Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh

Feb 04, 2014

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! So, we all know that blowout the other day was the Super Bowl and not the Superbowl (or the Superb Owl), right? And that the number of weeks between Feb. 2 and the end of winter is the same regardless of how cold or warm it is, or what a groundhog sees?

OK then. Or, as we say at The Washington Post, okay. What's on your mind, grammar- and spelling- and punctuation- and capitalization-wise?

 

 

Microsoft Word always wrongly 'corrects' the words its and it's. I realize that this is really a tech question, not one for you but finally getting it corrected would be of great benefit to all. My question for you--I'm usually inclined to say 'for help you can call me' or 'please contact Mary or me', etc. When I read similar statements that use 'myself' instead of 'me', it's like fingernails on a blackboard to my ears. Are both correct?

People get freaked out by "me." (They get freaked out by me, too, but that's another subject.) 

I think it goes back to being corrected in childhood for saying "me and Sally" instead of "Sally and I." The idea that "me" is somehow wrong is anything but the simplest utterance is what sticks, and so you get people hypercorrecting and saying "Come visit my husband and I" or using "myself" inappropriately.

The appropriate use, of course, is reflexively, in a sentence where you're referring back to an already-expressed "I."

 

Hi Bill, Is the past tense on the way out? I am hearing and reading phrases such as "where the ship sunk" and "The Broncos really stunk the place up." Whatever happened to sank and stank? The good folks at Grammarphobia addressed this in a blog from 2010, so I know it isn't just my imagination: http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2010/01/honey-i-sunk-the-boat.html The past participle seems widely accepted in popular use, but is the past tense still standard for formal writing? Thanks; love the chats!

I think it was a one-for-one swap with the past participle of drink. People get freaked out by drunk (could be related to the aforementioned freak-out), and so you see "I have drank." As in "I had drank so much, everyone's respect for me sunk. That really stunk."

As a foreigner reading and writing most of the time in American/English I realize that punctuation is less and less frequently used, the priority being given, to say so, to the phrases "rithm". Is this correct?, Could you provide some guide?. For example, could I have omitted the commas before and after "to say so"?. Thanks a lot.

I don't think you could have omitted those commas, but rhythm is a big part of punctuation -- especially commas. 

Writers use commas and other punctuation marks to control rhythm and tempo, either to get readers to read something a certain way or to mimic the way something is said by others. 

So you can omit otherwise-customary commas to hold parts of sentences together, or you can add not-strictly-necessary commas as a signal to take a breath. You can use periods where they aren't necessary. As. In. This. Overused. Technique. 

One of my current crusades is against the assumed sanctity of the quotation-introducing comma. Sometimes it just gets in the way. 

He said, "Jump!"

Okay, fine. that's conventional. But observe:

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

See how that doesn't work? The comma before "Jump!" requires a comma after it if the sentence continues, but the exclamation point gets in the way. Even if it didn't, that'd be a lot of commas. Nothing wrong with simply writing:

If I say "Jump!" you say "How high?"

 

 

What is your take on using Their in the singular in formal writing (instead of his or her)?

I let one get into The Post a few weeks ago! I can't remember the construction, but there was just no way around it.

But a news brief about a robbery in Seat Pleasant or something isn't really formal writing, is it? My cop-out answer continues to be that I'm rooting for the singular their but I don't think it's quite there yet. 

It will be, someday. Logic and history and common usage are on its side. For now, though, you risk red marks and purists' scorn, and you're better off trying to write around it.  

 

Here's an idea: The first person to find that singular they or them or their that I let into The Post gets a signed copy of one of my books.

It has to be the one I let in, though. Send it to me on Twitter -- I'm @theslot

I have friends who rigidly place quotation marks outside periods and commas and inside question marks, exclamation points, and colons, but I've always been taught that, if the enclosed phrase or clause is not a quotation but is identifying a work (painting, book, play, etc.) the closing quotes are placed inside the period or comma. Who's right? And what is the rule for quotation marks and semi-colons, btw?

Periods and commas go inside, at least in American English. Colons and semicolons go outside. Exclamation points and question marks depend on whether they go with the quoted material alone or the full sentence. 

My pet peeve is people who "hone in" on something -- they sharpen in on it? What they really mean is "home in" -- like a homing pigeon or a homing device. I'm seeing it more and more. Is it becoming a second definition of hone to mean home or are more and more people simply clueless about the phrase?

Both. But hone in is not what smart people use. At least for now. 

Just today I heard (on NPR!) that "the deficit shrunk last year." We should file a missing-tense report.

Yikes! Did the NPR reporter also exhibit vocal fry? 

" When a friend or family member is sad, instinctually we go to hug her or hold her hand." Should it be instinctually or instinctively? Or are both right?

