Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh

Mar 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! It's that time of month again. For starters, allow me to present the correction of the month.

What is today's date, Mr copy editor ?

March 4th! Get it? "March forth"? It's a date that forms a complete sentence, which is why Big Grammar claimed it. And this year it happens to be the first Tuesday of the month, which happily coincides with my chat schedule.

As a founding member of Pedants Against Pedantry, I have mixed feelings about Grammar Day. Too many people use it to celebrate their pet peeves, when really, you know, they should be celebrating mine. 

And it's gotten so commercial. I can't tell you how annoying it is to not be able to keep my books in stock as people who have procrastinated on their Grammar Day shopping scramble to pick up last-minute gifts.

Maybe it's time we returned to simpler days. Celebrate with, I don't know, maybe a conjugal visit or something.

 

Foolproof way to teach the proper use of lie and lay.

Anyone have a good trick?

 

Could you please comment on the use of the word "epicentre" in journalism? I only ever see it used to emphasize centrality, but it actually refers to the point on the surface of the earth ABOVE the centre of an earthquake. Thus, the "epicentre" is NOT "even more central" than the centre, but less so. Now I suppose I could propose something like "hypercentre" or "supercentre", but "centre" doesn't need emphasis any more than "unique" does. It just doesn't get any more central than the centre. Or are all these people making some kind of earthquake analogy that I've been too obtuse to see? Am I crazy to let this bother me? P.S.: Please excuse the Canadian spellings.

Give my regards to Gordon Lightfoot!

Writers tack on the "epi-" because it sounds like an intensifier. Not just the center, but the very center. And it sounds cool. You see the same error with quintessential -- "It is absolutely quintessential that we meet this deadline!" -- and that old favorite penultimate. (We all know that the pen- there doesn't mean "absolute super-duper," right?)

So I don't use epicenter that way, but here's a twist for you: I've eased off changing it as an editor. I don't think the earthquake comparison necessarily invalidates the usage. We experience earthquakes on the Earth's surface, don't we? 

I used to include pluperfect among my examples of prefix misappropriation, but I was wrong. It really does mean "more than perfect" in addition to its verb-tense meaning.

 

That's funny Bradley Manning instead of B Cooper. Not a grammer ? but personally I despise the word selfie. Where did it come from and how can we get rid of it? Makes me cringe.

I finally gave up on the word "grammar" to some extent. Well, not on spelling it correctly, but on its expanded use to cover editing issues of all sorts. This chat covers spelling, punctuation and just plain correctness.

My view is that schools DO NOT PUT ENOUGH EMPHASIS IN GRAMMAR through creative methods so AS TO STILL GOOD GRAMMAR. 

WHAT DO YOU REALLY THINK?

I work at a shelter magazine, where writers and editors like to use "turn of the century" to indicate the rough age of a house or style. But we turned another century 14 years ago, so how long is the working life of that phrase? One could try "turn of the 20th century," but from research it doesn't appear that there is even full agreement as to whether the turn is into the new century or out of the old one. What do you think?

The expression does become more fraught by the day, and it's a good point that "turn of the 20th century" will mean different things to different people. I think "midcentury modern" is well established as meaning the 1950s and 1960s, but I would steer away from "turn of the century."

Do you prefer 2010-2015 or 2010-15?

Now that a century has turned, I prefer to use the four digits on both sides of the hyphen (or the en dash, for some of you). I would prefer not to see 2002-03 next to 1999-2001.

Lay your coat on the chair so you can lie on the bed. You've got to lay "something" -- and, yes, it can be your girlfriend.

I've also heard "Just remember that Dylan was wrong."

It is my understanding that for most salutations the comma is placed after the person's name. However, I often see the comma placed immediately after informal greetings, such as Hey or Hi, presumably because they are not salutations but rather independent phrases. So which is correct, "Hey Bill," or "Hey, Bill"?

You need both commas, one to set off the direct address (let's eat, Grandma, as opposed to let's eat Grandma) and one to end the salutation. 

Does the prohibition against the use of split infinitives still apply? I hear them spoken on tv, see them in print in the mass media, and even in academic textbooks.

There never was a valid prohibition, so ... no.

Strunk and White made a halfhearted effort to discourage split infinitives, but you'll have a hard time finding a reputable language authority today who subscribes to that point of view.

 

In the present tense, if the verb takes, or can take, a direct object, it's "to lay" -- e.g., to lay an egg, or to lay an item down. If something's reclining, the verb is "to lie." (Prevarication is also "to lie," but that's a hole 'nother kettle o' fish).

