Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh

Jun 03, 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.

Greetings! To kick things off, I have another reason you kids should get off my lawn.

“Inside The Americans finale with Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields,” read the headline on Slate. I sighed, and I tweeted about it. There’s the fetish again. 

That “The” should not be capitalized. Yes, the show is “The Americans.” But that “the” goes with “finale.” It’s the finale of “The Americans,” and you wouldn’t write about the “The Americans” finale, so the standard practice is to simply drop the article in the title. Bart is a “Simpsons” character; you need not call him a “The Simpsons” character.

At some point, apparently, this standard practice -- like the spelling of the shortened form of “microphone” -- got lost. What was a “Tonight Show” appearance in the Carson days is now a “The Tonight Show” appearance, or even a “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” appearance. Titles are sacred. They’re fetishized. Several of my Twitter followers were aghast at the idea that an episode of “The Americans” could be an “Americans” episode.

As Jan Freeman, the former Boston Globe language columnist, put it on Twitter, the rule used to be that you drop the article in something like "Dickens's 'Old Curiosity Shop.' " But, she said, “it's been eroding for decades.”

So, do you have any questions for a The Washington Post editor?


"literally" could care less??? Or did you really MEAN "do you care a lot, so caring less is easy"?

Caring is creepy anyway.


Best three out of five? Best four out of seven? Do people not get the concept "best of [an odd number]"?

You'd think. But I wouldn't mind the redundancy if it helped to remind Roger Federer that he needs to win three (3) sets in Grand Slam matches.




Bill, I haven't been compiling statistics, but I've noticed that there's been an awful lot of quipping in the Post lately. “Do the math yourself, honey” she quipped (May 29, story about the Washington Monument). “First off, I’m glad to be the one,” Oregon coach Mike White quipped (May 28, story about women's softball). '...prompting Brown to quip as he left the event: “Don’t forget about the environmental aspects of today’s announcement.” (May 29, story about Md gov race). Can you tell your writers and editors to knock it off with the quipping? It's an intrinsically silly word, and in any case, if a remark is funny, we don't need to be told that a person 'quipped.' If it's not funny, calling it a quip doesn't help. Remember Elmore Leonard's rule: the only attributional verb you need is 'said.'

Interesting observation. I think you're right.

You know who does a lot of quipping?



What's the possessive for a sports team? My brain can't wrap around this because it's a name but also a plural. Is it the Nationals's lineup, or the Nationals'?

The Nationals' lineup. Plural possessives get only the apostrophe. 

The Post parts with many newspapers by using s's for singular nouns ending in s, so it can cause confusion even in the newsroom.

And team names often get made possessive when they're mere labels. Nationals fans are Nationals fans -- not Nationals' fans.


Bill, I've noticed something troubling - it started with sports coaches in post-game interviews, has spread to sportscasters, and is now making its way into general spoken use. The subjunctive mood is dying. The coach will say "If we don't have Joe McBig, we don't win that game." What he should say is "If we didn't have Joe McBig, we wouldn't have won that game." I'd even accept "If we don't have Joe McBig, we won't win games like that." But you lose all sense of the conditional by just using plain past tense. Have you seen this creeping into print yet?

The present-tense affectation renders the subjunctive mood moot, though, right? Seems as though that's the fad to deplore, if we want to deplore it.

Thankfully, I haven't seen it in print (and I make a point of avoiding listening to sports coaches).

One problem that always trips me up is knowing the correct use of comprise, consist, and constitute. Is there a rule of thumb for knowing when to favor one over the others?

Change them all to "makes up" or "is made up of."

Well, maybe not all, but I prefer that construction. 

Remember that nothing is "comprised of." The whole comprises the parts. That's the one that people most often get wrong.


Hi Bill, I am coming across the usage of "timely" as an adverb, instead of my preferences "promptly," or "in a timely fashion." I find it to be very jarring, and I had not come across it before I began editing government reports. Is this just more creeping businessese, or is there really a long and accepted history of this usage, and I just need to get used to it? Or, is there a subtlety of meaning with this usage that I am just missing? When reading some style entries about this, it strikes me, at best, as being overly mannered.

"Please bring my Negroni timely?" Weird -- I haven't seen/heard that. 

Mmm, Negroni ...


It seems to me that "substitute X for Y" is now often being used (even in the Post) to mean "replace X with Y" rather than the "replace Y with X" I believe it used to mean. This could get confusing if it isn't nipped in the bud. Thanks again for this chat. WpgManCda

Is it deceptively common or deceptively uncommon? Consider it on the radar.

The past tense of SPIT is "SPAT". Present tense is SPITS. Why don't Americans use SPAT or SPITS? When the word SPAT comes up in a sentence, they pause for a moment, and then use the word SPIT as the past tense. Judge Judy says ARE YOU SAYING HE...SPIT ON YOU? Dr Phil says AND YOU STAYED WITH HIM FOR YEARS EVEN THOUGH HE ....SPIT ON YOU AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK? Oprah says BUT WHY DO YOU STAY WITH HIM IF HE .... SPIT ON YOU? Dr Oz says similar stuff. Even chat show hosts, Ellen included, week after week, even though you know they must have had mail about it after the last time they said it.

All three of the major U.S. dictionaries list both "spit" and "spat" as past tense. Two, including Webster's New World (The Post's official dictionary), list "spit" first.


Hi Bill, is there a book you'd recommend as a grammar refresher for someone who sometimes gets intimidated by the grammar police?

Take a look at Grammar Girl's books. They're smart and accessible, and Mignon Fogarty is delightful.


Hello, I admire very much your excellent insights on language and writing, and especially your general approach of committed pragmatism, and recognition of the fact that things change. One exception is your opinion that "their" should become acceptable for ambiguous singulars. To me, pronouns are already the most confusing and difficult part of our language. Sentences with multiple nouns become horrible so quickly. The rules of pronoun agreement are thus crucial to communication--far from simple old-fahioned nun discipline. I prefer the chauvisist "him," or "her" if I want to feminize the noun. As an example of the latter point, I have observed that many modern scholars in the legal field use "her" for "the judge," perhaps to express a progressive sentiment in a traditionally male-dominated field? Whatever the merit of a sentence's "sentiment," the singular pronoun allows it (the sentiment) to be made. So, communicative power--the point of language. But anything but "their," which is truly horrible. Your thoughts?

I'm repeating myself, but generic "his" is sexist and generic "her" is patronizing. The singular "they/them/their" is hardly new, and it's clearly the best among the imperfect solutions. 

Isn't a team name a singular regardless if it ends is "s"? They are only one unit. For instance "The Rolling Stones is the world's greatest rock and roll band".

The Rolling Stones is performing? The Nationals is winning? One unit, but you have to go with the flow and treat plurals as plurals.

There are hard cases, though. Goodwill Industries IS a company, but because "industries" is plural in form you would use only the apostrophe, not the s's.


But remember, it's National's Stadium. In Southwest. #notintendedtobeafactualstatement

The things they have to endure down in JDLand!


This is very common in legal opinions ("the plaintiff timely appealed" or the like). Never seen it elsewhere. Aside--Adverbing adjectives that end in ly is the worst thing that has ever happened in my life. How to adverb "friendly" consumed me for years.



Is the eponymous/namesake distinction dead? It seems to be in the Post.

We have slipped on that one. Thanks for the reminder.

The eponymous one is the original; the namesake is the one taking his/her/THEIR name.


The apple. The pear. I was taught that the first 'the' gets a long 'e' and the second a short one. That differentiation has gone out the window in spoken English. Even on my beloved NPR reporters say 'thuh' oil 'thuh' industry. It is probably too late to correct the damn thing, but I wanted to get it out there just in case no one has noticed.

"Thuh industry" and "thuh apple" do have a bit of a Sylvester Stallone sound to them, don't they? But this strikes me as less of a rule and more of a thing that our ears and tongues work out for us.


Although it strikes ear as awful, I've frequently seen the use of "timely" in formal legalese -- such as tax returns being timely filed. the whole thing makes one want for a Negroni.

Maybe just go for the gin part, straight from the bottle. 


Is it a style rule at the Post to use "Meantime" instead of "Meanwhile" at the beginning of sentences? I've always understood the correct usage to be either "In the meantime" or "Meanwhile" but not "Meantime" by itself. It's jarring to me every time I read it, and sounds overly colloquial to me to be in a newspaper of record, but I've seen it often enough in the Post to think it's your rule.

Yes: Meanwhile, or in the meantime. It's not just us.

You find it jarring that sentences never begin with "Meantime"? Wow. You must work in local TV news.


I find that players who say something like “I should've passed” in a post-game locker-room interview often get quoted in the sports pages as having said “I should of passed”. Do the sportswriters really not know any better or are they trying to make the players look like illiterate buffoons? I also hear hockey play-by-play announcers saying things like "he was the benefactor of a great pass from Gretzky" when they clearly mean "beneficiary". End of rant. WpgManCda

I'm inclined to think it's fairly likely that an athlete said "should of," but I think a reporter transcribing such a quote needs to give the athlete the benefit of the doubt on such a sound-alike.


What is this Buckeye to do when talking about my alma mater?

I ignore such affectations and just treat Ohio State University the same as the other state universities.

But even if you do accept The Ohio State University, you have to realize that the "the" goes with "student," and therefore is down, in something like "She was rooming with the Ohio State University student when he snapped and went on a shooting spree in Ann Arbor."


No, singular they is terrible. Please reconsider.

I'm a conservative on this one; trust me. Most of the linguists and others smarter than I see no room for debate and no reason to dither.




Speaking of my conservatism, this just in from Christian Wilke on Twitter:

" 'Comprised of' has been acceptable English since 18th century. Use 'made up of' only to avoid prescriptivist attack."

I think you may have misunderstood my question. I have seen, "Meantime, blah blah blah" repeatedly in the Post in the last few years (especially in the Sports section) and find it jarring. I agree that it should be "Meanwhile" or "In the meantime". So I was wondering why "Meantime" by itself appears so frequently in the Post and thinking it might be a practice unique to the otherwise fine paper.

Ah, okay; sorry 'bout that. We're of like minds.


regarding the use of articles in titles, I put the blame on students and alumni from Ohio State University. They insist on calling it "The Ohio State University", pronouncing the article with a long "e" sound and emphasizing that lowly article.

Do they go over this in freshman orientation?


As an editor or a conversation listener, when will you give the benefit of the doubt to the writer or speaker that an error is known and intentional? As an edtior, if you do give them the benefit of the doubt, will you allow the error to go to print? Do you weigh how brilliant the communicative value of the error is on your own?

When the benefit of the doubt does a disservice to the speaker? Interesting. 

Not exactly the same thing, but I'm reminded of the misguided school of thought that we should "clean up" quotes, and how that sometimes translated to imposing mistaken style rules on unsuspecting speakers. In one past job, I was told to change someone's "None of us are" to "None of us is." 

Bill, Not exactly a grammar question, but relevant, perhaps? Many lament the removal of cursive handwriting instruction in school, and now it appears that the ability to learn is diminished as a result. Could this be a factor in the alarming rise in the number of people who choose to ignore and flaunt the "rules of grammar"? A rarely-mentioned consequence of not being able to write using cursive is the inability to READ anything written in cursive. Many thanks, Cursive and keyboard-enabled in Alexandria!

Hmm. I haven't reviewed the research, but I always preferred to print. Found it really weird when people, usually older people, used cursive outside cards and letters -- on page layouts, for instance.


In a recent chat I mentioned that The Post might be switching from "data are," in general, to "data is." Update: It happened.

Some other changes: We'll call a condominium a condominium (or even a condo), where once we reserved the term for discussions of the mode of ownership and called them either apartments or townhouses. 

We've joined the AP and now specifically allow "over" for "more than." 

We caution against the vogue blog-speak of "reach out," "walk back" and "slow-walk."

As the new comes in, some of the old goes out. Did you know that unplanned events "occur" while planned events "take place"? Well, me neither, and so that bizarre entry is out.

 We're no longer confused over whether more than one person would be "people" or "persons." We don't particularly care that a "spiral" is actually a "helix," or that "willy-nilly" didn't originally mean, well, willy-nilly. We're now fine with "premiere" as a verb and "repeat" as a noun.

 And we're still not thrilled about "parameters," but we don't consider it worth a stylebook entry. We feel about the same about "sweeping" and "pave the way," and we don't think "self-confessed," "unless and until," or "rushed to a hospital" even occur to enough writers to merit cautions against them.


I hear this all the time now and it makes me cringe. I suppose it's technically grammatical but feels like an unfinished sentence. Is it that much trouble to wish someone a good day, s good evening or a good weekend, etc. ?

Consider it a courtesy. The recipient's having of goodness need not be limited to the subsequent day, evening or weekend. 


Say you have three people named John Smith. Would you call them the John Smiths, the Johns Smith, or those people over there with highly unimaginative parents?

I bet motel front-desk clerks have to deal with this all the time.


'For services rendered' sounds right. 'On any day given' does not sound right. Any thoughts?

Idioms make the world go round.

(Tangent: No apostrophe needed in "round." One meaning of the word is "around.")


Actually, I think the OP was objecting to sentences that DO begin with 'meantime' rather than 'meanwhile'....

Right -- it's early, and I haven't had my two cups of gin yet.


One of my favorite turns of phrase is the British dismissive "Good morning" to mean "This conversation is over, goodbye now." Not only is it confining the good to your morning, it's not actually wishing you a good anything at all. Have a good one!

Or "Good DAY, sir." [Dramatic pause.] "I SAID, GOOD DAY!"

Now I'm thinking of Professor Kingsfield.


Speaking of Brits...Tommy bar or tommy bar?

I know Tommy gun; Tommy bars are new to me. Anyone?

In Portuguese, "Obrigado" can mean "Nao, obrigado, nao".

Then there's our "Yeah, no."


I hate hearing/reading this kind of construction: "He is a friend of Sue's." Of Sue's what? Of Sue's dog? Why don't we say "He is a friend of Sue." Or just make it easy with "He is Sue's friend."

The double possessive: Think of "a friend of mine" as opposed to "a friend of me." Reasonable people differ over how necessary it is.

And I'm thinking of Fez from "That 70's Show"

Ah, the great mosaic of high and low culture.


I may do some search on "Tommy bar" here.


Very interesting updates from the Post stylebook. How often are revisions like this made? Scheduled, or whenever inspiration strikes? But are you sure that repeat is a noun? I see an adjective and a verb only so far.

"A repeat" as in "a rerun," on TV. The stylebook is a continual work in progress, but my bosses have generously carved out some extra time for me to work on it recently. 

Curious what your style decision on people vs persons is, and if you publish the styleguide? In the field of disability rights, one uses "persons with disabilities" (instead of "people with disabilities") because the emphasis should be placed on individuals. The thinking is that the word 'people' inherently connotes a group, and therefore an 'other'. Person-centered planning is a specific and important concept, not (just) jargon.

This was addressing only the old canard that you'd say 300 people or 299 persons. We no longer use persons that way.

We haven't published the style guide in decades. If only we had access to somebody who sold books in bulk ...


The cross bar one uses for leverage on a vise, or other must-have tool, such as a wine key.

Or a rusty spanner (with or without a sponge)?

Tommy bar = a tool that can be used with a spanner. I don't even know the names of tools in American English, so the dictionary entry on these British English ones didn't help me much. (spanner = wrench?)

Right, wrench.

And you guys launch spacecraft with arugula? That, I don't understand. 

Darn, it's 3 already. Thanks for another interesting hour. Let's meet again in a month. (Have a good one?)

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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