Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh

Dec 03, 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! Did you have a great Black Friday?

 

Think about that: a great Black Friday. A great dark day. A good bad day.

 

There was a time when the term made sense. A lot of people were off work the day after Thanksgiving, and a lot of stores held day-after-Thanksgiving sales that were called "day-after-Thanksgiving sales" or some such, and the darker souls among us rolled our eyes and said something like "Ugh. I will not be leaving the house. It's Black Friday."

 

Because that's how "Black ___day" works. Look up Black Sunday, Black Monday, Black Tuesday, Black Wednesday, Black Thursday, Black Friday and Black Saturday. Wikipedia tells me there are 75 or so examples of that monicker, and aside from Black Friday and its new sibling, the stores-open-on-Thanksgiving "Black Thursday," every one refers to something calamitous, or at least negative or potentially negative. 

 

Most of us have heard the fairy tale about how "black" stands for black ink, because that's the day when retailers' balance sheets finally emerge from the red, when stores finally show a profit for the years.

 

Now, how would you stay in business all year -- why would you stay in business all year -- if you were losing money for 11 months or so? (The less-ridiculous popular belief is that it's the biggest shopping day of the year, but even that appears not to be the case.)

 

As Ben Zimmer and Kevin Drum recount, the term started with Philadelphia cops who dreaded the traffic that the first shopping day of the Christmas season brought. 

 

At some point not too many years ago, the term Black Friday became so common that retailers latched onto it and started labeling their sales as such. This is where I get grouchy. Dec. 7 is this week, and I don't think you'll see the Pentagon holding any "Hey! Ho! Yippee! Day of Infamy!" parties. 

 

But we seem to have a problem distinguishing editorial comments and sardonic observations and even generic terms from actual names. So kids who grew up hearing about the "base" model of various cars grow up to become auto executives who name cheap models the Base. Freeways have long had frontage roads, and now some of them get christened Frontage Road. And that day the cynics ridiculed as Black Friday is now celebrated as ... Black Friday. Below a certain age, a lot of people probably think it's an actual observance that the retailers are merely acknowledging. 

 

The term is here to stay, of course, but, as with "email" instead of "e-mail" and "mic" instead of "mike," I don't have to be happy about it. Those less grouchy and judgmental than I are welcome to start calling the first Tuesday of each month, the day I hold this chat, "Black Tuesday."

 

Suggest A) that the Washington Post add a spell check feature as a win-win. Posters benefit, readers benefit. Suggest B) that the Post disallow posting in all cap's or all lower case, which is obviously caused by laziness and makes any message much harder to follow.

Capital idea! I'll get Mr. Bezos right on it. (Care for a drone with that?)

 

I'm frequently tripped up in writing by commas. Wonder if you have a simple rule on when and how to properly use commas. And many of my younger colleagues don't seem to understand when to use "I" and when to use "me." It drives me crazy and I''d appreciate any advice on how to politely correct what should be basic good grammar.

Commas have 1,000,001 uses; I could barely scratch the surface in my three books, let alone a one-hour chat.

 

The me/I problem, if I may grossly oversimplify it, tends to arise when kids are corrected for saying something like "Me and Tommy want Happy Meals." They're told "Tommy and I," and they internalize that for life and avoid ever saying "and me" even when it would be the correct case. The cure is to get Tommy out of the picture for a second and envision the sentence with just you as the I/me. "Tommy and I want a Happy Meal," but "Please buy a Happy Meal for Tommy and me."

Greetings Mr. Walsh I am a 24 year old master student of TEFL from Iran. I am glad to see that there is also a discussion place for language in Post. Could you please explain what is the difference between a comma and a semi colon? I am always corrected s by Word Office in my writing but cannot find out its reason! Thank You, Farshid Ashtiani

The comma is far more common. Semicolons serve two main functions: To fuse together two complete sentences without the need for an and or a but, and to serve as a supercomma of sorts when a list that otherwise would be punctuated with commas contains items that include their own commas. 

