Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (September)

Sep 01, 2015

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.


At one of my previous employers, the subject of a certain department at that publication came up, and a colleague sighed and remarked, "They don't know what words mean!"

Knowing what words mean is a good trait to have in the writing biz, but sometimes those complaints are exaggerated. Words change meaning, often through rampant misuse, and usually, eventually, we have to accept the new meaning and move on. This little sidelight career of mine (I'm gonna let it shine!) is largely about being a self-appointed referee in such matters, and today I'd like to share with you some rampant errors that I'm not yet ready to call acceptable.

You're probably sick by now of my obsession with the word "suspect," which cops use to mean "subject" and which too many police-beat reporters parrot, sometimes to the point of talking about a suspect and then reporting that police have no suspects in the crime. It's pretty simple: A suspect is a person suspected of committing a crime. If you're describing a crime without naming a suspect, the person committing it is a robber or burglar or killer or jaywalker, not a suspect. 

If the crime in question is an ambush, that means the criminal or criminals hid or waited for the victim or victims before attacking. The word doesn't apply to just any surprise attack, but it's a sexy word, and so people just use it as a pretty decoration to apply to any unprovoked act of violence.

Maybe that so-called ambush was a so-called active-shooter situation. Sigh. Here's a stupid term that's stupid even when used correctly, though, sure enough, we are now using it incorrectly. As with suspect, it started as police jargon. "One Adam 12, one Adam 12, shooting at 123 Main Street" doesn't convey the same urgency as "One Adam 12, one Adam 12, active shooter at 123 Main Street." Why "shooting in progress" fell out of favor is a mystery to me, but whatever. Let the police have their jargon.

And if the TV and radio people want to borrow that jargon when covering such a thing live, fine. I'd rather hear a description in plain English than this code word, but time is money, etc.

In print journalism, though, there's simply no need for the term. Presumably the event is over, and there are no passive shooters. Just tell us what happened. I'm seeing "active shooter" being applied to the  ugly incident in Roanoke, and clearly that's wrong. You could argue for "ambush," but an outburst a few seconds long is not an "active-shooter situation" except in the most literal sense, in which every shooting is active.

And how about that lame duck in the White House? Nope. A lame-duck president is one whose successor has been chosen. Obama won't be a lame duck until November of next year. Somehow that term has been extended to mean ... hell, I don't know. It started to crop up, including in The Washington Post, after the midterm congressional elections. If he was a lame duck then, why wasn't he a lame duck in November 2012? He couldn't run again, right? 

One thing that happens when we don't know what words mean is that the original term no longer suffices for the original meaning. And so we get retronyms. Mail used to mean mail, but now that we have e-mail we have snail mail. The list is endless. Acoustic guitar. Snow skiing. Ice skating. I just returned from two weeks in Europe (bonus travel tip: Don't miss Ghent!), and in London, the land of mushy peas, I saw one menu offer both mushy peas and garden peas. Because it would sound silly to say "Mushy peas or peas?" or "Mushy or non-mushy?"

Finally, you may have heard that Serena Williams is going for a calendar Grand Slam at the U.S. Open. The Grand Slam in tennis (all four major titles in the same year) is a rare thing, and so the term has been extended and we have "career Slams" (all four majors, whenever) and "non-calendar Slams" (all four majors in a row). Serena Williams has already accomplished that, and it was called the Serena Slam. Grand Slam and Slam are also commonly used to refer to any single major title, to add to the confusion. Retronyms can be useful (see peas, mushy), but sometimes they're just stupid. 

Serena is going for the Grand Slam. Period. Good luck, Serena.

Sorry to blather on. Now, what's on your mind? 

How would you write the following sentence? (Let's assume it's the last sentence of the piece, and the novel in discussion has been mentioned once or twice before.) The novel "Purity" will be published next month. OR The novel, "Purity," will be published next month. OR The novel, titled "Purity," will be published next month. # # # I think No. 2 is correct because the title is apposition. Someone else is arguing that by putting it in commas, I'm making the title non-essential. My counterargument is that the title has been previously referenced in the piece; plus, it's apposition. Help! I'm tempted to just say "Flip a coin" in a nod to one of your copy-editing maxims.

No commas the first time. You're telling people which novel you're talking about.

Yes commas in your example. It's already clear which novel you're talking about, and so the title is indeed non-essential.

Definitely not a flip-a-coin matter -- commas would be wrong the first time, and skipping them would be wrong after that.


One is a slip of the pen, the other is a slip of the fork.

I think you're in the wrong place. The Dixie Riddle Cups chat is Friday.


