Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh

Apr 01, 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 was National Grammar Day when we last got together, and I've been busy since then. First there was the Tucson Festival of Books, on my college campus, and then my swing through the Southwest continued with the American Copy Editors Society conference in Las Vegas. 

Yes, a gathering of copy editors! It's even more fun than it sounds. The Dictionary-American Community was well represented, and I even got to air my grievances on the Merriam-Webster site. 

The big news at the ACES conference, as you may have heard, was an announcement by the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook that it's fine to use "over" and "under" to mean "more than" and "less than." 

Some of us were like "Well, duh!" -- but others were crestfallen. It was as though someone were chipping away at the very foundation of our craft. "More than my dead body!" was one Twitter comment. In a way, that reaction is understandable. For a lot of copy editors and grammar geeks, "over" is spatial, and special. It's a "rule" we learned early on. 

But did it ever make sense? Yes and no. However you feel about "over," you have to concede that words can mean more than one thing. The question, then, becomes whether there's any good reason to confine a word to only one of those meanings. To me, "over"/"more than" is like "since"/"because." You sacrifice a little formality in using "over" or "since," but those usages are well established and they're not likely to confuse anybody. And if there's a chance of confusion, well, there's good news: Nobody's banning "more than" and "because."

Now, we all struggle, as I do in my most recent book, with where to draw the line in some of these word-nerd disputes. I've been critical of some recent AP style changes; although I cheered the rulings on "over" and "hopefully," I scoffed at calling a mike a mic and changing e-mail to email. 

And there is something to be said for the ritual nature of making these copy-editor changes that most people couldn't (!) care less about. It's like the checklist that helps airline pilots avoid forgetting the really important things, or the silly things that service members get drilled on. Making your bed really well doesn't have anything to do with killing enemy soldiers, but instills discipline. 

At some point, though, these meaningless edits take time and attention away from what's more important. For me, routinely changing "over" to "more than" falls into that time-suck category. I'll still change some of them, because sometimes it just sounds better, but it's never been automatic for me. Take "over 55 mph." A mile per hour is not a discrete, countable unit, and so I think "over" is not only acceptable there but also preferable. 

Are you "over" it? What else is on your mind?

 

Is there any hope of at least getting professional journalists, many at the Washington Post, to use the phrase "begs the question" correctly? The misuse of that phrase and saying "I could care less" instead of "I couldn't care less" drive me up the wall.

The counter-argument is that people outside college philosophy departments would rarely, if ever, need the traditional sense of "begs the question."

Here's begging the question: "Begging the question" shouldn't be misused, because misusing it would be incorrect!

But I'm with you. It's a nifty concept, and "raise the question" is a perfectly good, and common, way of talking about raising a question.

While sending out Christmas cards, two families on my list perplexed me. I had been addressing to The Smiths or The Jones', but what do I do to pluralize names such as Cox and Albrich?

The Coxes. The Albriches. (The Walshes!)

Now somebody tell the woodburning industry!

 

Can you discuss when each term should be used? I use "female" as an adjective and "woman" as a noun, but I see things like "the first woman judge" all the time. I can't imagine anyone ever writing "a man judge," but would it be incorrect?

I avoid "woman" as an adjective, but there are those who find "female" too clinical. The non-parallel with "man" as an adjective is probably more about a legacy of sexism than it is about usage -- English is full of non-parallels.

Answers to grammar questions seem to vary according to what source one uses. What is the most definitive source for correct grammar usage for American English?

That's a good question, and I don't have an answer when it comes to actual grammar-grammar. For "grammar" as in the bigger topic, including matters of style, Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner is the gold standard.

How did we get to the point of using the collective word "troop" to mean a "soldier?" The WP, like all other newspapers uses it this way. While I can't remember finding a use of "troop" to mean one soldier, I have seen it written "100 troops" and as low as "5 troops" to mean 100 or 5 soldiers. I have found this usage as far back as WW ll. Correcting this usage is just impossible, isn't it? Why has this happened? To me it sounds a little more impersonal to call a person a "troop" than a "soldier" and I think maybe that's the reason. We try to impersonalize war most of the time so we say 5 troops were killed, rather than 5 soldiers. Thank you.

The problem there is that "soldier" means just the Army. There are also sailors and Marines and airmen, but often a troop figure includes all the services. 

