The Washington Post

Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh 01-05-2016

Jan 05, 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.

Greetings! Welcome to a new year and my first chat from 1301 K St. NW, a.k.a. One Franklin Square.

The changes don't stop there. We've switched to Slack for internal communications, my workday will soon be a little less late-night, and we now use email, website, mic, Walmart and, occasionally, the singular they.

 Then there's the big annual last/this shift. On New Year's Eve, the phrases "last fall," "last summer" and "last spring" (and "last November/October and so on) were hopelessly ambiguous. Half the time they meant 2015, and half the time they meant 2014.

But as soon as the clock struck 2016, presto! No ambiguity at all! What else could last fall and last summer and last spring be?

Anyway, we're here and it's now. What's on your mind?

 

Why do so many people, journalists included, not know the rules for commas and seem to place them where they think they should go or, worse, before every conjunction? I see the mistakes in professional journals, printed and online news sources, and, of course, Twitter. With only 140 characters, shouldn't they be erring on the side of less and not more? I'm starting to notice the same with subtitles for movies. Has something changed in the world of journalism that comma rules no longer apply? If not, can anything be done to educate the masses? If not, is there help for me? I read much; therefore, I'm irritated much.

The proper use of commas is often more art than science, so it's not hard to see why that flexibility might translate to some missteps even in the most basic cases.

Can you give me some examples of what's irritating you?

 

"Every kid from a small family has probably felt sorry for themselves at one time or another….” —From the opening line of a 1 Jan 2016 Wonkblog piece by Ana Swanson. Accepting “they” in place of “she" or "he” or “she or he” carries us headlong into all the ensuing cases. I’m not a mindless prescriptivist, but I recoil at these dissonant pronouns. Trans-, cross-, bi-, tri-, poly-, or multi-, gender is bending grammar into shapes that knot my knickers. I’d love to read the treatment of this subject in the updated style manual. Why not “every kid felt sorry for themself”? What rules are we following?

That's an interesting consequence of the singular they that we haven't gotten around to addressing, in part because we save the device for use as a last resort and presumably would avoid it if things got this weird.

The consensus seems to be that they acts identically in all its forms whether it's being used as plural or as singular, hence themselves. I don't think I buy that. If themself, without the very obviously plural ending, can be called into use, why not?

 

Should it be a good-paying job or well-paying job? How do you concisely explain this grammar rule? Thank you.

Congratulations! You found one of the things that stump me. I've always thought well-paying, but a lot of smart people are (seemingly increasingly) saying good-paying, and the latter makes sense if you look at parallel cases. A highly paid executive has a high-paying job, not a highly paying one. Good and high are adjectives; well and highly are adverbs. (Insert your own "good and high" joke here.)

When does/doesn't postmodification by an of-phrase require zero article?

What, now?

 

I really hate the word "additional." It's too long and it has many shorter, more precise synonyms. Which words do you hate?

Here's a modern choice: screenshot (or screengrab). Aside from the unsightly smushing (please; use screen shot and screen grab), 90 percent of the time the terms are misused or unnecessary. Not every image obtained from a computer is a screen shot. As for those that actually are, so what? Just say image, or let the image speak for itself. The fact that you hit a particular key on your PC is beyond irrelevant.

 

Hello Bill; If I am texting a potential mate which I don't know too well yet, is hip vernacular or immaculate grammar more flirtatious? Also, thoughts on John Wall?

You want your own customized blend, as from an overpriced coffee purveyor.

John Wall? He's a really good basketball player. Is there something else I should be aware of? (Basketball strikes me as the least appealing of the major sports, as it happens. And not only because my alma mater went and won the NCAA championship the first year I didn't dutifully fill out a pool bracket with Arizona winning.)

 

I concede that they can have a legitimate purpose but am getting tired of what I think of as gratuitous use. I particuarly see this on my Facebook newsfeed from people who have one for even the most mundane postings. One friend constantly changes hers and I couldn't help but heave a sigh of exasperation over one used to describe a day of self indulgent, starting with lunch. It went someting like "hurrayformetimewhere aremy fishtacos?"

Used properly a hashtag can be really cool. Hashtags provide an opportunity for sly editorial comment, for parallel and perpendicular trains of thought, in the limited space that Twitter and, to some extent, Facebook provide.

 

The difference between "well-paying" and "high-paying" is that "high" is modifying a noun (his pay is high), whereas "well" is modifying a verb (he is paid well) -- all of this even though the shorthand construction of "xxxx-paying" is the same. I suppose one could also infer "his pay is good" from "good-paying," but I don't think that would be a very common saying in the long form.

