Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh

May 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! Welcome to a special first-Thursday-instead-of-first-Tuesday edition of Grammar Geekery. We're in a tough time slot, up against the Web Hostess, so here's your chance to wedge in those questions that I didn't get around to. And stick around till the end to hear about an event you really should attend this weekend.

When we last chatted, the news in the language world was the Associated Press's announcement that "over" was fine as an alternative to "more than." And we seem to have survived.

 

But now the AP has rocked the copy editors' world once more, declaring state abbreviations, for the most part, a thing of the past. Where once you would have read "Peoria, Ill.," you'll now see "Peoria, Illinois" in a lot of news outlets.

 

The Post doesn't follow AP style, so this doesn't apply here. We be Ill.-in'. And at least one major AP-style subscriber isn't going along. 

As with a lot of our inside baseball, I have to wonder: Do readers care? What do you think?

 

Non-grammar related: Any idea why all four live chats preceding yours were cancelled? Grammar-related: What on earth are we to do about the spreading misuse of "literally" and who is to blame for this? My finger is pointed at Chris Trieger (Rob Lowe) of "Parks & Rec" who inserted "litrally" in front of anything he was describing.

We had some technical difficulties, but they should be solved now.

I wrote about literally last summer. The problem, if you consider it a problem, has been with us awhile -- I'm not necessarily sure it's spreading.

 

I'm sure this question has been raised before, but is there a reason why the word pled seems to have been tossed aside in favor of the word pleaded? ("Mr. Doe pleaded guilty to the charges." vs. "Mr. Doe pled guilty to the charges.")

Actually, pleaded is standard and pled is a variant. Many would even say pled isn't a word. They'd be wrong, of course, but we in the picky-about-the-language biz are resisting that variant.

Do you consider "alternate" an acceptable adjective in a phrase such as "alternate route"? One of the meanings for "alternate" is a substitute, so it makes sense to me, but some grammarians argue that "alternative" is the only choice.

True confession: That distinction twists me in knots. I have to look it up every time, and I'm still not sure I fully understand it. Alternate route sounds fine to me, but I'd go through that research again before I'd publish the phrase that way. 

What does it mean to 'categorically' deny something? And is this different than just denying it?

We love our intensifiers. We like our denials categorical and our poverty abject.

 

I read a great argument the other day that our new use of literally does not redefine it to mean figuratively. Rather, we've begun using it as an emphasis word. Like actually. I'm actually freezing to death. I'm literally freezing to death. We don't define actually as 'not actually' though. We recognize it as an emphasizer. And no one's freaking out over that. So literally does not now mean figuratively. The definitely of literally now includes something like: used to emphasize and hyperbolize a statement.

Right. There's an app now that changes literally to figuratively, but that's silly. Nobody would ever use the word figuratively that way. 

The argument on the other side is that leave yourself an easy target when you reach for the one word that means "I'm not kidding; this is true!" to emphasize something that is not true.

 

Is there a generally accepted distinction between the two? I prefer "preventive" as an adjective and "preventative" as a noun.

It's a coin toss that we generally resolve in favor of the shorter form. I hadn't thought about the noun in that argument. You may have a point that a preventative sounds a little better, but I still think I'd choose the same form for both parts of speech -- and stick with the shorter one. 

The very poor grammar, sentence construction, word usage, etc. in the daily Express interferes with the message. I see 'less' used for 'fewer', 'amount' used instead of 'percentage' and 'myself' for 'me'. Dare I mention the dangling participles? I love the humor, especially the zany headlines, but I wish their (obviously young) writers would improve their writing skills.

Good news and bad news for my not-quite-colleagues. Some of those issues can be debatable, of course -- "less" and "fewer," for example. 

Speaking of rocking the purists' world, I may be facing be a tough audience on this point, but I'm building a case for moving away from data as a plural here at The Post.

Think about it: The data are in ... might sound fine -- we're used to data are -- but ... and economists are analyzing them closely. 

Wait, what? Them? It's clearly an it in that case, in which case the data is. In modern American English, to me, the word is plural only in those instances where you could see yourself referring to a datum.

I'm ducking now.

 

In the past couple of years, I've noticed that in what I thought was the middle of a sentence, there is a non-proper-noun capitalized word, inevitably following a colon. What's with that? Call me old-fashioned, but I thought capitalized words came only at the beginning of sentences. Is this the new trend? Must I follow suit?