I wanted to point out that, just a few days after your last chat, Hank Stuever had some comments on the state of grammar in one of his chats, which I happened to read: Hank Stuever : I think if I'd gone as long as you had without TV, the thing that would floor me is the atrocious grammar on TV now, especially when "reality" people are yammering on. "This is between she and myself," etc.

Hank is a good person to have on your side.

 

Will "comprised of" eventually replace the (currently) correct "comprises"? Note: the problem is: comprise = consists of

It sure is a common error.

 

I often notice that when I click a link to an article from the front page, the title for the link and the title at the top of the article are different. I could understand if space was an issue and a shorter version of the title was used on the front page, but this is the Internet and space isn't as limited as it is for the print version of the newspaper. Why not use the same title? If you need something to tease people into reading a story, wouldn't that title still be good enough for the actual story?

Sometimes it's just a practical and logistical matter -- there isn't time to come up with half a dozen headlines tailored perfectly for the various places they'll be viewed. But we're working on it.

How do you usually rewrite/untangle this sort of phrase: "That once was your mother's and my house?" I often have to fix this version" "That was once your mother and I's house."

I try to weasel out of the situation with a full recasting.

 

A senior at our organization argues that "pressure" is not a verb and should be replaced with "press." Your thoughts?

To pressure is to apply pressure to. To press is close, but I don't think the meanings are always identical.

If I say "His work is competent if not brilliant," will you understand me to mean "…but not brilliant" or "…and maybe even brilliant"? I would have meant the former, but then I think of constructions like "Cal Ripken is one of the greatest shortstops, if not the greatest shortstop, of all time," in which "if not" DOES mean "and maybe even." So instead of damning with faint praise have I been doing the opposite?

There is the possibility of misunderstanding, isn't there? I'd read it your way, but I can see how some people might not. 

The Washington Post regularly uses "underway" --as in "talks are now underway"--when "under way" is called for. Are plans under way to stop this practice? Thanks for hosting this chat!

The Post has long used "underway" where a lot of people would go for "under way." I considered calling for a change, but I backed off after finding the authorities surprisingly amenable to the one-word form. 

Why the apostrophe in Jones'? The plural is Joneses. And for the woodburning industry, I find they most often use the possessive, and use it wrong. The Young in my neighborhood have a sign over their front door that says "The Young's"

Right. It's the Joneses, as in "keeping up with ..."

Me and Mrs. Jones, by the way, we got a thing going on.

 

"Your mother and I once lived in that house." "I once lived in that house with your mother." "We lived in that house, and that's How I Met Your Mother."

Bob Saget, ladies and gentlemen!

Are snarky phrases like "not so much" and "threw up in my mouth a little" and even "meh" ok for WaPo writers to use? If not, please make them stop. Thanks

Spoiler alert!

Glad to see the serial comma used in the "ABOUT THE TOPIC" paragraph for this session. Any thoughts on how to fight what sometimes seems a losing battle against the forces trying to rid the world of the comma before "and" in a list of 3 or more items?

Ah, but notice the "and" embedded in the series. Even those of us who don't routinely use the serial comma should use it in that case. (Think cereal comma, as in "toast, juice, Trix, and ham and eggs.)

Otherwise, I could take that comma or leave it. The newspaper tradition is to leave it, and I've spend my career in newspapers.

There are examples, some of them humorous, of cases where skipping the serial comma results in an unintended meaning, but it's just as easy to construct examples where including it does a similar thing.

 

What are your feelings about the semi-colon? The love it; however, I seldom see it. Is it an antiquated tool? Larry

I'm on record as calling the semicolon "an ugly bastard." I still use it sometimes (I did in this chat's intro, I think), and I don't think it's antiquated, but I think it's a little overused. 

In a series, for instance, you don't need to separate items with semicolons unless one or more of the items includes a comma. My anti-serial-comma colleagues sometimes rush to the semicolon instead of just using the extra comma in one of those "toast, juice, Trix, and ham and eggs" instances.

 

I think the The Washington Post should set up a committee, akin to the Academie Francaise, which would not only issue rulings on the finer points of the language but also authorize reporters to use certain words, which would otherwise be banned from the paper. I have in mind words like iconic, which now seems to be applied to anything even a few people have heard of.

Do I get to be in charge?

(Sorry to kill your accent marks there, but the software is picky about where you cut and paste from, and so there was some mojibake going on.)