Hello. Is it "Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth each hit two-run homers" or "Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth each hit a two-run homer"? Thank you.

I would use the latter. I think you'd need both rather than each with the plural, but the singular is still clearer.


There are two language usages that bother me immensely, and I am sure they are wrong - but would like some confirmation! I hope you can help. 1) Use of foundering vs floundering - Tom Boswell in a recent column referred to the Nats "floundering", when it seems to be that they are foundering - running aground. Floundering (which I expect means to be flipping about like a fish) seems to be far more commonly used when foundering seems to be more appropriate. No disrespect to Boz, whose writing is terrific - this is just the most recent example I have encountered. 2) Use of the infinitive "to include" when making a list - the Metro announcements say that elevators are out of service at certain stations "to include" x, y, and z. I would be so much happier if they said that elevators are out of service at certain stations "including" x, y, and z.

"To include" does seem wholly unnecessary.

As for foundering and floundering, I think they're usually interchangeable. It's a pretty subtle shade of difference, at least, though foundering is more of a dire situation. You flounder (flop around) as you founder (sink). 


Why do so many writers have trouble distinguishing between the two?

You know I had to look that up, right? 

And did you mean compound subjects vs. compound predicates?

Anyway, what I think you're getting at is the question of comma vs. no comma. You generally want a comma with a compound subject but not with a compound predicate, but a lot of writers use the comma in both cases, or reverse the guideline entirely. (See what I did there?)

Compound subject:

Mark bought the beer, and Mary got some potato chips.

Compound predicate:

Mark bought the beer and hurried over.

Now, I did say generally. There are exceptions. You may want to avoid the comma in the first instance if you're going for a staccato effect, or if there's another comma that you want to stand out more:

Mark brought the beer and Mary got some chips and we all had a great evening.

Mary bought the beer and Mary got some chips, but nobody was hungry or thirsty.

And you might want what I call the take-a-breath comma, like the one I used above when I asked whether you saw what I did there:

She walked outside, and saw that the weather was about to spoil her big day.

That comma is technically unnecessary, but sometimes you want that pause.


There’s also "alibi," which refers to a specific defense to a criminal charge ("I can prove I was somewhere else") but is often used now to mean "excuse."

Right. That one seems like a more straightforward extension than some of the other examples, at least to me.


Active shooter is a good phrase because it responds to a new experience we want to describe. That's the point--language evolves to meet needs. Cometh the experience, cometh the phrase. A "shooting in progress" sounds more like X is shooting at Y. An "active shooter situation" is when someone is running around with a gun shooting people randomly in a location. Sadly this second one has become a repeated thing, rather than an isolated event, so it gets a new categorical phrase. It's not a new or unique thing that you just describe in normal words as best you can.

Shooting sprees are new?


He says that the way we use other punctuation alongside quotation marks is a travesty. According to Gene we should just decide that punctuation always goes inside if it was part of the quote and outside if it wasn't. Agree? Disagree?

He has a point, but I'll stick with precedent. Once you start trying to impose logic on the English language, you'll be busy for a few centuries.


In today's chat, Aaron Blake said: "Chris is always hobnobbing with the hoi polloi."

I don't necessarily buy the idea that foreign terms carry over into English sentences. It's the old Rio Grande River argument. I can't say "the El Cortez hotel"? If urgamunda means restaurant in Swahili, and a restaurant by that names opens on H Street NE, I can't say the word "restaurant" alongside it?


This word used as a statement qualifier bothers me. The point the writer is trying to make will be lost on me by the image of an argument ensuing. For example: Bill Walsh is arguably the world's biggest grammar geek. No he's not. Yes he is. No he's not. Yes he is. I would prefer the word possibly, or re-writing the sentence to something like: Bill Walsh is well known for being a grammar geek. What are other options for those of us who don't want to use the word arguably in this context?

I try to avoid arguably because a lot of people have a problem with it, but I've never really understood that problem. It could be argued that I'm ... whatever. I'm not sure how that's ambiguous. Anyone?


... but a compliment: Thanks for doing these chats. I enjoy them. Does that make me a weirdo?



First, "shooting spree" is a two word phrase, no different from "active shooter," except slightly less formal and probably a worse fit for the seriousness of the situation. Second, yes, the types of mass shootings we have seen a lot of in the last 10 years seem like a new phenomenon to me. Third, "active shooter" has additional communicative utility because it refers to the person rather than the event. Fourth, "active" and "shooter" are both pretty normal words and accurately describe the situation. The evolution of the phrase is logical and natural. Fifth, everyone arbitrarily picks things in language to nitpick at in language, even though they are not really any worse than anything else. Even Bill Walsh.

