What You’ll Learn

A self-professed grammar nerd, NWPPA Director of Communications Brenda Dunn talks through some common mistakes that writers make and how to fix them.

Guest Speaker

Brenda Dunn

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.


Andy Johns: How can you avoid seven common grammar gaffes that can sink your storytelling? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of “StoryConnect: The Podcast.” My name is Andy Johns, your host with Pioneer, and I’m joined on this episode by Brenda Dunn, who is the director of communications at NWPPA, the Northwest Public Power Association. Brenda, thank you for joining me.

Brenda Dunn: Thank you for having me, Andy.

Andy Johns: So I was crazy enough to ask Brenda at the NIC Conference if she had time to record a podcast with me, and she very politely told me she didn’t. So she did say we would follow up and do this. She was very busy, kind of masterminding that whole conference. So we’re going to record this episode based on the session, one of the NIC talks that Brenda did, which was called “Seven Common Grammar Gaffes,” and we’ll talk about that. But before we get into those specifically, there are a lot of things you could have talked about.

Brenda Dunn: I can talk for days.

Andy Johns: So why was the, why was grammar the one topic you felt like was important enough to talk about in your NIC talk?

Brenda Dunn: I go to a lot of conferences, which I love them all, and they’re all great. But no one really addresses the foundation of what we all do, which is writing. And for good writing to be trusted and for it to be credible, you have to have good grammar, and you need to catch those typos. You need to have a second set of eyes. I was at another conference earlier this year, and your colleague, Leon Espinoza, he very simply put it, “Communication builds trust, and we need to have trust with our members.” And if it’s not good communication, that puts a crack in it. And then you’ve got more things to do.

Andy Johns: Yep. So let’s dive into your seven because I want us to have a little bit of time on each of them. But go ahead and, I know we’re talking spacing. We’re talking hyphens. We’ll get to those in a minute. But go ahead and lay the first couple of the seven common grammar gaffes on us.

Brenda Dunn: The first one I see a lot, and you probably see it as being a cooperative yourself is that people abbreviate co-op, which is great, but it needs a hyphen because we are not working for chicken coops. It’s a huge pet (peeve). I see it all the time. I see “ABC Coop” working in whatever state. So please put the hyphen. It’s co-op.

Andy Johns: It’s even worse when it’s spoken too, if somebody…

Brenda Dunn: I mean, it’s not good.

Andy Johns: No, no.

Brenda Dunn: And I get it. You see like in email addresses, a lot of people work @___.coop. I get it.

Andy Johns: True. And I know Ann Harvey on our team she is a big on the capital “O” being a no-no on the co-op. So if you’re writing it out, but you see sometimes “Co-Op.”

Brenda Dunn: No.

Andy Johns: Yeah, that’s wrong.

Brenda Dunn: No, I don’t. That is new to me, and I don’t like that.

Andy Johns: Yep, yep. All right, what’s the next one?

Brenda Dunn: Next one. This one I probably see more because NWPPA. We do 250 training events a year, which include trade shows. “Trade show” is two words. “Tradeshow” is not a word. Please, please make it two words, or I will circle it on your agenda. So, it’s true. It’s happened.

Andy Johns: Okay. I believe that. Two words for trade show. All right, Which one’s next? I should say, as you’re going through this most of, because I know you work on the Bulletin and some of the other publications you guys do, you’re using AP Style for most everything. Is that correct?

Brenda Dunn: That is a very good disclaimer. We do follow AP Style, but we have our NWPPA style as well. For example, being the word nerd that I am and highly educated, I believe the Oxford comma is always and will always be needed. AP Style does not use it. Chicago style uses it. I won’t get into this, but please use the Oxford comma, just saying. But yes. So most of these rules are AP Style. Obviously, the first couple aren’t. I mean, trade show is two words. That’s just the rule. I believe, I was going to say don’t record me on this, but too late. I think AP Style follows Merriam-Webster. And so that’s the dictionary of choice.

Andy Johns: Also, my Webster of choice.

Brenda Dunn: Also, my Webster choice. It’s a nice Webster.

Andy Johns: Given a choice on Websters.

Brenda Dunn: You promised me you can cut out dumb things. I say, Andy. So, put that on the list.

Andy Johns: I don’t know if that one counts or not.

Brenda Dunn: Curses.

Andy Johns: So if we’re – and Oxford comma, we have fought that fight before. Multiple times.

Brenda Dunn: Because I know Pioneer does not use it. I know.

Andy Johns: From the newspaper days and from. Yeah, yeah, that’s the thing.

Brenda Dunn: And people, word nerds will live or die on this one.

