The Washington Post

Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh 10-06-2015

Oct 06, 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.

Greetings!

Since we last met, the Wall Street Journal wrote about how proper grammar is "what's really hot on dating sites." The article raises a question I wrestled with in "Yes, I Could Care Less": Is it fair to judge people based on their grammar, spelling and writing skills? After all, there are different kinds of intelligence, and plenty of math and science geniuses don't know their from there from they're.

As it happens, my wife and I met online. This was in 1993, before normal people had Internet access, on a dial-up service called Prodigy. (You may remember America Online, which started as a similar service in competition with Prodigy and CompuServe.) We were on the tennis fans' board, not any dating service, but we hit it off.

And we've discussed how reading another person's writing is a useful way to judge compatibility. Neither of us is the type to write all in lowercase or all in uppercase or with abbreviations or emoticons, and that was part of our initial bonding. She still won't let me forget that I corrected her spelling of "margarita," though.

So it's not entirely fair to use grammar as a dating dealbreaker, but the written word is one of the few things you have to work with if you're looking at hundreds of profiles of prospective companions. It's not all that fair that looks and height and weight and orthodontic perfection serve these functions either, is it? So if some of the beautiful people are losing out because they can't spell, well, chalk it up as a tiny revenge of the nerds. 

(Bonus word of the day: sapiosexual.)

What are your thoughts, on this or anything else?

 

What is your opinion on what it takes to "know a word"? I go to a university with a few students who are under the impression that just because they can't spell the word right it doesn't mean that they don't "know" it. I feel that being able to spell a word is crucial to understanding it. Thoughts??

Well, I admit that I've never thought about this before, but it seems to relate to my intro on online dating. I'd prefer that someone know the spelling, but knowing the meaning would seem to be much more important. Would you really favor somebody who spells sacrilegious correctly but misunderstands the definition to somebody who knows precisely what's sacrilegious but spells it sacreligious?

 

They go one, a pair of, a trio of, four, five.... Seriously, I used to be an editor for a weekly magazine and it bugged me that the writers would never say "three environmental activists appeared before Congress" -- it was always "a trio of environmental activists..." I see this in the Post too, more often than I would like. Explain this bizarre usage, sir, if you can.

Pieces of flair, maybe?

 

We have to judge people on something. Judgment in this case isn't about goodness or badness but about compatibility. They say we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. I believe making judgments based on someone's writing style is more like judging a book by flipping through its pages a bit. The important point, of course, is that first impressions should not be final impressions. Knowing someone is a good speller is a starting point, but it doesn't tell you much.

Content is king.

It's not hard to imagine finding a soulmate hidden behind some spelling and punctuation lapses. If you like what you're reading, those lapses could even be cute and endearing.

It's even easier to imagine a psychopath with perfect punctuation.

 

Just got a book called "Orson Welles's Last Movie…". And I was wondering if it should have been "Orson Welles' Last Movie", or are they both correct? Damn, I've been out of school too long. Thanks.

You're on the right track with "both correct." 

Welles's is more formally correct, so you're more likely to see it that way in books and scholarly papers. Mr. Strunk went so far as to begin "The Elements of Style" with this so-called rule, which tells you a little about Mr. Strunk and Mr. White and Mr. Grains and Mr. Salt.

You're more likely to see Welles' in newspapers, though The Post belies that generalization. Magazines might go either way.

 

I don't think there is a difference between literally and figuratively caring, since caring isn't a physical act. My problem with this phrase isn't the use of the word "literally" but the use of could instead of couldn't. Saying you could care less implies that this issue isn't at the bottom of your caring hierarchy. In fact, this could mean you care a whole lot about whatever "it" is. It's only when you say "I couldn't care less" are you truly putting it at the nadir of your caring priorities.

You're almost there. Think about the latter and then apply it to the former. People talk about caring less when they mean not caring less, ergo I'm talking about actually -- literally -- caring less.

Or something.

Also, this. :-)

 

Some think they are commas, others think they are conjunctions... Could they perhaps be...*gasp* ...bi- or transpunctual? Idk about you but I'm pretty tired of their mistreatment. All punctuation matters. Stop punctual abuse.

They're supercommas! And conjunctions. So, yeah, bipunctual. Or something. 

If I had to choose a semicolon pet peeve (I know, I know, you're supposed to love all your children equally), it would be its use to avoid the serial comma. Leapfrogging, I call it. 

Here's the thing with non-serial-comma journalism style and the serial comma: We still use the serial comma. We just don't routinely use it. We don't use it with red, white and blue, but we do with toast, juice, and ham and eggs, because the latter example is a series with an embedded conjunction. Now, you could use an ambiguity test and ask yourself whether anyone would realistically think toast and ham was a thing, as opposed to ham and eggs, but it makes more sense to apply the principle across the board and not think about it. You know, like motorists running red lights as opposed to bicyclists running red lights. 

Anyway, that's the way it's supposed to work, but not all copy editors fully grasp this, and so a lot of them panic when they realize they're dealing with an embedded conjunction, and they figure the serial comma is strictly off limits, and so they go to the semicolon. For no good reason.

Oh, wait, there's a related pet peeve. The Associated Press, the author of that very wise toast, juice, and ham and eggs guideline, does something very odd when it's dealing with not a serial comma but rather a serial semicolon. A legitimate one.

Let me back up. The semicolon does become necessary in a series when what's embedded is a ... comma! He has worked in the White House; in the Senate; and at the departments of State, Defense, and Housing and Urban Development.

For some reason, a reason never articulated in the Associated Press Stylebook, AP copy pretty consistently uses a serial comma rather than a serial semicolon in such cases. One item in a series; a second, longer item in the same series, and bam! Not semicolon-and, but comma-and. After the semicolon. Makes no sense.

 

 

I still have my copy of the Daily Texan Stylebook from when I was a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin and reporter for the school newspaper in the late 1970s. It states to only use the word trio or quartet in regards to musical groups. I break this rule because I think it sounds more colorful.

Right, it is a flair thing. But such devices are best used sparingly.

 

Shouldn't your introduction have referred to your then-future-wife and yourself as being online before "average" people, not "normal" people? Otherwise, you are saying that you and she are abnormal, when I prefer using the mathematical rule of averages to such a judgment call. (And yes, many of us remember our own Prodigy use from that time, upgrading from 2400 to 4800 zippy BPS.)

Oh, believe me, we're abnormal.

 

I can't figure out why I'm not already there. What am I missing? Feel free to hit me over the head with it.

I thought I did! Must be losing my touch.

Or are you the Russian judge?

 

These seems pretty straight forward to me. It's saying your level of caring is somewhere above nothing.

But you see the double twist there, right?

Just my luck -- I may be facing the French judge.

 

You know how people, especially teens, say because XX. Do you punctuate or not? You’re too old to dress up, too young to go to a Halloween kegger, so you slink around the neighborhood with a pillowcase because: free candy. Or You’re too old to dress up, too young to go to a Halloween kegger, so you slink around the neighborhood with a pillowcase because free candy.

Skip the punctuation.

Because humor.

(I've been scratching my head at the attempts I've seen to assign grammatical terms and linguistic explanations to this little bit of cleverness. Again: It's a joke, son. The abrupt lack of introduction/transition is point in itself.)

 

Replace it with a period. If it still makes sense, you've used the semicolon correctly. "He was afraid to be late; he knew punctuality was his weakness." "He was afraid to be late. He knew punctuality was his weakness." -- Good "Since punctuality was his weakness; he was afraid to be late." "Since punctuality was his weakness. He was afraid to be late." -- Not good.

That's the conjunction side of things. So the semicolon obviates the need for an and.

I saw her, and she smiled = I saw her; she smiled.

 

Is that better?

Are you this guy?

 

It is an odd decision, and unlike your usual style, to respond so flippantly to people who are earnestly trying to understand you. Can you just straightforwardly explain what it is that we are missing?

Most people use "I could care less" to mean "I could not care less." So "I could care less" in such cases is non-literal.

I'm asking whether you literally could care less. Whether you do care about the subject.

