Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh

Nov 05, 2013

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.

Thank you for joining me. What's on your mind? Ready to boldly split an infinitive or two? 

I'd like to kick things off with a modest proposal. Not long ago, we published a correction because a story had referred to the Natural Resources Defense Council as the National Resources Defense Council. 

Again. That was the fourth such correction in the past two years. And it gets worse. Looking at the Nexis database, I find that The Washington Post has committed that error 105 times in print, plus a few more in blogs and online chats. Surely there were more that came before 1977 and didn't get archived. We committed the error at least once in all but three years. On two occasions, we printed the error twice on the same day. 

Clearly, something needs to be done. So I hereby call on the Natural Resources Defense Council: 

Please change your name already.



Why didn't you specify WHICH 2 p.m. you would be holding this webinar?

You know how chauvinistic we (us? No, we ...) Eastern-establishment types can be.


What style book does the Post use? Can you summarize why that style was chosen over the alternatives?

The Post uses the Post stylebook.

Once upon a time you could buy a copy of your own. (Well, you still can, but it will be out of date and possibly yellow and tattered.) For a few decades now, the stylebook has existed only on our internal computer system. 

The decision predates me by quite a while, so I can't speak to why we didn't just use the Associated Press's stylebook, the way most newspapers do. (Fun fact: If we did use the AP stylebook, I would have typed Press' rather than Press's.) For what it's worth, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today also have their own stylebooks. The big boys like to make their own rules. 


A colleague frequently starts a sentence with the word "Although," as in, "Although you can travel there by bus, travel by car is more efficient." I usually rewrite it to say "You can travel there by bus, but travel by car is more efficient." Is this preferable? Thank you.

What would be the problem with "although" there?

Is there a summary somewhere of changes in English use for the past 50 years?

Hm. Plenty of books, including mine, survey the topic, but I don't know of any that specifically catalogue change. That would be a difficult mission, because it's a moving target. 

(Fun fact: If The Post used AP style, I would have typed catalog instead of catalogue.)


isn't the plural of "curriculum" , "curricula"? How do you feel about "impact" as a verb--a true pet peeve of mine. Tthanks. Ellen

Either curriculums or curricula is fine. In modern American English, it's not a bad idea to skip the Latin and consider such words part of our language. Stadiums and curriculums, not stadia and curricula. 

Impact as a verb is well established, but choosy writers choose to avoid it, at least in the non-dental sense, because it's tainted. It's biz-speak and ad-speak. So your wisdom teeth can be impacted, but sequestration affects the economy. Or has an impact on the economy. (Too many overzealous editors avoid the noun because the verb is tainted. The noun is just fine.)

Impacted. Impactful. Impactfully. It's not just that people have turned a perfectly serviceable noun into a verb and adjective and adverb when we've long had words that are, to my mind, a better fit (is nothing effective anymore?), it's that people seem to be tripping over themselves to shoehorn it in anywhere they can. The phenomenon has reached fingernails-on-a-blackboard levels. Please make it stop. (Related: When did healthful replace healthy? Hate that, too.)

More on (moron?) impact's impact. Yeah -- trend-speak. Tainted.

I think you have the healthful story backward, though. (Trend-speak would be narrative instead of story.)

Traditionally, you ate healthful food to stay healthy. But healthy is now more common for both usages. I used to object that a healthy appetite is not healthful, but I've given up. 


Do you ride Shank's mare or Shanks' mare?

That depends on whether the mare belongs to Shank or to Shanks.

(Fun fact: Whereas AP style for a mare belonging to Shanks would be Shanks' mare, Washington Post style would be Shanks's mare.)


Hi Bill -- what are the most common writing mistakes you deal with on the copy desk -- punctuation? grammar? or maybe something else?

Aside from "National Resources Defense Council," you mean?

That's a good question, and I'm not sure I have an answer. Punctuation might be first. We move a lot of commas and insert/delete a lot of hyphens.

at the end of the day ... sooner rather than later ... Please Stop. Thank you.

I think "at the end of the day" peaked five years or so ago. Or maybe I've become immune.

And I dream of hearing "Sooner rather than later." Too often it's  "sooner than later."

In your "About his topic", did you mean to say, "Could you really NOT care less . . . "?

That's a joke, son! :-)

I confess to forming snap (unfavorable) judgments about people who make grammar or spelling errors -- I usually take it to signal a lack of education, a lack of intelligence, or at the very least a lack of attention to detail. (Flame away, commenters, but it's true that that's the knee-jerk assumption it provokes...) But I've also come to realize that that judgment can be terribly unfair -- my significant other is a terrible speller, but it turns out that's largely a function of long-undiagnosed dyslexia. How does one notice grammar mistakes without turning into the dreaded "grammar police" and assuming that the "lawbreaking" is deliberate?

Taking bad grammar personally does seem to be part of the stickler syndrome. I fight it, too, as I discuss in "Yes I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk."

You seem to be on the right track.


Why do people put apostrophes in everything? I'm staying at a hotel and just passed a door with a sign that says "Employee's Only" - really? This seems to be one of the biggest grammar issues that I see all the time and it drives me crazy! Or should I say - it drive's me crazy!

That would be the greengrocer's apostrophe. You would enjoy Eats, Shoots and Leaves, if you're one of the four people who haven't already bought it. 

What I want most for the English language are singular personal pronouns that are gender-neutral. Style guides have long advised using "he" and "his," when the gender of the person isn't known, and that treats maleness as a default, as though women are alien things. Some writers alternatively use male and female pronouns a single paragraph when referring to a hypothetical individual. My own solution has been to use only plural pronouns in such situations, but that isn't satisfactory either. What approach would you suggest?

I opt for plural wherever possible.

It's natural, and well established in speech and informal writing, to use what we geeks call "the singular they" in such cases. Each student should bring their book.

For now, at least, that looks wrong to enough people that it might not be a great idea in more formal writing, but I'd wave a magic wand to make it uncontroversial if I could. The once-standard default to masculine looks sexist. The affirmative-action default to feminine looks patronizing. Alternating the two is silly and confusing. Inventing a new word isn't going to happen (stop trying to make it happen!).

Where do you come out on the use of "they" to refer to a single entity, e.g., Congress? Has it reached the point of acceptability, or even respectability, to use this form? I cringe a bit when I hear it but it seems to be ubiquitous.

That would be correct in British English (Oliver's Army are on their way!) and perfectly natural in speech, but, yeah, we don't do that in edited written American English. 

In speech, if I wanted to talk about the baked goods at Wegmans, I would never refer to the store as it. The they refers to an implied group of employees -- "I like Wegmans; they have great pastries and bread."


Tune in to the post game show of any British soccer match, and the losing manager will always say, "yes, but at the end of the day..." It's holding on firm across the ocean.

And do British tennis announcers have to greet every victory with "HE'S DONE IT" or "SHE'S DONE IT"?


What to do when a sentence includes "that" phrases that seem to be independent clauses that would normally be separated by a comma, such as the following: "The robbery victim told the police that he came to the story to purchase toilet paper and that he did notice anything strange about the man sitting by the door." Would you put a comma before the "and." I would not but many do.

I'd skip that comma, and technically it's not needed, but sometimes one is appropriate just to give the reader a chance to catch his/her/his or her/their/madeupword breath.

My employer requires us to reserve the usage of "while" and "since" for sentences when a sense of time is required. When making a comparison, we do not use "while," we use "though" or "although." The same goes for "since" -- if it is not in the temporal sense, we use "because." What are your thoughts on this? As a young person who is a crotchety old grammarian at heart, I love this rule and wince when I see the "incorrect" usage.

I have no problem with using "while" and "since" in those senses unless there's a chance of confusion. Sometimes there is. 

The Post, like most newspapers, always places a comma before because if the clause before and after are independent clauses. Is it because nearly every "because" clause is an aside or have editors concluded that because had become a conjunction. For example: "The Virginia election may be viewed a referendum on Obamacare, because the Macker and the Cooch have campaigned extensively on the issue." Seems like the ending phrase is rather central to the meaning of the sentence and no comma would be needed.

I think that example works either way, but in my experience we (us? No, we ...) copy editors tend to reflexively take out commas before because when we shouldn't.

"She didn't go out with him because he's only 4-foot-9."

Okay, so why did she go out with him? 

"She didn't go out with him, because he's only 4-foot-9."

That's better.

(Fun fact: If The Post used AP style, I'd have typed OK rather than okay.)

One that drives me crazy: preventative instead of preventive. Is the former officially acceptable now?

Both are fine. I prefer the shorter one, but only because it's shorter.


There was a discussion in Weingarten's chat about whether it is correct to write "Voters Guide" or "Voters' Guide." I confess I always use a possessive apostrophe, but apparently that's not correct. Can you explain the rule? And by the way, that's why I'm not a grammar snob - there's always a rule you aren't aware of, no matter how diligent you've been.

Bill, please help me to understand the use of the possessive apostrophe. I'm thinking of cases like the Post's "Voters Guide" or "men's room." Why wouldn't the word "voters" be possessive? Why are restrooms then possessive? I never know whether to write Mother's day, Mothers' day, or plain Mothers day. Please help! Thank you!

You could go either way on voters guide and teachers union and farmers market, but newspaper style tends to look at voters as descriptive rather than possessive. It's a guide for voters, not a guide belonging to voters, and so no apostrophe. 

Men's room is another matter. Men is already plural, and so there is no mens, except in menswear, which just sort of evolved just because. Mother's Day is another just-because. It's not for just one mother, but that's where the apostrophe landed. Sometimes precedent overrides logic.



I'd write: "Students should bring their own books."

Not the best example, but sure. As I said, I opt for plural when I can. But sometimes it's not an option. 

I think some people have an inborn talent for spelling. Misspelled words just leap off the page (or screen) and slap me in the face. It is a good skill for me to have in administrative work, but I'm not sure it can be taught to everyone.

Check this out.



Is it okay to set off a restrictive appositive with commas?

Confession: I'm horrible at technical grammar terminology. I was pretty sure I knew what you were talking about, but I had to look up the term to be sure.

Now then: The short answer is no. The standard copy-editor joke is that leaving a comma out of "his wife Mary" makes the guy you're talking about a bigamist.

An appositive is a word or phrase that defines the word or phrase it follows, and a restrictive (or essential) one is one that is, well, essential to the meaning.

So if, say, Bill is not a bigamist, "his wife" means precisely the same thing as "his wife, Barb." If he is a bigamist or polygamist, the non-comma-ized "his wife Mary" means his wife Barb as opposed to his wife  Nicolette or his wife Margene.

If I may segue into one of my pet peeves for a moment, I'd like to point out that quotation marks tend to lead people astray. We're taught that quotes are introduced with commas, and so we tend to reflexively type a comma before every open-quote mark, and so we see things like the movie, "Rocky" -- which would technically mean that "Rocky" was the only movie ever made. That would be a restrictive appositive, and so you should skip the comma: the movie "Rocky." An exception would be if you had already talked about a movie and you were elaborating on which movie it was. We saw a movie last night. The movie, "Rocky," was pretty good.

web site ... how did that become one word? health care ... ditto gift ... how did it become a verb? timely ... how did it become "soon"? Am I old?

I'm on record as resisting website, but it's essentially like writing congressman rather than Congress man. The New York Times just gave in on that one, and on email, which bothers me more. 


Since when did "importantly" become a word????

Why wouldn't it be a word?

There is a minor picky-about-the-language-biz controversy over whether to write "More important" or "More importantly" in prefacing a statement. I followed the conventional wisdom and used "important" for a long time, but a strong argument can be made for "importantly," and I lean that way now. 

Most grammar books dodge the vexing question of what is sometimes called the "double possessive" (typically "of" plus a possessive form, as in "Joe is a friend of Jill's," "he is a friend of hers," "Jill is a friend of mine"). The double possessive seems pointless and resists diagramming--and, of course, it is simpler to say "Jill is my friend"--but the practice persists even among the articulate. Can it be justified grammatically? I hope you can help a fan of yours! :)

You do see conflicting advice. I think the answer is to use the double possessive only when it would sound funny not to use it. "A friend of me"? No. "A friend of Jill"? Probably not. 

What is with "ain't" these days?

Is that you, Jerry Seinfeld?


I've noticed that notoriety is thrown about as a synonym for fame in a positive sense. Is this a trend or just a mistake? On that same note, why do I receive letters with the salutation "Dear Full Name?" It seems awkward to me.

There might be a touch of tongue-in-cheek when you see notoriety that way. Sometimes. 

I think "Dear Bill Walsh" rather than "Dear Bill" or "Dear Mr. Walsh" is largely a consequence of computer-generated missives. But it might also be a way to get around questions of formality. Would I be offended by first name only? Am I a "Dr."? Is a woman Mrs. or Miss or Ms.?

I have a hard time with "hopefully." I know you're not supposed to start a sentence with it, but how do you rewrite something that comes in looking like this: "Hopefully, the records are all together in one place" ? Thanks!

Chalk that up as a rule-that-isn't. Sticklers have long objected to the use of hopefully to mean anything but "in a hopeful manner." Hopefully, she checked the winning lottery numbers. But it can also be a sentence adverb, just like clearly and sadly and curiouslyHopefully I will win the lottery.

AP recently added a stylebook entry specifying that the disputed usage is fine.


Is there anything to be done about the cancerous spread of the use of "So..." to begin all responses to interviewer's questions in the electronic media? I have written to a number of offenders--mostly Science Friday experts--but to no avail; it is still maddeningly pervasive. Please help.

Such tics come and go, and they can be contagious.

I'm more bothered by the "is, is" phenomenon. The thing is, that bothers me has become The thing is, is that bothers me. You even see more than two ises sometimes.

Oh, mighty Isis!

Is there a dictionary of choice for the Post? I usually go with the Webster's, but then find out someone swears by American Heritage, which may or may not allow alternate or even preferred spellings.

Keep in mind that "Webster's" is used by more than one publisher. Merriam-Webster is the rightful heir to the name, but, as it happens, The Post, like most all U.S. papers, uses a different Webster's, Webster's New World College Editions. 

I turn to American Heritage to settle usage questions, but not for spelling or capitalization or punctuation. It has great usage notes.


Thank you. "It's not a word" has never been a valid argument. Well, maybe it's true that frmel isn't a word. But still.

Good thing this chat is anonymous. You don't want the frmel-American community mad at you.


I'm editing copy that includes the title of a TV program titled "Christmas 'Round the World." Should the "R" in "'Round" be capitalized, since technically, the missing "A" is the first letter of the word?

One meaning of round is around. So I'd have gone with no apostrophe. As for capitalization if you do use the apostrophe, that's more a matter of visual style -- either choice would be fine. 

I've been an editor and writer for over 20 years. My husband does quite a lot of volunteer work and often asks me to edit articles and letters he has written for his organizations. I'm happy to help, but he then proceeds to argue with me about every single one of my edits, which makes me cranky (my clients never argue with me). (He also insists on using two spaces after a period, which also makes me cranky.) How can we resolve this situation?

How sharp is your red pencil?


How does one get into copy editing as a profession? If, say, one has no professional experience in any sort of job-description way. I've heard of taking classes remotely via websites like media bistro, and I've also heard about quasi-appreticing with copy editors. Thanks!

There are courses out there. Remember, though, that it's a shrinking profession with a huge pool of laid-off workers to compete with. You could get lucky, or not. 

... don't always end in 'ly.' The most interesting example is 'hard,' add the 'ly' and it means the opposite.

Yep. I drive fast, not "quickly."

And although adverbs ending in "-ly" don't, as a matter of style, take hyphens in compound modifiers, that doesn't mean you'd take the hyphen out of "family-run business."

Do you have any guidance on hyphens for multiple adjectives? I am about to write a paper on post Unification German identity and have no idea where to place a hyphen. Word advises post-Unification.

My new book has an entire manifesto on the subject! Word is correct in that case.

The redundancy "close proximity (close closeness)" sends me up a wall, yet I see it used even by those who should know better. Am I wrong?

I don't tend to be bothered by mild redundancy as much as some of my fellow sticklers are. And isn't some proximity closer than others?

"ALTHOUGH" is far superior to "DESPITE THE FACT THAT". Thank you for letting me vent.

Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter!

But I'm not of the mind that the fact that is always bad. Overzealous copy editors tend to edit the phrase down to that, which strikes me as staccato and hard to read. 


I have to fight every instinct possible not to correct "her and I," "me and him", etc. regardless of whether I even know the person speaking. When did we lose the war on pronouns?

This seems to be my chatters' biggest concern. I guess all I can say is that English doesn't make things easy when it comes to case. Even we (us? No, we ...) grammar geeks have to stop and think about it sometimes.

Add to that the mom/schoolmarm correction -- "Tommy and I, not me and Tommy" -- and it's not hard to see why those less into all this can get hopelessly lost.


Apologies for the banal question, but could you explain the Post's editorial stance on the serial comma?

I have no fun fact for this one: The Post is with AP there. It's a newspaper thing, for whatever reason -- we've no doubt squeezed in hundreds of thousands of extra words over the centuries by leaving the comma out of red, white and blue and the like.

We do use the serial comma if one item in a series contains a conjunction, or if a sentence would just seem too unwieldy otherwise. The departments of State, Defense, and Health and Human Services.

Christian Schoon wants to know: how to punctuate names of ships in spoken dialogue in a novel, and where to put the final period. "Zenn Scarlett stowed away aboard the Indra-powered starliner 'Helen of Troy'." Or, use double quotes or italics?

Newspaper style would be to let the capital letters to the work. In a more formal publication, italics might be appropriate. Quotation marks seem ill advised. 

Does the Post have anyone even look at maps and graphics before they go into print? And what about the checking of stated locations in text? Is the baseball stadium on the Southwest Waterfront? Is everything east of the Anacostia just labeled "Anacostia"? Are there or are there not two Dakotas?

There's a time crunch, as with all our work, and it doesn't help that maps and graphics are on paper whereas everything else is on computers. But I'd like to see us do better.

My wife, as the blogger of record for the ballpark neighborhood, might agree with you on the common confusion with Southwest, and not just on maps. 

difference between colon and semi-colon?

Big difference. A colon (:) signifies that what comes before it is setting the stage for what's coming after it.

A semicolon (;) is used to fuse together two intimately related sentences or to act as a supercomma in a series in which at least one item contains a comma.

People often use a colon to break up a sentence that would work just fine without one. The players are: Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. Save it for something like Three players are involved: Nadal, Djokovic and Federer.


Data is actually a plural term, but is accepted use as a singular in IT and electronic applications, and is probably considered a singular in common usage by most non technical people. But many style books still prefer the plural use. Is it right to go against the style book, as this term will surely become a plural in time, except for the most narrow of scientific uses. For instance, saying data were collected, or data are provided bt - are right, but no longer sound natural

I'd like to see the plural reserved for very technical statistical work, for places where you'd ever talk about "a datum." We're almost there.

Thank you for the answer on the possessive apostrophe. So why not say "men room" because the room is for men, not possessed by men? Obviously it sounds weird to the ear, but would it be right?

Good observation. The already-plural thing forces our hand. So it's women's tennis, obviously, but different publications have different styles on girls softball vs. girls' softball.

Having learned to type on a manual typewriter, using a double space after a period is engrained in me so that it would be easier to decide to stop breathing than to use only one space.

I think you've explained how the two-space thing is eventually going to, uh, die.

I'm a magazine editor, and often encounter URLs for our freelance authors' sites in copy. Many of these authors insist we write it exactly as do they (with curious internal caps). I refuse; our URL style is all lower case. Am I, in your opinion, justified in my refusal?

You're on solid ground. I use all lowercase for URLs greated as URLs but proper-noun capitalization for names that just happen to be URLs. So but

One caveat: Caps matter after a slash. So you might be stuck with, say,

I always thought shanks was a reference to shin-bones. Therefore, shanks' mare would be correct.

Guess I'm not up on my mares. If that's the case, you're right. 

What do you think of the trend of remote copy desks? i.e. an editor in bangor, maine, editing stories for the portland paper.

It's a bad trend. Money-driven, of course, like so many bad trends in this business.

This has always bugged me: Since 'troop' is a group term, it's valid to say "The general sent some tropps to the enemy's flank," but when a reporter says "12 troops were injured in the fighting" it's being used as a singular term.

"Troops" is a crutch, but sometimes a needed one. "Soldiers" means Army, so you can't use that if Marines and Navy and Air Force personnel are involved, and "service members" is just too long. 

Why doesn't the Post use accents and other diacritical remarks for foreign words? Without them, readers don't know how to pronounce the names of, say, French wines they read about in the Food section. Surely it's not a matter of fonts. Modern typesetting software can easily handle accents.

Our relationship with accent marks is complicated, and our modern typesetting software isn't as modern as we'd like. 

Thank you for all the great questions. Let's meet again in a month. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

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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