Kiss Your ‘s’ Goodbye

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Guest Post: Tony Proscio

In a recent Communications Network webinar, Sink or Swim? Jumping into the Pool of Foundation Communications, two of the Network’s most expert members fielded a question that was evidently troubling some people’s sleep:

When we’re discussing our field, are we talking about strategic ‘communication’ or ‘communications’–singular or plural?

Now, I have to confess that my first reaction upon hearing this was: This has got to be one of the least important issues ever debated, in what ought to be an important line of work. Other than someone who makes a living correcting other people’s word usage, who could possibly care about this question? To me, it had echoes of Lilliput and Blefescu going to war over which end of a boiled egg to crack.

But then, the longer I thought about it, the more intriguing the matter became. A little research turned up some genuinely interesting stuff. (Keep in mind, I make at least part of my living correcting other people’s word usage.)

For starters, a careful read of the many definitions of ‘communication’ in the Oxford English Dictionary gives no comfort — zero — to anyone who claims that there is only one etymologically correct answer to this question. The use of the plural ‘communications’ to refer to extended engagement with other people goes back at least as far as the 15th century, when Parliament passed the Scots Act of 1491. The act asserted that King Henry VII ‘hath had … many assembles and commynycacions with the King of Scottes for amyte, trewes, and peas to be had.’ (Admittedly, these commynycacions may not have been all that strategic, given that the King of Scotland invaded England five years later. So much for the amyte. Pass the peas.)

Through many centuries, ‘communication,’ whether singular or plural, referred to a giant grab-bag of different things, from the raunchy (Tobias Smollett, 1771: ‘I have had communication with her three times,’) to the theological (as in the taking of Communion), and every form of … well, intercourse in between. Historically, it’s just not the sort of word with much of a solid boundary around it. Still, it is certainly true that the plural form was comparatively rare in English until the beginning of the 20th century, when the means and media of communication started to multiply. And that fact gives strength to the suggestion, advanced by Kristen Grimm, president of Spitfire Strategies, during the webinar, that ‘communications,’ plural, should normally refer to tactical forms and modes of communication — sending e-mails, buying ads, issuing press releases, posting blogs, and so on. The unifying goal of all these things, and thus the singular strategy behind them, is communication. In Kristen’s nicely concise (and yet expansive) definition, that means ‘the art of engaging with other people.’

The more I thought of it, the more I felt that — at least among people in our business — there is a need to distinguish the Big Thing we labor all day to accomplish from the little things we do, a bit here and a different bit there, in pursuit of that one Big Thing. There’s no point having a Communications (plural) Plan – laying out how much emphasis we’re going to put on our web site vs. earned media vs. NPR sponsorship – unless we first have a Communication (singular) Strategy, which ought to clarify what we are trying to say and what we expect to happen when we say it. Now, we need to acknowledge that this distinction catapults both of these words squarely into the realm of jargon: terms that have a specialized meaning among insiders that is mostly lost on lay people. But jargon isn’t evil, it just needs to know its place. And strictly among us practitioners, I think this one can and should have a place of respect.

So on balance, I’m with Kristen: communication is what we do; communications are various ways of doing it.

But don’t expect me to join any Army or salute any flag in this war. I still don’t think the question is all that critical. When Kristen referred to an acquaintance who “is fanatical about this,” I flinched. I mean, OK, fanatical about the serial comma? Definitely. Fanatical about the correct use of ‘comprise’ and ‘beg the question?’ Fine, if you’re prepared to be lonely. But fanatical about ‘communication’ — singular or plural?

Really?

I think someone needs to get out more.


Tony Proscio, a planning, evaluation, and communication consultant to foundation and large nonprofit organizations, is also the creator of the Communications Network’s Jargon Finder.

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