Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (July)

Jul 07, 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.


The other day, I was in one of those "Why does everybody deliberately do everything wrong?" moods (no, that's not a constant state), and I dashed off  a one-sentence editing test for my Twitter followers.

Feel free to ignore it, but I offer it in the spirit of something to talk about in case we run out of other things. For what it's worth, nobody on Twitter proposed an entirely acceptable edit or a complete list of the problems. 

Here goes (keep in mind that we're talking American English as used/spelled by American newspapers):

A axe weilding suspect in a grey bandana murdered a couple that was travelling in middle America for their social security money. 

I'll post my answer key at the end of the chat, assuming nobody beats me to the correct answer.





I received the June 15 edition of The Daily 202 newsletter in my e-mail. I was surprised to read this: "The first woman Speaker of the House is a big booster of Clinton’s, and she has cache among the progressives Clinton is trying to woo." I'm curious as to just what Speaker Pelosi has hidden away in her cache. Have you any idea?

I'd bet cash the writer meant cachet!

That's a common error, of course. You have to wonder whether people are thinking it's caché.

Yes, I am submitting this nearly two weeks in advance of the chat, otherwise I'll forget. Just wanted to bring to your attention a common error I've seen a few places lately: confusion over pouring/poring. Here, it's in the very second sentence:

Ah, the dangers of submitting early. Somebody went and fixed the error. (Wasn't me!)


A dozen eggs (were or was broken).

"Were," unless perhaps you work in a factory where each unit is "a dozen." So "one dozen was broken, but all the others survived."


Hi, should it be "the president" or "the President"? Certainly it is "President Obama." And, when does the punctuation go inside the quotation marks. ;-)

It's purely a matter of style, but the standard for journalistic writing is that President Obama is the president and Pope Francis is the pope.

(For some reason, people tend to forget this principle with sheriff and marshal and U.S. attorney and attorney general.)

Periods and commas are always inside the quotes. Colons and semicolons always outside. Exclamation points and question marks depend on the meaning.


An ax wielding suspect in a gray bandanna murdered a couple, who were traveling in middle America, for their social security money.

You caught about half of the things I'm looking for.


but can you caché check?

So you can waste your cash on a cache of Grey Poupon?


Is there a general rule for usage? I tend to use sep words if the "in" or "on" can be isolated. For example, "heading in to the party" vs "moving into the light". Thanks!

That's a pretty good explanation. 

Beware of suspects who turn themselves into police.


Is there anyway we could all come to consider it bad grammar to have an online news site headline be two short, powerful sentences, the second beginning with "Here's?" Such as "People are eating their shiitake mushrooms all wrong. Here's how to do it right." I'd consider my life well lived if that could happen

It is a cliche of technique, that's for sure.


Becomes just social security?

Hint: I'd write "social security" if I meant the knowledge that one has a date on Friday night.


So many people in media no longer use the "to be" verbs using "get" instead. Did they learn this in school or is is laziness? "Get" is also used for action verbs instead of obtain, motivate, etc. I certainly chalk that up to laziness.

Somebody (Arika Okrent?) wrote a nice thesis on this trend, but I'm having trouble finding it. 

It's not just in the media. It's a widespread shift in usage. Sometimes the result sounds fine, but "got" triggers strong emotions in some of my fellow pickypants types.


We see and hear people say, "He is a friend of my son's." Isn't that a redundant use of a possessive, rendering that poor little apostrophe unnecessary? Shouldn't it be either, "He is my son's friend" or "He is a friend of my son"? Would love the Slot's confirmation here. Thanks in advance.

That's called the double possessive, and we probably see it most often in "a friend of his/hers/mine/yours." 

There's nothing wrong-wrong with "a friend of my son's," but you're right that it's not absolutely necessary. Bryan Garner's authoritative guide to American English compiles some examples where it does eliminate confusion. Think of a painting of your son's vs. a painting of your son.


An ax-wielding individual wearing a gray bandana allegedly killed a couple for their Social Security money while they were traveling in the Midwest.

Pretty close! One miss, plus you managed to introduce another of my bugaboos, but this is the best stab I've seen so far.


I understand that the plural of "sister-in-law" in "sisters-in-law" and that the plural of "commander in chief" would be "commanders in chief." But why does that "s" on appeals drop off when the plural of "court of appeals" becomes "courts of appeal." Just because it is more pleasing to the ear? Thanks for any help.

Interesting! The aforementioned Bryan Garner is a lawyer; I bet he could help us. If  we could afford him.


