The Washington Post

Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh 12-01-2015

Dec 01, 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!

Welcome to my last chat from 1150 15th St. NW. Actually, I'm chatting from home today, but you know what I mean.

As The Washington Post moves to One Franklin Square, as in the east entrance to the McPherson Square Metro station as opposed to the west, we're making some big changes in Post style as well. I have a hunch these changes will be greeted more enthusiastically by the general readership, and the reporters, than by my chat audience. But I could be wrong.

Starting Sunday, e-mail will be email. Web sites will be websites. Microphones will be mics, not mikes. Wal-Mart and Exxon Mobil will be Walmart and ExxonMobil. 

I'm sanguine about website, but I will continue to defend e-mail and mike and Wal-Mart. The thing is, I'm on the wrong side of history. In 20 or 10 or maybe five years, e-mail and mike will look really, really antiquated. Usage goes where it wants to go, whether the change makes sense in terms of history or precedent or not. 

So we're acknowledging the inevitable, and no doubt removing some distractions for younger readers, readers who weren't alive when e-mail and mike were the predominant spellings.

Big news, huh? What do you think? What else is on your mind?

 

Yes, it's your mic/mike crank, yet again. This is such an abomination, and yet the AP just rolled over and allowed it a few years ago. How does the Post handle it, and why? I leave you with my usual link that explains why this is such an abomination: http://www.sambayer.com/tirades/whymike.html

I agree, and yet we're "rolling over," too. 

There is a whole generation of readers to whom "mike" will look like a weird attempt at a pun on a male name. There are expressions -- "hot mic," "mic drop" -- that would look downright anachronistic with the "correct" spelling. 

Language change isn't always pretty, but it happens. I wish this one weren't happening, but we had to acknowledge the reality.

 

It’s not the end of the world. There's no I in denial.

My microwave oven's display reads END when the cooking time is over. And keeps saying END forever until I hit a key to end the END and get my kitchen clock back.

It's a rather disturbing answer to "What time is it?"

 

I was asked to proofread a document that contained the following sentence: "Crossing multiple industries, they design everything from cars and airplanes to skyscrapers and computers." I thought the sentence was missing something, like a dangling participle, but since the author was on a tight deadline and I couldn't provide a fast re-write, I let it stand. Is this sentence correct as written? If not, how should it read? The document was about careers in engineering.

"They" are the ones crossing multiple industries, so the structure is sound -- there's nothing dangling.

I might question the "everything from" clause, which is what can be called a false range. From A to Z, from New York to California, from soup to nuts -- those are legitimate ranges, with the endpoints as clear endpoints and the in-between easily pictured. 

But what is the range in which cars and airplanes are at one end and skyscrapers and computers are at the other? What would come between those endpoints? And "they" cover everything in that range, whatever those things might be? Highly doubtful. 

Yes, it is possible to be too literal about such things, but it's also worth considering what a sloppy and pat writing device that is.

 

Over the past year or two I've noticed a seeming epidemic of people using "then" when the word called for is "than." I see it almost daily. Especially noticeable online in comments and chats. Can't be a random typo since I never see it the other way. I don't remember this being a problem in the past---the words have such different meanings. Have you noticed this? Any idea why?

You never see it the other way?

Oh, I guess you mean that you never see the opposite error, not that you never see it spelled correctly.

Anyway, my guess is that once you noticed it, you're attuned to it and you keep noticing it. The same way you can be minding your own business for decades and never hearing of Melanie Lynskey and then suddenly she's in everything, even sitcoms from years back. 

Occam's Razor favors "your mind is playing tricks" over "time-traveling casting directors."

 

Will Custom is looking for her.

2 smart 4 me lol

 

What about “curly quotes” instead of "straight quotes"? Straight quotes were invented to keep typewriters cheap, but that obviously isn’t a concern anymore. They’re just an alt+[ away. There are plenty of other typographic glyphs that go overlooked, too (en and em dashes mostly being replaced the double hyphens).

I haven't kept up on my Web skills (webskills?), but way back when I decided to do all the correct coding for real dashes and smart quotes and apostrophes, and it blew up in my face. Came out as garble on some browsers.