Andy Johns: Oh yeah. Another very controversial one that I know was on your list was the two spaces after a period. I may be getting your list out of order here; we may have skipped number three there, but yeah, two spaces after a period.

Brenda Dunn: Yeah. Don’t do it.

Andy Johns: Don’t do it ever.

Brenda Dunn: Ever.

Andy Johns: But I see it all the time.

Brenda Dunn: Right. Because you and I, I mean, you’re younger than I am, but I feel maybe even in school you learned to do two spaces. We were taught it. I was taught it in typing class. And then this thing called the Internet came about and people want to save space. Book publishers want to save space. And if you actually take those extra periods out, it saves you space on your websites. It saves you pages of paper in your books. And two spaces has been dead for eons. So it’s the first thing I do when I get a news release. I control+h. I find and replace.

Andy Johns: All of them.

Brenda Dunn: And I move on.

Andy Johns: But you still see it an awful lot. All the time.

Brenda Dunn: All the time. So, and I understand. I had to change, but change is okay. I had to stop doing the double tap. So it’s okay.

Andy Johns: It’s okay. I think I skipped – oh, go ahead.

Brenda Dunn: Well, I just. My disclaimer because I sound very judgy, probably. I mean, this is a little bit what they pay me for is to critique writing. But –

Andy Johns: It was a grammar session.

Brenda Dunn: Yeah, it’s a grammar session. But we all make mistakes at the NIC talks. I showed mistakes that I had made. So this is just so we all can be better. And we can all earn more trust and confidence with our members. So I know I poke fun at it and, but it’s just something we can all work on doing better with.

Andy Johns: Yeah. Let he among us who has not ever done a double space, throw the first double space? I don’t know.

Brenda Dunn: Triple space. I don’t know how it goes.

Andy Johns: The metaphor breaks down.

Brenda Dunn: Or hyphen or m-dash and n-dash. Throw one of those. I don’t know.

Andy Johns: All right, so I think I skipped your number three on the list because I think spacing was a little farther down. Did we miss one?

Brenda Dunn: We missed one. We missed, so this one is more for the West Coast folks probably. We see this one more, people talk about Washington state. And they like to clarify that we’re not talking about Washington, D.C., but you don’t need to do that. If you capitalize “s” in Washington State, there you’re talking about the Washington State Cougars. I am a Duck fan, so I don’t like to talk about the Washington State Cougars. But you’re talking about a school. Washington state, if you live in Washington state, you want a capital W, a lowercase s. So that is one I see a lot. For some reason you don’t see it with Oregon state or Utah state, but it’s because there’s that D.C. Across the country and people want to clarify, but you don’t. And if you’re talking about Seattle in Washington state, just lowercase that “s” please.

Andy Johns: Okay. So and to be clear, the nuance there, you’re talking about just the lowercase “s.” I mean, do you feel like in most references it’s okay to still say Washington state, or are you saying that in most of the time you don’t even need that phrase “state”?

Brenda Dunn: You don’t really need it. But this is about baby steps, Andy. If we can get them to just lowercase the “s” first, and the next, we’ll get them to move it out of the way.

Andy Johns: I gotcha. Okay.

Brenda Dunn: But you can. You can just take it out of the way, and then you don’t have to worry about if it’s capped or not, so that’s a good shortcut.

Andy Johns: Yeah. If it’s clear from the context, as a writer, you know, you’ve been edited over and over again. If it’s clear from the context that you’re probably not talking about D.C.

Brenda Dunn: You’re probably not. I am geographically challenged, but even I will know which coast you’re probably talking about, so.

Andy Johns: All right. You have hyphens on your list as well.

Brenda Dunn: I just talked about hyphens and m-dashes and n-dashes, which half the time I get confused.

Andy Johns: Good segue way.

Brenda Dunn: Right? It was good. Not even planned. So a lot of, I mean, I think most people know if you’ve got a modifier, a compound modifier, which is two words like “first-place award.” You’re going to put a hyphen in there to bring them together because they’re modifying award. But there’s a weird rule, and I don’t think it’s just an AP rule. I think it’s the grammar gods’ rule. If there is an “ly,” you don’t put a hyphen. And because someone thinks the “ly” somehow makes a hyphen, I don’t know. I don’t make these rules, but someone made this rule. So if it’s a newly created award, you’re actually not going to use a hyphen between newly and created. If it’s highly regarded newsletters, you’re not going to use a hyphen in there. But again, if it’s an award-winning magazine such as NWPPA’s Bulletin, thank you. Then you want to put a hyphen between award and winning. So it’s just, it’s a little nuanced, but I see it all the time. People know they’re supposed to hyphens in modifiers, and they just hyphen everything.