What's the rule now on spaces after a period/sentence ending punctuation? When I was in school a decade ago, it was always 2 spaces, but it doesn't seem like folks still abide by that as much. While we're at it, what was the point of 2 spaces too?

The theory, which may have been debunked, goes that double spacing was a typewriter convention. Typewriters had monospaced fonts, and the extra spaces made copy easier to read. Now we use proportional fonts.

Whether that's right or not, one space is definitely the way to go today.


An ax-wielding suspect in a gray bandanna murdered a couple, who were traveling in the Midwest, for their retirement money.

Maybe not exactly the edit I would have done, but only two misses. Both of them in the crime-and-punishment, law-and-order family.


"Could you literally care less about the finer points of the language?" What's a proper and better alternative to "literally"? Truly? Really? Actually?

Ah, but "literally" is literally correct there, because it fixes the problem of "could care less" literally meaning the opposite of the normally intended meaning!

I think. Need some scratch paper here ...

In other words, if you couldn't care less about language, this is not the place for you. If, on the other hand, you literally could care less ...


An axe-wielding man(woman) in a gray bandana murdered two people, traveling in Central America, for the couple’s social security money.

How did we get to Central America?


What are your guidelines for punctuation at the end of bullet points, whether its a list of items or clauses? Policies seem to vary from newspaper to newspaper, and too many of the arguments sound legit when staring down a deadline.

At the risk of sounding like Mr. Weingarten, I have the only correct answer to that question. If you do it any other way, that's your prerogative, but you'll look like an idiot.

Bulleted items should:

-- Begin with a capital letter, complete sentence or not.

-- End with a period (or other sentence-ending punctuation), complete sentence of not.

-- Never include a serial "and" before the final item.



Bulleted items should not:

-- look like this;

--- and this; and

-- this.


... to your way of thinking, is there any difference between "Had I known ...", "If I had known ...", and "If I would have known ...", the latter of which seems to be the most commonly used nowadays?

Not really. The latter is wordier than necessary, as the other two choices make clear.


Hi Bill---this question came to mind after Fourth of July. What is the proper phrase? "a fireworks display" or "firework displays" or something else?

I would say "fireworks display," just because. Not all singular-vs.-plural choices work that way. Firearms laws, fireworks displays, but hamburger joint, even if the joint serves more than one hamburger.


My dad was an FBI agent. They spelled the word "kidnaping" and when I asked why, was told it was just their way of spelling it. Hm.

Robert McCormick, owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, tried to simplify spelling in American English, and that was one example. If you grew up when I did, you may have seen kidnaping and cigarets and other examples I can't think of right now in your morning (or afternoon!) paper.


As a couple traveled in middle America, an ax wielding suspect in a grey bandanna murdered them for their social security money. (Also: why did you include all the spelling mistakes?)

There's, what, one spelling mistake and a bunch of less-preferred spelling choices. 

I included all those alternative spellings because I marvel at the lack of a pattern -- sometimes people are dying to use needless optional extra letters; other times they like to skip letters. 


Bill, do you have any guidelines about cleaning up/not cleaning up email quotes for publication? How precise should a newspaper be when a quote is attributed as "he said in an email" and the email includes incorrect spellings and questionable grammar? It seems difficult to use the same guidelines that are used in reporting spoken quotes.

That is a great question.

You can't say somebody said x when that somebody said y. But that's a question of word choice, not pronunciation (with spoken quotes) or spelling/capitalization (with e-mail quotes). So we "clean up" quotes but we never change word choices.

So you would say Carter or Bush said nuclear even if they say nucular, but you wouldn't change it to "atomic" or something.

And if your source e-mails "ys i do think christy will run for prezdent," you are free -- compelled, even -- to write "Yes, I do think Christie will run for president."

Don't put words in people's mouths, but represent the words as they exist.


Why periods after incomplete bullets? That makes me cringe.

Because it looks better. 


Some insist that "may" should only be used as a permissive. Others say the the two are interchangeable, but might is slightly stronger than may. WWBD? (What Would Bill Do?)

I don't much care, except that you shouldn't use "might have" when you mean "may have." 

"Might have" suggests that something didn't happen. I might have died single had I not met my future wife.


Police are looking for a man[person] who killed a couple and stole their savings while they were traveling in the mid-West. He was armed with an ax and was wearing a gray bandanna, officers say. Maybe he was playing the blues piano too.

Very good! (Aside from "mid-West" for Midwest.)



