Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh 11-03-2015

Nov 03, 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! I don't have a long introduction today, but here's something to open in a new tab for after-chat fun:

A lot of people think "cologne" is spelled "colon." 

Imagine the olfactory possibilities! Now, to the Chatcave! Or something. What's on your mind?



Why do people insist on saying "different THAN?

I know I do. Different from is traditionally the preferred form in American English (the British say different to), but I wouldn't call different than wrong.

Moreover, sometimes it's hard to get around different than. I have different priorities than you. Now, that could be "I have different priorities from yours," but it would be less natural. 

With differently, it's even harder to wedge from in. I drive differently than you. (I drive differently from the way you drive? Nah.)


Can “include” be used when the listed items are a complete list? For example: The three tools you need include a hammer, a screwdriver, and a saw. Very often I see “include” used when the list given is exhaustive, and I’ve been taught that that is wrong. Bryan Garner says it’s wrong. But I hear it in conversation all the time. I see it in print a lot. Should I continue to fight for the correct use, or is this a lost cause?

The proverbial careful writer uses include only for partial lists -- and knows there's no need for and others in such a case.


What's up with the random capital letters in the Constitution?

And those commas! Times change, language changes, writing styles change. Some publications still write about the President and his Administration.


Why do so many journalists and other writers refer to people or groups of people as that instead of who?

Although who is generally preferred, there's nothing wrong with that for people. It comes in handy when whom would be correct but awkward, for one thing.

I get more worked up over who being used to refer to companies and organizations.


I know that avoiding unnecessary prepositional phrases helps tighten writing, such as by changing "The hut had walls of mud" to "The hut had mud walls." However, I think some editors overdo it, creating awkward possessives or modifier strings that are harder to comprehend. Instead of "The company is expanding its infrastructure for producing heavy-machinery components," they'll change it to "The company is expanding its heavy-machinery component production infrastructure." I think the former is easier to read. Your thoughts?

Yes. Yes, yes, yes! 

Your way has the extra added bonus advantage of avoiding hyphenation controversies. To put it another way, an editor sticking in the required hyphens could teach a writer something about why those piled-up modifiers are not a good idea.


One of my biggest current peeves is the proliferation of 'veggies'. Can we please just write 'vegetables'? The cutesy form is grating to me. Similar, but not as bad: 'fridge'. It only takes a few more characters to spell the whole word.

Your speaking my language. Or lang, if you will. (Good thing I didn't call that introduction an "intro.")

Actually, I think veggies are fine and veggies is fine, but not the first time and every time. 

In my first book, "Lapsing Into a Comma," I vented about tux, limo, veggies, Vegas and Lab (as in Labrador retriever). Again, all are fine, but if you're writing in a grown-up publication you need to use the real word at least once.

In "Yes, I Could Care Less," I went after the rampant de-aroni-fication of macaroni and cheese.

You can always count on me to tackle the big issues.


If you have an abbreviation where the choice of "a" or "an" differs depending whether the abbreviation is read as letters or as words, what's the recommended way to write it? For example, "an NFL player" (read as letters), or "a NFL player" (read as "National Football League"). In some cases it's obvious which way a reader is more likely to read it (and I assume you use that article), but in other cases, it's not clear.

Right -- it's definitely "an NFL," but sometimes it's not clear how an initialism is pronounced. Is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "the N-H-T-S-A" or "nitza"? And some people actually call HOV lanes "hove lanes" and individual retirement accounts "Iras," like certain Gershwins. (The latter is "an IRA" either way, but how often do you get to type "certain Gershwins"?) 

This also comes up in headlines, where abbreviations are not meant to be read as abbreviations. Is a New Jersey man an N.J. man or a N.J. man? I'd avoid the issue (skip the article) but go for "a" if I had to pick one.


How do you think Bartolo Cologne would sell in NYC right now?

I'm thinking it's a small niche market.

(I say "nitch," by the way, not "neesh," even though I speak nearly passable 11th-grade French.)


Bill, what would you say are some of the best style/usage/grammar books published within the past five years or so? (Excluding your own, of course.) By "best," I mean not just authoritative but readable.

As it happens, my friend John McIntyre just answered this question (well, maybe without the "past five years or so" caveat), so I'll defer to his post except to say that Mary Norris's new book deserves its success.



Describe the behind-the-scenes chicanery that the Post used to persuade the Associated Press to accept "under way" as one word. I still cringe.

1. The AP pays no attention to what The Post does.

2. Ya know, I started to make a move toward revisiting the issue for Post style and I quickly found that the one-word version is far more widely accepted than I had thought.