 

"I hate sea urchin, it's too fishy" would be a  comma splice, but change that comma to a semicolon and you're fine.

 

"The departments of State, Education and Energy" works fine with commas, but "the departments of Health, Education and Welfare; Education; and Energy" needs the bumped-up delineation that that supercomma provides.

 

I know that the Post, like (almost) all newspapers, does not use the serial comma. But several weeks ago, I noted that in a case where some of the elements of a list included commas, the elements, including the penultimate one, were separated by semicolons. So is it considered proper Post style to use a serial semicolon in this way?

Yes. Given that you'd use semicolons in a series only when there are embedded commas, it would be silly and confusing to skip the serial semicolon. 

Where does the punctuation (comma, period) go at the end of a short quote within a sentence, inside or outside of the quotation mark?

In American English, commas and periods at the end of quotes always go inside the quotation marks. Colons and semicolons always go outside, and question marks and exclamation points can go inside or outside depending on whether the apply to the quote or to the entire sentence.

If the last word, or last few words, in a sentence is/are in quotation marks, is the final punctuation mark included in the quotation or set outside? Why does it seem unnecessary and carrying a rule too far to include the final punctuation inside a one-word quotation? At least to me it does.

A lot of punctuation conventions are arbitrary. But what would your rule be? Are you drawing that line at one word? Two? Three? Any alternative would be at least as arbitrary; the existing one at least makes things simple.

Hi, Mr what's the main difference between British English and American English. Thank you

I don't think there's a "main" difference; rather, there are numerous vocabulary and spelling differences and a few grammar and punctuation differences. People have written books on the subject. 

When it comes to grammar, we Brits differ from our cousins over the pond in an interesting number of ways. Two particularly interest me. In the UK we insist on putting an adverb after the verb - in the case of a compound verb after the ancilliary verb thus we are always putting the always after the are. With regard to infinitives, we tend to casually split them as in the famous (infamous?) Starship Enterprise which was expected to boldly go wherever it boldly went. Obviously, things are different on the other side of the pond and I, for one, do not suggest either option to be better than the other. Just wondered why they are consistently different.

And here's a partial answer! 

I would add that right-thinking Americans don't worry about split verbs, which usually sound much more natural than un-split ones. 

And that the question of "Why?" when it comes to across-the-pond is academic. Might as well wonder why youze people keep driving on the wrong side of the road.

 

Spell-check wouldn't catch most of the errors, which are misuse of existing words.

You've got a point they're.

 

The one error that consistently annoys me is the use of myriad followed by 'of', as in: myriad of errors! I even saw it in the NY Times yesterday. Is there any hope for keeping it as an adjective or will this eventually become accepted usage? Do you come across this much?

The word works either way. I don't use "a myriad of" in my own writing, for a few reasons (one of them being the common misconception that it's wrong), but ... it's not wrong. 

I'll admit it: I have some confusion about when to use this vs. that. Sometimes the correct usage is obvious, other times not.

One of the best copy editors I ever worked with got worked up over this issue, but he's in a small minority. I suppose I can see how "that" seems more correct in a reference to something you just mentioned, as opposed to something you're about to mention, but that's getting pretty darn picky.

"Their, there. They're different."

I have a feeling Santa is about to get some requests for this.

 

Joel Achenbach recently said that he thinks 'whom' is becoming archaic and dated. Do you agree? I currently only use 'whom' with indirect objects ("To whom may I direct you?") but that could easily be changed to "Who may I direct you to?" which has its own kind of awkwardness. For direct objects ("Who did you ask to the dance?") using 'whom' always sounds stilted. What are the hard and fast rules?

I would be glad to be rid of "whom" except in the most obvious "for whom the bell tolls" instances. In addition to being archaic, the word invites hypercorrection. People are so afraid of being "wrong," they stick it in where "who" would be correct.