Now that someone caught all my traps, here is the answer key I prepared in advance:

An, not a. Ax, not axe (style preference). Wielding, not wielding. "Ax-wielding" needs a hyphen. Killer, not suspect. Gray, not gray (style preference). Bandanna, not bandana (style preference). 
Killed, not murdered (we avoid "murder" until there's a conviction -- maybe it was justifiable homicide). Couple who were, not couple that was. Traveling, not traveling (style preference). Middle America isn't a place; it's a collection of demographic and attitudinal characteristics. 
"For" is a little ambiguous (he killed them for, or they were traveling for?). Social Security, not social security.

The Post's "breaking news" headline noted that Roberts read his "full-throated dissent" in Obergefell from the bench. I felt that the headline called to mind a sex act, especially in the context of a decision about sexual orientation. My girlfriend felt that such a reading would only occur to a stupid and immature child, and that the headline was fine. Would this reading have occurred to you as an editor and would it have influenced your choice of headline?

That's a close call, but I like the question. You have the kind of potty-brain that can be valuable on a copy desk.


Okay, it's "all the boys covered their ears" because everyone has two ears. So should it be "all the boys covered their nose" because everyone has just one nose?

I would say noses, but you could go either way. 


Spotted - " Md. trooper accused of sex assault at gunpoint " Was he accused at gunpoint?

In last month's chat, somebody asked about squinting modifiers. That's a great example of a squinting modifier.


Sorry, but I can't seem to find the proper link to enter the discussion. Anyway: An ax-wielding robber killed a couple for their social security money. What was the point of mentioning the bandanna unless it was used as a mask. An assumption would have to be made. "… traveling in middle America"? Did the writer assume naming the state would somehow diminish the story? A time element would have been nice. Cheers

The point of mentioning the bandanna was that it annoys me when people spell it "bandana"!

(Though that is an acceptable spelling.)

And although I accepted Midwest, I think "middle America" needs a query. Was it the Midwest? The Plains? Archie Bunker's 'hood in Queens?


Please tell me that you don't actually think "If I would have known...",is correct in the example above! I believe that the conditional verb tense belongs in the other portion of the sentence. As in "Had I known you were coming, I would have baked a cake." NOT "If I would have known you were coming I would have baked a cake." I agree that the first and second options included in the earlier question ("Had I known" or "If I had known" are both correct but don't see how the third can possibly be a correct option. What am I missing here?

Yes, I think you're right. Thanks.


You wrote: Wielding, not wielding.... Gray, not gray (style preference)....Traveling, not traveling (style preference). Are you saying those words should be capitalized as your style preference? Otherwise, quite confused.

Sorry -- I meant we prefer the spellings we prefer. Only Social Security was a capitalization issue.


Traveling, not travelling, and gray, not gray. I do believe you mean traveled, not travelled, and gray, not grey.

Right. Thanks for the real-time edit!


I am a huge proponent of the oxford comma. I think it's a huge help in clearly indicating when lists/series end. Why do some people find it unnecessary? The agency I work for doesn't use it, and it drives me crazy!

Skipping the serial comma is a long-standing tradition in journalism, perhaps because those tiny bits of saved space/ink add up.

British English, perhaps ironically, is also anti-Oxford.

I don't feel strongly about the issue. I skip the comma in most series because I'm in journalism, but I don't buy the clarity argument. For every "my parents, Ayn Rand and God" example, there's a "my mother, Ayn Rand, and God" one. 



Hi Bill. How do you decide whether a verb should agree with the object of a preposition rather than the subject of the sentence?

Are you talking about the "one of those" problem? 

Grammar problems often work better as logic problems (and not only because I don't generally use grammarspeak!), and this is one of them.

If I say I'm one of those Posties who bike to work, I mean just that. I'm a member of a group. What group? The group of Posties who bike to work!

A lot of you (I know you're out there!) would insist that the verb must agree with the subject, logic be damned. Well, a lot of you are wrong. 

In the sentence "I'm one of those Posties who bikes to work," there is no group of Posties who bike to work. There's just me. Oh, and some Posties who may or may not ride bikes. I'm one of those Posties, and I bike to work. Why anyone would write a sentence like that is a mystery.

In a related case, note that I said a lot of you ARE wrong, even though "lot" is a singular word. That's "notional agreement," and it comes into play with "group," "series" and similar words. 

Apologies to longtime readers, but I have to use my doctor example again: A group of doctors IS meeting if that group is the American Medical Association. A group of doctors ARE meeting if you just mean four physicians on the golf course.

