Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (August)

Aug 04, 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.

Oops. Got ahead of myself. So ...


Last night on Twitter, I committed a little editor-on-editor violence and said it's silly to change "grocery store" to "grocery," even though the former is indeed one meaning of the latter and the latter is indeed one word and eight characters shorter.

That sparked a conversation, and some further thoughts, about truncated forms and how some are perfectly natural and some aren't, and how some of the ones we rarely give a second thought to are less than ideal for edited prose.

"Grocery" is a strange case. The saved characters make it an editorly choice (if I may use the word "editorly"), but most of the other examples that come to mind call for editorly changes that add characters rather than subtracting. We talk about gum and pools and microwaves all the time, but if you were writing about a child who died because she kicked a microwave oven into a swimming pool before diving in to retrieve her chewing gum, I think you'd want the oven and the swimming and the chewing, because otherwise the sentence would sound inappropriately informal. Also, for a split-second, just a tiny fraction of an instant, tide pools and secretarial pools and the gum they make erasers out of would cross my mind.

Some calls are closer. I would say pickup truck and laptop computer, but others would argue that pickup and laptop are fine. I don't know. This might sound hopelessly conservative, but for hard news I use the Cronkite test. Would Walter read "drowned in a pool" or "dropped her gum"? I don't think so. But I also don' t think he'd have said "worked in a grocery." That sounds antique even for the '60s and '70s.

That's the way it is for me. How about you?


Bill, in the phrase "Progressive Era issues," would you put a hyphen between "Progressive" and "Era" or not? I think it should be "Progressive-Era issues." A colleague disagrees, and I can't find anything in Chicago to resolve the matter! Thanks.

Your colleague is right. Proper nouns don't need help holding together -- Bill Walsh books, not Bill-Walsh books. White House sources, not White-House sources.

Now, if you lowercased "progressive era," then yes: progressive-era issues. Or if another word joins the modifier, you might write "Progressive Era-style reforms."


If a axe weilding suspect in a grey bandana murdered a couple that was travelling in middle America for their social security money, why wasn't "social security" hyphenated? Shouldn't you write "Social-Security money"?

Nope (see above), but if the lowercase form were right it would be social-security money.


Hi Bill. This is my first post on your site, and I hope you take my comments for what they're worth (adjusted, as always, for inflation). I'm an attorney, and a wordsmith of sorts. I'm also (give or take) older than God (okay, late 60s). Yes, I'm used to adding two spaces after a period and a colon. I still do that, regardless of the "new" rules, because I think the print looks better and is easier for aging eyes (with glasses, thank you) to read. I will keep on doing that. I do take issue with your bullet point comments, though, in regard to the use of "and" and "or." As I'm sure you can appreciate, words have meaning. So do lists, be they bullet-pointed or numbered. The word "and" is conjunctive and "or" is disjunctive. A bullet point list -- particularly in advocacy writing -- can be either, on purpose and with purpose. I'm not trying to be pedantic about this, and I can take or leave whatever grammatical whims are at play at any time. Now, if you could only use your talents to remove the *expletive* word "amazing" from our vocabulary, I would be your fervent friend for life. Howzat?



Would you write "T-Shirt" or "T-shirt" in a title (or headline)?

It's purely a matter of visual style, but I would capitalize the S in an up-style headline. To choose that visual style and then get all technical about S not really starting its own word would be like choosing to use bullets and then cluttering them up with the word "and." :-)

Speaking of up-style headlines, the New York Times ran this one Sunday:

Rising From the Rough, a New Jersey City Revitalizes a Faded Gem

So, is that a New Jersey city or a new Jersey City? 

(And is that a dangler, or is the entire city rising from the rough?)

("You ask a lot of questions for somebody from New Jersey!")


Why can't people get the difference between everyday and every day? I see it incorrectly used all the time. I'm sure there are similar misused words.