Good answer, but that's too much like book-learnin'. I think the original poster was looking for a mnemonic device. Maybe a decoder ring. 

Hey, just write your answer on your arm with indelible marker?

I have a friend who is writing books. I'm his editor. His plots are fantastic, his characterization sublime... and his grammar fairly sketchy. Do you know of a good on-line course (he's in Australia) he could take to bring his grammar up several notches? We'd both thank you...

I don't. Anyone?

What is up with so many on-air reporters confusing the subject and object cases? "Her and I went to the screening the other night." I can understand people saying "It's me" when it should be It's I" -- which is right but sounds so wrong. But to use HIM and HER as subjects?

The confusing cases (cases!) are confusing enough that it doesn't surprise me when normal people confuse the confusing ones with the easy ones. 

From a recent Post chat: "My husband's sister gifted me a beautiful necklace for my birthday." I see, and hear, this construction often, and it baffles me. . Why has "My husband's sister GAVE me..." fallen out of fashion? Help me understand the need, or prevalence of "...gifted me".

I could be wrong, but I think "gift" as a verb was coming on stronger circa 1960 than it is today. 

I'm not one of those OMG STOP VERBING NOUNS!!!! people, but not all verbing is created equal. "Gifting" is tainted by assocation with ad-speak, and I would avoid it for that reason.

 

Which is correct? There are horses that can take us. There's horses that can take us.

There are horses.

There are boys. There are girls.

 

 

I can't stand it when people say "supposABLY" instead of "supposEDly". I've even heard newscasters say it lately. Then we have "EXcape" instead of "EScape", "AX" instead of "aSk", and "jewLERY" instead of "jewELry". The list goes on. I think it's a mix of laziness and ignorance. What do you think?

Spoken like a mischevious Realator.

"Your" for "you're" , "loose" for "lose"... has the internet become a grammar-free zone?

The Internet is a mirror, for better or worse. And a never-ending advertisement for the value of editing.

When there is a "lack of" multiple items, is the following verb plural or singular? "The lack of spoons and forks mean/s the guests eat with their hands."

The lack means. 

All over the media, poor English usage of a made up infinity. Example, "Microsoft. Committed to bringing joy to everyone's life" There is no infinity "to bringing" and it is not a direct object. The verb is an understood form of "to be". Drop the adverb and the grammar slaughter becomes apparent.

I am infinitely confused.

 

I recently read this sentence: "I had a fun time at your and John's party." Could this be right? Also, what's the right way a write a joint possessive when you have one pronoun?

I highly doubt it, given the suckiness of me and John's parties. Mine and John's parties. My and John's parties. 

I suppose I'm an old curmudgeon, but I don't like the fact that "set foot" seems to have morphed into "step foot," as in "I'll never step foot in that place again". Any thoughts?

When I complain about this, my more lexicographically astute friends caution that the Oxford English Dictionary records "step foot" going back to the Stone Age or something, but we're right, darn it.

At the risk of disagreeing, at least in part, with pretty much everybody, I spend a lot of time on the yabbut fence, as in "yeah, but ..."

Yeah, somebody used "step foot" in the 16th century. But it didn't catch on with educated writers and speakers. And "step foot" is illogical. If you step, the foot is implied.

Yeah, the language isn't always logical. But when you have a logical version that's more or less at least as common as the illogical one, why not choose the logical one and discourage the other? That's why "I couldn't care less" is superior to "I could care less."

The expression is "set foot," and people who say "step foot" do so because they've heard it and misunderstood, or they've heard it from other people who heard it and misunderstood, not because they're OED scholars channeling the wisdom of the ancients.

 

So, how has the use of "so" at the beginning of every sentence become so prevalent? So, is this just one of those things that will run its course until another filler becomes popular?

We like our throat-clearing. Our self-absorbed patter sounds less harsh that way. So, to answer your question, yes.

I usually don't write "please RSVP" because "please" is part of the acronym, but it seems rude without the redundant "please." Could you please please me with your thoughts about this? Merci.

I wouldn't lose any dormez-vous over the redundancy on an invitation. Plenty of social conventions are literally nonsensical: When you write "yours truly," you're not really professing your correspondent's possession of you.

Still, I think you can get around the problem by appending something. "RSVP" alone sounds rude, but "RSVP to Joanne in Accounting" sounds fine. 

Laissez les bon temps roulez!

"...John's and my parties..."

Grammar Girl, who throws totally awesome parties, says this.

Teachers told you to pause at commas when you are reading aloud. Writers I edit seem to put commas wherever they mentally pause, which is not always where they below. It's that reading-aloud advice that messed up comma usage. Why don't people know there are actual rules for using commas?