If you don't like it, then you have to say a lot of people IS wrong and a bunch of kids IS meeting at the mall.


What is the difference between James' and James's?

It's a style choice. AP would write James'; the Post or the New York Times would write James's.

That's assuming we're talking about James. If Rob and Cindy Jame threw a party, it would be the James' party.


Ack, dumb "bandanna." I also suspect you hate "individual." Me, too. But I fixed the "suspect," which is worse!



I find it difficult to believe there are any copy editors or proofreaders left at the Post. There are so many errors every day and the quality of much of the "writing" wouldn't pass muster in middle school. And it is continuing to decline daily. The Post has really become an embarrassment and there appears to be no news judgment -- e.g. two full pages in Style yesterday with nonsense about Huckabee.

Another satisfied customer!


What happened after a guy in a bandanna with an ax came across a couple traveling the Midwest with social security money? The answer may surprise you.

Speaking of cliches of technique ...


As a translator, I see a lot of documents where bullet points are used, and it seems to me that they generally follow the pattern you reject. I'm not saying you're wrong about how things SHOULD be, however. Personally, I'm agnostic on this point.

I feel so strongly about bullets and so weakly about serial commas. Go figure.


"Employe." Ahem, Washington Post.

Thank you. That would have been having driving driven me crazy, or something.


damn, I thought my question was a shoe-in, given that I asked about tennis too!



I think you made a little mistake yourself in your answer key....

It happens.


When I was in high school in the 90s, one of my teachers drilled it into me that the word "impact" shouldn't be used as a verb. However, I see people using it as such everywhere--in books, on tv, etc. Is the anti-impact-as-a-verb rule simply antiquated now? Was my teacher simply a grammar zealot that took things a step too far?

That's a good example of a tainted usage. "Impact" would make a perfectly fine verb, but it's associated with mid-century biz jargon and thus is better avoided around educated people.

And, of course, it does work as an unobjectionable verb in "impacted tooth."


Are there any phrases, whether they are grammatically correct or not, that drive you nuts? For example, "I feel badly" and "At this point in time" just make me cringe when I hear them.

Don't you mean "at this particular point in time"?


My editor likes to change "over" to "during" when referring to time. For example, "The rule will take effect over two months" to "The rule will take effect during two months." I'm not sure why "over two months" is unacceptable. What about when we say, "Things change over time." It sounds weird to say "Things change during time." Or, "Over time, you will see why." "During time, you will see why." Latter doesn't work for me.

I prefer "over" in your example, as in "over the course of."

"During" strikes me as a clunker. 

I also disdain "during" when it seems to divorce an action from an event and link it in purely temporal terms. Anybody can say something "during" the State of the Union speech; only Barack Obama can say something IN the State of the Union speech.


It's from a business coach’s newsletter on the subject of communication (irony alert). “If people don’t seem to be listening to you and reacting the way you desire, it is you, not them, that are the issue.” ?!

"It is they" would be the quick fix, but I'd do more heavy lifting.


third person singular possessive, that it is starting to be used even in cases where the gender of the person should be specified and obvious (easy example, prostate exam)? I think I've even seen it used when referring to a specific person whose gender is known so that "his" or "her" could have been used. Same thing for the not possessive pronoun form, but I haven't seen that one as often.

That's an interesting point about the evolution of the singular "they." Will gendered pronouns go the way of "comedienne" and "aviatrix"?


Whew. Thanks, everyone, for a lively chat, and sorry I couldn't get to all the questions. I'll try to answer all those spare questions next time, which, if my calendar is correct, would be Tuesday, Aug. 4.

See you then!


Some sort of internal autocorrect overruled my fingers as I tried to type the answer key. Here's an attempt at a corrected one:


1. An, not a. 

2. The preferred spelling is ax, not axe. 

3. The preferred spelling wielding, not weilding. 

4. "Ax-wielding" needs a hyphen.

5. Killer, not suspect. 

6. The preferred spelling is gray, not grey. 

7. The preferred spelling is bandanna, not bandana. 

8. Killed, not murdered. (In journalism, we avoid "murder" until there's a conviction. It could have been justifiable homicide, for instance.)

9 and 10. Couple who were, not couple that was. (A couple that was would have "its," not "their," Social Security.)

11. The preferred spelling is traveling, not travelling. 

12. Middle America isn't a place. 

13. "For" is a little ambiguous (he killed them for, or they were traveling for?). 

14. Social Security, not social security.

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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