Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh

Oct 01, 2013

Could you literally care less about the finer points of the language? Ever wonder why the Post follows the conventions it follows? Join author and Post copy editor Bill Walsh to discuss not only grammar but also punctuation, capitalization, spelling, word choice, and the other nuts and bolts of good writing.

Greetings! To kick things off, I have a case study from the world of language change and geekery and peevery. A week or so ago, my colleague Chris Cillizza expressed his astonishment on Twitter that Washington Post style for the slang term for "microphone" is "mike" and not "mic." Now, Chris is younger than I am, and indeed Kids Today do write "mic," and even the Associated Press Stylebook has given in to that trend (The Post has its own stylebook). 

What's interesting to the geek in me, and kind of maddening to the peever in me, is how we got there. When I learned to read, and for decades after that, the only place I ever saw "mic" on the sides of tape recorders. Newspapers and magazines and books spelled the short form "mike." Though the Nexis database is spotty going back that far, it largely backs me up on this: I searched for "open mike night" and "open mic night," to avoid false positives like "Your door is open, Mike," and found that in all the English-language press in that archive, "open mic night" appeared only three times before 1993, compared with 343 uses of "open mike night." 

 In case it's not obvious, a mike is a "mike" because that's the way nicknames and short-form slang work: You spell them phonetically. You don't just grab the letters f-r-i-g out of "refrigerator," because "frig" is pronounced "frig." It's a mild curse word; a fridge is a "fridge." A Bic is a pen; a bike is a "bike." Bic and sic and hic and Nic and rhyme with "mick," and so should "mic." 

Things change, of course, and now, with some help from that AP style ruling in 2010, "open mic night" appears 12 times as often as "open mike night." As I put it, perhaps more obnoxiously than necessary, the people who read the sides of tape recorders overtook the people who read newspapers and books and magazines. Now that that's happened, of course, plenty of people who weren't born or weren't paying attention in the '60s and '70s and '80s and much of the '90s have seen "mic" in print so often that "mike" looks bizarre to them, and it's probably safe to say that, in another generation, "mike" will be a relic. 

And that's the moral here: Language change is often born of ignorance, and the people who were around to see that ignorance take hold will go to their graves muttering about how stupid the ignorance is and telling the kids to get off their lawns, but they will go to their graves nonetheless, and their old ways will go extinct, and the change will be for good. The End.

I'll eventually shut up about "mic," but let me frame the argument in a new way: When there isn't room for "Robert" and "Charles" and "William," as in a phone book (speaking of relics!), you might see Robt and Chas and Wm. Note that those are entirely different things than the nickname short forms "Bob" and "Chuck" and "Bill." You'd be an idiot to think that "Robt" is the way you spell "Bob," and yet that's essentially what the creators of the "mic" spelling did. The tape-recorder engravers were just looking for a way to write MICROPHONE in a tight space; they were in no way intending to print the slang form of the word. But, in a coincidence, "mic" sort of kind of looks like a maybe-plausible spelling of "mike," and so the ignorance took hold, and it took hold so firmly that I really don't get to call people ignorant for doing it today.

Anyway ... what's on your mind? I'll start answering questions at 2.

I'm here for real now. Or is it fr realz?

Thanks for doing this chat. Please do at least once a month. What a great idea. And even thought it pains me, this is a great graph: And that's the moral here: Language change is often born of ignorance, and the people who were around to see that ignorance take hold will go to their graves muttering about how stupid the ignorance is and telling the kids to get off their lawns, but they will go to their graves nonetheless, and their old ways will go extinct, and the change will be for good.

Thank you. Once a month is the plan, the first Tuesday of every month.

The misuse of flounder has become so common that it is becoming an accepted use of the word. When I was a teen you couldn't "flounder" unless you were in shallow water; today you can do it in a corporate boardroom.

Actually, foundering and floundering are two different things. If you're struggling, like a flopping fish, you're floundering. If you're sinking, you're foundering. Foundering is a worse fate, and often it comes after some floundering.

Samuel Jackson recently chided President Obama for what he thought was zelig like behavior with different audiences. Geez, it's called 'communication'. However, I do have a gripe - the President's pronunciation of 'to' as 'ta'. There, I've said it. Whew. Thanks. julie

I'd chalk that up as a Midwestern thing. I find it endearing when Liz Phair, also from Chicago, sings with those kinds of vowels. 

"I hate Congresses guts!" or "I hate Congresses stinking guts!"