If there's one thing the average civilian will screw up more often than not, it's the distinction between one word and two. ... "I wanted to get me some primerib, but they says there ain't no bare foot people allowed in the buffetline."

-- Bill Walsh, "Lapsing Into a Comma"

Would love your comments on Weingarten rant from his July chat: Something needs to be done about "rules of punctuation." Okay, see what happened there? The period went inside the end quotation mark, even though "rules of punctuation" is a phrase that carries no period. The period should be outside the quote, like "this". That is because it is ending the sentence. Everything inside the quotation mark should be part of the quote. Lincoln, for example, did not say "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation." That's how that quote will appear anywhere but it is wrong, dagnabbit, because that clause carried no period. It went on about conceived in liberty and thus such. But, you sputter, you can't just reverse the rules like this. There are ways of doing things! They are sacrosanct.

Ah, logic. There is a movement toward "logical punctuation." And then what? 

"This" isn't a proper noun, so why was it capitalized there? Just because it begins a sentence? 

Language and logic don't always play well together. The British way of punctuation placement is indeed more logical.



Are these interchangeable? If not, what is correct usage for each?

I.e. = "that is." E.g. = "for example." So usually not interchangeable.

E.E. = Cummings.

I.P.? Nightly.


Can you explain when/why to add "al" to adjectives such as education/al, classic/al, historic/al? For example, would an online learning website be an education site or an educational site or both? Classical music vs. classic rock (vs. classical gas)? - can Federer win another Wimbledon this year??? (okay, three questions -- is Rafa doomed unless he gets a new coach to replace Uncle Toni?)

The way this usually works, especially if "-ic" is involved, is that the "-al" steps back from the "-ic" and makes the word about a subject rather than a value judgment. A historical event is any old event in history; a historic event has historical significance. And historic significance!

Education and educational work the opposite way. An education site may or may not be educational.

One size does not fit -al.

Classic started as a value judgment in "classic rock" before it calcified into a genre, and "classical" being an unrelated music (musical?) genre is just a coincidence.

Then there are examples such as typographic and typographical, where the meaning is the same.

I predict Federer will come close again, including an absolutely brilliant semifinal triumph, but fall short. (Yeah, OK, this question was held over from last month.)


It seems we hyphenate ourselves to death, whether it's a compound modifier or a descriptive phrase. Do you have hard hyphenating rules, or do you draw the line somewhere, such as something that might call for a hyphen but also might not be necessary?

Speaking for myself (not the Post), I'm pretty hard-line on hyphens. But I omit them where a lot of people would use them: door-to-door salesmen go door to door, not door-to-door. Etc.

I also would probably stop short of Obama-administration officials.

Pet peeve, and I'd like your perspective on this. I've noticed a preponderance of second-person headlines- not just at the Post, but in general. (Example from right now: "Could early fatherhood really kill you?"- my ovaries would suggest it's unlikely.) I particularly dislike the second-person imperatives or the "you're doing X all wrong" ones. I realize this is particularly a click-bait-y Slate-Pitch-y sort of thing, and it tends to stay contained in PostEverything, but it's been slipping across the borders more and more. Any thoughts on the trend? Any guidelines as to when it is and isn't appropriate to use the second-person?

The assumptions behind that kind of writing, both in headlines and in the little text, bother me. I don't want to hear about how I'm feeling "pain at the pump" and hating the Beltway traffic and what my kids are doing at church blah blah blah when I don't have kids and I don't go to church and I ride my bike to work.

Imagine being a vegan trans nudist and having to put up with all this.


Full disclosure: I grew up in a place where it was just called "the grocery." For me, saying "grocery store" is as weird sounding as to call something a "bakery store" (which I suppose would differentiate bakeries where things are baked from those where baked items are sold. But I dye grass). I guess, to boil it down: is it a regional preference thing?

I hadn't thought of that. It may well be a regional thing.

I made the argument for "supermarket" over "grocery store" when you're talking about Safeway and not Mr. and Mrs. Weisfeld's down the block, and some people told me they had never heard the term supermarket before. Weird.