You think so? High-paying really mean highpay-ing? I disagree. 

 

Is "Biblical" capitalized in the phrase: "The Biblical story of ..." or "as in the Biblical parable of ..." or "... similar to the Biblical David and Jonathan"? And did I use quotation marks correctly with the question mark sign?

Most style guides would lowercase biblical (and congressional and constitutional). And your question mark is correct -- outside the quote marks, because the whole sentence is the question, not just the quote.

 

When referring to a home that has a walkout basement, does the Post have a preferred style for walkout/walk-out/walk out? The AP Styleguide doesn't seem to cover this usage of the word.

That's a good jumping-off point to explain something that a lot of people, even in the business, don't understand.

If your stylebook of choice is silent, go to your dictionary of choice. In the case of AP (and The Post), that dictionary is Webster's New World. 

Webster's New World lists walkout only in the sense of a labor strike or similar protest, so the answer would be walk-out basement, because multiple-word modifiers should be hyphenated. 

(You can find Webster's New World online here.)

This reminds me of the common error of using rundown as one word in something like "the rundown hotel." The one-word form means a summary -- let me give you the rundown -- and so it would be "a run-down hotel."

Oh, and if both your stylebook and your dictionary are silent, that generally means that compounds stay as two (or however many) words as nouns, or hyphenated as adjectives (modifiers) or transitive verbs. Ham sandwich, not hamsandwich. He runs a ham-sandwich stand. She really ham-sandwiched that guy. 

I almost never see the 'full stop' etc outside the 'inverted commas' here - I thought it was a US/UK difference.

Correct. Only question marks and exclamation points follow the "whichever is logical" model.

 

Yes, you have just irritated me by saying commas are an art form. They certainly are not science, but there are rules for commas. So, never mind. I've lost all respect for you.

On occasion I omit commas. On occasion, I use them.

(The more you know about English, the less you're likely to think there are unbreakable "rules" for a lot of these things.)

 

 

 

I use it when I want it known that the image is taken live from the internet: 'This is what I saw a that time'.

The meaning is supposed to apply to an actual screen, isn't it? If I'm teaching you to use the current version of Windows, maybe I'll use a screen shot to show you some way to, I don't know, arrange your icons or something. The intended meaning is not "image from video."

Though you have a point if you're showing a tweet before it was deleted, or something like that.

 

There's a time and a place for everything, Bill, including the word screenshot. Consider: 1. Take a picture of your screen and forward it to me. vs. 2. Take a screenshot and forward it to me. The first one, I'm fumbling for my cell phone and holding it up to the screen. The second one, I know what to do (maybe. My coworkers never do). That said, I agree that it's kinda useless to label a screenshot as a screenshot after the fact. At that point it's a picture.

I agree. Well, aside from the smushedtogether form.

 

Thank God that, as journalists, we don't have to worry about whether we're paid well or good.

Ha! Yes, some of us do get hamsandwiched on payday. While we are learning our burros from our burrows.

 

When I was a child in the 1960s this was a nice song we sang in Sunday School. Now it's name mostly is used as a way of insulting someone who proposes peace and reconciliation. I know word meanings change over time but how did it come about with this sweet African folk song?

Broad parody based on 1960s stereotypes? A bunch of hippies sitting cross-legged in a field singing that song paints a pretty comical contrast to anger and violence, or even to sober reflection on painful realities.

 

I once had a French teacher who said she loved teaching native English speakers because they just accepted what she said and never expostulated 'but why' - as did those from more logical language backgrounds .

Vive la différence. Or something.

 

Is it "The Cabal has its eye on you." or "The Cabal have their eyes on you."? We are R.A.G.E. for Revenge, Arson, Grammar, and Extortion. Free coffee and doughnuts at every conclave!

"Its eye on you," at least in American English. 
Not quite the "singular they" issue. British English treats singular nouns that represent more than one person as plural. "Oliver's Army are on their way," "Manchester United are playing the Wolverhampton Wanderers," etc.

 

Is there a difference between whingeing and whining?

 

Hmm. My dictionary says whinge means "to whine." 

Mom used to call my brothers and me "whingey Marys" on occasion. Whiny Mary doesn't have quite the same ring.

 

In your simple sentence the addition and omission of commas are obvious. I'm referring to people who use them to connect independent and dependent clauses in particular, but there are other examples. Rules for commas were created to make reading easier. Reading with misplaced commas is annoying. Here is an example from Twitter, as you requested: PsyPost.org ‏@PsyPost 27 Dec 2015 Why do people vote strategically, and for whom? 

 

Maybe I'm misunderstanding. You'd delete that comma? "Why do people vote strategically and for whom?"