 

I've seen recently the heavy usage of how MS370 is presumed lost with 239 "souls" on board. I guess people think it's somehow more respectful? (But then, what if there are atheists on board?)

And please, people, don't write "missing plane search" without a hyphen. The plane is missing, not the search.

Better yet: It's the plane search. We know it's missing. We wouldn't be searching for it if it weren't missing.

 

"Spoiler alert"? Can you clarify your answer? I have seen those phrases used by WaPo writers. They seem a little too snarky for professional writing.

Another example of trying-a-little-too-hard-to-sound-with-it language. I'm guilty of it, too.

Also annoying is the creeping blog-speak. Nobody tries to reach anyone anymore; they "reach out to ..."

Nobody retracts an allegation anymore; they "walk it back."

Nobody delays something anymore; they "slow-walk" it.

Responding is always "pushing back."

Etc.

 

...we've got a thing going on ;)

I saw her first.

 

As a writer and editor myself, I can't think anything more stressful than being the poor wretch responsible for the program for the American Copy Editors Society meeting.

Nah; we're pretty mellow. It's quite a task, but not for that reason. 

Will we ever, I mean really, see the end of the, well, annoying habit of, you know, actually putting in writing those little, um, words that are a rather annoying way of, ahem, pausing for effect. There was one in a book review the other day!

If you will ...

 

I cringe when I hear "so fun." I've always used "so much fun." Likewise, "funner", rather than "more fun" hurts my ears. But are "so fun" and "funner" grammatically correct and acceptable (by most)?

I try to avoid "fun" as an adjective, but sometimes it's hard. It's here to stay, but it should probably be avoided in formal writing, at least for now.

Similar: "free" as a noun, as in "I got it for free" rather than "I got it free."

 

 

When calling someone on bad grammar on Facebook, for instance (admittedly a casual conversation, not formal writing), they often respond with "This is just the internet, man. Don't matter." (Or usually something more profane). In your opinion, is this "just the internet" or does it matter? Will it result in the long-term erosion of the language?

I would never point out bad grammar on Facebook, except in self-defense.

As for the bleed-over effect, I'm cautiously optimistic. I could live without seeing another all-lowercase office memo, though.

 

You just taught me a new word.

 

 

Nifty, isn’t it? €¥®™

Wow! I havve just found this chat today. I feel like I'm home. Ahhh. Love the Jones and the serial comma points. Any thoughts on the rather common incorrect uses of 'to' and 'too' and 'there' and 'their', not to mention 'they're', by the general public? And now I'm feel quite self-concious of my own grammar and spelling. But aren't these 'tos' and 'theres' something that should be mastered in middle school? I'm a rather poor speller myself and I mastered these sometime before college. So, I find myself rather unforgiving of people who misuse these words.

Thanks!

I don't have anything profound to say about those issues. I once wrote that for me they are the boring compulsories, like the figure-eights that Olympic skaters once had to carve into the ice before they could show off their axels and such.

 

Perdue has an ad now that says, "We think you are what you eat eats." It's awkward, it's clunky, and it's definitely bad grammar. Bwawk??

As long as ad-speak stays in ads, I give it wide berth. Imagine having to come up with something that hasn't already been done for a commercial.

Of course you would be in charge of the "Academy". But I really would like your thoughts on what I consider to be the mis- and overuse of "iconic".

It's overused, but it has its place. Famous is famously considered redundant (if you have to say so, then ...). Legendary? That's probably even more overused. 

 

I just received an email that ended with "Best until soon." I don't even know what the hell that means. Is it short for "You have my best wishes until we meet again in the near future"? Or something more ominous?

That's a new one. I'm still scratching my head over "sooner than later."

 

Thoughts on recognizing this?

I concede that the car which hit me is no less clear than the car that hit me, and that any ambiguity stems from the use or non-use of a comma. I even concede that it's a bugaboo. But I still like to dig that extra little moat of clarity. 

The aforementioned Bryan Garner refers to the restrictive which as "editorially retrograde."

Or am I missing a different sense in which it would be "irregular"?

This is industry lingo. "Souls" are the total people on board. This includes crew, paying passengers, and any other non-revenue passengers.

Why not "people"?

 

when did it become acceptable to use these plural terms as singular?

A long time ago? Singular and plural in those cases are more complicated than they look. To me, "data" is fine as a collective singular outside cases where "a datum" would make any sense. (When was the last time you saw a datum?)

