scientific Editors publishes the Scientific Style and Format guide, which I am told states that numbers are never spelled out.
There is much that all agree on with respect to proper grammar and syntax. It’s important to maintain those standards. But not everything is set in stone. As I hear from many experts, the important thing is to be consistent within a given work. I am partial to Chicago, but I can write to AP and I do.
I admit to being something of a style and grammar nerd. But then I enjoy being a style and grammar nerd.
I have to apologize. The blogger in the cartoon below? That’s me. I recognized myself immediately when I first saw the cartoon. That hurt. But I suppose it’s a good thing that I did recognize me.
I’m hoping that I can say that was me. I want to believe that I’m not that way anymore. I was that way, though. Just ask my friend Lynn, with whom I would meet for coffee before Terry and I moved south. Lynn, I apologize. That’s not a good way to treat a friend.
This cartoon comes, by the way, from the TED talk 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation given by public radio host Celeste Headlee. I highly recommend it. It has had more than nine million views, and there’s a reason for that.
And in my case I trust that reading my blog is not necessary for friends to learn about what is happening in my life.
I wrote a while back about having subscribed to the unabridged Merriam-Webster (M-W) dictionary online. It made sense, given the freelance writing work that I am doing. But then the thought occurred to me: have I gone over to the Dark Side?
I have been an advocate of the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) for decades. I have long loved its more prescriptive as opposed to descriptive approach (though that is a serious oversimplification). The usage notes with the AHD usage panel can be very helpful. In my B. Dalton Bookseller days in the 1970s and 1980s I was able to singlehandedly skew the sales reports in the stores in which I worked, increasing AHD sales at the expense of the whatever-current-at-the-time edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. I would chortle with delight when I saw those reports.
Even today the AHD sometimes includes details not found in the M-W unabridged. When looking up the word “bake-off” for a piece I was writing both M-W and AHD capitalized the phrase and said that it was a Service Mark. But only AHD added the note that it was sometimes used lower case and gener
ically. Similarly, the M-W unabridged does not list “podiatric,” while AHD does list it as an adjective under podiatry.
The problem is that it is not clear to me how much in the way of resources are being put into the AHD these days and whether we’ll see another edition after the current 5th, given that its publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is a struggling firm. M-W seems to have effectively made the transition to the digital world and appears to be healthily surviving if not thriving.
Yes, I paid for my subscription to the unabridged M-W and that was the Right Thing to do given the work I am doing. But I can’t shake the feeling that I am cheating on a long-time faithful lover.