This isn't exactly a "spell-it-out" example, but related. I'm all right with veggies used ocassioally but what I really find annyoing is when food names are mispronounced deliberately in an attempt, I suppose, to sound cute. Commom examples are sammie or sammitch for sandwich and smashed taters for mashed potatoes. And taters or tater in general.

What hath Rachael Ray wrought?


It drives me crazy when even highly educated speakers say "an historic..." The "h" is pronounced, so it should be "a historic..."

Indeed, for us non-Cockney types. Do you live in an house and stay in an hotel?


Why do people have so much trouble with adjectives vs. adverbs when using state-of-being vs. active/action verbs?

Maybe once you get hit with a ruler for saying "good" rather than "well," your perspective gets warped?


I don't like underway as one word either, but where I really think AP sold out was deeming website correct use instead of Web site, which I see the Post still uses. Since Web (as in site) is a proper noun, it makes no sense to me to have made the change.

Alas, we are on the wrong side of history. I'm guessing nobody will write "Web site" in five to 10 years. Or "e-mail."

One could argue that "website" is like "congressman."


Getting EVOO (for extra virgin olive oil) into the dictionary must have gone to her head.

Also, millions and millions of dollars. But I have a soft spot for success stories like hers.


Uh, you meant 'You ARE speaking my language', not 'Your speaking my language', right? Or am I missing something?

It was a test! Congratulations.


Hi, Bill. Please give me your style recommendation (capitalization and punctuation) for a bullet list in which the bullets are not complete sentences. Thank you!

As I've said before in this space, I feel very strongly that bullets should be treated the same whether or not complete sentences are involved. It's a visual thing: If you're going to clutter your visual device with semicolons and ugly lowercase letters and a serial and, you shouldn't be using bullets in the first place.

I mean, if bulleted text must behave like non-bulleted text, wouldn't that mean it can't have bullets? Nobody puts bullets in the middle of a sentence, right? How about that, Mr. Fung?

The way I do this is:


  • Simple.
  • Elegant. 
  • Right.


The way a lot of people do it is:


  • ugly;
  • clunky; and
  • dare I say, wrong.

And you didn't ask, but while we're on the subject of lists, I will not inveigh against the half-a-paren. If you have a numbered list with items on separate lines, you use periods. 

This is:

1. Right.

2. Right.

3. Right.

This is:

1) Wrong.

2) Wrong.

3) Wrong.

Parentheses come in pairs. (Yeah, I know, that makes one of them a single paren, not half-a-paren, but that's what I call this, all right?) Where you want them with numbered lists is in running text, like (1) this, (2), this and (3) this.



I'm for the German way of doing things and eliminating all spaces in modifying phrases... such as twelvecylinderoverheadcamturbochargedengine.

And you're probably on to something when it comes to the environmental credentials of German automobiles.


Aaaaarrrggghhh. I remember this one distinctly from 6th grade. We were taught that "historic" is one of those wonderful exceptions in English. One is always supposed to say "an" historic ___. Drove me crazy then - but 40+ years later I still say "an historic" whatever. (Incidentally, I proofed this posting several times because you all make me nervous!) Insert smile here...

I ran into an argument for an historic many years ago and did some extra research. It didn't hold up.


The cutesy-poo language thread reminded me how deeply some people loathe "hubby" for "husband." This then reminded me how irked I am by "bride" used for "wife" WELL past the day of. No one does that with "groom" ... and with good reason.

In online discussions, it's often DW and DH -- dear wife and dear husband. 

I tend to dislike such things, but YMMV.


Not sure is these sentences have a technical term; I call then "than" or comparative sentences: "Mary at more candy than John." But I might also say "Mary ate more candy than beets." Neither sentence is complete. No one would mistake the first sentence as saying that Mary consumed a lesser amount of John than she did of candy, or in the second sentence that beets ate more candy than Mary did, but why not be precise? In some settings it can make a HUGE difference and the fix is so simple: in this case, just add "did" after "John," and the second sentence should probably just be recast to say something like "Mary ate a bigger helping of candy than she did of beets," or something. In a book about marketing and advertising I found this sentence about reviewer comments on websites: "Recommendations from strangers often have a stronger influence on buying decisions than advertising." The author meant that strangers' comments are often more meaningful to customers than advertising is, but it could just as easily be read to mean that strangers' comments have a greater effect on buying decisions than their comments have on advertising. Again, the fix is so simple: just add "does" after the word advertising, and problem is solved. Have you run into this? I see it so often, mostly in cases where you're pretty sure of the author's intent, but why not complete the sentence and remove all doubt?

I don't worry about adding clarity when there's no ambiguity in such sentences. I would opt for smoother writing over consistency, but there's no serious harm in your approach.