And people misuse the plural "media." All the time. Think "mediums." Now, then: I'm in the media, but am I a medium? "Media" is plural if the "mediums" are print and broadcast and online, but people use it to mean "more than one media outlet" or even "more than one reporter," which to me argues for "the media is."

Do you think aerial view and birds eye view should be interchangeable, or is the latter better applied to frozen peas?

An aerial view requires the proper Clarence.

Does the Post still have any actual copy editors and/or proofreaders on staff? It would appear not so, based on my daily scan of the paper. Even bylined writers and columnists often seem to be lacking basic skills at either, as when a bylined writer uses "renown" when the context calls for "renowned." It gets inceasingly depressing to try to wade through so much really sloppy copy.

Ever seen reknown used to mean renowned? I have.

But, sigh, yes, we do have copy editors. Civilians don't always understand that those copy editors are working like Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory, not spending a leisurely hour with each article.

 

It seems that in the professional world, a comma or period outside of quotation marks is often given a grammar "pass," particularly if the quoted phrase or title is short. My understanding is that, in the U.S., periods and commas go inside the quotes, no matter how short the quoted phrase/title (as long as the punctuation is not part of the phrase or title being quoted). Any insight on why this practice seems to be fairly common? Thanks.

Some think the British practice is gaining traction over here, but even the British aren't all that consistent about following what you might call "logical" punctuation -- and as you get to quotes within quotes and the like, it's not always clear what would even be "logical."

There's also technical writing, where including something non-germane within the quote marks would break things.

 

Do you generally allow "access" as a verb? Some people consider it jargon best left to computing contexts, but it's become very common.

I don't think it retains much of the taint it once had.

 

What's your feeling about using "mic" for microphone? Strikes me as clumsy...after all, we don't ride a bic, we ride a bike. Seems awkard to me. How does the Post address this?

Indeed. And my fridge is not a frig.

Also, if a mike is a mic, how would you describe somebody wearing a mike? Is that person miced? Micced? Mic'd? Mic-d? (AP uses mic but miked, which is kind of ridiculous. This is one reason I'm glad we don't use AP style.)

 

Why do news outlets routinely capitalize "the" in "The Associated Press" but not in other company names, such as "The Cheesecake Factory" or "The Sharper Image"? If "the" is correctly capitalized with "Associated Press," what's the rationale involved?

Some outlets go with the logo or preference of the entity they're referring to. The Post uses "The Post" in a bit of vanity but lowercases the others to keep things simple. We say Associated Press in credit lines and "the Associated Press" in text. I'd get distracted pretty quickly if an article referred to the Beatles and the Stones as The Beatles and The Stones.

I'm getting tired of the use of "had the opportunity" as a wordy alternative to "did." For example, "I had the opportunity to speak with the Pope" rather than "I spoke with the Pope." Rarely does the former describe anything different from the latter. In fact, it's probably more accurately used when the opportunity was not taken, as "I had the opportunity to speak with the Pope but my alarm did not go off so I missed meeting him."

Yeah. Sometimes we get wordy because we like to hear ourselves talk, but also there's a question of tone. The shortest way of saying something can sound abrupt.

I noticed in your answers you sometimes put the punctuation outside the quotation marks: "people"? and sometimes inside: "media." I've always preached inside unless the word is treated as a word.

"People" was being treated as a word, wasn't it?

Does a British stylebook exist? Do they have a Bryan Garner equivalent?

H.W. Fowler, though that's on the old side. The Times and the Economist and the Guardian all have thorough modern stylebooks.

Amen and amen. Your examples come directly from bosses who are not hands-on workers and fill the void with stuff they learn at conferences: "Attending #ipact2014! All about passion and curiosity!" (Talk about throwing up in your mouth a little...)

#YOLO

How do you manage with going out in public? Are there paparazzi that you know on a first name basis, and have you ever been in a fist fight with one? Who are you wearing?

I was recognized out of context on the street once. That was odd. And by a kid of maybe 19, not my usual graying-librarian demographic!

Thanks, everyone -- that should do it for today.

We'll switch things up a little next month and do the chat on a Thursday -- May 1 -- rather than the first Tuesday. Mark your calendars for that and for Sunday, May 4, where I'll be at Eastern Market for the Literary Hill BookFest along with some more-talented neighbors. Louis Bayard! Maybe even Gene Weingarten.

 

 

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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