It seems that one space after a sentence is now the norm, and there are conflicting reasons why two were ever introduced (typewriters, typesetters, etc etc) ... but I like the look of two and I think it helps the reader. I've gotta rework our style guide so ... Is there an official final answer?

One space is the modern standard. Using two spaces strikes me as especially silly when you're dealing with justified columns, where the space between words isn't uniform to begin with. So a line with a period might consist of word, arbitrary space unit, word, arbitrary space unit, word, period, DOUBLE arbitrary space unit, word, end of line.

Care to guesstimate how many times in your life you've been called "persnickety"? For me, it's in the hundreds. The life of an editor!

Funny -- I usually get called other words. 

So just how perfect is Pat the Perfect?

Pretty darn. If she disagrees with me, I tend to rethink things. 

Please, tell people, and some famous authors, that it's "I couldn't care less!" If you could care less, then do it.

Yes.

 

I believe it is ok to use the word on with a day of the week to create a prepositional phrase. But I don't recall ever needing to use the word on with today, tomorrow and yesterday. Can't you just say, "Yesterday, I raked the leaves". Why say, "On yesterday, I raked the leaves"? It sounds weird but people say it all the time. Please help Mr. Grammar Geek! Thanks.

On yesterday, on today and on tomorrow? I'm not sure I've heard that (a song comes to mind).

 

Now, "on Saturday" is sometimes preferable to "Saturday" alone. "I raked the leaves Saturday," but "I saw Sara on Saturday." Otherwise ... who's Sara Saturday?

 

I sometimes find it hard to see things through the eye of the people I'm editing. I read a blog at http://notebook.stc.org/eye-for-editing-taking-it-personally/ that points out how something as simple as an exclamation point or the color of ink you use can turn a writer against an editor. Interesting stuff. Have you had any situations where you had a writer who really balked at being edited, or took offense to an edit?

Yep. See next answer ...

How do you deal with know-it-all writers who don't think they need to be copyedited?

Sometimes one good butt-saving catch is a great humbler. Sometimes even that doesn't work. It's an ego-driven business. We all need editors, but being edited is painful. Ask the copy editors who have handled my work about how difficult writers can be.

When using quotations in essays, when is it necessary for a comma to precede the quote? And when is it necessary for the first word in the quote to be capitalized?

In general, a quotation is preceded by a comma. Or a colon, in some stylebooks, if the quotation is more than one sentence. But the introductory punctuation can be dispensed with if it would become unwieldy. Observe:

When I say "Jump," you ask "How high?"

The first letter of a full quote  is capped, but skip the cap (and usually the intro comma) when it's a partial quote that reads naturally in the sentence. 

He said he wants to "travel the world twice over."

In addition to Bill's great "Tommy and me/I" rule of thumb, it helps to remember what verb it's implicitly connected to. "You are a better man than I" is correct because "you are a better man than I [am]" is implied. Thinking about it that way, the reason why "you are a better man than me [am/is]" becomes pretty clear.

Good point, though I would add that a sentence like that can be read two ways. You can be better than I [am], but you can also simply be better than me.

A lot of people are.

 

What do you think the distrinction is between reluctant and reticent? I had someone claim that reticent means only quiet, unspeaking, reluctant to speak, but I used it more broadly, i.e. timid, reserved, etc.

True, but because the words are so similar a lot of people simply use "reticent" to mean "reluctant" in all senses. 

Unless you're between the Rockies and the eastern mountains, you will find it useful to be aware of such irony as "I could care less."

Many disagree, but in my view the irony/sarcasm explanation was invented after the fact to explain away the common error. Or truncation, or whatever you want to call it. 

Could we please abolish "guesstimate"? Besides being afflicted with excessive cutesiness, it's redundant because an estimate IS a guess!

I'm with you on cutesiness (and overuse), but there are varying degrees of educated-ness in guesses/estimates, and the cutesy word emphasizes when such an estimate is particularly guess-y.

There was a big dust-up on Twitter after the RNC described Rosa Parks's role "ending racism". Lots of folks got upset that the statement indicated "racism is over". Yes it was an infelicitous statement, but can't a word like "ending" imply "the ongoing process to end"?