There are some actual rules, but the use of commas, like a lot of other things in English, is more art than science. The reading-aloud advice works well for a lot of comma quandaries.

Why have comparative suffixes gone the way of the dodo? For example, why do we see more rare, most rare instead of rarer, rarist, more clear instead of clearer, most clear instead of clearist?

To be honest, I have to say this is a pet peeve I don't understand. You'd really rather see rarist than most rare? The more and most forms are can be comical comical when the -er and -est forms are very common, but otherwise either option is fine. I think the oddity of rarist trumps the existence of such a word. 

Hi Bill - Love this chat. I always thought I add a comma before a non essential clause like, " I went to the store with my wife, who spends too much time looking at clothes." My colleague says no comma. Help Pls. Thanks

Yes, comma. Unless you have another wife who doesn't spend too much time looking at clothes. 

 

Do you hyphenate all phrasal adjectives?

Not all, but most. I would rather just stick the hyphen in than spend my editing life trying to come up with exceptions, and I don't think high-school student and ice-cream cone will distract anybody.

Cue the distracted multitudes ...

 

This is not a question but a comment, and one you don't have to feel compelled to publish (although you certainly may): I'm saddened how thoroughly your chats are overrun with questions along the lines of "I saw an article elsewhere in the Post make X mistake, and the nuns taught me differently 60 years ago so please broadcast that I am right because it's been incredibly important to me to for weeks to hear that I am right." And in response you tend to give those killjoys some lovely, evenhanded answers that do a fine job of descriptivist vs. prescriptivist 21st-century language analysis. So in short, chin up, Bill. Your audience comprises a silent majority of non-whiners.

Plus, we can't seem to hire a nun to save our lives.

 

What is the rule for hypens in adjectival modifiers like "much anticipated sequel". Should "much-anticipated" be hyphenated?

Yes -- I don't think there's a common distracted-multitudes exception there.

A growing number of people are using intransitive verbs transitively in formal writing. In fact, it seems to be the new cool thing to do. I've seen it with increasing frequency in the Post as well. I think part of the issue is that the explanation of what's wrong is so grammar geeky ("some verbs take an object, and some verbs don't...") that non-grammar geeks just hear "blah blah blah verbs blah blah..." and ignore it. Do you know a more user-friendly way to explain to people why a company can grow and one can help a company grow but one can not grow a company?

Those things evolve, and some stick better than others. It's more common, I think, for transitive to become intransitive and sort of switch places: Companies launch, soldiers deploy. 

"Grow the business" would be just fine, I think, if it hadn't been tainted as biz-speak, just as "gift" as a verb is tainted as ad-speak.

 

After all, once you've embraced rarist, you're just one step away from thicker-er, amirite?

Do they still make those Chunky chocolate bars?

 

I understand that language evolves over time. But when the change is based on fundamental misuse of a long-established word, it would be great if the misuse was nipped in the bud rather than being repeated by the media. Examples include: impactful, the use of impact as a verb, height pronounced heighth, agreeance.

And, in general, that's how edited writing works.

Must not the word "from" appear after the verb "graduate", as in She will graduate from college. That makes "graduate" an intransitive verb, thereby reflecting on the subject "she" as the one doing the graduating. If the word "from " is omitted, it makes "college" the direct object or receiver of the action.

Educated readers in 2014 expect to see "graduate from." 

But it won't always be that way, and it hasn't always been that way. If I had had this chat a century or so ago, literate readers might have been complaining about people graduating rather than being graduated. It's the high schools and colleges that did the graduating, traditionally, and so you were supposed to say "I was graduated from college," not "I graduated from college."

The usage is evolving again, and now if you talk to someone younger than 30 or so you're likely to hear "I graduated college." 

I use that example in my current book, "Yes, I Could Care Less," in discussing how to be a language snob without being a jerk. I don't think there's anything wrong with rolling your eyes at "I graduated college." I do it. I want to reply, "NO, YOU DIDN'T!" 

On the other hand, I recognize that insisting that the current usage live on forever would be exactly like continuing to say "I was graduated from college" in the 21st century. At some point, "I graduated from college" is just going to sound wrong.

On the other other hand (you need a lot of hands in the picky-about-the-language biz), I maintain that editors in 2014 are duty-bound to enforce 2014 standards of literate usage. The fact that a different standard is likely to be in place in 2024 is as irrelevant as the fact that a different standard was in place in 1914. 

So, when do changes of this sort solidify? That's a good question. If the answer were easy, I'd find all this a lot less interesting.