And I can relate, because I opt for consistency in some other areas, including compound-modifier hyphenation and the use of serial commas for lists in which at least one element contains a conjunction. 

Nobody will think egg salad sandwich means iceberg lettuce between two slices of bread with a fried egg on top, but I still write egg-salad sandwich. That's the way that punctuation works, and I just do it rather than deliberate every time about whether there's the potential for ambiguity.

And although we newspaper types generally don't use the serial comma (red, white and blue), I use it in something like "He went to Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary," even though there's virtually no chance any readers are going to wonder whether there's a school called Yale and William.


We had a lively disagreement in a comments thread under a WaPo article. I wrote that smells could not be palpated and others resorted to dictionary definitions, which I never accept for proper usage.

I guess it might work as a (strained) metaphor, but yeah. My nose ain't never palped nothing.


Is there a difference between pronunciation and spelling in your opinion. I may write historic, but I pronounce it without the h which is why I suppose why I would use the "an" as opposed to the "a". Is the dropping of the h regional? I know I may drop the h from house when I say "The doctor made an house call". In fact in typing this up I may always say an house, but I would never write it like that.

You drop the h in a sentence with an article, but do you drop it when the word stands alone? Given a list of words beginning with the letter, would you really read it as "House. Home. Hotel. Istoric"? I doubt it.


Your collegue Tom Sietsema HATES the word "veggies."

But I understand he loves "Frisco" and "San Fran." :-)


From a Wash Post article: "They got lucky a manager with the accomplishments of Baker viewed the events of the past week and agreed to lead them." ACK! Typo? Forget the comma?

I'm not seeing a place where a comma is needed. Am I reading too fast?


I don't like it when people shorten "Margaret" to "Peggy." I mean cmon. 1) Do you agree; and 2) is "Bill" also stupid?

A lot of non-ancient guys named Richard like your way of thinking.


I have a friend who refers to her granddaughter as babygurl (with a u) and another friend who refers to her mother as mum (she's not from England). My question - what is up with capitalizing the a in and in headlines (like Coffee And Tea)? I see it a lot with Huffington Post.

Case style for headlines is inherently arbitrary, but I would agree that that's a very unusual way to do it.


What do you do with writers who take your every correction as a personal front? Or worse, those who pick and choose when you're being a hero, depending on whether they agree with your revisions?

I am fortunate to have a largely gracious group of colleagues. I truly cannot remember the last time something like that happened.


Herb Caen must be spinning in his grave!

Is he a Herb or an Erb?


I agree that the use of semicolons, commas, and "and" in bulleted lists is abominable. But when the list is of items which aren't complete sentences, I use a period only after the last item. My reasoning is that the bullets take the place of the regular punctuation, so the period identifies the end of the sentence. This is also useful in printed matter when the list continues on the next page.

  • Ugly.
  • Ugly.
  • Ugly.



An old joke, maybe unprintable: My boss hates it when I call him Dick, especially since his name is Steve.

And why are Stephens "Steve" rather than "Stephe"??


"They got lucky a manager..." seems like an odd construction.

That's a skipped that, then, not a skipped comma. And we skip that like that all the time.


I don't know whether (or not) to add "or not" to the end of my "whether"s. Plz help.

If you can leave it out, leave it out. You can there; it's obvious when you can't.

Whether or not it's sunny, I'm going to the beach. Whether it's sunny, I'm going to the beach? No.


No comma necessary, but it looks like it was written on deadline. The writer dropped a "that" and used "got" instead of a better verb phrase.

And it's safe to assume that virtually all sports journalism is written on a tight deadline.


I too think this sounds better in most cases.

I also grew up saying "lay down" rather than "lie down" and continue to do so in civilian life.


Listened to the audio version. She spent an hour and a half talking about pencils. Her book was fantastic.

She does like her pencils!


The discussion about "a(n) historic" reminds me of something else I learned in my long-ago youth, which is that in filing, names that begin with "Mac" should be filed as if they began "Mc." Or was it the other way around? Either way, I felt that names should be filed as they were spelled.

Mc and Mac names do sometimes get alphabetized oddly.

These days, I'm just happy to see alphabetization by last name rather than first, as the kids seem to be doing (imitating computers, no doubt).


Griffin, Robert III. Not Griffin III, Robert.


•This •That •The other.

Now you have me thinking about a "Seinfeld" episode.


Why is the word for "&" so long?

Mind blown.


Why are you "Bill" and not "Will"?

My question was purely rhetorical. Didn't intend to make a Richard move.


Well, we're out of time. Thanks for all the great questions!

My calendar indicates that December is one of those cruel months in which the 1st falls on a Tuesday, so please join me then. It'll be the last chat before The Post moves to its new home.


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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