Why are you asking yourself questions? Is the participation low today?

Sorry 'bout that. The ones I wanted to get to from last month are looking that way.


From the grammar geek and wordsmith perspective, is there anything in particular for which we should be listening besides grammatical errors? Trite phrases? The so-called dog-whistle words?

Gosh, what else are we going to hear?

But seriously, this reminds me of a topic my wife and I often discuss: just how polished and practiced and media-savvy everybody is these days. Everybody knows How to Be on TV. You don't have to be a politician to be politic. Men on the street no longer sound like the man on the street. Failed school-board candidates feel a need to send their thoughts and prayers to victims of natural disasters halfway around the world. What ever happened to candid comment?

Oops. I think I may have just endorsed Trump.



For the first time I see the usefulness of these lowercase headlines.

On the other hand, the ambiguity sometimes helps with wordplay.


Here's the how I remember the difference between the two: i.e. can also mean "In other words," so in my head I say "In Either words." e.g. = "For EGxample"


If you want to be more fancy-pants, you can remember id est and exempli gratia. 

Or picture E.G. Marshall.


I am really annoyed with the lack of editing of online content. I expect mistakes in quick blog posts reacting to breaking news, but there's just no excuse for it some cases. Specifically, your publication. Often times I read The Washington Post online and find that stories contain errors that wouldn't be caught by spell-check, e.g., verb tenses. Just yesterday, a story was either missing an "-ly" after a word or needed one (I can't recall). What's the editing process like for your online content?

There is a constant balancing act between speed and polish. If an online story becomes a print story, ideally the rough edges will be smoothed over. With online-only stories, we don't have the luxury of a team of archival copy editors combing old stuff for subject-verb agreement -- the copy editors are busy with the fire hose of new news for both the Web site and the paper.


"The shooting happened off campus, a few blocks west of the center of the 71-acre UMB campus in West Baltimore near the Inner Harbor, where students at seven professional graduate schools preparing to become doctors, lawyers, dentists and other careers." It used to be "spellcheck errors" that I would pick up in the Post. Then it was flat-out spelling errors. And now I regularly encounter entire incoherent phrases or sentences as above. Also, please tell writers to stop using "comprise." Even when used correctly, it sounds pretentious and fussy. I went for years without seeing this word in print. And now it's everywhere.

See above.

On "comprise," I'm with you. It's used incorrectly 63 percent of the time, and the other 37 percent of the time it's showing off.


When I'm uncertain of a usage, e.g., to hyphenate or not to hyphenate, I Google search on the expression first in one form, then the other, to see if one has far more "hits" than the other. Also, if I see one form used as a Wikipedia title, I'll usually use that form. Will this method of looking for the most popular usage lead me down the road to heck-in-a-handbasket by following the crowd? (I use this method as well for checking foreign language expressions).

Foreign-language expressions? :-)

Your method (or just picking a dictionary) is OK for deciding one word vs. two words vs. hyphenated for a noun. It's when that noun becomes a modifier that people tend to disagree.

Everybody knows what a ham sandwich is. There's no ambiguity in "Let's go to the ham sandwich place." But I think it looks sloppy and unprofessional. In well-edited prose, it's a ham-sandwich place.


The Post's headlines have become more conversational and less "serious newspaper" style over the years, have they not? How much freedom do you have when writing a headline? Does your desk talk much about headline style, tone, voice?

We do, after deadline and in the rare moment when the fire hose burps.

It takes a while to absorb the tone of a publication, but there's quite a bit of freedom within those ill-defined lines.


There are occasions when, for the sake of clarity of meaning, it's necessary to use "and" or "or" at the end of the penultimate bullet point text. But wouldn't a more desirable solution be to signal the situation in the sentence preceding the list, in the form of either "All of the following apply" or "Some of the following apply" or "One of the following applies"?