Andy Johns: If you see the “ly” and this is what I know that has gotten me before, and I’ve been I’ve been edited, rightfully so. That yeah, you see that “ly,” you don’t need the hyphen. You’re good.

Brenda Dunn: And again, I don’t know why. I really… It’s strange.

Andy Johns: So the next one on your list is one that we have been around and around with in a loving way, with folks about when not to and when to capitalize “board” and some of those other words like that. What is your insight there?

Brenda Dunn: If you’re following AP Style… Oh, I got things to say, Andy.

Andy Johns: I knew.

Brenda Dunn: If you’re following AP Style, you do not capitalize it if you’re just talking about the board of commissioners voted to do blah, blah, blah. If you’re talking about the Grays Harbor Board of Commissioners, that is all as part of the title, and we’re golden. And we’re going to cap, we’re going to initial cap everything. But if you’re again, if you’re talking about board of commissioners voted to duh duh duh, that’s just a noun. That’s all that is. It’s like whale or fish or lemur. It’s just a noun. It doesn’t get capped. But my disclaimer, which I said at the NIC, please do not go back and start a fight with your execs. If their style guide and their preference is they want “general manager” always capitalized or “president” or “board.” Choose your battles people. However, if you want to go by AP Style like we do at NWPPA, those should not be capitalized.

Andy Johns: And to clarify.

Brenda Dunn: People just like to capitalize things.

Andy Johns: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, they’re important. And the argument I’ve had with communicator in loving, we’ll say discussion, not argument. Well, you know, the board is very important so we should capitalize it. And I get that. But like spring and summer are very important, and we don’t capitalize them. We don’t. I mean “earth.” I don’t think AP Style, I don’t think we even capitalize “earth.”

Brenda Dunn: So that depends. It depends if you’re talking about your standing on the earth or if you’re looking at Earth from Mars, if you’re talking about the planet.

Andy Johns: Interesting. This language stuff is fascinating.

Brenda Dunn: And I only, you’re going to stop me at some point because I wish I knew all the grammar. I wish I was Will Shortz, but I also do read the AP Style for fun because it’s fascinating to me.

Andy Johns: You’re worse than I thought. I did record a podcast recently with Pam Blair at our office, and she’s been doing it for 27 years, as she retires 28 years. And she said that even after that, when she edits, she edits with the AP Stylebook right there, and she’s having to look stuff up all the time, even after all that time.

Brenda Dunn: All the time. I still can’t – bachelor’s degree, bachelor degree. I still like which one are you capping which one are you not in trusty AP Style?

Andy Johns: Well then part of it is they’ve changed things over time, which brings us to the next word that we’ll go to in a minute. But I did want to clarify on the board of commissioners things, when you were saying board of commissioners or the “Grays Harbor Board of Commissioners,” when you got the full formal title, that’s when you’re going to capitalize it.

Brenda Dunn: Yes.

Andy Johns: When it’s a less formal reference and you’re just talking about the board of commissioners…

Brenda Dunn: Exactly.

Andy Johns: without the full formal name, that’s when you’re going to lowercase. Yep.

Brenda Dunn: Correct.

Andy Johns: Okay. As we alluded to a minute ago, some words in the AP Style change over time, and this is one when I was in journalism school, Internet was one that was always capitalized, and we write about it a lot.

Brenda Dunn: Because it was big and new and shiny back then, so.

Andy Johns: Right. But now, and this is one that trips me up all the time, internet is no longer capitalized.

Brenda Dunn: Andy, it is no longer capitalized. Neither is web or website. Intranet, I don’t think was ever capped. So that one, which was weird because you’d capitalize Internet, but not intranet. It was confusing. All of those now are just lowercase. No, no initial cap. It’s kind of… Email has also transformed over the years. I think that used to be an initial cap “E” and that’s just because it’s not new and shiny anymore.

Andy Johns: Yeah, the exception would be formal names, of course, like Hood River Electric and Internet Co-op, I think is their title. So if it’s in a formal name, then the name of a product or something where it’s a brand, if you’re someone who sells internet service and whatever, then different story. But when we’re generally speaking about the internet or internet service, it’s lowercase.

Brenda Dunn: Yeah, if Hood River provides internet service, that’s going to be a lower lowercase “i.” So but yes, if you’re talking about Hood River Electric and Internet Co-op – which has the hyphen because I love my Libby Calnon. They abbreviated “co-op” for their official title, but she’s got that hyphen so.

Andy Johns: And then you had a bonus one that you mentioned, which is another one that has changed just like internet. So language is changing, but you’re bonus…

Brenda Dunn: It is changing. I have had the privilege the last few years to go to ACE’s Annual Conference, which is the American Copy Editor Society, which are basically the folks behind AP Style. So every year they release…

Andy Johns: Sounds like a wild bunch.

