The Doctor is IN!

Left-branching example of the week

A left-branching sentence is one in which the subject and verb do not appear until the sentence has wandered around for quite some time:

“Only offering height modifications in certain areas, explicitly describing what the city wants buildings to look like in [City] Junction and charging non-residential developments a fee to pay for affordable housing are three ideas [City] planners may implement this spring…”

The subject and verb of this sentence is “…three ideas [city] planners may implement this spring,” but we must read read 32 words before we can know what this sentence is all about.

We could right-branch this sentence this way:

[City] planners may implement the following three ideas this spring:

  • Only offering height modifications in certain areas
  • Explicitly describing what the city wants buildings to look like in [City] Junction
  • Charging non-residential developments a fee to pay for affordable housing

This revision also breaks out the long series items into a bulleted list, which makes the sentence easier to scan and comprehend. No extra charge!

We should always strive to make it easier for our audiences to read our sentences.

Webinar School at the STC Summit — resources for attendees and nonattendees

I taught my Webinar School Presentation at the STC Summit in Phoenix on May 21, 2014. Here are some resources from my session that may help you in delivering your own webinars:

Webinar school_STC_May_2014_FRICK

Sample procedure/checklist for delivering a webinar

Webinar platforms due diligence




Business Matters: A freelancer’s guide to business success in any economy–Now on Amazon!

Business Matters_Cover BI’m delighted to announce the publication of my new book, Business Matters: A freelancer’s guide to business success in any economy by XML Press. If you are thinking of becoming a freelancer or an independent contractor, why not learn from all the mistakes that I made in my 23 years in business? I’ll help you figure out what would work best for you in these four critical aspects of business:

  • Strategy
  • Marketing
  • Finance
  • Operations

Available at Amazon in print and Kindle versions and also on Barnes and Noble. Even better, save 50% until Friday, December 13, on all XML Press ebooks through O’Reilly Media (DRM-free ePub, Kindle, and PDF) with discount code XMLPR5. Let me know how you like the book!

Readers write

Here are two recent questions from readers:

Sheri E. asked: “The auditors in my company always write clauses like this: ‘The committee had their meeting on. . .’ Shouldn’t it be ‘The committee had its meeting on. . .’”?

I thought she was right, but I usually confirm my instant judgment with The Gregg Reference Manual, 11th edition. Sections 1019a and 1019b state, respectively:

“If the group is acting as a unit, use the singular form of the verb: ‘The Board of Directors meets Friday.’”

“If the members of the group are acting separately, use a plural verb: ‘A group of researchers are coming from all over the world for the symposium.’”

So Sheri was right, since the committee was acting as a unit to hold the meeting.

Second question

LisaMarie D. wrote: “Could you please let me know the correct way to word this:

‘Over 50% of the population now uses


Over 50% of the population now use’”?

Gregg addresses this question in Section 1024:

“When subjects expressing periods of time, amounts of money, or quantities represent a total amount, use singular verbs.”

In my mind, “over 50% of the population” represents a total amount, so the verb should be “uses”: “Over 50% of the population now uses. . .”

(Incidentally, both of the questions above involve collective nouns―defined in Understanding English Grammar as “a noun that refers to a collection of individuals” and extensively explained with principles and examples.)

My very favorite productivity hack

I used to print my mailing and filing labels using Microsoft® Word’s label templates (a torturous, curse-producing process), but I always worried about wasting the other 32 labels on the sheet when all I needed was one label. The label manufacturer always warned against running the labels through the printer a second time, but really? How wasteful is that?

Then I found DYMO® Label Makers (a half-price sale lured me in to buy a LabelWriter® 450 Turbo). I was hooked after printing my first label. This tiny printer connects to my PC (or your Mac) through a very intuitive interface. I can manually produce a label with a bar code in less than 38 seconds.

But wait! There’s more! To produce multiple labels from a spreadsheet or Word table, I only have to select the relevant rows, click “DYMO Label” in the ribbon, select the type of label to produce, and the DYMO printer spits out the labels instantly. It’s even faster to print from Outlook. Of course, the labels are way more pricey than sheet labels, but I justify the expense by balancing it against the value of my time and the fun I have printing instant labels, not to mention the fact that I can smugly announce to you that I have completed all my holiday mailing―both personal and business―earlier than ever before.

Believe me, when the Apocalypse comes, they’ll have to pry my DYMO LabelWriter out of my cold, dead hands.

What is your favorite productivity hack? Tell us here what productivity aid you can’t live without (and why).