If what follows a colon works as a sentence on its own, the guideline is to capitalize.

At The Post as at many other publications, we also capitalize the first word after a colon in headlines, no matter what, just as a visual preference. 

This isn't a grammar question so much as a stylistic one. Can The Post please refrain from referring to Congressional committees and their chairpersons as "powerful?" For example, "So-and-so, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee..." Powerful implies the ability to get things done, and in these days of gridlock, who can truly claim to have power? Thank you.

Interesting point. 

You know what else is powerful? Antioxidants. It's always powerful antioxidants

When you create your hashtags. should you always capitalize a new word? Are there grammar rules for hashtags?

Aside from punctuation doing you little or no good, you have a blank canvas with hashtags. #enjoythefreedom

The Data IS. And ever shall it be.

Thank you for your support. #bartlesandjaymes

My pet peeve: the word "only" in the wrong place in the sentence. Only John kissed Mary. John only kissed Mary. John kissed only Mary. It matters very, very much where you put your only. I am shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you, at how little attention this gets and how many times it is not positioned correctly. The NYT is especially at fault. It seems they see no difference in "We only beat our wives." and 'We beat only our wives." Big difference between the two. In the first, we do nothing but beat; we don't apologize, we don't murder, we only beat. In the second, our wives are the only ones we beat. HUGE difference, but no one seems to care. I do, very much.

My friend Merrill Perlman, now retired but a longtime New York Times editor, used to give a seminar on that issue. "If You Knew Only."

My more descriptive pals in the language biz will say that the context is usually clear and that you should trust your ear and use what sounds best, but I do try to pay attention to that placement. 

Literally.

I'm picturing T-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers for Dewey Decimal System experts. Something about how they DO IT CATEGORICALLY.

"The data are in, and economists are analyzing them closely." Maybe I'm just dense but I don't see a difference between this and "The results are in, and economists are analyzing them closely." Are seems fine for both.

And there's a vote for the traditional position. 

I feel the same way -- more so, actually -- about "the media." It's a plural if you mean the equivalent of "mediums" -- TV, radio, print, online. But nobody uses it that way. They mean the plural of "reporters and editors and photographers and camera operators." And I don't know about the others, but I'm not a "medium."

Thoughts on the use of this term? Seems offensive on so many levels. It's coy and archaic, and labels the woman but not the man. If we're going to be subjected to news coverage of these relationships, surely there's a better way to convey necessary information. What do you advise at the Post?

You say "coy and archaic" as though that's a bad thing!

But, yes, that's a good question. I stumbled on a recent reference to Monica Lewinsky as Bill Clinton's mistress, but I couldn't think of an alternative and I found plenty of examples of people using the term, so I left it. 

Ideally you'd have room to elaborate on exactly what the situation was, but this was a passing reference just because "Monica Lewinsky" alone would have seemed, uh, naked.

I'm also stumbling at references to Donald Sterling's "girlfriend," which seemed fine until we learned he was married. 

Anyone have a good idea?

 

I'm with you on "data" as singular. "Data" is used much like "information" is. It's time to acknowledge that "data" has evolved, similar to "agenda," which now has the plural "agendas."

Right -- data wouldn't be the first Latin plural to go that route.

 

Why can't people hyphenate? It cuts down on a lot of ambiguity when you see, "leader-driven ideas" rather than "leader driven ideas." Also, why do they have to use a hyphen after an adverb ending with -ly - I can't stand seeing "carefully-planned" or "locally-sourced." Is this not being taught any more?

You and I share that gene that makes people care about hyphens!

And then there are the well-meaning editors who take the hyphen out of "family-planning clinics" because of "the -ly rule." As if family were an adverb meaning "in a fami manner."

in college, my guy friends would refer to a Monica or V. as their "slam piece." Feel free to use that.

At least Sterling's girlfriend had the sense not to give him her full name.

 

No question. Just sharing a malapropism I recently saw on restroom doors at a service station outside Waco, TX. "Restroom is customery." The worker on duty rightly said he was embarrassed by them because customers assume he is stupid. Instead, the owner created them and can't be made to understand why they don't convey his intended message that restrooms are for customers only.

