Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (July)

Jul 06, 2016

Could you literally care less about the finer points of the language? Ever wonder why the Post follows the conventions it follows? Post copy editor Bill Walsh discussed not only grammar but also punctuation, capitalization, spelling, word choice, and the other nuts and bolts of good writing.


I'm not working on the copy desk, my real job, today, but I couldn't resist butting in this morning when I came across a Post blog post that referred to a number dropping "40- or 50-fold."

Writers often refer to decreases using terms that work only for increases. Usually you see "three times smaller" or the like. This makes no sense, because once a number is "one time smaller," it's zero. "A ____-fold decrease" presents a similar problem. When writers say "three times smaller" or "a threefold decrease," they mean a number has dropped to one-third of what it was.

Such wording problems aren't limited to decreases. Strictly speaking (and you'd better believe I speak strictly!), "times larger" (or faster or whatever) is a problem. The "aw, c'mon, you know what it means" school of editing will defend such wording, but what writers really mean is "times as large as." Thirty is three times 10, or three times as large as 10. But is it "three times larger"? No, it isn't. Count along with me: One time larger than 10 would be 20. And two times larger than 10 would be ... 30! So even if you don't agree with me that the wording is nonsensical, you have to acknowledge that it's ambiguous. 

The -fold thing adds a wrinkle, so to speak, because the figure of speech has a built-in redundancy, or the opposite of redundancy, or something. "A twofold increase" is a doubling, though logically you might think it means a 200 percent increase, which would be tripling. You can't just say something "twofolded," so "increase" is part of the expression, but it's not the increase itself that is twofolderrific -- it's the number we end up with. To put it another way, there's no such thing as a onefold increase.

A ___-fold decrease is a problem either way, of course, just as "times as small as" doesn't really improve on "times smaller than."

Enough math for now! Let's dive in. And stay tuned, because I'll have an important announcement at the end of today's chat.


During my tenure as a journalist circa 1980-95 the preferred description of someone arrested for driving while inebriated was drunken driving. Now I almost always hear and read drunk driving, which we were told not to use. Is drunk driving (the descriptor, not the act) now acceptable?

Post style is still drunken driving (but drunk driver). But the authoritative Bryan Garner observes that drunk driver became the predominant usage after 1980 or so. 

The otherwise lovely feature on gymnast Simone Biles July 1 repeatedly referred to her parents as "the Biles", which would seem to suggest that their name is Bile, not Biles. Why not simply call them the Bileses....just like we don't say "the Jones", we say "the Joneses".

You are correct. The plural of Biles is Bileses.


Regarding last week's discussion on which is preferred, "and/or" or "and-or," are you aware that Garner asserts that "or" covers the concept and that neither form is preferred? What say you?

"Or" covers the concept, at least usually. Isn't that what-said-me? ("All of the diners ordered the soup or salad" doesn't become false if one diner ordered both.)

I'm not sure what you mean by "neither form is preferred," even after looking at Garner's entry.


I find myself overusing the comma. How am I supposed to know when to use a comma or when to go the old semi-colon route? Thank you!

I'm not sure what you mean there. If anything, the semicolon is an escalation over the comma. 

Do you mean you're prone to comma splices? One function of the semicolon is to fuse two complete sentences into a valid complete sentence of its own.

CORRECT: I went to Wimbledon; it rained.

COMMA SPLICE: I went to Wimbledon, it rained.

STILL CORRECT, JUST BECAUSE: I came, I saw, I conquered.

The other main function of the semicolon is to replace the comma in a series in which one or more items contains an embedded comma. She worked for the departments of Defense; State; and Health, Education and Welfare.

Now, a lot of people overuse the semicolon, sometimes because they're so wedded to a no-serial-comma policy that they ignore the clearly stated exceptions to that policy.

Imagine a series with an embedded and but not an embedded comma. She worked for the departments of State, Defense, and Health and Human Services. The Post, like most news organizations, would not ordinarily use that comma (the departments of Energy, Education and Defense), but the and in Health and Human Services makes it necessary. The no-serial-comma fetishists, however, might write about the departments of State; Defense; and Health and Human Services.

Is there a more concise way to say "The pen of my wife, Mary, is there"? Nothing else I've tried seems right: "Mary, my wife's, pen is there." "My wife's, Mary's, pen is there." etc.

This is why I forbid my wife to have a pen.


From a June 27 WP story: "In 2014, she posted a different photo, in which the girls were hugging, alongside a bible verse, James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above,” she wrote, quoting the verse." In this usage shouldn't it be Bible, a proper noun?


The word would be lowercase only in a generic sense. Ring magazine is the bible of boxing.



"The prix fixe menu includes soup or salad" is certainly different than "The prix fixe menu includes soup and/or salad." In that case, I'd go with, "The prix fixe menu includes soup, salad, or both."