A tale of two (actually three) English grammar texts

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Michael Franklin at the AMWA (American Medical Writers Association) conference in Columbus last month. He told me of a must-read grammar text, Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, that he had studied in graduate school. I nearly fainted when I saw the price at my favorite book dealer ($126.52), but I was able to find a really clean used copy of an earlier edition for a fraction of that price.

Now, when I say “a must-read grammar text,” understand the context: I’m a nerdy linguist at heart, always striving to learn “the systematic nature of language” (p. xv). This book excites me because it includes sentence diagramming, which can greatly clarify sentence structure for the lost and confused writer. Kolln and Funk provide 64 exercises (answers, too).

But I’d be the first to admit that I didn’t drop everything and read the book cover to cover, an indulgence that I rarely can afford no matter how compelling the book. I do keep it close at hand, however, and I have now adopted it as my first and most definitive grammar resource.

I feel a bit disloyal to my old favorite, A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum, now out of print and also priced at a breathtaking $125.84.

My copy, bought for $14.25 and used lovingly in graduate school and to this day, has now completely disintegrated through the spine to leave me with 460 separate pages. The crumbly remnants of the spine fall into my keyboard and over the office floor whenever I open the text. I would replace my copy with a used one in better condition except that I have so many annotations that I cannot bear to leave behind (or copy over).

And now for that third grammar text, which I discovered while searching for Kolln and Funk’s book: Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Schrampfer Azar and Stacy A. Hagen. I found a copy at my local library and learned that this text is “a developmental skills text for intermediate to advanced students of English as a second or foreign language” (p. xiii). It is, as are the two books above, intended primarily as a classroom teaching text but also as a further reference. I was delighted to find a resource that I could recommend to my brilliant engineers for whom English is their second language. They are very motivated to improve their English and could study the book and work the exercises using the answer key and audio CDs.

If English is your first language and you are looking for a good, definitive resource to understand its structure, the first two titles above would probably help you. If English is your second language and you want to learn and understand the structure of English better, check out the third title. But if you are looking for answers to style questions (Should I capitalize this? Should I use “imply” or “infer” in this sentence?), consult The Gregg Reference Manual or the style guide of your choice.



Some of my newsletter readers are brilliant entrepreneurs!

Sarah Taffee

Sarah Taffee

Today I am featuring a guest column by a former client and friend who just started her own coaching business:

I first met Bette about 18 years ago when I was exploring career options in college and have since had the privilege of working with her on multiple occasions. I’m grateful for this opportunity to introduce myself to her brilliant readers:

My name is Sarah Taffee. I recently resigned as HR director at a software company to focus on my work as a leadership development and personal coach. I am excited to be receiving my Professional Coach designation in February! For over 15 years I have actively developed people as a trainer, consultant, and HR professional. My experience forms a solid foundation of knowledge and skills for coaching: In addition to asking powerful questions that help clients discover and explore their own path forward, I also offer tools and tips from my experience that are relevant to my clients’ goals.

As emerging leaders, my clients are typically creative, resourceful, and eager to grow and discover. But often they can benefit from outside help, particularly when it comes to achieving the self-awareness, personal growth, and conscious action they need to thrive in leadership positions. I work with highly talented, results-oriented, motivated people who seek out coaching to:

  • Focus on pursuing their goals or discovering “what’s next”
  • Determine their values and create a vision for who they are becoming
  • Uncover available choices and alternative perspectives
  • Become aware of and change mindsets and behaviors that hold them back
  • Access their inner strength and wisdom with ease
  • Deepen their learning about their experiences
  • Live and work consciously, in alignment with their values

If you are interested in learning more about my coaching services or rates, please contact me at


Why bother with a style guide?

If you write or edit more than one document a day or work with other writers and editors, you need a style guide to provide guidance on style (language conventions with respect to spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and typographic arrangement and display). You can create a style guide at the personal, department, or corporate level (depending on the politics in your workplace).

For example, will you write:

  • Provider Services Department or Provider Services department?
  • Post-operative or postoperative?
  • Bullet points with periods at the end?
  • Zero through nine as words and 10 and above as numerals?

If you want consistency in your documents, you must have a style guide to direct these and hundreds of other style decisions.

Base your style guide on a published style manual

Published style manuals include The Gregg Reference Manual or The American Medical Association Manual of Style. You can buy most style manuals on Amazon. To compare 12 currently published style manuals, download this style manual guide that I wrote with my colleague Elizabeth Frick. (You read that right―the other Elizabeth Frick [Betsy Frick] and I have collaborated on several books and documents).