Congress's! (Or Congress', if you follow AP style.) The stinking is optional.

And remember: The noun is "shutdown"; the verb is "shut down." The shutdown shut down the government.

Thanks for a fun chat! Why does the Post not use a comma after the penultimate word in a series? In APA style, we write: "Carry a knife, fork, and spoon." The Post would write it as: "Carry a knife, fork and spoon." This drives me bonkers!

That's the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, and for whatever reason (simplicity? saving space?), newspapers tend not to use it. A lot of people do feel strongly about that little mark. Oddly enough, I don't, as I wrote recently on my blog.

In the Post and elsewhere, I've seen that word misused. "One" and 100% and 145% are fractions, too. Why is the word "fraction" now used to mean "a little bit" or "small amount'?

The word has both meanings. Seven over 8, or anything over anything, is technically a fraction, but "fraction" also means "small portion." It's just one of those things.

As does the set of grammar nerd coffee mugs my uncle posted on facebook the other day, including sayings like "Don't LOSE the LOOSE leaf tea," "THEY'RE THERE for THEIR afternoon tea," and "I am FIGURATIVELY dying for a cuppa." It's just missing a your/you're, although a friend suggested "YOU'RE drinking YOUR coffee out of this mug." Because nothing makes me twitch more than receiving an email from a person many years older than and senior to me that says "Your welcome."

That reminds me of the list that my mom's aunt and uncle in Omaha had on their fridge (not their frig!) in my childhood. "Avoid cliches like the plague." "Don't use no double negatives."

Can we please put the "no split infinitive" rule out of its misery at some point this century, or do you see this archaic and awkward rule outliving us until the next millenium?

Sigh. Yeah, that's an unfortunate rule-that-isn't. And some people extend it to mean you can't split any verb phrases. "I have never seen such a thing" gets needlessly changed to "I never have seen such a thing." 

It just seems so right.

Neet!

I've been an editor and writer for over twenty years and need a career change. I've been correcting the same mistakes for years and I just cannot face it anymore. What would you suggest for a detail-oriented person who is good with language?

I'm stumped. Anyone?

 

Which is correct: "The data is correct" or "The data are correct" (or would you say datum if singular)? Also: "Five million square feet are available" or "Five million square feet is available"? And one last one: Do you use the old-style two spaces after colons and end of sentences or one space? Thanks for answering. These problems really do keep me up at night, along with world strife and federal government crises.

I'm no purist on "data are." Yeah, yeah, yeah, "data" started out as a plural. So did "agenda." How often do ordinary people use "datum"? So I'm fine with "data is."

One space between sentences.

Five million square feet is available, I think, unless each square foot is being discussed individually. But sometimes you have to let the sound of such a sentence dictate the usage and let plurals be plurals. 

I think you said in the last chat that you had a soft spot for hyphens, but one thing that bugs me about the Post is the constant use of hyphens in comparatives: a more-perfect union, for example. You may say that hyphens eliminate ambiguity, but I say that real ambiguity in such phrasing is rare, and if a sentence is ambiguous, you're better off rewording it than sticking a hyphen in it. Oh, and "under way" is two words, unless it refers to a pedestrian underpass...

We're not perfect, but generally you'll see hyphens with "more" in The Post only when there is the potential for ambiguity. "The military needs more-advanced technology." 

We were ahead of the game on "underway," but I think we're on the right side of history. 

 

Supposed newspapers and magazines began eschewing the final comma in a series as a way of saving a comma's worth of ink, as well as the wee bit of paper in the line -- anyone who's ever had a line "kick over" due to a comma knows that it can occasionally be a disproportionate space-eater.

Yep. Those little specks add up!

Hi, Bill. Thanks for doing these chats and fighting the good fight. Apologies if my memory is faulty, but I seem to recall that in your last chat, you asserted that in the construction "I'm one of those people who...", the verb that follows should be plural to agree with "those people." That makes sense, but many of us were taught (perhaps incorrectly?) that ONE is the subject of the sentence, not the dependent clause "of those people"--meaning the verb should be singular. Would you mind issuing a Solomonic ruling? Thanks! P.S. Any problem with rewriting the sentence as: "I'm one who believes/says..."?

Nothing wrong with the rewrite. 

No need for Solomon here, though. People who get stuck on the subject of the sentence are simply looking in the wrong place.

 

I'm shocked to hear even British newsreaders using this expression as synonymous with "raises the question". Is this an accepted usage now?