And if he meant using the restroom is customary, well, that's good news.

At a Target store, I saw a restroom sign warning against bringing "unpaid merchandise" in with you. I guess "un-paid-for" would  be a little unwieldy, but ...

Gold-digger adequately covers it.

Now, now. Perhaps it's time for a musical interlude. Ladies and gentlemen, Burl Ives ...

I see no issues with the term "girlfriend". That's what she was. Having a wife doesn't mean you can't also have a girlfriend!  

I've been trying to tell my wife that for years!

 

Why does so much college paraphernalia say "alumni?" I'm an alumna of my university. I refuse to display anything that appears to refer to me as an alumni, or to refer to myself in that way. . Perhaps they are trying to convey that I'm a member of the body of alumni (or the alumni association), but that's not how it comes across.

It is a strange phenomena.

 

I read many stories about Sterling having a girlfriend. It was several days before I caught that he had a wife. Thw word misstress would have conveyed far more information if it had been used.

Well said. Yeah, that's what I was thinking.

 

Pet peeve: "I'm gonna try and do that", "I'm going to try and go there". It's "try to", people! Please try to get people to stop saying "try and".

I feel pretty strongly about that one, too, though I'll allow this exception (another musical interlude!). Again, my descriptive friends would disagree.

With your knowledge and sense of humor, you are, however, both "well done" and "rare." And we are grateful for that.

Thanks, Mom!

 

"Mistress" implies that the woman took cash, gifts, and other material goods in exchange for sex. Seems to fit Sterling's situation a lot better than "girlfriend".

I think that's part of what bothered me in the Lewinsky reference. 

Still the gold standard for style guides? Or is it dated?

I like what The Elements of Style stands for more than what's actually in there. I elaborate in Yes, I Could Care Less. 

And why don't we see more actual state abbreviations, even on actual mailed items? Seems to me Chicago, IL, is pretty clear and takes less space.

Chicago would be an example of a "dateline city" -- one so well known that you don't need a state at all.

The problem with the postal abbreviations is that a lot of them will confuse people who don't live in, or have pen pals in, those states. MI/MO/MS, AK/AL ...

Not sure if this is strictly grammar, but I am driven up the wall by TV sports announcers saying "it'll be the Wizards verse the Bulls". I get it that "versus" is abbreviated "vs.", but am amazed someone could get such a job and not know this.

Do people really say that? I hadn't noticed. 

The use of the word "issue" to mean "problem" makes me nuts. "They are having budget issues." "I have issues with her." But I have seen it in the Post, and that makes me even crazier. It's a lazy and silly word use that I would expect you not to allow. But I realize your thoughts may differ. Would you issue an opinion?

Maybe it's because I was born just a year or two too late, but issue doesn't bother me. Sometimes the issue is that one side considers it a problem and the other side doesn't, right?

Can you please get it across to your writers there that the correct usage is not "On the one hand ... on the other hand"? It's "On one hand ... on the other hand." Makes more sense.

Another one I hadn't thought of. I don't think you could call the first one wrong, but ... yeah.

The available data says that it's singular. (see what I did there?)

Bravo.

 

It's "UConn" -- not "U.-Conn." It never has been "U.-Conn." It never will be "U.-Conn." Why can't the Post get this one little thing right? Are you all frustrated Georgetown alumni, taking revenge for thirty years of frustration and watching your old conference rival thrive?

We use U-Conn., not U.-Conn., right? I don't know; that seems like a case where Post style and common practice are close enough. They'd be pronounced the same. We use also U-Va., not UVA or UVa, for instance.

This is the last chat standing.

They will pry those hyphens from my cold, dead hands.

 

this one feels ready for a moratorium

Like many useful terms, it is overused.

 

Have you noticed that in the past decade more people seem to avoid the word "me" and use "I" almost exclusively. Would you pass the salt to I? Santa gave presents to my wife and I. In both the preceding sentences shouldn't I have used me?

I get that complaint in almost every chat. It's a great example of hypercorrection. Me sounds more natural, but in many cases you get corrected as a child where you should have used I, and so your response is to always reach for I. 

I was shocked to see that the on-line courses at the Foreign Service Institute are accessed via the "Learncenter." I understand the desire to make names sound snappier but this sounds flat out illiterate to me. Am I hopelessly behind the times or is this another bridge too far in the effort to sound trendy?