I'm hoping things are better now, but there is a weird phenomenon where technology seems to be getting dumber in some ways as it gets smarter.

 

This chat's not going away anywhere is, it?

No, but Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh will henceforth be grammargeekerywithbillwalsh.

 

Doesn't that mean The The Angels Angels?

Yes. Of Anaheim!

 

I was surprised at the almost dismissive comments you made about the subject of comparative sentences (John loves Mary more than Michael; John loves Mary more than artichokes), especially when you spent so much time talking about proper use of bullets and numbers and parentheses in lists (a subject on which I completely agree with you). In the case of the lists, one could be irked or annoyed at the construction of the lists, but no one would walk away with incorrect information. Exact quote from a recent news story: China and India are sending more immigrants to the US than Mexico. Even a cursory knowledge of current events would tell us that the writer is trying to say that there are more Chinese and Indians than Mexicans coming to the US, but what the writer has really said is that more immigrants are coming to the US than are going to Mexico. Such easily fixed carelessness. If I say "I like you more than John," do I mean I like you more than I like John or that I like you more than John likes you? However "Clarence has more money than sense" is probably just fine as written (because "sense" cannot have more money than Clarence has). Such cases could have a huge affect on how a story is perceived.

Was I almost dismissive? I agree that your examples benefit from added clarity.

 

I am old(ish) and originally from the UK, and the American insistence on always using 'fewer' when a whole number is involved sounds unnatural to me ear. I would always say 'fewer people came to the rally than organizers had expected,' but I prefer to say 'less than 5000 people came to the rally.' 'Fewer than 5000...' sounds to me like a bum note on the piano. What's your view on this?

In the rally example, I prefer "fewer" but think both sound fine.

I am surprised at how many Americans get furious about "10 items or less," which to me is perfectly correct -- superior to the alternative. I'd say "10 or fewer items," but not "10 items or fewer." 

 

...and the first time I typed "mike" for microphone, I was severely corrected (humiliated, really) for not using "mic." In order to keep my job I had to use "mic" but I still think it's wrong (I left that work place [workplace?] long ago).

The same thing happened over at AP Stylebook headquarters. The stylemeisters put out a "mike" entry, and the technical crew had a hissy fit until they reversed the ruling.

The thing is, people confused an abbreviation with a short form. Mic isn't pronounced "mike" any more than a phone-book Robt or Chas is pronounced ROBT or CHAZ. You're supposed to look at mic and think microphone, look at Robt and think Robert, look at Chas and think Charles.

But people got confused, and it stuck, and we're stuck.

Sincerely,

Wm.

(pronounced "Bill")

 

The perfect gift for everyone on your Xmas list!

(Yes, I said Xmas. Look it up.)

 

It's a nickname for Richard. They join the rubes and hillbillys (your kin). :)

I did not know that.

I came from the hills, though I didn't stick around past infancy. Pottsville, Pa., known for Yuengling beer and John O'Hara and the first championship team in big-time pro football (look it up!). My dad, also a Bill, was born and raised there, but he sure did look down on the transplanted Kentucky and Tennessee "hillbillies" who were our neighbors in the Detroit suburbs where I grew up. So I guess hilliness and billiness are relative.

I'll write that memoir someday.

 

My theory is that, just like with omitting a final comma in a list when not essential for meaning, publishers are trying to save paper and ink or pixels on-screen (onscreen).

With publishers, you're seeing a reaction to what happened at the grass roots. People with AOL accounts in 1998 were too lazy to type some of those hyphens, and the rest is history.

 

Authorities be damned! I will still use e-mail and Web site and I hope y'all will still answer my questions. I was bummed to learn, however, that Tim Berners-Lee stopped caring a while ago whether "Web" was capitalized. If the guy who invented the bloody thing doesn't care, why should we? But, as I said, authorities be damned! It's still a Web site to me. Harrumph!

And we all know gifs are pronounced "jifs," right? Their creator says so, damn it!