Yes, it's accepted, but -- as with "literally" -- you and I don't have to be happy about it.

In my new book, "Yes, I Could Care Less," I do sort of a cost-benefit analysis of accepting such things. "Raises the question" does the job, so why abandon the little-used but nifty philosophical concept of begging the question, of assuming the truth of your assertion? "Using 'beg the question' that way is incorrect because it violates the rules of grammar."

Count me as one of those (even though I'm 63) who think "Mike" is a crazy short form for MICrophone. I know usage is governed by style guides, but you submit your justification for thinking "Mike" is proper is simply because when you learned to read and for years after, you saw it in that form. That doesn't make it sensible or even correct does it?. "Mic" seems much more plausible to me. There's no K in microphone and there never was. "Mike" was wrong back then IMHO. Your examples of Robt, Chas, and Wm all involve letters that are in the full word. Nobody thinks Mic is the way to spell the complete word anymore than they think Robt is Robert. If anything you should call yourself ignorant from the git go for thinking that "Mike" (in style guides or not) was then, or is now, acceptable.

So a bicycle is a bic because there's no K in bicycle?

 

The publication I work for prefers "soandso says" instead of "says soandso" after quotes. Is there a justification for this besides "it's just our preference"?

Not really. What really bugs me is when people follow that "rule" even with an intervening clause. As in:

"That's nuts," Walsh, who is a bit of a nutcase, says.

In the US when speaking of a sports team we say, e.g., "Washington is.." But in Europe it's "Washington are..." Which do you prefer?

It's definitely "Washington is" in American English. But that gets tricky with the now-vogue singular team names. 

The Miami Heat is? The Miami Heat are? Both sound bad.

 

Bill - nice to see you and thanks for this - we all know Murphry's Law: It is nearly certain that a post chiding a writer for a grammar flub will itself contain a grammatical miss. We should have a similar rule for grammar peevers, e.g., "An outraged response to a perceived error of grammar will nearly always be based on a false or zombie rule."

Have I lapsed into zombie territory yet this afternoon?

 

No, it is not apostrophe's! How are so many people getting this wrong? The most egregious example, on a sign at a garden center, was "lilie's." Seriously??

The greengrocer's apostrophe! 

Without it, Lynne Truss wouldn't be a gazillionaire.

 

Thank you for doing this chat. I cringe to see the terrible grammar and spelling in the WaPo these days. Is there any hope that under Bezos, more copy editors will be hired?

I cringe at "WaPo," but that's just me :-).

Answer to the other part coming ...

 

I'm wondering if the Post has made cuts to its editing staff. I've come across some disappointing grammatical errors (and I don't look for them) over the last months and have to wonder if it's a staffing issue.

The Post, like most all newspapers, has cut its editing staff, and inevitably quality has suffered. But this isn't all that recent a development; the cuts began several years ago. Keep in mind, though, that perfection is elusive even with daily deadlines, let alone the immediacy of the Web. 

Teach. Freelance writer. ESL instructor.

The second one is still writing, but here are two. Big bucks! 

I'm weary of changing "begs the question" and want to just surrender. We've lost this battle. I also want everyone to stop using "whom" and let it die a dignified death already. This probably makes me a bad editor, but I'm OK with that.

Yeah, I'd vote to keep "whom" only in "for whom the bell tolls" and other obvious cases. 

I find that today's headline writers are using nouns for adjectives when referring to nations. France cooking still good. Syria population dying. Greece olives are best. What gives?

What, you don't like Belgium waffles?

In headlines, expediency often triumphs. So we'll say "Afghan war" rather than "war in Afghanistan," but then we'll turn around and say "Iran president" rather than "Iranian president" because, well, it fits. Those shortcuts have their limits, but we'll take them where we can get them. 

When does "none" take a plural verb, when singular?

It's a common misconception, perpetuated by the Associated Press Stylebook, that "none are" is always wrong and "none is" is always right. "None" can mean either "not one" or "not any," and usually the "not any" meaning makes more sense -- none are. Often you could go either way. "I've seen all of Woody Allen's movies, and none is/are better than 'Manhattan.' " Not one, not any. Take your pick. 

Do you find it is more difficult to proofread text (say a PDF) on a computer screen than text on a printout? Is this generational? Do writers age 20-30 do just fiine? I'm 50 and I'm terrible at proofreading emails and other text on a screen. Maybe a neurologist could explain why.

A lot of people feel this way, which is why most of my copy-desk colleagues print out pages when it comes time to proofread. 

Are puns encouraged at the Post? It seems that news reports are often filled with puns, especially when it comes to titles of stories or captions of pictures.

I think you're talking about headlines, for the most part, and you've touched on something that's controversial among us copy editors, who generally write the headlines.

Puns and other wordplay are used to entice and entertain readers, to "sell" the story. But they're often overused, and some copy editors feel they should seldom or never be used. 

I'm a fan of puns, as you might expect given that I wrote "Lapsing Into a Comma" and "The Elephants of Style," but I try to set the bar high for Post headlines. I groan the same way a lot of readers do when a headline writer reaches for the easy joke. We had a headline the other day on a review of a production of "Measure for Measure," and the headline said something about how it didn't "Measure" up. Thats' a case where we could have done a lot better.

But wordplay can be wry and sophisticated and even touching. One of my favorite headlines of recent years was in the Wall Street Journal, on a review of a biography that painted Charles M. Schulz, the cartoonist who gave us Charlie Brown, as a pretty troubled guy. The headline was THE GRIEF THAT MADE 'PEANUTS' GOOD.

I also like to point out to people that we don't get to leave that headline space blank. As dumb and cliched as the wordplay a photo of a sunny blue sky is likely to produce, it would look even dumber if we made the headline on such a picture say NICE DAY or SKY IS BLUE.

But we do need to take care to avoid sounding sophomoric. Sometimes it seems as though we're punning to entertain ourselves, not to help the readers.

 

 

I appreciate your common-sense analysis of some ever-present irritants, like the wildly-misused apostrophe, and I'm willing to consider its elimination in the name of simplicity. But with names like Ross, Tess and Dennis, don't you need that extra "s" sound when establishing possession? Somehow saying "That's Ross coat, Tess hat and Dennis gloves" does't work. We wouldn't speak that way, so why should we write that way? Doesn't adding the 's actually clarify the meaning, both for the listener and the reader?

That's a good point, though citing the way we pronounce things can backfire: People SHOULD say "Burt Reynolds's Firebird" under that rationale, but most would probably skip that extra S sound.

And that's another example of Washington Post style differing from AP style: We would write Reynolds's, whereas AP style (and therefore most U.S. newspapers' style) would be Reynolds'.

Copy editors not used to that style sometimes go overboard and write "the United States's." (Wrong. Plural forms ending in S get the apostrophe alone when they become possessives.)

What's the rule on when to use "if" and when to use "whether"? I never know if, er whether, I'm using the right one.

Using "if" where "whether" would be traditionally correct is a tiny infraction at worst, but the easist way to follow the "rule" is to see whether "whether" sounds funny. If it doesn't, use it. 

In some languages a double negative is properly used to designate emphasis to the negative. I wonder, how do speakers of those languages differentiate between an emphatic use and a canceling-out double negative?

I haven't studied many languages, but I bristle when I see that as an argument against frowning on double negatives in English. (Not saying you're making that argument.) 

If "ne ... pas" is the way the French properly negate, then it's not a double negative in French, is it? 

 

"I will definitely take your points into consideration" is completely different than "I will defiantly take your points into consideration." However, I commonly see "defiantly" used inappropriately. The same is true for "I couldn't care less" versus "I could care less." It seems more common to say, "I could care less," when meaning the opposite.

Do I have a book for you!

So is the objective case mostly dead in language situations like "This is between he and I"? My wife and I find ourselves shouting out the correct pronouns to just about everyone on the TV, including news anchors. (We don't shout at our friends, some of whom have left the objective case behind too.) Also, I've heard people say things like, "This is he and I's understanding." I know language norms change over time. But these changes still sound pretty awful to my ears.

Boy, is this a popular topic. About half a dozen others are fuming about "between he and I" and the like.

I think the standard mom/schoolteacher correction of "Me and Jimmy are going out to play" to "Jimmy and I" has traumatized a lot of people into hypercorrection. But I can't say it's in my top 10 or 20 peeves.  

Blinds to Go has a terrible typo on their website and I have reached out to them TWICE to tell them about it. It's "compliment" when it should be "complement." I hate being "that guy" but I can't help it! Any advice how to let it go? I wish people/companies took typos, grammar mistakes, etc. more seriously because it matters to those people that it matters to. And I'm not shopping there EVER until they fix it!

