Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (June)

Jun 01, 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.


Today, inspired by a recent Ben Yagoda article and a Twitter discussion that followed, I'd like to share my opinion that the distinction between bring and take is largely overblown.

Obviously, no man would offer to “bring” his wife out to dinner. No co-worker would turn to you in the cafeteria and ask you whether you “took” your lunch that day. In many other cases, however, the idea that you “take” something to a place you aren’t and “bring” it to a place you are is pretty flexible. Your frame of reference need not match your physical location, and those who could criticize your word choice have no way of knowing what you’re thinking.

I'll be a keynote speaker at a conference next week -- in a whole other country! -- and I'm thinking of bringing my olive-green suit. Don’t I mean “taking”? Actually, no. I’m picturing myself on the podium, not at my closet. Am I really forbidden to think (and speak/write) that way? Sometimes the rule-breaking choice is even mandatory. Is a group of missionaries preparing to “take” their religion to people overseas? I don’t think so. They bring it to them.

What do you think? What else do you have? Bring it!


Many of us know that you ride your bicycle to work every day. But I don't think you are merely an everyday bike commuter. I think you are an every-day bike commuter. Agree?

Interesting thought. But I think "everyday" covers both the literal usage and the more common broader usage. 

Webster's New World gives the "each day" definition first. Merriam-Webster and American Heritage don't give it at all. So, hmm, you may be (not maybe) on to (onto? maybe [not may be]) something.


I guess Merriam Webster caused quite the kerfuffle over the weekend by declaring the hot dog as a sandwich on its Twitter account. Many responded a hot dog is just the meat. What say you?

It's certainly not just the meat. That is, it's both. If I ask for hot dogs at a baseball game, I will be beyond perplexed if they don't include buns; if I ask for hot dogs at a supermarket, it's the other way around.

Is a hot dog a sandwich? In the broadest technical sense, yes. In the real world, no. You could say that the hot dog is a tiny subcategory of broadest-technical-sense sandwich, with real-world sandwich being a huge subcategory. 

In other words, I don't think there's a yes-or-no answer. Harder for me: Is a taco a (broadest-technical-sense) sandwich?

(Random bonus comment: My favorite use of "frankfurter" is in the scene with the Woody Allen character and his son at the Russian Tea Room in "Manhattan.")

I suppose I could ask this vis-a-vis nearly any article on this site, but dear lord, the ignorance and hate in the comments OVER A WORD is astounding. I guess I just needed to get that off my chest. Going to curl up in a corner now.

Just for the record, my former home state, Arizona, beat Texas to all this.

I couldn't be more proud.

But seriously: I don't condone the ignorance and hate, but I can see where it would be offputting to live in "dust storm" country for decades and then suddenly have a new term blowing around.


Now, now, Bill, that's a rather sexist example, yes? I'm perfectly capable of "taking" my husband to dinner, but one never hears about that sort of behavior....

Was that a "hot take"?


The proliferation of even high brow media using owrds such as 'and' or 'but' to begin sentences drives me nuts. Everyone was taught in grammar school this practice was a no-no, and it sounds awkward anyway. Why the change?

The prohibition was always a myth. Like the prohibitions against splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions.


When did Canada become a whole other country? Are we building a wall up there?

Hello, Mr. Walsh. I know you're a tennis fan so I was curious what you thought of the practice of shaming on camera: - line judges who get a call wrong - spectators who delay play by not returning to their seats promptly I suppose you could say it's an editorial decision to go to the shame camera so perhaps this is marginally relevant to the discussion. Grammatically speaking, is the hyphen correct in a sentence beginning, "The most-effective leaders are able to..." Saw that in an Atlantic article.

Guess I picked the right year not to schedule a dream vacation at the French Open, huh?

I have to confess that my wife and I have been known to let rude fellow spectators ruin our experience at tennis tournaments. How hard is it? And I don't understand why we don't just let the electronic system handle all line calls, if we're going to trust it on challenges anyway.

I don't have a strong opinion on the shame-camera question. The most serious camera/director sin in televised tennis -- and it's been happening forever -- is where they cut to the crowd at the precise moment that the handshake (or lack thereof) is happening. Why? Why?