I can see that for live coverage, but it's a very odd thing to say after the fact. Boy, that shooter situation sure was active!


The Swahili word for restaurant is "mgahawa" but "restorenti" is common.

Ha. I almost added that I had no idea what the actual word was.

So, how is the place on H Street?


But if you use that someone has the right to punch you in the face. This was the outcome of an intraoffice debate on the plurals of octopus, platypus and mongoose.

The outcome was an active-puncher situation?


Bill: "To include" does seem wholly unnecessary. That's a Britishism, like "whilst".


(Another bonus travel tip: London pedestrians are ruthless. Much more so than Manhattanites.)


Sometimes I like to open an e-mail with the recipient's name followed by an em dash, and then close the email similarly, like so: Bill-- This is the body of the email. --Betsy Is this appropriate? Is it more appropriate to use a colon, comma, or period? If so, what would you recommend as a similarly simple way to conclude the message?

Greetings and salutations! No, really, that's what those things are called!

The dash is appropriate at the end, but not at the beginning. You want a comma (to a friend) or a colon (more formal) there.

This reminds me of a pet peeve I have with headlines. The colon works for attribution at the start, not at the end.


Police: Suspect has been arrested


Suspect has been arrested: Police

I have this theory that the latter practice is linked to the abomination of referring to Page A1 as Page 1A, but I'm probably just being cranky.


I see these at work all of the time: active shooter exercise, host nation law enforcement, open source intelligence. Should they be active-shooter exercise, host-nation law enforcement, open-source intelligence? Thanks!


I'm more hyphen-happy than most, but the practice of reaching for any excuse to avoid hyphens ("It's totally clear! Everyone knows that 'active shooter' is a set phrase!") does not sit well with me.


Agree with you on "suspect". Why do news organizations used the word "alleged" in cases where the offense is on video? And why does the WaPo go along with the local practice of not mentioning the race of a perpetrator if the perpetratror is black? Is that code for "your default assumption should be that criminals are black unless otherwise notified."?

"Alleged" is appropriate if you're talking about a suspect who may or may not be the person in the video. Maybe it's an evil twin! An evil doppelganger! But yes, the person in the video is neither a suspect nor alleged.

On perp descriptions, there is no policy against mentioning race, though we could be more consistent. You'll find examples both ways.


As in do's (dos?) and don'ts. Dos looks wrong to me because I associate that word as two in Spanish.

Webster's New World (the official dictionary of most newspapers) calls for do's. Dos looks wrong to me because I associate that word with an ancient computer operating system.

The plural of no presents a similar problem. The dictionary calls for noes, but that looks even worse than nos. And no's isn't much better.  

Homework reading: What's the plural of the off-color term ho?



I recently challeged someone referring to a weak person as being "milk toast" instead of Milquetoast, after timid cartoon character Casper Milquetoast. I thought that was the origin of the phrase but he said either use is correct. Is this true?

No. Milk toast is a food item, the food item that inspired ol' Caspar's name. (It's Caspar, by the way. Casper is a friendly ghost, or a friendly ghost town in Wyoming.)

The story of pablum is similar. The word pabulum means nourishment, and an olde-tyme purveyor of victuals trademarked Pablum for its bland gruel, which in turn inspired the common noun pablum, which refers to bland or insipid discourse or entertainment.

Then there's Spam and spam ...


I would suggest that "El Cortez" is a proper noun just like "El Norteamericano" or "El Diablo". If Swahili had an article and the name translated as "The Restaurant Restaurant" that would address my qualm, whereas your hypothetical didn't. Remember you were wrong about the WaPo's non-use of the cedilla!

Fair enough, but I also think there's a familiarity test. Only 0.01 percent of the population knows what hoi means. So the hoi polloi is fine in a way that the los nortenos is not. 

(That probably needed a tilde.)



I'm ducking this question.


I prefer to use Greetings and Salivations. Just cuz.

There are guidelines, and there are drools.


"The city wants to hold (onto *or* on to?) its good rating."

I would write hold on to, because the on is part of the verb phrase hold on. Sort of like schoolteacher but middle-school teacher.


For quite a while now I've been hearing "price point" from radio journalists and interviewees. Is there actually a difference between a price and a price point?

Another of my "House Hunters" peeves! Price point has replaced both price range and price.


So can we use oc-toupees instead?

I once had a "bills to pay" folder. Labeled "Bill's toupee."