People also misuse literally, so there's also an implied joke about that.

And jokes are so much funnier when you explain them.

 

If you're trying to be emphatic about it, which is what I presume those using 'literally' are intending, why not use 'I could NOT care less.'

Because that's not the way people usually say the thing I'm alluding to their saying.

Or something.

 

The original phrase was "couldn't care less." When that changed to "could care less" it was done so with sarcasm. So there's no double meaning or twist or anything. It's just that "could care less" is idiomatic. Neither has anything to do with grammar.

I disagree with the sarcasm theory. I spend a few thousand words in the book explaining why, but in short: Think of the tone of voice people use when they're saying it. It's a shortening; it's not sarcastic.

 

That's how I've always determined their usage - if each side of the semi-colon is a complete sentence. I believe this comes from Strunck & White. That said, wouldn't that mean that semi-colons are never necessary and are always optional since you could use periods instead?

There's more than one way to do a lot of things. The semicolon indicates that the two sentences are intimately related. 

 

Ah OK, I hadn't watched the Foghorn Leghorn video. I had assumed you provided a link to porn to get us all in trouble, so I was afraid to click.

Next month.

(Guess I should have seized the opportunity and linked on "intimately related" above.)

 

My first non-college email was Prodigy, my second was/is AOL. I still use it, 14 years later.

I was HVGM83A. I think.

 

I read from overseas so rarely get to submit anything. I usually end up reading the transcript the next day. Thanks for this, and for your fun Twitter feed.

Aww. Thank you, he said non-flippantly.

 

 

Maybe I'm just noticing it more but there seem to be more people omitting apostrophes completely for words ending in "s". The canonical example is "for goodness sake" I guess. Do you have a stance on this? While I'm at it, how should one apostrophize "the voting record of Ted Cruz"?

Cruz's but goodness' sake. The latter is an exception because the alternative would be barbarous.

 

"When that changed to "could care less" it was done so with sarcasm. " Never ascribe to sarcasm what can adequately be explained by stupidity.

I tried very hard to resist saying that, but I can't say I disagree.

Really, when you think about, language change is almost always driven by ignorance. It's not always stupid-stupid; it's just that nobody knows everything. Where people like me go wrong sometimes is in disregarding everything that came before our initial awareness of a word or concept and everything that came after that awareness. 

The language can't be preserved in amber. But at any given time, there are usages that sound too new and usages that sound too old.

 

Is it oysters rockefeller or oysters Rockefeller?

Definitely Rockefeller.

Why? Because it's not like french fries or brussels sprouts and more like Caesar salad and Belgian waffle, that's why!

Yeah, it can be kind of arbitrary.

(Cap the Pernod, too.)

 

If I felt like being partisan, I'd say the former is barbarous, too.

Hi-yo!

 

Now that I have everyone's attention my question is the origin of this phase. I love books written in and movies produced in the 1930s where I see it used quite a bit. There, the expression seems to be flirting with someone or toying with someone's affections or letting a person know of your romantic interest. Now it's generally used as a euphenism for something (we all know what that is) else. Has the phrase actually evolved or do you think those who used it in 1930s movies and literature were just being sly?

I don't know, but the "being sly" explanation sounds right to me.

 

I don't know if you've ever done online dating, but one of the most common requests I've seen in women's profiles is for a man who knows grammar. No joke. You'd think that mixing up there and they're is tantamount to being a serial killer.

Just make sure you're "as comfortable in jeans as you are in a tuxedo."

 

This is not a riddle, it's a question from someone who can't see why one would cap one and not the other.

This is a good microcosm of what a mess all this is. It has to do with frequency of usage and just what people do in the real world. 

And that may not be the best example, because authorities disagree on French fries vs. french fries.

 

My favorite question to ask other editors is which words or usage problems they still have to look up almost every time. Personally, I'm not completely comfortable with the lie/lay difference, and I just had to look up predominate vs. predominant. In the past, I always checked "embarrassment" with a dictionary to figure out which letters get doubled, but I think I'm past that now. What about you? What are your editorial hang-ups?