As for most and hyphens, that's a case where I would reserve hyphenation for truly ambiguous phrases. That isn't one. Subtract the the, however, and you'd be wondering whether it means leaders who are most effective or a majority of effective leaders, so the hyphen would be useful.


If you're at work you came to work and brought your lunch If you're at home, you're going to work and taking your lunch.

Yep. That's one of the easy cases. The fussbudgets get worked up over examples where you'd have to stop and draw a diagram.

The estimable Jan Freeman weighed in that the distinction is entirely natural in some dialects but not others. I trust her implicitly -- and she's normally the permissive one while I cling to debatable rules -- but I'm still trying to figure out how that would work. Some regions give you a sixth sense about which direction the action is going?


Such an interesting question. Why and when did 'another whole' get changed to 'a whole other' at some point in our lexicon/lingual history?

It's that a. We're used to saying "a whole new experience" and the like, and so it's natural to detach the a from the nother to create "a whole nother."


I had a link from the Texas Tribune on this story, where I first read it, saved and ready to share with my fellow grammar geeks but the WP beat me to it. I thought we all could have fun with this. 

For those who missed it, the 2016 platform of the Texas Republican Party includes this:

Homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by our nations founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. 

Because it says "truths that has" where it should say "truths that have," a literal reading would connect that has with the last singular noun -- behavior, as in a chosen behavior, as in homosexuality -- and so the sentence says that homosexuality  (a) is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths and (b) has been ordained by God in the Bible ... and shared by the majority of Texans.

The naive literal reading is in good fun and all, but of course nobody intending to say such a thing would have written the sentence that way.

I could make another sneaky point, but -- oh, heck, of course I will. The "truths that has" error, while coming from a different place (sheer sloppiness?) is parallel to the "one of those things that is" error that many people make on purpose, sometimes arguing vociferously that they are absolutely correct, including in this space. 

If you write that, say, a grammar mistake is "one of those things that happens," you are saying the mistake (a) is one of those things and (b) happens. What you mean, of course, is "one of those things that happen." Plural verb, because it's not the only thing you're talking about happening. Things happen, and a grammar mistake is one of them.



Hi, Bill-- On most of your chats, someone has written in (once it was I) inquiring about the etiquette of alerting professional writers to a particular mistake or transgression. I wanted to share my own experience with getting Post music and film reviewers to spell "a cappella" correctly. Speaking as a singer, I'm delighted that "Pitch Perfect" and other movies have revived popular interest in unaccompanied singing. But the downside is that many writers don't know how to spell "a cappella" (one 'p' and one 'l' seems to be the default combination). And when you see it misspelled multiple times in a review, it really starts to get to you! What I have found effective is to write each critic/reviewer a nice note complimenting them on their work, then gently point out that it would carry more weight if that term were spelled correctly. In every case, I've gotten a nice note back, and so far no one has backslidden. Alas, I still see the mistake lots of other places, but one does what one can, right? Anyway, I thought my experience might be helpful to other Gentle Readers who want to speak up but aren't sure how to go about it.


On the other side of things, I've found that a very polite response tends to turn deranged lunatics into normal humans. Or maybe I should say nice humans -- that may not be "normal" anymore.


okay, now I'm completely confused. Maybe you could give an example when "one of those X" takes a singular verb? I believe this is related to my never knowing if "none" should take singular or plural too.

Such an example isn't easy to find. But here:

I was one of a party of three people who were being shown around by a docent.

I was one of a party of three people who was being shown around by a docent.

The first one means three people were with the docent and the writer was one of them. The second one means the writer was in a party of three but only he was with the docent.


Was that poster serious? Canada has always been been a whole other country from the United States. (And) we certainly don't want to join you. We've been a French colony for a hundred years or so, a British colony for a hundred years or so and a fully independent nation for 149 years. In fact, come up and visit us next year for our 150th birthday!

No, the poster wasn't serious.


Apophasis is a word that's become more relevant lately. Not that I would ever say that (see what I did there?).

But we've heard enough about the presidential candidate we're not even going to mention, right?


I liked when one of the Tennis Channel broadcasters felt he needed to point out the video feed was from a French crew after yet another "sexy woman in the stands" shots.

Yep! Another old standby. Also, the celebrities utterly unknown stateside.

I have a French picture book about the French Open from the late 1980s, and let's just say the skirtal region is amply covered. Or not, as the case may be.



Is it different if one says, "I was one of a party of three people THAT was being shown around by a docent."

Yes. Yes, it is!


Is it a local (National Capitol Region) thing? The number of times I hear someone say "it needs fixed" - or a similar construct - seems to be (ahhh) increasing. It's driving me crazy (albeit a short drive). More an observation (and rant) than a question - unless you have an answer!

I've always considered that a Pittsburgh thing.


And should it be 'our nation's founders' rather than 'our nations founders'? We are, after all, only ONE nation, under God, and all.

Right. I wasn't doing a full-service copy-edit :-).


I have lived in DC, VA, and MD for a total of 30 adult years and have never heard that. Ever.

Bless you for not saying "the DMV."

Though I guess that's more common among people with many fewer adult years.


Read some tweets by a journalist who noted that "language and grammar policing," especially of women and minorities, is often "used to tell someone of marginalized status that they don't belong, or aren't smart enough." He asks whether "very public, disparaging policing of language [is] actually meant to edify...or is it doing something else...." I can see that carping about some obscure rule might elevate the "editor" (esp. in his/her own mind) over the "writer." Do you agree with this journalist's point--and if you do, how do you decide where to draw the line between constructive criticism and "language policing"?

I think that would fall under the "Without Being a Jerk" clause that's in the subtitle of my most recent book.

In general, I don't correct people's language unless I'm being paid to do so. An exception would be when the person in question is being a jerk, especially if that person is erroneously "correcting" somebody else. 


It's a 'Burgh thing, all right. Rumor has it that Hamlet's soliloquy in Pittsburghese starts simply, "Or not."

Yinz paying attention up there?


How far in advance can questions be submitted? I often think of one or find an example to cite weeks ahead of the next chat but when I click on its date receive a message stating that no chats are sceduled. A month, as opposed to a few days ahead of time, would be helpful.

Hmm. Usually it's immediately after one chat concludes that I set up the next one. I'll make sure that's more than "usually."

In fact, here's a bookmark for next time.


I find this alternately charming and maddening. I guess it depends on who is saying it. I also find it to be a Pittsburgh thing (and parts of Ohio as well), and there are a lot of Pittsburgh transplants in the DC area. It's definitely not a DC "thing."

I tend to find such things charming. Life's rich pageant.


In referring broadly to the U.S. military, is it the armed forces or the Armed Forces?

In The Washington Post, as in most mainstream publications, it would be the armed forces. A military publication might opt for the capital letters.


My mother told that when she was a schoolgirl in the 1920s, a popular poem to sign in smart people's autograph books (remember those?) was: "YY UR / YY UB / ICUR / YY 4 me." Of course, that was long, long before the Internet, texting, Twitter, etc.

I had to look it up -- was surprised to find out it wasn't dirty!


At the January chat, I noted <> the Post's use of the informal verb for "flatulence" and asked if it were Standard English (do I have to use the subjunctive "were"?). You said my example was from a blog and not indicative of the Post's policy: "If a politician passed gas during a speech (ahem), I doubt we'd phrase it that way in news coverage." The newsworthiness of politicians' flatus is an interesting topic, but I'm more interested in the Post's use of the f-word and the general topic of language evolution. I recently searched the Post and found 292 print articles with the f-word since December 1996. Even if you filter out articles by Gene Weingarten <>, there are still a few occurrences. In this example <>, John Kelly provides a public service by using humor to promote colon-cancer screening. So since the word occurs in print, albeit mostly for humor, why do you think attempts at finding a more civil alternative to the f-word (flatulate, flatulated, flatulating) haven't caught on?

I have no great wisdom to offer. (Interestingly, it's not in any of my thesauruses.) Thankfully, this doesn't come up all that often.