Has The Post made any style changes in the last year as a result of the increased focus on police shootings? (or is it police-involved shootings? or are those two different things? see? this is why I'm curious)

No, but you raise a good point. "Police shooting" is ambiguous.


Thanks as always for doing these chats, Bill. I appreciate that online journalism is akin to drinking from a fire hose, but it really seems to me that the folks who come up with the headlines for stories on the Post's site either need more hands on deck (which I assume are not likely to materialize) or better training. Hardly a day goes by without egregious errors, ranging from headlines that flatly contradict the story to really poor word choices. Nobody is perfect, and perhaps it is unfair to expect more of overworked, time-pressured editors. But at a minimum, perhaps the online crew could start with the journalist's own headline, shortening as needed, rather than reinventing (and warping) the wheel?

The journalist's own headline? There isn't always such a thing. And editors are journalists, too! But I appreciate your critique. I know we're far from perfect.


I've recently needed to write a lot about a church called St. John's Church, often abbreviated simply to "St. John's". The apostrophe obviously indicates that the church is the Church of St. John. My problem comes when I want to refer to something of or pertaining to the church itself. For example, I write about "St. John's' east entrance" or "St. John's' new priest". I can't simply write "St. John's east entrance", because with a single apostrophe the words would indicate that I'm referring to the east entrance of St. John (a human being, not a building). I've been getting around this problem by using the full name of the church, e.g., "St. John's Church's east entrance", or avoiding the "St. John's" name altogether, e.g., "the church's new priest". However, I would love to know what the correct convention is. Can a word have two apostrophes, such that it IS in fact correct to talk about "St. John's' east entrance"?

No, you don't want to double down on that apostrophe. Either make peace with "St. John's east entrance" or write around it. 

And how about the plural? More than one McDonald's is ... another instance where you have to write around it.



As an editor, I occasionally let things slide when changes are warranted, even when proofing what other editors have already edited. Sometimes, there's just so much to fix. Not talking about misspellings or factual errors. For example, where to place "only" in a sentence. It's wrong almost every time. I'm sure you know exactly what I mean with "only," but so many editors charged with upholding the English language don't know the finer points, and some of the not-so-fine points. I feel if I point each and every little thing, I'm nit-picking the editors, often very young, and demoralizing them. How do you handle such situations? Especially when time is an issue.

More than one good question there. "Only" is a good example of something that can be nitpicked to death. I try to put the word in the "right" place, but it's far from a big deal.

And then there's a management issue. In a perfect world, feedback would be constant but non-judgmental, but people do have feelings, and you have to keep morale in mind. I was in management for many years and never quite solved that dilemma.


If I told you that, in 1990, residents of Volcanoville were worried about the active volcano 1 mile outside of town, would you criticize my writing because the volcano is no longer active?

A guy shooting people is a guy shooting people. "Active" adds nothing. A volcano can be either dormant or active.


Is it now proper to use "momentary" to mean "soon?" I was taught that momentary means "for a brief period of time." Now I often hear it to mean "soon."

I guess I've given up on that one, but you're right, strictly speaking.

See also presently.

Do you at the Post use "Disney" as the shorthand for the theme parks? When I hear or read "We're going to Disney" I imagine old Walt has come back to life, and is receiving visitors. Seems to me it's Disney World, or Disneyland, or Disney Something. Or has it become an common one-word shortcut?

Grrr. I am not a fan of "going to Disney." Or "Disneyworld." The one in California is Disneyland. The one in Florida is Walt Disney World.

The one in "Vacation" is Walley World.



I am such a grammar geek. I have to say your grammar humor ROCKS.

I like your verb!


What do you think of this use of "interim" in an article from the Post? >>Scientists have long known that what happens at the very beginning of life, in the womb, can have powerful effects on a person's health. But what about in the interim? Does the author mean "subsequent to birth"?


I'm stumped.


Is L'Enfant Plaza named for the baby Jesus?

I remember hearing a Metro conductor announcing the stop as "INFANT Plaza." (His emphasis, not mine.)


"I stayed under my desk for four hours in fear of the active shooter at work" vs "I stayed under my desk for four hours in fear of the shooter at work." In the first, you know just what I'm talking about, because we as a culture have this new experience of active shooter situations (a person running around at a place shooting everyone). The second is broader, and could refer to a number of things, including a dormant shooter, for example, a person who was acquitted in a vigilante shooting last month, or something.

Fair enough. How did we survive all these centuries without this term?????


Time's up! Thanks for all the great questions, and please join me next month. 

That would be Oct. 6 at 2 p.m., if my calendar-reading skills are still up to snuff.


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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