Here’s the short version of that matrix:

  • For most technical and business documents, consider using The Gregg Reference Manual.
  • For medical documents, you must use The American Medical Association Manual of Style and/or Scientific Style and Format (the CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers).
  • For academic publishing, consider The Chicago Manual of Style. This manual is generally not appropriate for technical or business writing.
  • For publishing psychological research, use APA (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association). APA is generally not appropriate for technical or business writing.
  • For government writing, consider The Gregg Reference Manual and/or the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual (GPO Style Manual).
  • For journalism and marketing or sales writing, use AP (The Associated Press Manual of Style).  AP is rarely appropriate for technical or business writing.
  • For software documentation, use the Microsoft Manual of Style or Read Me First.

It’s important to realize that your chosen published style manual merely acts as the basis of your style guide―you can go against or “contra” any of the style manual’s advice. For example, if your chosen style manual requires a period after the abbreviation “Inc.” but your company does not use the period, you could list your style followed by the parenthetical (contra Gregg 122f). In a culture driven by individualism, not having to conform to a style manual on every decision may be comforting if you or others chafe at any hint of being controlled.

On the other hand, it may be even more comforting to know that you don’t have to create a style manual from scratch. Save time and base your style on a chosen published style manual, adapting it to work for your organization.


Maybe I do know what I know: Enduring principles for writing for both web and print

In my August newsletter, I shared my angst about whether what I teach in my technical writing classes is really informed by research or is simply based on instinct. My headline read: “How do I know what I know?” (My 8-year-old grandson saw that headline and said, “You just know what you know, Grandma! At least, I do.” Oh, to be always as self-assured as an 8-year-old!)

Fortunately, I’m no longer in angst because I have just read Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, Second Edition, by Ginny Redish, a fellow Fellow of STC. I had not read the first edition because of the book’s subtitle; I don’t write web content for a living nor do I usually teach people who write web content. However, my editor suggested reading Redish’s material on personas, and I got hooked on the whole book.

Ginny’s book confirmed that most of my cherished language beliefs do have a solid research foundation, at least for web readers. I recognize that there are differences between web and print-based reading, but I believe that most of the web principles that Ginny shares will generalize to the printed page as well (this may be an intellectual leap that we could argue).

Here are three principles from Ginny’s book that I also love to teach:

  1. Using color is problematic for at least two reasons: Some readers have color deficiencies, and colors carry cultural connotations that you might not be able to predict (pp. 50-52).
  2. Don’t center text, even in table columns, because centering violates the reader’s need for alignment (pp. 59-60).
  3. Readers seeking information look first at your first paragraph and then at the first words of list items (p. 139), so put the “bottom line on top” (i.e., lead with the most important information).

Although I do agree with most of Ginny’s points and practices, a few left me wondering:

  • She argues in favor of “turning sentences into more visual forms, like lists and tables” (p. 62), and I concur; but I wonder why she lowercases the first letter of each listed point. This practice contradicts what I see in almost all lists in technical writing today (again, I don’t know if any research argues one way or the other).
  • She recommends sans serif typefaces for both web and print-based text (p. 62). I’ve always taught that sans serif is best for web writing, e-mail, and slides, but serif is best for print-based text. I was fascinated to read that the research that claims that serif typefaces are better for sustained reading (print-based text) is now more than 60 years old. Ginny claims that “research on web content has not shown a consistent winner between serif and sans serif for either reading speed or comprehension.” However, her assertion that “preference almost always favors the familiar sans serif fonts [for the web]” is not as definitive as I would like.

Despite these minor concerns, I’m glad that I have studied Ginny’s book―it’s packed with excellent tips and persuasive case studies and makeovers. Above all, I found myself reinforced by her underlying principle: Before writing anything for any audience, always imagine a conversation with the reader:

  • What do they think?
  • What do they know?
  • What do they need to know?
  • What will they do with the information?

I don’t need research to tell me that this consideration of my audience’s wants and needs is valid―it’s just compassionate common sense.

And I’m glad that I had to rethink my assumptions: I had made an assumption that I didn’t need to read Ginny’s book because it was framed to help web writers. It turns out that most of her principles apply to the kind of writing that I do teach, and I wish I had read it earlier.

Kids and their amazing grasp of subtle language cues

Just had the sweetest discussion with my first-born grandchild:

“Grandma, can you buy me this candy bar?”

“Gracie, it’s full of sugar. Sugar rots your teeth and will make your nose drop off.”

“I’m OK with that, Grandma.”

OMG―she understands hyperbole and irony at age 9! (Could that be genetic?)