 

A candidate for LSSU's 2015 list- "adorable". Yuck...

You have to admit, though, that a grammar pedant who types "are can be comical comical" is pretty adorable.

"Epicentre" guy here again. I think this chat is funnier than Weingarten's. And it's educational. So I'm with "COMMA BEFORE WHO": I love this chat.

We could all use a second wife who doesn't spend too much time shopping for clothes, amiright, comma, guys?

Sorry to dwell on the point, but just to be clear, your rule of thumb is to hyphenate so long as is does not become distracting? Ice-cream cone is ok, but assault-with-a-deadly-weapon case may cross the line?

No, if anything I'd be more likely to hyphenate something that complicated. "Assault with a deadly weapon case" makes me think somebody was beaten with the thing you store a rifle in. Or maybe a 1920s gangster's violin receptacle.

While I am strongly in favor of keeping the serial comma, I understand some of the arguments against it. However, I am curious: why is it going away? Is there some guild of typesetters out there tired of placing commas? A shortage of newsprint?

I don't think there's any recent move away from the serial comma. The longtime newspaper convention has been to go without, and sometimes that tiny bit of extra space allows for an extra line of information. 

...is to keep using correct usage consistently and publicly.

An R.E.M. line comes to mind. Could it be that one small voice doesn't count in the world?

What I'd like to know is "what is the deal with" the military (USMC, I seem to remember), term "I-Corps"? ("eye-core"). What does one, then, call the second in the series -- "Double I Corps"? Why not simply refer to the two as the "first" and "second" corps, respectively?

Doesn't that go back to when the Yanks are coming? The Yanks are coming? And they won't come back till it's over over there?

(My song-lyrics references are going to keep getting older.)

 

 

It never ceases to amaze me that characters in television and motion pictures very frequently will refer to a suspect (or convicted felon) having been "hung" (not "well-hung," which is a completely different issue!). Are there that many senseless dolts writing screen-plays? And, what is the deal with movie physicians--and people from the CDC--warning folks about the threat of a "new bacterium?" Bacteria ALWAYS come in cultures, i.e.--by definition--are plural. What the pseudo-scientist should have done is mention the threat of a "new strain of bacteria" (or "a new bacterial strain"). Finally, have you noticed that many folk mispronounce the word "fungi," even those who should know better? The "g" in this case is a soft one, as in the name "Angie." Have been enjoying your "commatose" book for the last couple of years. thanks.

Isn't there a pretty obvious reason people would be confused in those cases, though?

The past tense of "hang" is indeed "hung." I can forgive people for not realizing there's a different past tense depending on what's hanging. And I'm glad I live in a world where maybe most of us have more experience with the kind that involves posters of Cheryl Tiegs or Jimmy Connors or Justin Bieber or One Direction than with the kind that involves the suicidal and the lynched and the condemned. 

And you've heard about a fashion designer's "new shoe" or Wendy's "new burger," even though there are multiple shoes and burgers, right?

And why wouldn't fun Gus be a fun guy? You have to admit that's pretty counterintuitive, enough so that the intuitive pronunciation is considered an acceptable alternative.

Yeah, I've gone soft.

 

Do we have to give up on the distinction between "'til" and "till"? I saw a recent headline using "till" when the meaning was "until" so it should have been "'til".

"Till" is correct. It exists apart from "until," so the idea that it should be " 'til," as a truncation of "until," is a common misconception.

You've probably been asked this before, but I must have missed the chats in which you addressed them. I apologize for asking questions must have previously answered. First, when are abbreviations capitalized? I've seen some papers refer to the "IRS" while using "Kpmg" (the big accounting firm). Both are names of organizations, the Internal Revenue Service and Klynveld Peat Main Goerdeler. To my mind, all-caps is correct. But at least be consistent. Same with other abbreviations and acronyms. BTW, proper form for the Federal Register (which published some of my works) is all-caps. Second, why have American sports writers gone all-Brit on us with names? I had always read the "the Caps HAVE choked yet again." Now I see "the Caps HAS choked yet again." I say, old boy, why the sudden use of British usage? What's next, cricket on the front page of the sports section?

Are you sure you aren't thinking of "The Heat ARE coming to town"? Not sure I've ever seen "Caps" treated as singular.

Not sure I've seen Kpmg either, and the company uses KPMG. It's more complicated with corporate names -- if KPMG wanted to be known as Kmpg, that would be fine, but the bar is set higher for going TO all-caps. Styles differ, but at The Post we would not write a company or brand name in all caps unless it's pronounced letter by letter. So KPMG and CSX but Nike and Visa. And no all-lowercase either -- Adidas, not adidas. We'll look the other way for a single letter, as in iPad, as long as it's mid-sentence.

There is an unfortunate tendency for people to see a logo and insist it be replicated. The cover of the new album "Girls" by Pharrell Williams uses the title in widely spaced capital letters, and so some people insist the title is not "Girls" but "G I R L S," which is ridiculous. Take a look at other albums, and book covers, and food packaging, and imagine a world in which kerning dictated spelling. 

Mr. Walsh, If you were the grammar czar in this country, would you abolish the word "whom"? Frankly, I can see little practical use for it except as a grammatical plum, pleasing to mustache twirlers and other pretentios. Other languages get along quite well without a comparable objective form. Thanks. J. Reid

I've said many times that I would be glad to be rid of "whom," except in the obvious "for whom the bell tolls" and "to whom am I speaking" cases.

Think "place" rather than "lay." You place something (lay something down) but you lie down (as opposed to "place down").

There's something shorter to write on your arm.

A variety of questions WAS raised during that session - or - A variety of questions WERE raised during that session?

Were. The questions were raised, not the variety was raised.

Sticklers bristle at this sometimes, and then I ask them: Would you really say "A bunch of us is going to the mall"?

In other words, a lot of us is wrong :-).

 

What is the deal with "What I'd like to know is" when "I'd like to know" will suffice?

Another example of throat-clearing, I think. Especially if a difficult question is coming up, we like to beat around the bush. 

the question about superlatives prompted me to think of this one -- I was taught that, e.g., if you have two daughters ages 5 & 6 and a son age 2, you refer to your older/elder daughter. Or you could say "oldest child" but not oldest daughter. Am I splitting hairs? Am I even explaining what I'm talking about?

Right -- the convention is to say -er with a comparison of two but -est with a comparison of three or more. 

Hello. I wonder if you can explain why the meaning of BRING seems to have changed over the years. I learned in school that you TAKE something with you and BRING something back. Therefore if that is true, you would say: "I'm going to take this glass to the kitchen." and "Can you bring me back a cookie?" Instead I hear everyone say "I'm going to bring this glass to the kitchen." This has bothered me for years. Thanks.

I wouldn't call out "Take it here!" if I'm in the kitchen and I want my wife to bring something from the living room, but in less-obvious cases this strikes me as not much to worry about. As with "immigrate" and "emigrate," it's sometimes hard to tell what point of view you're writing from.

What will it take for the "rules" to catch up with changes in the language? I still find myself writing things like "the data are" because, even though it sounds stupid and contrived, I realize that if I write "the data is," some people will think I don't know the Latin origin of the word..

I'm hoping to get the Post to relax on that one. Soon. "Data are" strikes me as silly unless you're working in a field where datum ever comes up.

A few days ago, I noticed several headlines in the WaPo using the word 'grab' - even though most stories had little to do with quick or unscrupulous taking of anything, for example: 'Ukraine grabs gold in biathlon' - unless they got the win in the very last second by tripping up another team (neither of which happened), shouldn't it be a different verb?

It's a playful, colorful usage -- nothing wrong with that. If a friend asks you to grab a bite, you don't insist on doing so quickly and unscrupulously and stopping short of two bites, right?

Does the Post have guidelines for editing down heads, deks, etc., for mobile and tablet versions of print stories? What are the best ways editors can get the point across on these smaller but more and more widely used platforms?

It's not easy. The software we use doesn't give us a real-world look at how the headlines look on all platforms, and the people writing the headlines are writing a lot of them, so we have neither the time nor the technology to polish all that display type as well as we might, at least not right away. So we are always trying to do better on that front. 

There may be a regional element to it too. I hear folks from fly-over states use that expression more than the Coasters.

Yet another example of our elitist ways!

I've noticed people converting adjectives into nouns, often humorously: "the poors,'" "the olds." This is natural in many languages. Think it might catch on in English?

Interesting. I'm trying to think of other examples where maybe it isn't a humorous usage. The clock is going to run out!

I'm afraid our time is up and I have to get to my nighttime day job.

But I'll leave you with some Grammar Day homework/amusement: Here's Mark "Editor Mark" Allen's haiku contest, and here's Tom "Snooze in Brief" Freeman's "How the Grinch Stole Grammar." And, as always, there's John "John McIntyre" McIntyre's Grammar Noir (see the Part 1 link to click back to the beginning). 

There's more about Grammar Day here. And would you believe the next chat also falls on a happily coincidental date? April Fool's! See you then (or maybe I'll see you in Tucson or Las Vegas this month first).

 

 

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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