That's a fair point. But jumping on anything that can be jumped on is part of politics. Today's jumpee will be tomorrow's jumper. 

I'm surprised this is still an issue, but it is. More than 30 years ago when I was a cub newspaper reporter I learned my lesson well when my editor snarled at me "what do you think this is, typing class?!?!?!" Now I edit education publications and more often than not have to remove that second space. And yes, when correcting the offender use the "typing class" illustration. Since I'm dubious there even are typinig classes anymore, where are people taught to use two spaces?

I've worked in newspapers since 1980, and every production system I've ever used would treat two or three or 10 spaces as one space. Until the one The Post now uses. Sigh. 

It seems that a person can find a dictionary to suit his or her needs when arguing a spelling or usage. How can we qualify a dictionary (online at this point, because printed books are so quickly out-of-date) as THE one to follow?

There aren't a lot of reputable dictionaries to choose from these days. Producing one is hard work. Merriam-Webster is the true heir to the Webster name. Webster's New World is the standard for most U.S. newspapers. American Heritage is another good one, and it's especially useful for its "usage notes" on disputed terms. 

A pet peeve if mine is the current tendency to end a sentence with a preposition. The media and even today's who and whom poster used it ("who may I direct you to") . The good Sisters who trained me are rolling over in heaven. Do the schools still teach that this usage is improper?

That's an old schoolmarm's tale, I'm afraid. I hope you haven't been assaulted with a ruler too many times over it. 

I am a staunch advocate of the serial comma. The best argument I've ever seen for it came from a reader during Gene Weingarten's July 30, 2013 chat (so, sadly, I cannot take credit). The reader said: Also, the serial comma is not optional, for instance if you want to thank people in the introduction to your book and do not use the serial comma, you end up with: " I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God." (Gene responded, "EXCELLENT line.)

For every my parents, Ayn Rand and God, there's a my mother, Ayn Rand, and God. Neither stance has a monopoly on clarity. 

Over the past few years, it seems that people have begun to regularly drop the comma after the Month, Date, Year, construct and the City, State, construct. Did they stop teaching it in grammar school? Did I just never notice how common this mistake is? I could swear that it was one of the first punctuation rules I was ever taught, and I can't begin to tell you how irritating it is to see in documents that are otherwise perfect.

That's one of the most common errors that we copy editors fix in reporters' stories. When you open the door of apposition, you have to close it. The Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, not the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination

"You can be better than I [am], but you can also simply be better than me"? Help. I'm baffled.

I hope this isn't Pat.

 

I'm a corporate copy editor. I keep seeing 'though' used at the beginning of a sentence, to mean 'although.' I guess 'though' is acceptable. It has two meanings, *though*! I think 'although' is better because it has only one meaning and is therefore more precise. Do you agree? Back me up here, Bill!

Sorry. I don't see a problem with using though that way.

I think the "two spaces after the period at the end of a sentence" may have come from old-style typewriters, which until maybe the mid to late 1960s were available only with fixed-space fonts (pica or elite, as I remember). Since every letter and symbol was allocated the same horizontal space, two spaces after the period at the end of a sentence made life a little easier for the reader. I grew up with manual typewriters, and I still catch myself typing period space space.

That's the explanation I always heard, but I've seen it debunked

Hahahahahahahhahahaha....um. Sorry. But...seriously? Language changes. Get over it.

Well, there's following and there's following. If I'm not sure what a word means, I reach for a dictionary -- I don't assume that my maybe-or-maybe-not-a-misconception about the meaning is part of the inevitable wave of change. 

"Grey" seems to have supplanted "gray", for reasons I can't fathom. Do you (personally and professionally) still maintain the British/American distinction between the spelling of this, and the other words that differ depending on which side of the Atlantic you're on?

I spelled it the British way to be cute in second grade. I got over it. 