 

This sentence is taken from a story in today's Washington Post: “Christians are tired of what’s going on — they want a leader with strong faith,” she said that night, and now she was home with her husband, Mike, 57, saying something else that explains the deep-rooted appeal of the famed neurosurgeon, even as some recent polls show his popularity slipping" I'm curious about the dash in this first section. Why not a period after the word on and breaking the opening quote into two sentences?

The dash helps to indicate that the two thoughts are intimately related, and it's less stodgy than a semicolon, which would have performed the same function (and who talks in semicolons?). I also think a period might have misrepresented the cadence of the woman's speech, indicating a pause between the two thoughts that, presumably, the writer did not hear.

This isn't a science, of course -- some writers and editors would have used two sentences.

 

Didn't Bugs Bunny play for them? My is the Duluth Eskimos, who were a traveling team.

They took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

 

What's the Post guideline on dashes and hyphens, and why? I feel like I've seen both double hyphens and em-dashes for punctuation like the following--which are correct? And do you use en-dashes at all? Thanks!

It's possible you've seen double hyphens in content that didn't get coded correctly. We're working on multiple publishing and word-processing platforms, and so those things happen. But they really should be em dashes.

We do not use en dashes. I don't think any newspaper or news site does; that's something you see in books and academic papers, maybe some highfalutin' magazines.

 

I think I know where you'll stand on this, Bill, but I feel the need for validation. An AP Stylebook "Ask the Editor" entry from a couple of days ago recommends "town hall-style meeting" over "town-hall-style meeting." Seems totally illogical to me. And how about "town-hall meeting" vs. "town hall meeting"? (Not that I'm entirely sure what the difference is between a town-hall meeting and just a plain old meeting.)

Ugh. If you're going to hyphenate the modifier, you have to hyphenate the whole modifier. With a three-word modifier, that means two hyphens, unless part of the modifier is a proper noun (a White House-style executive mansion).

That holds true even if, like The Washington Post, you're all like cazh and stuff about hyphens in general. I'd hyphenate "town-hall meeting" in my own writing, but at work it's "town hall meeting." Once "town hall" becomes part of a longer modifier, though, you have to do "town-hall-style meeting."

 

Hi, Bill. How do you handle hyphenated words in an up-style heading? For instance, would you write "How the Long-Term Care Plan Works" or "How the Long-term Care Plan Works"?

Cap the T. It's a visual thing.

 

Our shop uses AP style, and when it comes to numbers the general rule is "spell out numbers from one to nine; use numerals for larger numbers. In a paragraph that contains many numbers, or on a page with lots of numbers large and small, this rule can have the reader bouncing between words and numerals, e.g., "From six to 12 months..." In small doses this isn't a problem. Would you move to go to numerals entirely in certain cases? - DLS

The Post stylebook used to prescribe just that -- for lists of three numbers or more, as I recall -- but I deleted the rule. I'm open to the idea that I was wrong, but at some point I think you just have to embrace the arbitrariness of it all.

One of the big copy-editing battles when I wrote my books was to persuade the publisher to let me write, say, 2,000 rather than "two thousand." 

 

In addition to the misuse of then and than in comment sections, I frequently see rediculous for ridiculous, typically written by someone whose comment makes it clear he or she is a political or social conservative. It made me wonder whether the writers don't know how to spell ridiculous or whether this is a code word, such as the proverbial "dog whistle." Anyone else notice the proliferation of rediculous and have any theories?

I think there are a lot of commonly misspelled words in such comments.

 

How about "townhall-style meeting"?

That would be correct if you spelled town hall as one word.

(I wouldn't recommend spelling town hall as one word.)

 

I frequently hear people say "I would like to congratulate so-and-so ​for such-and-such" but they never do it. If they really wanted to congratulate someone, shouldn't they say "I congratulate so-and-so ​for such-and-such"? Do they think verbosity adds gravitas? Which do you prefer? I would like to thank you in advance for answering my question, and I will. Thank you.

That's just one of those things. I take a lot of things literally, but I (would) stop short of picking that construction apart.

 

Do you know when slashes were first used in dates - like 12/1/15? I have a typed document that was supposedly dated and filed with the local recorder's office in 1923 and it includes dates like 4/30/22. It looks odd in a document that old and makes me think the document was later retyped. Internet searches have been no help in figuring this out.

My guess would be that the practice dates to well earlier than 1922.

 

I think you can have an argument about the style of using email, website, and others, but the trend of jamming words together can also lead to true grammatical errors, like the constant current misuse of "everyday" for "every day."

Truethat.

 

I think I remember reading a few years ago some writers -- particularly Jack Shafer -- being absolutely gleeful that the Post was cutting its copy editing staff. Can you talk about what's happened since then? Did Bezos' "runway" mean a few more copy editors? Or have your ranks held steady--or God forbid, been cut? How do you measure the copy desk's success? When you look at a day's newspaper, how do you know the staff is at the top of their game? How do you detect problems that need correction?

Is this Mr. Richard Feder of Fort Lee, New Jersey?

I believe we have added a copy-editing position or three under the new ownership. We've certainly stemmed the decline in the ranks.

One reality of copy editing -- and, frankly, one of the things I like about it -- is that we're too busy doing the actual work to spend much time analyzing how we did. A desk, and certainly an individual editor, is likely to have a sense of feeling really on top of things some days or weeks and having slumps on other days or weeks. Back when we had separate desks for separate sections, I went from running the Business copy desk to running the National copy desk and I managed to refer to Vermont as New Hampshire twice in the space of a week. (One had Howard Dean, the other had the big primary.) Yeah, that was a slump.

Now that so much Post "content" is digital, there really is a fire hose of work. We're working to ensure that the blogs get more attention, ideally as much attention as the print edition. 

 

This is not a grammar question but I am using this opportunity to express a pet peeve. I frequently hear this expression in morning newscasts to describe an event that occurred overnight. As someone who worked overnight shifts in the media, I find it presumptious that the newscaster would assume that every viewer was asleep at that time. Why not just say overnight?

Too often they turn "overnight" into a noun and talk about what happened "in the overnight."

But yes. And didn't you love finding voice-mail messages at work from people who assume "work number" always means "daytime number"?

I could go off on a sociological rant here (and I have!) about otherness. The TV-news people are trying to personalize their product, but in doing so they make assumptions about what is normal, and they risk alienating those who don't fall into that picture of normality. 

As a child-free bike commuter living on Capitol Hill, for instance, I bristle a little at breezy references to how I'm supposed to be dreading all that Beltway traffic with a car full of kids or whatever. And I'm a middle-aged white male native American without disabilities, so I can only imagine how those truly outside the statistical norms must feel.

 

That's scary, considering how grammar is ignored social media these days. Do you think that the way people write on instagram, facebook, etc. will affect formal writing style?

I'm not one of those "omg texting kids rite bad" alarmists. I just think there's an interesting nexus where the Internet itself hastened language change when it comes to Internet terms.

And the champions of email and website are no doubt upset we didn't go all the way and lowercase Internet.

 

 

...followed by an immediate introduction. Just once I'd like to see someone sit down after saying that that.

"... so what the hell am I doing here at the mike? I mean mick."

 

Who do you consider to be the best speaker of English among the 2016 Presidential candidates in each party?

That's an interesting question. I can't say I've given it any thought. 

 

You're not the only one. I still prefer Web site and e-mail. I also preferred under way to underway.

I started to explore changing Post style on underway (it's been that way a long time) and was surprised to see how many authorities accept the one-word form, so that was that.

 

Does the WP permit the use of "although" as a conjunctive adverb, as interchangeable with "however"? Or is it strictly a subordinating conjunction, heralding an adverbial clause?

It's certainly not interchangeable with "however."

 

How about "BernersLee"?

That would show him!

 

I can relate to that. I shop small, local stores and despise Wal-Mart/Walmart. I stopped watching a particular morning newscast after the anchor began a story by stating "Let's face it. Everybody shops at Walmart!"

New motto: Everybody isn't everybody.

 

That seems superfluous; why not just say Best Speaker?

Careful now!

 

Thank you again for joining me. 

If all goes according to plan, we'll meet again in a new year from a new building.

Jan. 5, I believe. See you then!

 

 

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: