Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh

Jan 07, 2014

Could you literally care less about the finer points of the language? Ever wonder why the Post follows the conventions it follows? Join author and Post copy editor Bill Walsh to discuss not only grammar but also punctuation, capitalization, spelling, word choice, and the other nuts and bolts of good writing.


I've long been a stickler for following conventional capitalization in proper nouns even if logos are all lowercase or all caps or otherwise decoratively punctuated. I don't care that your running shoes say "adidas"; when I write about them, I will write Adidas. NIKE is Nike. 

Yes, the lowercase conceit is part of Adidas's identity. But so is the typeface the logo is written in. So is that weird marijuana-leaf logo. We can't replicate all these things in print, and so we stick to some basic rules. As you learned in second grade, proper nouns are capitalized. 

I'm a bit more extremist on the subject than a lot of people are, so I was heartened to read a blog post by someone even more extreme than I.

At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow argued for writing Ipod instead of iPod, for writing Paypal instead of PayPal. I happen to think PayPal is fine because "pal" is a word. I don't love "iPod," but I allow the delayed capitalization the same way I do with de Gaulle and van Gogh. But I'd write IPod at the beginning of a sentence, the same way I'd write De Gaulle. And I spell the company Qinetiq even though it decoratively caps both Q's. 

Thoughts? Other topics? Let's go. 

In a Capital Weather Gang post this week, a cold-weather tip suggested that people wear mittens because, unlike gloves, they keep cold air from getting "between your fingers." A commenter suggested that since you have four fingers, it should have read "among your fingers." I disagree, because the context is the space between fingers, and each space is adjacent to only the two fingers on either side of it. What is your call?

Say "among your fingers" out loud. Don't you want to punch yourself? 

The etymologist knows the difference.


What is the proper punctuation for the possessive of a proper noun ending in the letter 's', Adams' or Adams's? My spell checker suggests that the latter is incorrectly spelled, but that could be just because it doesn't know the Adams.

Either can be correct; it's a matter of style. Most newspapers use Associated Press style and would write Adams'. The Post would write Adams's, as would most publications more formal than newspapers. 

I sometimes see copy editors new to The Post's ways trip up and write the United States's or Goodwill Industries's. Those are tricky in-between cases where the words are plural but the entities are singular: You'd use a singular verb, but you'd use the apostrophe without the s in recognition of the plural nature of States and Industries.

I am so glad I saw this chat for today! This headline was in the WaPo on January 2, and I think the headline and word choices are wrong. "The worst victims of Christian persecution? Look beyond America, author says." The article is about Christians who are victims of persecution, but the headline makes it sound like Christians are persecuting other people. "Worst" seems to me like the wrong choice of an adjective. How are these victims "worst" and are there "better" or "best" victims? I know you have space limits, but this strikes me as a poorly written headline, and I hope you can parse the wording for me.

You're right about "Christian persecution," of course. And, yes, I've made the crack before that I'm one of history's worst serial killers. Because I haven't killed anybody. 

I'm just curious why the Post does not adopt the AP Style Guide practice of deleting the hyphen in "e-mail"? Think of the time saved and productivity improved!

We don't let the AP push us around. But it's bound to happen eventually. I've been rather outspoken about "email" being a first-of-its-kind mutation, so I'm a little biased. 

I am having terrible trouble with the past tense of "Lay" when used in the past progressive. Is it: I was lying on the bed. or I was laying on the bed. ? I am further confused when using "lay" ("lie"??) with a direct object. So: Yesterday, I lay down the book, or Yesterday, I laid down the book? Help!

The tricky part is that "lay" is the past tense of "lie." So you lie on the bed, and then later you would say "I lay on the bed," not "I lied on the bed." But after you lay down the book, you would say you laid down the book. 

Is acronym one of those words that has been misused for so long that it is now considered acceptable to refer to any abbreviation as an acronym? I was taught that only those abbreviations that formed another word could be labeled as such. But on a regular basis I read (including in the Post!) and hear abbreviations like FDA or NSA referred to as acronyms. Drives me crazy!

Your craziness isn't crazy. NASA is an acronym, because it's pronounced as a word. Eff dee ay and en ess ay are abbreviations. NASA, FDA and NSA could all be called initialisms.

Some acronyms get my goat because they aren't what I'd call "true" acronyms, and therefore I bristle at giving them the all-caps treatment. MARC trains are Maryland Rail Commuter trains. So, what does the A stand for? The Post writes MARC, but I'd prefer Marc. Same with the START pact. Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty spells SART. But that one's also kind of grandfathered in.

Microsoft Word 2003 and 2013 both wrongly 'correct' its and it's. How can someone be notified that it is in error?

There are limits to the artificial intelligence, as it were, that software developers use. In a similar vein, The Post's publishing system is forever breaking iPhone at the end of a line between the iP and the hone.

Does that bug the entomologist?

Word! As the kids say. Or at least as the kids said 20 years ago. 

"Could you literally care less about the finer points of the language?" Yes, I could indeed care less. So I ask you to consider the meaning of "literally" and judge whether it used appropriately here on this site,

Would a smiley face have helped? :-)

I am so confused about when the word "eponymous" is appropriate to use: I was always told that you use eponymous to describe the person that gives his or her name to something. But lately I've seen a handful of articles online using "eponymous" to refer to the thing that bears the person's name. So which is it? Or have both finally become acceptable?

It works either way. Think of it as meaning "with the same name as." 

Only if you were laying eggs there.

At the risk of repeating myself, I have to admit that I never use "lie" correctly in civilian life. It's not as bad as "among my fingers," but it would still make me a little self-punchy. 

Does your rule for initial caps on the names of companies extend to all other proper nouns? How about names? e. e. cummings? Ke$sha?

E.E. Cummings is an interesting case in that he apparently didn't follow that conceit. So that takes care of that, but I'd go with K.D. Lang and Kesha and Questlove and Bell Hooks. The Post doesn't necessarily agree with me. 

Should they be written MaRC and StART?

This might sound hypocritical, but I would write them that way if the logos looked that way. Otherwise I default to the simplest solution -- Marc, Start. 

The British, by the way, tend to write all acronyms that way. So Nato, not NATO, even though each letter stands for its own word. 

And some publications have a cutoff -- acronyms over four letters or five letters or whatever get only the initial cap. 

A more accurate description would be "between each pair of fingers."

More accurate, but you still might want to make sure your Jhoon Rhee lessons are current. 

What does "its" modify in this sentence (Google or brass?): "With its well-known corporate commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of its operations to zero, Google’s top brass saw investment in the project ... " Contextually, it's Google, but it's being used as a possessive. Isn't it supposed to be the first noun?

And that's what we call a "dangler." Google's top brass isn't the "it" that the writer is trying to refer to. 

There is a trend to put a period outside of quoted content if the quoted material is not the "entire sentence". This just feels so wrong! I was taught that the period always goes inside quotation marks. Agree?

That's the British way, and I guess you could call it a minor trend in Americans' writing. But you're right that the American practice is to always keep the period inside, and I'd agree that it feels -- or at least looks -- wrong. 


If that's the publication's style, sure. 

Hello, my husband and I are having a disagreement. Brief background, I grew up in the US and he grew up in South Africa. We are both native English speakers but he speaks a Commonwealth version (with a lovely accent). He frequently expresses distaste for American English (like saying healthy food rather than healthful food). That's fine, he's entitled to his opinion and I do understand that some people think saying healthy food is incorrect. However, we recently had a disagreement about whether something could even be considered a rule by anyone outside his immediate family. He thinks there is a rule that it is incorrect (or at least not proper) to say "by" rather than "next to" as in "I want to sit by Daddy" rather than "I want to sit next to Daddy". He claims to have been corrected for using by like this in elementary school and his mother backs him up (although she was unable to find a source for it). I on the other hand have never heard of such nonsense. Nor could I find anyone on the entire internet claiming this was a rule. So, have you heard of this?

No offense to DH, but ... I hae never heard of such nonsense. 

In the tech publications I work with (mostly instructional text written by engineers), authors always introduce formulas this way: "Where: X + Y = Z And: L + M = N" Then the paragraph continues. Do you think it's okay in publications like these to not have an independent clause before the colon?

I think so. Because: tech.

Hi, Bill. I've read (and enjoyed) all of your books, and followed your blog even before that, so I know you're qualified to answer this question: Who, in your opinion, are the top three male and female tennis players of all time?

Off-topic! Hello, person who knows me too well. Let's say Federer, Sampras, Laver, Graf, Navratilova, Evert, with Serena and Rafa coming on strong. 

The eponymous person or thing is that after which something is named. The namesake is the person or thing that receives the name. No room for argument, without justifying misuse.

If only I could invoke the "no room for argument" argument! You're no doubt correct in a strict technical sense, but do we really want to ban "The Pretenders' eponymous debut album"? (One of the three greatest albums of all time, to go off topic again.)

In this sentence would you use a plural or a singular verb to go with "a dozen of eggs: There ( Is or are ) a dozen eggs in the basket.

There are a dozen eggs. You're talking about how many eggs, not how many dozens. But I suppose the answer to "How many dozens are there, eggs-wise?" would be "There is one dozen." 

I get increasingly frustrated and turned off by the increasing use of nouns as verbs. In most cases, it strikes as an attempt to sound high-falutin, as in using author for write. Same goes for utilize when use is more compact and just as clear. And then we have people passing off sentence fragments instead of complete sentences, as was the case in a pointless article about Snyder that somehow made it to the front page. Is there any hope for the rest of us?

You must get frustrated and turned off a lot. Some verbings are sillier than others, but nouns have been sprouting verb forms forever, and often they're quite useful. I change "utilize" to "use" sometimes, but not always. And fragments? Just fine. Sometimes overused, often useful. 

Why not?

You'd never be able to stop rock critics' sobbing. 

... that there's no such word as "eggs-wise."

Don't tell Miss Kubelik's suitors. 

E.g., she asked, "What time is it?"


Shouldn't that be?: - More affordable housing

Well, you'd need a hyphen to indicate more affordable rather than more housing :-). But ... the assumption is that other housing is unaffordable. Affordability isn't an absolute, so I understand your point, but the term is the term. 

Shouldn't it be "The Pretenders' NAMESAKE debut album"? (My emphasis)

You're free to say that. (I'm tempted to add "Not me, baby -- I'm too precious ...")

This question came up a few months ago and you defended the use of older than me over older than I (am). Why is the former incorrect? If you complete the first use to its logical conclusion it would be "older than me am" which IS incorrect. The same would apply to words such as he/him, her/she, etc. For example, he is taller than she (is). If you prefer he is taller than her, why?

I don't have the technical grammar explanation sketched out, but do we really want to insist on "Federer? Nadal is far better than he"?

The new year is cause for celebration in many respects, but for me a big part of it is the ability to leave references to "last summer" and the like in stories without calling the writer to determine whether the meaning was the most recent summer or summer of last year. By my figuring, it means the former 57 percent of the time and the latter 43 percent of the time. 

The solution: "Federer? Nadal is far better than he IS" (my emphasis).

Yes, you could say that, but I don't think it's the only way to say it. 

Ha! That's all.

I'll be here all week ...

When invited to conjugate, they invariably decline.

... as will this guy. 

Why not just say, "Federer? Nadal is far better"?

You can almost always write around it, but "How can we write around it?" wasn't the question.

McEnroe comes to mind. "The question! The QUESTION, JERK!" 


I recently stumbled on a word usage in the NY Times referring to the new world chess champion. They described him as the world's top-ranked player ALMOST CONTINUALLY since Jan. 2010. I can see "almost continuously" but not the former. What say you and WaPo?

That is odd. "Almost continuously" would have been better, but it still would have been a bit off. Assuming the facts are available, I'd have said something like "for all but __ weeks."


Also, Nadal is a better chess player than he.

Why does its use seem wrong?

Wake/awake/awaken is fascinating. So many ways to say the same thing. But "woken" definitely falls into the "alt." category. 

I don't have it in front of me, but I think that eponymous debut album was called simply "Pretenders". I don't think they used "The".

I wouldn't cap the "the," but even if I did, I think that would fall within the margin of error. 

I think you could get away with saying that "Will the Wolf Survive?" was an eponymous track on Los Lobos' album "How Will the Wolf Survive?"

Hi Bill- What are your thoughts on a phrase like "diffuse the notion that..."? I ran into this in an article and changed it to "defuse" because the notion in question was a negative one. The author and I fussed over it a bit. She preferred diffuse, but I thought it was problematic b/c its definition of "to spread and scatter widely" could be understood as "broadcast far and wide" or "thin out and weaken." In the end, we just changed it entirely to "allay concerns," but I've seen diffuse used that way often and I'm curious how you see it.

It's a fairly common point of confusion, and I think you're right. The meanings aren't close. 

Please, which form is correct? There's ten boys and girls. Ten boys and girls is there.

There are 10 boys and girls. Ten boys and girls are there. Either is fine. (Was that your question?)

I contend that data is a plural noun, of which the singular is datum. Gene Weingarten contends that datum is archaic and that data can be singular or plural. What is your take?

When was the last time you used "datum" in real life? I'm with Gene. 

ZIP stands for zone improvement program, but we never see all caps; we often never see even the Z capped. Have people forgotten, or is this an exception to the acronym rule?

Some acronyms get so well entrenched they lose the caps. Like radar and scuba.

Lowercasing "zip" seems wrong to me, though. The Post uses Zip with a capital Z; I think AP style is still ZIP. 

Do you have a best go-to source for rules for punctuating lists within a report?

I'm afraid I don't. That becomes a design issue more than a language issue, and I have my opinions. For instance, I hate the use of bullets without periods at the end of each item, even if some items aren't complete sentences. 

But aren't there some people who even argue that the band's name is just "Pretenders"? (question mark outside the quotes, nyaah nyaah)

I don't think that's the case, but there are such cases. Talking Heads, Eurythmics ...

No, it's a namesake track.

You're losing something in this insistence, don't you think? I'm the namesake of a dead football coach, but it's a random coincidence. Kind of different from the Pretenders' "Pretenders."

Is "as such" EVER an appropriate substitute for "therefore"?

I wouldn't call it great writing, but I wouldn't call it wrong. 

Thanks for showing up, everyone! If all goes according to plan, I'll see you again Feb. 4.


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 the new "Yes, I Could Care Less." He tweets about language as @TheSlot.
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