I work in a government office as an editor and am having difficulty convincing folks that putting a numeral in parentheses after the written number (ex: three (3)) is unnecessary. I've researched to see where this originated and I understand it (barely) in financial documents, but I'd like some wording to offer that is sound enough to have them agree to stop fighting me on it.

It might be required, or at least traditional, in legal documents, but elsewhere it looks pretentious, ridiculous and pseudo-legal. If someone thinks "three" is unclear, that someone should make "3" the correct style. And vice versa. 

Why mention your wife's name at all? Surely, "My wife's pen is there" is sufficient.

Maybe the writer wanted to mention the wife's name.


No idea what the context of that post was, but why not simply 'My wife Mary's pen is there'?

This is a bit of a secret copy-editor handshake, I'll admit, but the idea is that the lack of a comma makes Mary an "essential" element. Yada yada yada, Mary's husband is a polygamist. His wife Mary as opposed to his wife Betsy. Whereas his wife, comma, Mary, comma makes Mary a nonessential element. Wife could mean only one person.

Pragmatically, the best solution probably is to just forget about the comma thing in such a case. 



Is the man with the wife with the pen from Utah, by any chance?

There you go!


A CNN headline reads basically: Sanders supporters melt down over Clinton emails... Did they 'have a melt down'? Or can the expression be used as a verb?

Nobody "has a melt down." Pronounce that with the dramatic pause and you'll hear something ridiculous. If they melt down (two words, verb), they had a meltdown (one word, noun).

The parts of speech aren't quite the same, but getting a haircut and having your hair cut are similarly different.


If we make "3" the standard style we use, does that mean we're disregarding writing out numerals 1-9? It feels wrong. And dirty.

And yet it's purely a style convention. These things are inherently arbitrary. 

When I feel like letting my freak flag fly, I fantasize about changing Post style from "percent" to the percent sign.

(Almost cut my hair. Happened just the other day. Gettin' KIND of long ...)


Why did "unborn child" supplant "fetus" in news stories?

I'm not sure you have a statistically significant sample size.



As my mom used to say, let's not and say we did!


So it would make sense to specify 'My sister Mary's pen is there' - presuming the writer has more than one sister?

Exactly. And so, if you're a copy editor, you sometimes end up calling reporters at home, sometimes waking them up, to ask just how many siblings a tangential character in a story has, with no intention of adding that irrelevant detail to the story. 

Absurd, right? Reminds me of a former colleague's line about our profession:

A friend, visiting in Washington several years ago, asked me what it is, exactly, I do for a living, and when I told him my duty was to change "that" to "which" and "which" to "that" wherever those words appear, he looked at me as if I were quite mad, which may be the case after 20 years of trying to get printers to put in the fourth dot when an ellipsis ends a sentence.

Anti-abortion propaganda.

Veteran editors view it as taking sides in the debate, but it's easy to see how a less-experienced writer or editor may not be sensitized to that.


Is it ok to frame this and put it on the wall? "Pragmatically, the best solution probably is to just forget about the comma thing in such a case."

I knew I should have worked up an link for that.


Rant alert: I'm still finding Washington Post articles that use "eponymous" when "namesake" is called for (think: "the eponymous Washington Monument," which means that George Washington was named after the tower). Sure, the word "eponymous" sounds classy, but not when it's misused. Please inform Posties of the need to get this right, because it's not at all difficult to remember (a "namesake" is named for someone or something).

I have to look it up every time to be 100 percent sure which way it goes. But I am aware there is a distinction. Unlike, apparently some people!

I need a polite word that's a synonym for *word that rhymes with "glassbowl"* I got some ideas here: Do you have a favorite polite but strong synonym?

Not really an answer, but "despicable person," the dictionary definition of some obscenity or another, used to be an inside joke with some colleagues.


There is a radio commercial that asks something like "...are you trying to have a baby without success..." I always think the words are in the wrong order. I think it should be something more like, "Have you been unsuccessful in your attempts to have a baby?" What do you think?

Yes, "trying without success to have a baby" would be a better word order.

After all, who wants an unsuccessful baby?


From a June 10 WP story: "It’s here that he leaves his first wife for his longtime mistress, the beautiful and blond Nicole Brown." Is blonde (with an e) no longer used when describing a woman with this hair color?

In Post (and AP) style, blonde is only the noun (and only for women). So the beautiful and blond Nicole Brown was a blonde. (The blonde Nicole Brown would be defensible in a "the football player O.J. Simpson" sense, but the beautiful makes it clear that blond was intended as an adjective there.)


Something along the lines of: "The third type of rules governing land use is rules related to joint ownership." I think that's right but it sounds terrible to me.

Get me rewrite!


What is your ruling or preference regarding "fine-tooth comb" vs. "fine-toothed comb"?

"Tooth." I don't recall ever seeing "fine-toothed comb."


How should this sentence be written? We look forward to them sharing their experiences with us. We look foward to their sharing their experiences with us. I say the latter, but don't like the two theirs in such a short sentence.

The latter is the traditionally and technically correct choice, a  safer bet around rabid sticklers, but the former is fine, too.


Whether it's sports or election results I much prefer to use the words ahead or behind to winning or losing. Can you realistically say either a team or candidate is winning when there is a chance of defeat? I've watched games and live election results where what appeared to be unsurmantable leads evaoporate and the ones who were declared as winning eventually lost. I was reminded of this while watching real-time presidential nominee election results on The Post's website and winning was used for the Democratic and Republican candidates who were ahead during the 30-second countdown before the screen refreshed. Not all who were "winning" throughout the night went on to victory.

I'm not sure there's a material difference between winning/losing and ahead/behind (or leading/trailing). Any of those terms, I think, could be misleading in something like an election (as opposed to a sporting event), in which votes are counted in an arbitrary order.


Yet sometimes, when reading about an accident, I read that a death toll includes " the victim's unborn child", often quantified as an additional death. Should "fetus" be the term of choice, and the death treated as a quantifiable death in the death toll? What about when quoting law enforcement or first responders?

I hate to answer "blah, blah, case by case," but this is one of those answers. It's a sensitive area. Definitely wouldn't count a pregnant woman as "two killed," though.


Is the length of the documentary properly punctuated in this sentence from the New York Times? “O. J.: Made in America” grew to 7 hours 43 minutes and, starting on Friday, May 20, is playing in two theaters in Los Angeles and New York, making it eligible for Academy Award consideration.

That's Washington Post style, to use the track-and-field format for other things as well. Not sure I love that style decision, but it's one option.


"My wife Mary's pen is there."

As if that weren't complicated enough, she gives names to her plumes. But not her stylos. And we're never sure how many of either she has at any given time ...



I've noticed a creeping usage of family status ("Mother", "Grandma") in news reports, mostly broadcast, where the reproductive history seems irrelevant. Examples like "Grandma Robbed at Gunpoint" or "Local Mom Wins Lottery" seem to have TMI....shouldn't the headline use "woman", and later in the story the family is mentioned, if relevant? This usage seems to involve mostly women....I rarely see/hear "Dad Involved in Motorcycle Wreck" of "Grandpa Announces Leveraged Buyout", but it seems like all women have become Moms or Grandmas for news purposes. Can't remember seeing or hearing "Single Woman Charged with Assault", but one would wonder why not, given the trend. Do you see this too?

Every journalism student is warned against this, but it still happens. You could argue that "grandma" adds color to a story about a would-be victim beating the crap out of the would-be robber, but often it's gratuitous. And grandmas can be 35 years old, of course.


How about just using 'arse'?

Only a git would do that :-).


YES! I wish that writers in the Post would simply give the numbers. What was the before and what was the after. I hate in the span of a few sentences to see "percentage increase" "X times increase" etc.

Know when to -fold 'em.


Actually, that's the law in a number of states, e.g., in shootings and traffic accidents.

That wouldn't be relevant to how it's described in a news article.



Does she forbid your answering my question about the pen. I really want to know!

It eventually got answered, no? Write around it if possible; skip the commas and risk being labeled a bigamist if not.


In a travel article, I suggested changing "ogling the sunset" to "watching the sunset" but was stetted. Does "ogle" now just mean a prolonged gaze?

The writer was going for more lascivious imagery there. I don't think it needs to work literally any more than "drinking in the scenery" would have to.


Neither "and/or" or "and-or" is preferred, as Garner claims "or" suffices (i.e., avoid using both "and/or" and "and-or."

The latest edition doesn't mention the hyphen.

We covered the other part.


OP here. It was essential that I convey the "glassbowl" concept in polite language, but I didn't want a weak word.

 And "douchebag" would be too strong.


I frequently see E. Coli referred to as "a bacteria." Is "bacteria" now accepted as a singular similar to the way "data" is?

No -- " a bacteria" would still be considered a mistake.


Aren't these popular in headlines partly because they're short, compared to "senior woman" or "woman"? Whereas "dad" is no shorter than "man".

I think the goal is relatability, empathy, clicks ...


Great win by Federer today! Will he go on to win the tournament?

I sure hope so. I could use some good news right about now.


As a true grammar geek, I love your chats!

Aw, shucks. And I'm about to disappoint you!



Thank you for joining me, as always.

I'm sorry to have to announce that this might be the last Grammar Geekery chat, at least for a while.

I'm in the midst of a medical adventure, if you'll excuse the euphemism, and my energies will be devoted to that for the near future. Please think good thoughts with me until we can get together again.


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 "Yes, I Could Care Less." He tweets about language as @TheSlot.
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