At work, questions about taste frustrate me. I don't make the policy. I'm not the one who will get mad if the wrong call is made. I can only guess. Ask someone at a higher pay grade, please!


This is from a May 25 Washington Post story. Shouldn't the author have used a colon instead of a semi-colon? Some say Baylor is for evangelicals what the University of Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons; that is, their flagship.

Yes. Or a dash or a comma.


Do you think they'd be making such a big deal if the word were hafoot or hatoe and not haboob? Do you wonder if it caught on because the weather reporters find it fun to say?

Quite possibly.


It is kind of a ridiculous sounding word in English, but getting upset simply because of the Arabic origin is as absurd as refusing to study Algebra.

I'll be generous and speculate that the newness plays a big part. "Dust storm" was good enough for eons, but suddenly every one is a haboob.

It's sort of like the British "went missing" suddenly taking over after being virtually nonexistent in American English before the past decade or so.


I just saw your tweet about "and/or" vs. "and-or." Yikes! We follow AP style where I work, and when I told my colleagues to avoid the slash, as AP style describes, I started seeing "and-or" pop up everywhere! Of course, I tried to explain that wasn't a solution, really, either, and would be more confusing that using words or using the slash, but it still pops up from time to time! Ish. I don't see how "and-or" is a good idea!

Associated Press style calls for and-or rather than and/or

I am extremely anti-slash, but I would never think of using a hyphen there.


Not a question - just to say that my heart was broken in the fourth grade when a boy wrote that in my yearbook ("YY UR / YY UB / ICUR / YY 4 me"). I guessed that YY meant "Yes Yes" and was thrilled - until later someone broke it to me that it meant "Too wise."

For those as not-so-wise as I am, here's your answer. 

Original poster here. I must be encountering a lot of Pittsburghers! Thanks, though. I will endeavor to find "it needs fixed" (to be?) charming... :-)

Also beware of the left turns at the start of the green-light cycle!


Doesn't everything become history? I don't understand why journalists fall back on "make history" instead of highlighting the significance of the history. A team that finishes with an average record still makes history as much as a team that sets on all-time wins record. Do you have any style rules that forbid using "make history," and if not, shouldn't you?

I think you're probably being overly literal. I prefer to be that literal only on those things that I'm overly literal on.


I believe the previous poster meant "ride your bic to work"

Mike drop!


The Portuguese language has a lot of words starting with "al-" that are based on Arabic roots, dating back to the presence of Moors on the Iberian Peninsula. One of my favorite such words is "alperce" (apricot).

I can never decide whether I say ape-ricot or app-ricot.


and I had never heard that one before.

Oh, sure, we did. I was especially incensed that the pronunciation wasn't what I expected.


What is it with governmental agencies and not immediately getting to the point of why they are contacting a taxpayer? I submit into evidence this email from Bexar County (San Antonio, TX and surrounding area) Tax Assessor-Collector: Dear Taxpayer: The Bexar Appraisal District sets property values and is a separate organization from the Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office. The Tax Assessor does not set or raise property values or tax rates; we only collect taxes on behalf of the taxing jurisdictions. However, as your Tax Assessor, I want to call to your attention that Tuesday, May 31, 2016 is the last day to protest your 2016 property values if you do not agree with the new proposed values you received from the Bexar Appraisal District.


Is this a repeat from last month or Part 2 of a series that will cover every county in Texas?


You heard about the Brit who went missing after being blown away by the haboob? He's now in hospital. His lungs need fixed.

The Brits of Pittsburgh, soon to be a major motion picture.


Perhaps a nice compromise would be to see "it needs fixing."

They probably say that in Allentown.


Which is correct when referring to the deceased? Bob and Barbara Jones were my parents or are my parents? Were sounds better but aren't your parents always your parents, even if they no longer are living? Were makes it seem as if that relationship no longer exists.

Either verb has its problems. I think you stick with were and let context make the reason for the past tense clear. Just don't call them your former parents.


That's all the time we have today -- thanks for joining me! 

And please come back next time, which should be ... July 6.


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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