There are some spellings I always have to check. Pricey vs. pricy comes to mind.

And I've mentioned before that eponymous and namesake always send me to the reference shelf.

 

I may be the only one with this hangup: When reading instructional text - say, how to design a simple web page - I find writing in the first-person plural highly annoying... i.e. "Now when we're developing our page, we have to be sure that our reader can easily use our menu items..." GRRR!! I find it extremely condescending, like the author is speaking to a seven year old. Does anyone else experience this?

That does sound condescending. Instructional prose tends to run that risk. I'm also a bit queasy about the "And then you want to" and "And then you're going to" approaches.

Give me a straightforward Teutonic series of commands!

 

This was on the website this morning: "Thanks for following along this season A sincere thanks from Chelsea Janes and I for reading and interacting all season." James Wagner·Nationals Journal·35 minutes ago And why are people so reluctant to say "me" and instead use "I" or "myself" incorrectly?

As godlike as copy editors might seem, we can't be everywhere. There are none looking over my shoulder as I do this chat.

That, of course, is the classic example of hypercorrection. Moms might not know about dangling modifiers and stranded prepositions, but they know to correct "me and Timmy want some ice cream" to "Timmy and I want some ice cream." And that sticks, but it sticks as a rule that says you must never say "me" in a phrase involving another you and another person.

Funny how grammar geekery sometimes intersects with Freudian psychoanalysis. Civilization and "it's" discontents!

 

I don't like the subject verb agreement rules concerning sports teams. It's illogical to make the verb agree with the name of the team, not the actual team. It's technically correct to say "The Miami Heat are going to the playoffs," and it sounds right to the ear. But it's not the warm weather that's going the playoffs, it's the team, and a team is a singular entity. It's only rule British English has that's better than ours.

How about a law against singular team names? 

I think both options sound weird, but I prefer just letting agreement be agreement rather than the British "the Heat are" approach.

 

I agree that it's not said with a sarcastic tone these days. But I believe it originally was. When I think back at my older sister saying this when I was a kid, it sounded pretty sarcastic to me.

If you insist on not buying "Yes I Could Care Less," may I offer you a high-powered linguist's explanation?

(Warning: long read.)

 

But it IS capitalized. Pun intended too.

Wait, what?

Because Brussel(s) is the capital of Belgium?

 

I agree with "could care less" being a shortening. I bet the same people say "long story short." Does anyone say "to make a long story short" any more?

I think "yada yada yada" is how we say that now.

 

I ALWAYS use a serial comma. Drives me crazy when people don't. If I see a list in a sentence: "I love corn, carrots, peas and beans.", I come up short because I'm expecting another item because I assume the author has grouped peas and beans for some reason (they're both legumes?). Also, in textbook publishing, one ALWAYS uses the serial comma.

"Peas and carrots" would be a good argument for the serial comma in such a case. Better than "ham and eggs," come to think of it.

 

You seem to be citing AP style, not necessarily correct grammar. The AP is a private group that has their own style rules. They have decided to make Brussel sprouts brussel sprouts. That doesn’t mean it’s correct. It’s only correct in publication that use the style. Albeit that is most publications, but not all.

The point is, the capitalization question there can be arbitrary. I don't think any reputable publication would write "belgian waffles," but, yeah, Brussels/brussels sprouts could go either way.

But not Brussel/brussel.

 

 

Wow---now how many people on this chat will know that phrase didn't originate with Foghorn Leghorn?

Is there an established origin story?

 

Agree totally with the earlier poster - I LOVE these chats, being something of a grammar geek myself.

That makes two!

 

As a freelance copyeditor who has recently returned to the online dating scene, (insert heavy sigh) I must admit that I am quite turned off by poor grammar and spelling within a guy's profile. I equate it with laziness, which is one quality I abhor.

Yes, I do think certain things can be reasonably inferred.

 

Only when my spouse does. "See, I have a chart here that illustrates exactly why that was so funny..."

Ha!

 

I'm afraid we're out of time. Thanks for the good questions, and mark your calendar for Nov. 3, when, Foghorn Leghorn willing, we'll do this again.

 

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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