I think they're pretty much the same, but instinctively sounds better to me. Instinctively! 

Hey, that's a pretty good "singular they" example. Unless all your friends and family members are female.

With print, radio, or TV media, there is a limit to how long a story can be. There is only so much room in the paper for a story or so much time for a segment on the news, but with the Internet, the limits are largely lifted. How does that impact reporting and writing about news events. So often, I read a story online, and it is little more than a transcript of what was said on the news or radio. An online story could be so much richer if it included links to the reference or source materials used to create the report. I don't know if it is excluded because it was never done before or if some people might skip reading the articles if they learn where to find the source for themselves.

There are competing opportunities and pressures, aren't there? On the Internet, you have more space and you have all those link possibilities -- but you're also able to publish NOW! (Also, nobody knows you're a dog.)

Over the past few years, I have noticed a trend in which words containing the letters "str' (e.g. strong, strange, struggle) are pronounced as if there is an "h" following the "s" (shtrong, shtrange, shtruggle). I first noticed this in Michelle Obama's speech, but now I hear it every day from announcers on NPR to my local newscasters. Why is this happening and what can be done to stop this very annoying trend?

I've heard others comment on this, but I can't say I've noticed it myself. Annoying speech tics are annoying!

My pet peeve on annoying trendy speech tics, aside from the well-documented phenomenon of vocal fry, is the related vowel shift in which "dad" becomes "Dodd" and "desk" becomes "dusk." "Tale" becomes "tell." "Feel" becomes "fill." Remember that commercial from a few years ago, for toothpaste or some such? "My DODD is a DUNN-test ..." 

I used to laugh at the WTOP traffic reports on which the Springfield interchange became the spring-filled interchange. 

As annoying as change can be when it comes to speech affectations, though, I have to say there are some refreshing things about the modern state of affairs. If you had told me in 1980 or so that the default voice-over voice would be a chirpy 22-year-old woman instead of a stentorian 55-year-old man, I never would have believed you. 

So I have a bit of a lovehate with the frychirp.

 

It drives me crazy when people use good as an adverb instead of well. However, I know literary editors who believe that the language has evolved to accept good as both the adjective and the adverb. What's your opinion?

Do you have an example? I'm picturing the playful "You done good," which is obviously ... playful.

 

As a radio reporter, my news director once corrected my pronunciation of the word forte, which, in the sense of a "strength" was originally pronounced without the emphasized e. He knew that was (at the time) the proper pronunciation, but said that people pronounced it incorrectly so much that they wouldn't know what I was talking about. The same goes for willy-nilly, which it now seems archaic to use in the original sense of "willing or unwilling." So, what is the guidance here? What's the best way to make the decision to throw meaning (and sometimes grammar) overboard to be better understood? And, on a related note, when will "whom" finally die?

There's no easy answer -- and I've written three books that try. 

On whom, I'm with you. Keep it for "To whom am I speaking" and "For whom the bell tolls" and don't worry about saying "who" most everywhere else.

On forte, the answer is more complicated than most people think. See Merriam-Webster's discussion here

Since we all agree that possessing empathy is a trait to be encouraged , why doesn't the Washington Post stop using "empathetic" and instead use "empathic?"?

Can't say this has ever come up in Post stories I've edited.

Both are accepted usages, but empathetic is more common. (Do you say sympathic because sympathy isn't pathetic? )

 

Hello! This is my first time on this chat and I'm loving it so far. Can you comment on the use of dashes, parentheses, semicolons, colons, and commas to separate ideas? For example: "I would love to host you for dinner tonight--it'd be a real treat!" I think parentheses, or a colon or semicolon would also work there, right? How does one decide which to use?

Or a period! Isn't it great that you have so many choices? There, the semicolon is technically very correct but strikes me as showoff-y. The dash is good, but not everyone loves dashes as much as I do. I wouldn't use a colon. Period might be safest. But, again, your choice!

My pet peeve is over-pronouncing a double-T in words. "I have a let-ter for Mary But-ton." Ugh. Actually, over-pronouncing Ts overall; photo, for example.

Perhaps such speakers were upbraided for saying "ledder" and "Buddon," or the glottal-stoppy "leh-er" and "buh-on." 

Someone at work insists on putting an "S" at the end of the word "All", as in "All's I know is..." Any thoughts on why that is or where it comes from?

I think that's in my last book. It's very strange. "All's well" migrates into the perfectly fine "All I know."

My high school English teacher was unhappy about the grammar in this year's State of the Union so question: Do you think speeches have more freedom to artistic license than written works?

Yes, speech is inherently less formal than formal writing. The State of the Union is a tricky thing -- formal in a way, but the president also has to relate to the people. I wonder whether your teacher is confusing informality with substandard grammar.

You disagreed with me several months ago about whether "close proximity" is redundant and last month about ending sentences with prepositions. Another peeve of mine is the use of comprise and compose interchangeably. If comprise means include (the team comprised boys and girls), do you agree that composed of is correct (the team was composed of boys and girls), but comprised of is not?

Yes. My riff on this issue is that even correct use of compose and comprise and constitute gets under my skin a little, because it seems pretentious. I tend to reach for "made up of," or some variant.

I maintain that "Yankee fan" should be "Yankees fan". Am I nuts?

I prefer it your way, but you can't really call the other way wrong. 

I am doing well vs I am doing good. The first represents your basic state of being, while and the second is more doing good works.

Right. Though I think "good" is a perfectly good, if informal, answer to "How ya doin'?"

What are your thoughts on "mixing and matching" British English spelling with American English spelling in general emails to coworkers? Far from an affectation, just a unique-to-this-person mixture. Should it be all one or the other? Is it jarring to see occasional "misspellings" like "realise" and "categorise"?

It strikes me as an affectation. I should know -- I was the pretentious third-grader who insisted on writing "grey" instead of "gray."

The new trend in retail service... "I can help who's next."

Aw, c'mon; give the poor checkout clerks a break. You're not upset about the "10 items or less" sign, too, are you?

Does the Post apply different copy editing standards to the different sections of the paper? More informal for Style? Rigid and structured for Business?

Style stories get edited more loosely than news stories. I don't think business copy is treated differently than national or foreign or metro, though avoiding biz jargon is a constant battle.

Are formal conjunctive adverbs still used. In these days of geek speak it's really hard to find them; however, I'm confident they still exist somewhere.

That's the technical term for "pinkeye," right?

Can you elaborate on your complaint? You think the simple and and but are overused and you'd prefer to see moreover or something?

 

Am I the only one bothered by the loss of adjectives/adverbs ending in ly ? Serious. More and more in general conversation we shorthand our language by dropping this ending and for some reason it real gets to me. Is it just me - or should that be I ?

I can think of "real" being used to mean "very," where technically you'd want "really" -- a real big show. Not great in your doctoral dissertation, but entirely (ly!) appropriate in conversation. Are there other examples?

I submitted this question earlier: Why are so many educated people now pronouncing words that contain the letters "str" with an added "h". Strong now sounds like shtrong, struggle sounds like shtruggle, and so on.

Gene Weingarten was complaining about "shtrength" on his chat a while back, but in his quiz he asked people whether the pronunciation should be "strenth" or "shtrenth"? So I was like, "Where's the G?"

 

I have started noticing "month of year" constructions in writing, like "In February of 2014, it will snow a lot" (not a real example). I mark it out on papers that come to me, but I'm wondering if it is correct? Preferred? Deeply, deeply wrong?

I like the "of," though it comes out in the terse world of newspaper style. I wrote something for Tennis magazine a couple of decades ago and was irritated that the editor followed strict AP style and took out my "of" in such a case. 

What's your opinion of journalists writing about incidents involving traffic accidents, road rage, drive-by shootings, etc., and attribute crimes committed to the vehicle and not the driver? More often than not they write things such as "the car ran a stop sign." "A black truck shot at a red car." "The SUV accellerated instead of braking and plowed into a crowded restaurant.." I can't help but thinking "those naughty vehicles! Where were their drivers?" Or am I just being too picky?

We certainly shouldn't be attributing shootings and intentional mow-downs to vehicles. It's a little picky if you're talking about accidents -- I don't think anyone risks losing sight of the idea that a human has to be at the controls -- but certainly worth keeping in mind.

In a similar vein, somebody on Twitter mentioned last night that the word "accident" is thrown around in reference to traffic crashes. Do we really know every "accident" is an accident? And even when a reckless driver didn't intend to hit something, does "accident" minimize the recklessness?

Hahaha. In high school, a friend complained to the local Giant Food store manager that it should be 10 Items or Fewer. Or really TEN Items or Fewer.

I'd insist on "fewer" with "10 or fewer items," but "10 items or less" is fine. It doesn't necessarily mean "less items"; it simply means "less." "Less than that."

I get irritated every time I see "Can Vegetables" and "Can Fruit" on the big signs over aisles in grocery stores. The "ed" is missing more and more. The other day I saw "Fry Potatoes" instead of Fried Potatoes. What's up with that? Am I doomed to be irritated for the rest of my life or will the -ed's return?

I'm with you, but consider hash browns. Once they were hashed browned potatoes. 

In other words, these things change, but we don't have to be happy early in the process. Look at ice tea (NO! ICED!) but ice water (just fine).

 

I think the worst abuse of punctuation I have seen recently was on a birthday cake celebrating three birthdays at one party. The cake read: "Happy Birthday's".