If you were writing about Post, Kellogg's, and General Mills, would that second comma be a cereal comma?

That's grrrrrrrrreat!

I know the AP "rules," but what's your take on spaces before and after internal ellipses?

Now we're getting geeky. The issue matters only with justified type, and I'd prefer to see uniform ("thin" -- though that's a misnomer) spaces between the dots and variable ones outside. 

What about I, me and personal pronouns following the words like and as? Common examples (which I consider to be wrong based upon completing the sentence to its logical conclusion) are "I'm taller than him." Or "if you're like me and suffer from heartburn...." I would write "taller than he" and "If you're like I am" but have been told that like and as are the exceptions. What say you?

I would not write "taller than he," and I wouldn't hesitate to write "if you're like me."

Have forthcoming and upcoming come to mean the same thing? I still cringe when people use forthcoming when they really mean upcoming, and in a book about to appear or an event about to happen.

Forthcoming does have that other meaning, but that doesn't mean it can't mean upcoming. 

I always assumed that "ensure" was an intransitive verb (I want to ensure that my valuables are taken care of), while "insure" was a transitive verb (I want to insure my valuables). But I see these words used interchangeably all the time. Am I doing it wrong?

You're not doing it wrong. Insure for ensure is common enough that you can't call it wrong-wrong, but I can assure you that careful writers ensure that insure is used only in references to insurance. 

Re earlier post ---- For every my parents, Ayn Rand and God, there's a my mother, Ayn Rand, and God. Neither stance has a monopoly on clarity. Sometimes you can just rewrite: I'd like to thank God and my mother, Ayn Rand. But sometimes you can't. In my organization serial commas are not encourages though I am a big advocate. Do you think it is completely one or the other in any particular written piece or is it at all acceptable to use occasionally in a mostly serial comma-free piece when nothing else will make meaning clear?

I don't think any style guide bans the serial comma entirely. A lot of copy editors don't realize that even Associated Press style includes the toast, juice, and ham and eggs exception. 

You pick a style guide (WashPost, Chicago, AP, GPO, whichever) and stick to it. Or whichever in-house style guide your employer uses.

But no style guide is comprehensive. Post and AP, for example, default to Webster's New World for basic spellings and such that the stylebooks don't cover. 

This chat is awesome! I love getting my geek on. Sorry if this has been asked before, but if you could recommend only 3 must-read grammar books, what would they be? If it matters, I am a lawyer, not an editor.

If you're using "grammar" in the broad sense, to cover usage issues more generally:

I can't recommend Garner's Modern American Usage strongly enough. Patricia O'Conner's "Woe Is I" is wonderfully accessible. And I'll throw in "The Elephants of Style," which is the most basic of my books. 

But what *is* the difference? Please don't dismiss the question -- some of us don't know.

"Upcoming" means coming up, happening sometime soon. "Forthcoming" also means that. It can also mean open and honest and truthful. 

Wait, which grey/gray is American and which is British? I did not know that was the difference...

Gray is the American color. Grey is the British colour.

That's what I was getting at. The idea that there is ONE dictionary that is THE one to follow is ridiculous. That way lies madness.

For style purposes, you pick one and stick with it, but, yes, it's nice to have a pile of them at your disposal as you're looking up meanings. 

Hi, a student asked this in class: How would you punctuate a sentence that is quoting a declarative statement from a person but is a question? As in this: Why did he say, "I'm in charge"? Thanks!

"I'm in charge" isn't a question, so the question mark would go outside. Why did he say, "I'm in charge"?

 

A harder case: Why did he ask, "Who's in charge?' "

 

The practice there is to use the question mark that comes first. Just because. 

 

What is the best way to find a job as a copy editor if you don't have an English degree but love language and everything about reading?

Dumb luck? 

My standard career advice is "Be good. Damn good." An English degree (or journalism degree, for that matter) was never as important as having some relevant experience and doing well on a test or a tryout. But, as the old armed-forces recruiting commercial asked, "how do I get the experience?" 