Right. Or decide that's not a list that lends itself to bulleting.


That reminds me of the time Homer Simpson looked at his road atlas... "Wow, there's a NEW Mexico..."



whence arises the journalistic principle that the first paragraph of every news story has to be a single long sentence? Is it a fear of making some facts seem less important than others by demoting them to a second sentence? Or is it just a matter of not wanting to look like USA Today?

Or just that every single fact has to be crammed into the lede. Yeah, that phenomenon bugs me. 

Also the idea that the time element had to be right there. If I had more power, I'd make it a policy to move that detail to the second graf unless there's a good reason not to. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we're writing about something that happened the day before.


I'd rather visualize E.D. Gorme!

Was Steve Lawrence and early adopter of Viagra?


Today is one of those days.

Do you mean American garden, the thing with flowers and basil, or British garden, the back yard where you might find Basil?


You buy groceries in a grocery store, but when you come out with just one item did you buy a grocery? (And are a head of lettuce and a bottle of dressing two groceries?) No, so the singular form is available to mean “grocery store.” But it still sounds odd, to me at least. I think it probably is regional, as another poster suggests.

It sounds like a rustic-old-person thing to me. 

In a Post story about MD Gov Hogan proposing changes to the Purple Line, the reporter wrote "a few less station elevators." I contend that should be "fewer station elevators" and in fact, the front page link to the story uses that language. Your thoughts? A "few less" reminds me of a friend and I in a linguistics class inventing "some more [adjective]" as a joke, e.g. "I'm some more tired."

That is a funny juxtaposition, isn't it? "A few fewer" would be even funnier, so there you go. 

"Fewer station elevators" would say less than the original -- it could mean reducing the number of elevators by a lot, not a little.

So, slightly fewer station elevators? 

"Less" vs. "fewer" is One of Those Things, in that gray area between wrong-wrong and excruciatingly correct. I wouldn't be so pedantic as to make it one fewer bell to answer, one fewer egg to fry, and "a few less" might be nearly as unoffensive.


Reign in reign in...the unemployment rate, etc. Anybody remember that the reference is to reins - reins that control horses, oxen, etc.? Super-common, and way too many "professional" writers commit the sin.

Yes, they do. It's a set phrase, so people type it without thinking about it, and somehow their fingers want the extra g for gravitas.


I thought that I learned in school that fun needed a modifier, like much. It was so much fun. But I hear so many people just saying It was so fun, etc. Am I just "misremembering"?

"Fun" is fascinating. It's a noun, but it sounds like an adjective, and so people use it as an adjective, and so it's also an adjective, in the real world if not the pickypants world.

"It was fun," technically, means something like "It was entertainment," though it feels more like "It was entertaining," which is where the adjective feel comes in. We talk about a fun time and a fun party and even sometimes one party being funner than another.

Do we write that way? I try not to, at least for now. But don't try to argue that this is a new development. I remember being admonished for using "funner" in a speech in junior high school, which was [redacted] years ago.



More candidates are starting to curse. How do you handle the cuss words?

How does the Post handle them? Case by case. The real word if it's especially newsworthy, and f----- s--- if it's not.


Hello Mr. Walsh, Was there an official meeting a few years back where former news titan the Washington Post decided to switch all headlines to clickbait style, or did it happen organically?

No meeting that I know of. But you'll never believe what happened next.


Hello, Mr. Walsh Greetings from suburban Cincinnati. In hopes that some ESPN announcer or copywriter sees this, I ask if there is anything we can do about what I call "ESPN disease," to honor the origins of a basic grammar "virus?" I refer to the construction of a preposition plus noun or name and then pronoun,and their offspring. As an example, an announcer will say "the ball came between HE and the stands." I've also heard "he gave the football to John and myself," and "that's a gift for you and I" (when it should of course be "me" instead of "I"). I'm surprised the poo-bahs at ESPN and elsewhere haven't taken their on-air talent aside and gently corrected them. Or am I being naive regarding basic grammar? (I have emailed reporters to point it out, but I feel as if I'm a scolding parent.) Worse, it's spread like a virus to print media and to other broadcasters--so far, not in the Post--and to the population at large. ( I received an email the other day asking the recipient to respond "to either she or I.") Short of starting a blog where I point out therror and list instances of such grammar malfesance, thus becoming a total pedant, do you have any sugfetions kn how to root out this basic grammar error?