That seems like an innocent-enough attempt at branding, but it does raise the specter of "learnings," a rather silly term that I'm told has taken over the corporate-training world.

Just a quick comment in reference to the question of "mistress" as a descriptor: People can have both a wife and a girlfriend. In fact, they can have two or more girlfriends or two or more wives. It may not be common, but it definitely happens. I was once in a four-year poly relationship, and the fact that my partner was married did not mean I was her mistress. We were both her partners. Mistress can imply a secrecy or ethical problem that may not be present.

Sure. But my problem remains unsolved. "Lewinsky, Bill Clinton's partner" doesn't quite work.

 

Hi Bill, As the only full time writer on the Express staff at the moment, I'd like to note that I am not young. I am 34. It's just, I'm a product of the Florida public school system, and I was put in ESOL class despite English being my one and only language. (true story.) -Sadie Dingfelder

Hi, Sadie!

Consider this an illustration that that publication does a heck of a lot of work on a daily deadline.

 

"Sometimes the issue is that one side considers it a problem and the other side doesn't, right?" But that's not what people mean when they say it. They mean "problems." When a previous poster said s/he didn't have any issues with "mistress," the intent was to say problems. To me, it's like saying someone passed away instead of died. Or "had non-consensual sex" instead of "sexually assaulted." It's namby-pamby and not in keeping with the idea of presenting information in an unambiguous or watered-down way. And yes, okay, I'm over 50.

There is definitely some 1970s touchy-feely residue on "issues."

Here's a longer version of my rant on postal abbreviations.

 

You may have addressed this in an earlier session, but please repeat your opinion on the disturbing (to me) trend of using "reach out" for "contact" rather than as an offer to help.

Ooh! That's probably my top trendyspeak complaint right now. 

An interesting side note is that contact as a verb was frowned upon well into the 1960s, but it beats the heck out of the vogue "reach out to."

You reach out to a friend in need. If you're a reporter calling a guy to get a comment on his indecent-exposure arrest, that's not "reaching out."

 

This one started in corporate-speak, because you never want to be the guy with a "problem." And thanks for your sort-of-answer re: UConn -- we've been asking about that since Wilbon was doing chats.

That's also why the indecent exposers always say "No comment" when you reach out to them.

I won't be able to participate live today, alas, but I still want to contribute something to the discussion. It seems of late that people are using the word "verbiage" completely non-pejoratively, as though it were a perfect synonym of "wording". An example would be: "We need to tweak the verbiage of this press release". Your thoughts?

That's one of the word's meanings, according to the major dictionaries, but it does seem precious if not ambiguous. 

Maybe Bill Clinton's fling?

Nouning a noun! Or something like that.

Go ahead and tell her. What's stopping you? Don't have her e-mail address or phone number?

Phone number? What is this, 1956?

And our Ways and Means Committees "all powerful" and our infield fly rules "invoked."

Bunts laid down?

Lewinsky was Bill Clinton's chippie.

Want to feel old? Imagine how many adults are too young to remember all that. 

Sigh. I think we lost that one a long time ago. I still prefer "data are" but I agree it complicates the remaining sentences Same with "media" - no longer plural (in most cases).

Bingo.

 

And our "five consecutive games in a row."

At least we have the Bullets. Or whatever they're called now. Mystics, right?

I listen to WTOP every morning, and every morning the Vehicles for Change organization's commercial airs. The speaker tells us how his organization needs cars for people who otherwise might not be able to get a job "for the unforeseen future." How in the world did that get past an editor?? It drives me nuts every morning. I may have to turn the radio to a different station when I hear that ad start!

Wow. And who are these people who have cars sitting around?

That will do it for this month -- thanks for participating!

But don't go away just yet. If you're in the area, I'd like to invite you to come say hi Sunday at Eastern Market, where I'll be part of the Literary Hill BookFest. It's from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the market's north hall.

(It's Sunday, right? You'll be at Eastern Market anyway, right?)

I'll be signing books and selling books, and from 1 to 1:20 I'll give a little talk. Some of my more-interesting Capitol Hill neighbors will be there, too -- Gene Weingarten, Louis Bayard, Fred Frommer ...

Hope to see you there! Either way, I'll be back here June 3.

 

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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