And what's the deal with Blinds to Go? As if other window-covering emporiums sell you blinds FOR HERE?

So, sync or synch? I always read synch as cinch.

Sync used to look funny to me, actually, but it seems to be winning out.

 

I am one of those people who [ ]. You are definitely looking in the wrong place if you think the subject of sentence ever appears at the end of a prepositional phrase. I am one who [ ]. Taking out the preposition demonstrates how the sentence should be constructed.

"I am one who ___" is an entirely different assertion than "I am one of those people who ___." The first one involves only you. The second one puts you among people who _____. 

(I'm not one of those people who always use "different from.")

 

I once heard that "may" and "might" are different in that "may" means it's more likely to happen than if one said "might." Your take?

That doesn't make sense to me. My rant on the topic is against those who reflexively change "may have" to "might have." 

"She may have been killed" means it's uncertain whether she's alive. "She might have been killed" means she was fortunate to survive. 

I'm a complete introvert and would be miserable in front of a classroom. But I thank you for your suggestions. (Perhaps online instruction would be an option.)

You might surprise yourself. I have, when the task at hand required me to temporarily be less of an introvert. 

Thirty years ago I was working at a classical music radio station, where my duties included program listings that the station published. One day I wrote "mike" for microphone, and the program director changed it to "mic" and told me the latter was the correct usage. Thirty years ago...

There definitely is an industry-jargon component to the dispute. It's as though I insisted on "lede" instead of "lead" because I'm a journalist.

"Preventative" bugs me. How about you?

"Preventive" saves a couple of letters, but I don't see a problem with "preventative."

whatever happened to comparative adjectives. why must I endure "happy, more happy and most happy"? I guess for the same reason I endure comparative adjectives, such as, "he drove slower than she did." And what about using the objective case for pronouns, more specifically "me" and "I" ? oh well, you can tell how old I am. mm

I think some of my fellow sticklers get too worked up about the use of "more ____" and "most ____" when "___er" and "____est" forms are available. Sure, "more good" is, uh, less good than "better," unless it's being used for effect, but "I couldn't be more happy" sounds just as good to me as "I couldn't be happier." Sometimes the comparative and superlative forms are so odd, it's better to use "more" and "most." This is the briskest day so far in September? We should provide a fuller accounting? I wish my parents were saner? Judgment calls, all, but the two approaches can coexist.

I don't know why this is so hard for people to grasp, but that's not my question. I was wondering if you could PLEASE hold regular, MANDATORY meetings for all Washington Post staff (who should be English majors anyway) on the proper use of the apostrophe. It's so painful to see "it's" used as a possessive adjective.

I think it's a typographical error more often than it is an error of ignorance. But, yes, we should be catching such typos. We try. Perfection remains elusive. 

I just heard "connotated" on NPR this morning. And don't even get me started on "orientated"!

I'm glad I work in a medium with a "backspace" key.

Re your question in response re Bike vs Bic: Two wrongs don't make a right is all I can say. And I'm sure there's more.

Sorry to belabor this topic, but "mic" is especially grating to me because it reflects the ignorance of an entire class of precedents -- the idea that such words are spelled phonetically. 

Similarly, "email" bothers me because never before has an intial-letter-based abbreviation become solid. T-shirt, X-ray, A-frame, etc. 

And then there's the "thirtysomething" phenomenon, where people developed collective amnesia about the fact that tens of thousands of logos before that used unconventional capitalization and yet were properly reproduced with an initial cap.

Okay, let's try this again: One [of a group] IS still just one person (see what I did there?).

But the sentence isn't talking about that person alone. Not an exact parallel, but Roger Federer is one of the best tennis PLAYERS in the world, not one of the best player. And yet he's just one person. 

I think I've lost the war on this one: my colleagues mean "at present" but use the adverb "presently". I long ago lost the war on "hopefully," as used in the following: "Hopefully, the sun will shine tomorrow. Grammar Curmudgeons unite!

The objection to the sentence adverb "hopefully" was always misguided, in my opinion. 

Thanks to all 406-plus of you. I should be back at 2 p.m. on the first Tuesday in November. Till (not 'til) then, you can follow me at @TheSlot on Twitter.

In This Chat
Bill Walsh
Bill has worked for newspapers since 1981 and for The Post since 1997. He is the author of "Lapsing Into a Comma," "The Elephants of Style" and the new "Yes, I Could Care Less." He tweets about language as @TheSlot.
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