I think the comma is standard, and required, in such instances. (Unlike the ones around "and required," which are nice but optional.)

 

Is that what that is? I had no idea. And I'd been pronouncing it (to myself) "winging." Where did this word come from??

whinge [hwinj, winj] 

[Brit. Informal] Brit. Informal 

vi.

whinged, whingeing [[ OE hwinsian < Gmc * hwinisō jan]]

1. to whine

2. to complain

n.

a whine or complaint

Here is another example: Though you have a point if you're showing a tweet before it was deleted, or something like that.

Optional. I was looking for a bit of a breath.

 

The questions regarding good and well as pertaining to salary made me think of the phrase "looking for work" regarding the unemployed. Looking for work makes me think of an idle person wanting something to occupy time. Looking for employment conotes needing a paycheck. But as usual I'm probably just being too picky.

I think you're on to something. I often think about the class differences involved in "jobs" vs. "careers."

 

Here's another: A bunch of hippies sitting cross-legged in a field singing that song paints a pretty comical contrast to anger and violence, or even to sober reflection on painful realities.

Yeah, I'm having a breath-y day.

I do delete a lot of commas in sentences like "He went outside, and saw the clouds."

 

One of the rules I use for comma insertion is to imagine I'm reading the sentence aloud, then ask myself whether I'd take a breath there?

Yep, as I indicated in some recent answers, that can be useful for a certain type of comma.

It's why we, perhaps seemingly arbitrarily, don't use commas before Inc. or Jr. It's why we say the University of California at Los Angeles rather than the University of California, [dramatic pause] Los Angeles.

 

 

You said the commas here are nice but optional. I disagree. With commas, your original sentence says the comma is both standard and required. Without the commas, the sentence could be read as saying it's standard ... and required [only] in such instances.

That meaning would require the first comma but not the second. Standard, and required in such instances.

If you were really in love with the second comma, you'd want to change the first one to get a higher order of separation, as with a dash. Standard -- and required, in such instances.


Hi Bill, Have you noticed an increasing use of redundant phrases when referring to the past? It seems that everyone is now using "past history," as if "history" wasn't sufficient, and now "previous experience" is popping up more and more.

Such repetitive redundancies have always been with us, and they always will be, my fellow countryman.

Consider this an extra added bonus.

Lagniappe.

 

 

I know this would rarely come up in a newspaper setting, but if you're using an em dash for attribution in AP style, would you put a space between the dash and the name of the person to whom the quote is attributed? Also, would you use quote marks?

There's no right or wrong on whether to use spaces around dashes. I'm pretty sure AP calls for the spaces.

The Post used to omit the spaces ("tight" style), but now we're loose. We use the spaces. 

Quote marks around the quote? Yes, though I could see a design exception in some cases for a display element.

 

There's no formal verb for "flatulence" (why is that?), but I'm surprised that the Post uses the informal (borderline vulgar) f-word instead of avoiding it in favor of medical terminology. Is that word Standard English now or should we avoid it in estimable forums like this (or at least try to blame someone else for saying it)? For people puzzled by the header "Maria," see this.

Well, you're looking at one semi-jocular blog post, not a formal statement of Washington Post policy. If a politician passed gas during a speech (ahem), I doubt we'd phrase it that way in news coverage.

 

Apparently, you are and some of your readers are ones who arbitrarily decide where *you* believe commas should go. However, placement of commas is not about where one takes a breath. A comma is used before a conjunction if it is linking two independent clauses and not when it connects an independent and a dependent clause.

In general, yes. 

Beyond that, commas are very flexible. Just look at them.

 

Commas aren't so much about taking a breath as about the meaning of the clause or sentence. For example: "Though you have a point if you're showing a tweet before it was deleted, or something like that." Without a comma, it sounds like deleted-versus-not-deleted is your point. With the comma, "something like that" sounds like it refers to the whole concept.

I'll agree that that isn't a good "breath" example. But I think the truth is closer to "or something like that" being a throwaway line.

 

Yes there is: to "pass gas."

Formal? I'd call that euphemistic.

 

Commas are not flexible. There are rules, except for people who don't want to use them. I'll stop reading you now. You're annoying with your breathless commas.

Sorry, mate.

 

Can you please try to cut down on use of the word "soil" when referring to a country, as in "a terrorist attack on U.S. soil"? Saying "in the U.S." seems just as clear, and avoids images of agriculture or soiled laundry.

How do you feel about "boots on the ground"? 

 

That's all the time we have today -- thank you for joining me, even if you then unjoined me.

The February chat will be on the early side, it appears. Let's do it again on Tuesday the ... 2nd.

 

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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