Brenda Dunn: Oh, it’s 800 introverts plus me. It’s great.

Andy Johns: All right.

Brenda Dunn: But they release the AP Style changes every year at this conference. And I think it was 2019 when I went, they announced, if you’re following AP Style, you are no longer to spell out “percent.” So you would no longer put “25 percent” spelled out. They have gone back to the percent sign symbol, to which, I am not joking, there were people clutching their pearls, gasps, people typing frantically when they made this change. Because if you follow AP Style religiously, you always had to spell it out. It was kind of silly, but change happens and now you can use the percent sign. Unless you’re using percentage. If you’re talking about the percentage of the population, and then you still want to spell it out, obviously.

Andy Johns: And that’s one that has has tripped me up before, too. When you’re talking about a percent, when you’re talking about a percentage, that’s a whole other discussion.

Brenda Dunn: It is.

Andy Johns: So those are your seven, the seven common grammar gaffes. I appreciate you running through those. The last thing I wanted to do since you were kind of the, like I said earlier, the mastermind behind, of course, working with the committee and stuff.

Brenda Dunn: An amazing committee. An amazing staff. Amazing sponsors. Andy Johns. Thank you.

Andy Johns: What, you know, you were there. You were out in the hall. You were talking to a ton of folks there in Anchorage for the NIC conference. What were some of your takeaways? What were some of the stuff that you heard? What were some of the lessons learned? And congratulations on a great conference once again. But as we wrap up here, what were some of the takeaways that you had?

Brenda Dunn: I would say, and honestly, I’m not just flattering the podcast host, but your session about how to talk to different generations, our evaluation forms blew up over this one because for folks who weren’t there, you had about four 20 something year olds who knew nothing about public power. Who did not know they were members of co-ops. Who did not know the difference between an IOU and a consumer-owned utility. And a take away from that was, we have a lot of work to do to communicate to the younger generations what we do in public power, and the services we provide them, and how being a cooperative is a great thing. And it’s a part of their community, and it’s locally owned. So that was one huge takeaway that we have a lot of work to do. We need to communicate better to the next generations who weren’t there when the lights got turned on.

Andy Johns: That might be pandering, but I’ll accept it.

Brenda Dunn: Thank you. Thank you.

Andy Johns: Thank you. That was kind of you.

Brenda Dunn: It was a great session. Eye-opening and a little terrifying. Another great session we had was Damian Ratcliffe returned, and this year he talked about misinformation. How do you counter all of the information that’s out there about energy, about solar, about your cooperative, about your utility? And he had great takeaways. You know, know when to fight back. Know when to just leave the trolls alone. Know how to counter them with facts and have those ready. So that was another one that we heard about a lot in the hallways. And then I would say, it’s not a communications topic at all. But we closed out the conference talking about mental health and about stress. And as we know, these last few years, especially for communicators, have been crazy and have been hectic and have been hard. And we had someone from Providence Health talk about how to find your calm, how to find your workplace / home life balance. How to not do 80 hours of work a week, and just how to find your calm, which a lot of people thanked us on our evaluations for having that and for addressing the topic, so.

Andy Johns: Very cool. I was just sitting here thinking, I don’t remember being in on that one, but I realized that was out. I was working on some other projects, so maybe it was even more important that I should have been there.

Brenda Dunn: You maybe should have been there. So you were there, Andy. What was one of your takeaways?

Andy Johns: Well, I think. I mean, it’s always just such a good group of folks, you know, just hearing, networking. I really enjoyed the branding session. That was like the bonus one after the main kind of part conference when the folks from Meridian talked through the way that they rebranded. And, you know, we’re right in the middle of either, I guess, de-branding more with the consolidating some of the brands that we have here with Pioneer, with ARC and WordSouth. So that one was was particularly meaningful to me just to hear from everything they went through, getting their team on board, all of that. So good sessions all the way around. I did like the the misinformation one. That guy as well. So good sessions all the way around.

Brenda Dunn: Awesome. Thank you.

Andy Johns: But I know you’re busy then. I know you’re busy now. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.

Brenda Dunn: Well, thank you for being incessant, so.

Andy Johns: I’ll take it.

Brenda Dunn: Speaking of good words.

Brenda Dunn: You’ll take it. It’s hard to hide from Andy Johns.

Andy Johns: There you go. The long arm of the podcast will find you.

Brenda Dunn: Yes.

Brenda Dunn: She is Brenda Dunn. She is director of communications at NWPPA. I’m your host, Andy Johns with Pioneer. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by Pioneer Utility Resources, a communications cooperative that is built to share your story. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.