Dumb luck and being damn good come to mind. (Where have we heard that before?) This isn't exactly a growth industry, but entry-level jobs do exist. The American Copy Editors Society has a new certificate program that could be part of your answer. You may also want to attend one of the group's conferences -- next year's national meeting is in March in Las Vegas. You never know who (whom?) you might meet. 

Originally, I'd learned that one should prefer "each other" for cases involving two parties, and "one another" when the number involved is three or more. Now I'm coming to suspect this is a classic zombie rule, a shibboleth, a bug-bear. What say you?

It's one of those things that copy editors enforce, but I don't see it as helpful and I don't understand the thinking behind it. If anything, wouldn't "one" another make more sense with two people and "each" other make more sense with three or more?

 

I have argued in similar cases that, if you're going to use both alternatives for the sake of variety anyway, you might as well humor the traditionalists and do your varying along the traditional lines. But you wouldn't have to waterboard me to get me to ditch this distinction. 

 

But if you're British, Gray is the Scottish surname and Grey the English one. ;-)

I guess this has become Gray Tuesday.

 

I don't know if this is true, but I'd read that in the early years of movable metal type presses, the tiny pieces used to make commas and periods easily became dislodged, and printers realized that they'd print more reliably if they were placed inside of quotation marks. It's a typesetter's rule, which is no longer necessary, but a lot of old norms still stand.

There is a movement toward British-style "logical punctuation," but change seldom happens through movements. It happens organically. 

Isn't there a bit of a difference, though? Example: A book is being released next week. The book itself is forthcoming. But the event of its release is upcoming.

Ah, yes. Thank you. 

How would you put quotes marks and use questions marks in this: Why did he ask, "Am I in charge?"? Would it be, "Why did he ask, 'Am I in charge?'?"

Use only the first question mark. It's arbitrary, but that's the practice. 

Whenever I watch a TV interview, it seems the interviewee is struggling to find words to express their thoughts and feelings. Why don't schools place more focus on this basic building block of education? Americans are not stupid, but they so often sound it because of this problem.

Finding words to express thoughts. That boils it down to basics! 

 

I try to be gentle in my criticism of radio and TV people, though, especially those working live. I'm fortunate to work in a medium with a backspace key.

I read that the president and publisher of Merriam-Webster Inc., in announcing 2013's "word of the year" -- it's "science," by the way -- "the more we thought about it, the righter it seemed." RIGHTER??? That seems to me wronger than "more right."

Yeah, I'd have said "more right." Some sticklers insist on the -er form if one exists; I tend to lean toward the "more" form if there's any chance the -er form will sound odd. 

"Gray's Anatomy" is the book. "Grey's Anatomy" is the TV show. There, all settled!

But where is the sadomasochism?

I recently heard a colleague getting testy over the phone about how "I said 'a couple'--that doesn't mean 'two,' it means more than two." It was hard for me to muffle a laugh, but I went ahead and looked it up for the heck of it. And I found that M-W's third definition of "couple" is "an indefinite small number." Sigh.

That meaning exists, but, jeez, it certainly doesn't supersede the "two" meaning. 

In British English, as well as in Romance languages, the periods and commas are placed outside the close-quotes marks.

And computer-programming languages!

That "current tendency" has been around for hundreds of years. The prejudice against it is just that, a prejudice. Not a rule.

A rule-that-isn't, like the ones against splitting infinitives and beginning sentences with "and" or "but."

Do you hyphenate an adverb when immediately preceding a noun, but not after? e.g.: "Genetically-modified foods are sold here." and "These foods are genetically modified." How about with phrases such as "long-term study"?

Adverbs ending in "-ly" don't need the hyphen. But beware: Plenty of adjectives and other non-adverbs end in "-ly." I've seen that "rule" used to justify taking the hyphen out of "family-run businesses."

It's been fun, once again, but my day (night?) job beckons. Please join me on the next Black/Gray/Grey Tuesday, which appears to be Jan. 7.

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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