That's pretty bad. But as soon as you start to say "No apostrophes with plurals! Ever!" you have to start minding your p's and q's. Wouldn't want to risk those straight A's.

Regarding describing traffic accidents as such: My driver's education teacher encouraged me to always describe accidents as "crashes" or "collisions." These are value-neutral terms that describe only what happened, not the reason for it happening.

Exactly.

 

Hi Think that most language subtleties are a dying breed--just like the subjunctive tense. If I was (sic) going to lament the decline of language, this would be my choice.

All day long you'd biddy biddy bum?

Why do my bosses insist on "January, 2014" rather than "January 2014" and where does the period go at the end of the following sentence? She said she would "give him the devil" I think it goes inside the quote mark, but I keep seeing it outside. What's correct? Thanks.

We're talking style conventions, not absolutes of correctness, but most stylebooks call for January 2014 and reserve commas for specific dates -- Jan. 15, 2014

As with the optional but stylebook-discouraged commas in things like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gannett Co., Inc., you get yourself into an appositive bind when you go ahead and use that comma. Once you've comma'd into 2014 or Jr. or Inc., you have to comma out. Comma before requires comma after.

So do you really want your readers to be reading: In January [pause] 2014 [pause] Gannett Co. [pause] Inc. [pause] honored Martin Luther King [pause] Jr. [pause]  ... ?



Do I repeat myself? I've just always spelled it that way and "gray" looks weird and wrong to me.

"Gray" is standard in American English. "Grey" is an accepted variant, but it's most common in British English.

Looks like a work around for a paper no-no!

As in puppy training?

That's a good blog to bookmark.

Here's a little-known usage thingie that came up yesterday: We say, "I used to play golf." But what should that be if the speaker is not a former golfer? 

Most people would say, "I didn't used to play golf."

But that's wrong. The opposite of "I had to go" isn't "I didn't had to go." It's "I didn't have to go."

Therefore, "I didn't use to play golf."

 

Hi, I enjoy reading the Post's Capital Weather Gang, but I am often annoyed by their regular references to future events in the present tense, such as, "Next Saturday is brisk and breezy, but the sun is out". It would seem less confusing if they could write "will be" or "should be" instead. I think the writers are adopting a brisk and breezy TV-weatherman writing style. What do you think?

It's an occupational hazard. Note how police reporters too often write like cops. 

I've always been uneasy about verb agreement with collective nouns -- e.g., "jury". Is there an easy test to determine whether one's use of a collective noun is singular or plural?

In American English, the jury is. In British English, the jury are

There are tricky cases even once you establish that, though. A couple are, usually, but what about a family? I write whicheer sounds better. Some publications say the Miami Heat is (The Post is in that camp), but others say the Heat are.

Where does one place the punctuation in a sentence that contains quotations? For instance, would it be: The authors called it "the most effective of all time." or The authors called it "the most effective of all time". Does the same go for all types of punctuation?

See earlier answer -- the period would go inside. 

Question marks and exclamation points are where things get interesting. If I said "Ali was the greatest of all time!" and you quoted me, you'd say:

Walsh called Ali "the greatest of all time!"

But if I didn't use the exclamation point and you were surprised I would make such an assertion, you might make the exclamation point your own:

Walsh called Ali "the greatest of all time"!

There's no great solution if we're both excited. Ahem.

 

My fellow editor and I try to remember "the whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole." However, we find that readers often get confused. Therefore, we tend to just use "contain" or "make up." Another issue we frequently come across is that "comprise" should be used when all parts are named, not just some (use "include" for that).

Very sensible all around. Did you hear that The Post is hiring?

YES! I hate that. People frequently say "Did you see the Laker game?" No, but I did see the Lakers game. Also, why do football announcers insist on saying "National Football League" instead of "NFL" and "he has the football" rather than "he has the ball." I understand spelling out the terms in writing, but if one is watching football, one knows which ball and what NFL stands for.

Even worse: the Lakers' game with an apostrophe. 

Now, there are times when it is their game, as in the Lakers' game against the Heat, but that apostrophe is a bad idea in general. A lot of sportswriters get thrown by the letter S.

I grieve for the missing first "R" in "February." I blame Walter Cronkite, who was, if not the first to use it, then at least the first to defend such mispronunciation. My late father used to wonder how Uncle Walter would feel if we pronounced his last name "Conkite." (smile)

Duh. You can look that up at any libary.

 

Confidential to qualified copy editors: Look here.

Thanks to everyone for another bunch of great questions. 

The next chat, as luck would have it, falls on National Grammar Day. The first Tuesday in March is March 4, a date that can be a complete sentence. March 4th is like "March forth"! Get it? 

Anyway, see you then.

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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