I don't have an answer, but sports does seem to be its own world sometimes. 

A colleague just told me he heard a radio sports guy repeatedly say "juxt of position," and say "in lieu of" when he meant "in light of."


"E.L. Doctorow's Masterful Manipulation of History." I may not've known who Doctorow was, but I also don't know what this article's title means (

I have a nagging feeling that I just used masterful to mean masterly somewhere. 


A column by Petula Dvorak uses the expressions "wheelchair-bound" in the headline and "confined to a wheelchair" in the article. I believe this usage is now considered offensive. Does the Post stylebook address this? What do you think?

We do try to avoid such usages. I don't think the headline appeared in the newspaper (it appears to have been online for a time before being changed), but the "confined" phrase did.  


Could you please comment on the appropriate use of the word "irregardless" versus the use of the word "disregard". Thank you!

I've never thought of the two words as an either-or proposition, but OK. To disregard something is to stop regarding it. "Irregardless" would literally mean "not regardless," whatever that would mean, though in reality it's a flawed attempt at "regardless."


i'm the resident writer/editor/word geek in an office where people really couldn't care less about proper grammar, usage, punctuation, etc. Knowing I have to pick my battles, would you suggest I make an issue of a customer email going out with "towards" in the subject line and header? If it gets someone to click and convert, folks here say that proves no one notices or cares about typos and errors. Otherwise, I like where I work :-)

"Towards" isn't preferred, but it's entirely acceptable.


Do you think there's any good use for "actionable," or is it a needless intensifier, like "quintessential" or "epicenter? I see more and more of "actionable data" and "actionable insights."

When I see "actionable," I think of legalese for "something we can sue you over." So there would be that ambiguity problem.


Yet, wouldn't it be correct usage for the opposite to say "many more"?

More is to more as less is to fewer, right? There aren't separate words for mass vs. count there.



I had one of those once. "Either you go to bed with me or I'll leave." "Okay, bye!"



Is it if I physically put something down (lay) vs. myself actually being prostrate (lie)? Or am I totally barking up the wrong tree?

The prostrate one doesn't have to be you, but yes.

The tricky part is that lay is also the past tense of lie



This is a great word for hangman... perhaps due to the soft c in the middle. It may sound ridiculous, but try it! People usually won't get it.

Is ESPN still showing the World Hangman Championships?


Shy gypsy shyly, spryly trysts by my crypt.

Y indeed.


Hello. Your colleague the Career Coach answered exactly three questions today, so perhaps you will fill in. What is the correct response when your boss returns something to you with an incorrect line edit on it?

Depends on your relationship with the boss, and perhaps what business you're in.

If you're not afraid of the consequences, raise the point politely and deferentially. ("I'm sorry to bother you, and I'm probably reading this wrong, but isn't it supposed to be ...?)

If you're afraid of the consequences, there you go. Enjoy the paycheck.


Who's there? To. To who? No, to whom...

Orange you glad I didn't say "banana" again?


Could you please name some writers or publications you go to when you want to read really fine prose?

Very short answer: John Updike amazes me.


Which 2016 Republican and which Democratic Presidential candidate mangles the English language the least?

Oooh. Good question. I haven't done enough research to answer it, though.

Our current president, as erudite as he is, is a little fond of the double "is." 

("The thing is, is ...")


Thanks for joining me ( including this "Bill Walsh" person with the old questions). 

The first Tuesday in September appears to also be the first day in September, so ... save the date.


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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: