Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (July)

Jul 01, 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! As I mentioned last month, I've spent some time recently doing some long-overdue work on the Post's stylebook. 

Some of that work is a game of old-fogy Whac-a-Mole, in which I shake my heads at Kids Today and break up brandnewterms with the space bar or the hyphen key.

These are judgment calls, and reasonable people will differ, but mass-market print journalism is inherently conservative with language. On the one hand, I can't deny that there is a growing synergy between technological change and language change. On the other hand, there's something absurd about onewording a five-minute-old invention when a paper clip still isn't a paperclip after 115 years.

So, for example, we cling to "voice mail" (somewhat older than five minutes, but well short of 115 years) and "e-mail" and "Web site." And "user name" and "ear buds." But "smartwatch" makes sense, to parallel "smartphone" and avoid it being read as "That watch sure is smart!" And "passcode" makes sense alongside "password."

The Whac-a-Mole comes in as terms that never would have occurred to me as needing clarification show up as one word: Facebook's "userbase"? In that same story was "newsfeed," which is interesting given that not even Facebook makes that one word.

In a similar vein, we now have stylebook entries cautioning against trendy blog-speak such as "walk back," "push back," "slow-walk" and "reach out." 

More timelessly, I warn against saying someone "declined to be identified," which is sort of like declining to be punched in the nose -- it's not in your control. There's much, much more, but I'll save stop there for now.

What's on your mind?

Which is correct, "I feel bad " or "I feel badly"?

Neither! Cheer up!

Bad. You feel bad.


Hi Bill, When the title of a work includes a piece of punctuation -- I think the classic examples are "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Oliver!" -- but you would normally follow that title with a comma due to its sentence structure, does the comma go outside the quote marks? Or is it really OK to leave an appositive hanging without its second comma?! [Example: My favorite play, "Oliver!", will be staged next weekend.] The only thing I'm sure of is that it wouldn't go inside the closing quote mark as normally. Thanks in advance!

Speaking of "Jeopardy!" and "Oklahoma!" ...

Actually, Post style is to put it inside the closing quote mark as normally! 

Last I checked, AP style banned the comma but offered no solution. I used dashes a lot when I worked at AP-style shops.


Is it "USA! USA!" or "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" ?

Depends on your style. I prefer no periods with the three-letter USA as opposed to the two-letter U.S.

(The Post recently changed its style to allow exclamation points in titles within quote marks. So "Jeopardy!" and "Oklahoma!" but not Yahoo! or Maryland Live! Casino.)

More and more, "who" is being used when "whom" traditionally would have been, in print (even headlines!) and when spoken (TV, commercials). Is it now considered a style usage instead of a grammar rule?

See below ...


I know that "this is he" is the correct, but I always feel like a phony when I use it. The same applies in other situations, e.g., following the word "none" with a singular verb. In both cases, common usage makes these correct usages sound and feel inappropriate. When is correct usage something to be avoided?

Where have you been all these years, Holden Caulfield?

In many cases, including those, the feeling that you're sounding "too" correct is a good indication that you're looking at a "rule" that no longer applies -- or never did.

"None are" is usually a better choice than "none is." Insistence on the latter in all cases is a superstition kept alive in no small part by the Associated Press Stylebook.

And although "It is I" is technically correct, it sure sounds starchy, doesn't it? I say "It's me," and you should feel fine about doing the same, except in the most formal of contexts. Same with "Who to call" instead of "Whom to call."


can you recommend a "grammar refresher", even better if it's an audio book. I don't remember the rules like I should -- thank you!

I don't have a ready answer (chatters?), but I know that the wonderful Grammar Girl has at least one or two books available in the audio format.


Do you use the reflexive pronoun "that" instead of "who" when referring to humans? Do you use "were" instead of "was" in the subjunctive mode?

If I were a rich man ... yes, "were."

As for "that," I usually use "who," but there are times when "that" sounds better. "You are the woman that I've always dreamed of," not "You are the woman who [whom?] ..."


I might be late to the party, but I still can't get my head around why AP would prefer "District of Columbia" or "the nation's capital" over Washington, D.C. I guess "Washington" would suffice in most cases, but why mess with what's been working...

Even more bizarre: AP calls the District "the district." I think we overuse "District" at The Post, but ...

Hi: is it congress' or congress's? Ack! drives me nutty.

Depends on your stylebook. The Post uses Congress's.

You've been mentioning cleaning up the Post's stylebook. What are the types of entries you've done away with?

There were a fair number of crotchety pronouncements that nobody paid attention to. "Use play down instead of downplay."

I mentioned a couple of funny ones last month. The stylebook used to tell us that unplanned events "occur" while planned ones "take place."


No kidding!

Now, now. 


Bill, I'm seeing a disappearing distinction between fewer and less with some stores correctly labeling lines, "Ten items of fewer," while others use the more recent, "Ten items or less." What does the Post Style Sheet observe? Same with between versus among. "I sat between my two friends, among the thousands at the concert." - English teacher in Texas

Nothing wrong with "10 items or less," I say.

And you can go overboard with among. Feeling the sand among your toes?


Am I imagining things (or, more likely, over-reacting) when it seems that the Washington Post is actively trying to undermine correct English? I read through the last question and answer session hosted and was most dismayed to find that "data" suddenly became a singular unit, and even today the word "whom" has been bashed. Is it wrong to be right for its own sake?

The Post and I are hardly rabid progressives on this front. At what point do you propose that we freeze the language in place? Shakespeare's prose would sound pretty silly in a report on 14th Street Bridge traffic.

What does the Post's style guide say about the apostrophe-less contractions such as 'wanna' and 'gonna'? I can see it as OK in an advertisement, where it's the advertiser's statement, but more and more I am seeing it when people are quoted, e.g., "We really gotta get that passed," said the congressman. It seems a bit dicey for both a reporter and a copy editor to be making that interpretation on someone's spoken word - especially the copy editor, who wasn't there. Is this becoming an acceptable usage (I hope not!)?

The relevant entry:
In general, do not use spellings such as gonna, gotta, wanna, and hafta, or walkin' or talkin' or goin', to reflect pronunciation in quotations. Virtually nobody enunciates every word like a talking dictionary; to single out some speakers for the way they pronounce "going to" or "got to" or "want to" or "have to" is to imply that every other word quoted in that article or The Post in general was pronounced flawlessly. The use of such spelling is also inherently selective, which raises fairness questions. 

Exceptions may be made case by case for feature articles or for stories specifically about pronunciation. The spellings may also be appropriate in quotations uttered so casually and without structure -- lacking a subject, for example -- that the conventional spellings would look silly: "Gotta go; gonna rain soon," not "Got to go; going to rain soon."

This advice does not mean we should "correct" subjects' grammar or word choice; it simply means that we should, in general, spell quoted words conventionally and not phonetically.

The ubiquitous “eat healthy” grates. Should I give up and accept it because “eat healthily” is one of those “too correct” choices? I reserve the right to mutter, “Eat healthy *what*?” under my breath.

It's more like "party hearty." There's probably a technical term for this, but I don't know it.

The other issue is whether food can be healthy, or whether that word can be applied only to the people who eat it. The stylebook and I recently gave up on insisting that food be called healthful.

As a matter of fact, AP *just* sent out the edict that District is OK capitalized. I think they used to equivocate it to "the state" when using it as a pronoun, but that was absurd and I'm glad they've changed their minds.

Breaking news! Thanks.

I guess we have to declare defeat in the war against "loan me a book" at this point, don't we.

I learned the idea that lend is the verb from an episode of "All in the Family." I still enforce it as a nicety, but loan as a verb can hardly be called wrong, or even new.

I care lots about our use of language and increasingly find inexcusable syntax and even spelling errors in a certain highly respected newspaper to your north. Here in California, our sons came out of public schools with a firm grasp of written English. What I can't figure is whether sloppiness and indifference today is a function of poor teaching or perhaps kids' increasingly shortened attention spans. What do you think?

It's hard not to feel that way sometimes, and there could be some truth to the notion that standards have declined, but keep in mind that people have been feeling that way for many, many generations.

That should be restrictive; who not. So "you are the girl that I have dreamed about," but "you are a girl who(m) I have dreamed about." It seems to me. No?

That has its which, and some maintain that one is restrictive and the other not, but who is both restrictive and non-restrictive.

Hi Bill - I raised this topic with you on Twitter recently. It looks clunky to see words compared with numerals ("... as opposed to six out of 10 fathers."). I think of it as the Four-and-20 Blackbirds Syndrome. Here's my first draft of a rule to address this issue: If a writer is comparing numbers, write them as words if none of them is greater than 20, but use numerals for all if any is greater than 20. So it would be "six out of ten fathers" but "7 out of every 100 fathers". (I used 20 because most numbers above that are hyphenated when spelled out, which is undesirable in print.) What do you think?

These things are by definition arbitrary. You think it looks funny to start with numerals at 10, as The Post and  most other newspapers do, but others might think your 20 rule looks funny. 

The Post stylebook used to call for matching things up with comparisons of three or more, but we opted to simplify things. I'll register your vote against that change :-).

How does the Washington Post refer to "The United States District Court for the District of the District of Columbia"?

U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

And it's a D.C. lawyer, not a District attorney ...


When using "not only...but also" I've seen writers go back and forth with placing a comma before "but also." Which way is correct, comma or no comma, and why?

It's just style. I used to use the comma, but The Post tends not to, so now I don't. 

Should we let nominative and objective case just die off? It grates on my nerves, but newscaster and politicos in high places all seem to ignore the objective case pronoun after prepositions. Also, the possessive modifier for gerunds. I think I'm the only one left who uses it.

It is I who just said ... oh, never mind.

I would say "I can't stand your whistling," but I can live with "I can't stand you whistling."

(Hope my feelings about whistling in public aren't clouding my grammatical judgment.)


I just can't take it when I hear my colleagues - educated people no less - asking questions like "Where it is at?" I guess it would be rude to correct them, right?

Yes, I'm afraid that would be rude.

And are they really saying "it is," or was that a typo and you meant "is it"? There's no error in "where it's at" -- it's a mild redundancy at worst.  

We like sentences with a certain rhythm, and that extra word at the end provides it. 

Do any of your colleagues have one or more turntables and/or microphones?


Hello, Bill! Pred noms and pred adjectives follow a "to be"form--right? So I'm bothered by: "Ms. Doe's funeral is Wednesday at 10 o'clock" or "Mary's birthday party is Tuesday at 4." Are "Wednesday at 10" and "Tuesday at 4" really the same as, equal to, or descriptive of "is"? I prefer elision avoidance: "Ms. Doe's funeral IS SCHEDULED FOR Wednesday" and "Mary's party IS SET FOR Tuesday." Thus the participle completes "is." Thanks! Dick (Happy Valley, Oregon. Monday, June 30, 2014, 4:36 p.m. Pacific)

Pred noms!

I think you've answered your own question: That's the elision.  "Is" is a standard device for "is scheduled/set for." It doesn't bother me, for what it's worth.

I can never keep this straight and the cows/barn example is not helping (I understand it, but can't seem to apply it to other situations). Any ideas?

Disclaimer: Many, many smart people think you should use which as you darn well please.

An easy way to remember the distinction, if you choose to observe it (I do), is that which nearly always gets a comma (or dash or parenthesis). So it's the car that I drove (defining the car you're talking about, as in essential information) but the car, which I drove (adding additional, non-essential info).


Thanks for your answer (and for recording my "Nay" vote). Just as an aside: I don't think it looks funny to start with numerals at 10 _unless_ one of those numerals is being contrasted to a spelled-out number.



I'm an academic linguist, which means I don't care terribly much about the grammar people use in their everyday lives. (That is, I care a great deal, but purely from a descriptive, not prescriptive, point of view.) Many, though, seem to care deeply whether people strand prepositions or split infinitives or distinguish between fewer and less, and draw right-vs.-wrong conclusions about them, even when the actual history and structure of the language offer no basis for such shibboleths. As someone who deals with-and makes decisions about!-grammatical distinctions like this every day, why do you think such things are such a big deal to so many people?

I am Hamlet on this question, having written three books and sounded off in countless other forums wrestling with myself about my feelings, and my feelings about other people's feelings.

I've made my living for 30 years in mass-market newspapers, and so that probably colors my opinion when I say that, to some degree, the shibboleths matter just because, because they're there. You risk distracting a significant portion of your readership if you tilt too strongly toward the laissez-faire. And yet the audience isn't as sophisticated as a panel of college professors, and so  you risk distracting people if your whoms outnumber your whos. It's a balancing act, and one that clearly has captivated me.

Why do people care so much? To some extent, I think it's because language is an area where all of us -- well, a lot of us -- think we're experts. The typo and the slip of the tongue are great equalizers. I sometimes make errors that a third-grader could catch. We all do.

There's also an element of elitism, of which I'm guilty to a certain degree as I tut-tut those who are guilty of it to a greater degree.

Ammon Shea's new book, which I recently reviewed, does a good job of addressing the history of language peevery.


Have some interesting disagreements arisen at the Post re its coverage of the World Cup? Several British language uses are different from American ones.

Not that I know of, but they keep me away from sports coverage. The headline on tomorrow's Nadal story might be a tad too gleeful if they let me in.



Do you have any opinions about using "which" in place of "that"? I had always thought it was a hard, fast rule to replace "which" with "that" any time you could do so and keep the logic of the sentence. But then I saw that (the very trustworthy, I think) Ben Yagoda disagrees, and I wonder if I'm clinging to a rule that isn't even a rule.

This is a litmus test in the language wars.

Speaking of Hamlet, I straddle the battle lines. (Perhaps I could mix in some more metaphors.)

I freely admit that the distinction is not vital to understanding, but I can't bring myself to use which where that would do. It strikes me as faux-British, for one thing. 

Why do people now "graduate college" while I, having done it so long ago, "graduated from college" ? And why does "of a" jump in so unnecessarily as in "not that big of a deal" ? Is this ackward speech colloquialism now acceptable in writing?

I've covered this here before, but ... yeah. I wince every time I hear or read "graduate college." But it will be standard in a decade or two or three, the same way "I graduated from college" supplanted "I was graduated from college."

Hi, Bill-- I rarely go a week without seeing some Post writer use "thusly" (a term I liken to yeti, since both are abominable and non-existent). My guess is that the perpetrators mistakenly believe adverbs must end in "ly," but whatever the reason, it comes in second only to "between you and I" in sheer egregiousness. Assuming you concur, is there some reason that "thusly" can't be added to the Post's internal spellcheck system, so at least it gets flagged for correction? Thanks for your consideration.

Our spell-check system? It flags "Obama" as a misspelling.

But, yeah, I think thusly just sounds right to a lot of people.


Just throw a "whilst" in there somewhere, it probably fits.

Well, we are amidst the fortnight.

(Did I mention Nadal?)


Yay! Makes my Tuesday to stumble upon a grammar chat. Not sure what that says about me. Bill, would you please help me think up a witty remark to make when speaking with someone who regularly begins their sentences with “so…”? (Me: “Mary, wassup?” Mary: “So I’m thinking of becoming an astronaut...”) It’s a verbal tic that annoys me no end. I’d like to have an alternative to staring blankly at the speaker and inquiring as to the whereabouts of the missing clause at the start of the sentence. My tolerance is ebbing… I even found myself talking back to the radio yesterday morning when an otherwise intelligent-sounding news correspondent began half of her statements with the offending conjunction. NPR, that was a grammarian’s fingernails on a chalkboard!

A news correspondent should clean up such tics, but you should be easier on Mary. 

Slate recently covered this harmless tic, which serves to soften statements and allow speakers to ease into topics.


Can you give a rule of thumb for when an adjective is in the possessive vs. the "for" use? For example, people say "women's room." Is that correct? Does the restroom belong to women, or is it for women? Other examples: mothers (mothers'?) day, Nats (Nats'?) Park... Thanks.

The room is for women rather than belonging to them, and the same is true for teachers union, farmers market, etc., but your hands are tied with women's room, right? It can't very well be women room, and womens is not a word, because women is already plural. 

So if it's men's and women's tennis, what do you do when boys and girls are involved? You could be consistent and use the apostrophe, or you could go back to the logical argument and omit it.

So, like so many things, it's a matter of style. You'll see teachers' union and farmers' market in some well-edited publications, and I have to admit that teachers union and farmers market, while Post style, look a little odd to me.

You wouldn't want an apostrophe in Nationals Park, and thank goodness there isn't one (we don't change names that way), but you'd use one in "the Nationals' park." This can get tricky, and it often trips up sportswriters. "The Redskins quarterback" could go either way: Do you mean their quarterback, possessive, or is the team name just a label, as in the Washington quarterback?

The holidays follow no particular logic -- just do 'em the way they're done. Mother's Day, Veterans Day, Presidents' Day.

We need to bring back Schoolhouse Rock to do a cartoon about "S, the Super-Confusing Letter!"

In a magazine or journal, if you establish in an early article that, say, the Department of Energy is going to be referred to as the DOE, should you re-clarify with a "Department of Energy (DOE)" for each new article in which it appears? Or does one clarification count for all articles?

Most publications would do that article by article. But something like DOE may not need such a clarification.


What do you think about using "they" in place of "he/she"? For example "Give your boss what they need, not what they want."

The first line of my novel is going to be: "As a person walks down the street, they thinks to themself, 'what a strange world this has become.'" Nobody will buy it.

Ah, the singular they. The only sensible solution to the he-or-she-him-or-her problem. 

There are examples where it doesn't sound so dumb, of course. I've said this before, but while I support it the singular they in theory, I don't think we're yet at a point where we should use it in The Post.



Both can be correct: I feel bad today. (Bad modifies I so it is an adjective). I feel badly you got hurt. (Bad modifies feel therefore it is an adverb).

I would feel good or bad about your injury, not well or badly.


This is probably too broad a topic for a chat, but it bothers me that the distinction between "may" and "might" in "counter to fact:" situations is getting blurred. Is that something editors pay attention to?

I often have to un-"correct" cases where editors who were trained to change "may" to "might" have changed "may have" to the contrary-to-fact "might have."

She might have been killed. (But she wasn't.)

She may have been killed. (We don't know yet.)


Why did we do away with paragraph indentations & what is an easy way to remember how to use colons and semi colons. Also, when one borrows a word from another language does it need quotations or italicization or nothing?

Did we do away with indenting paragraphs? I wouldn't say that, though you will see it as a fairly common design choice. (It's a bad choice unless it's replaced by white space between paragraphs.)

The thing to remember about colons and semicolons is that, the appearance and names notwithstanding, they don't have much in common.

Colons introduce. If you're not introducing, you want the semicolon. The semicolon is a supercomma to be used in series where a comma isn't quite enough, and it can be used to join two sentences that are separate but related.

Any overlap between the two punctuation marks is coincidental: For instance, I could have framed this paragraph as two separate but related sentences fused with a semicolon, but instead I made the first sentence an introductory one and used a colon. (If I had used a semicolon, I would have lowercased the word "for.")

You have some style leeway on borrowed foreign words. If they're truly borrowed, and somewhat unfamiliar, italics are a good idea. Quotes would also be permissible. If they're assimilated into English, just let them be English. Cliche, cafe, etc. 

Why is it that the Post uses serial semicolons but does not use serial commas? It seems inconsistent.

It doesn't seem inconsistent to me. Semicolons without a serial one would just be bizarre. 

I write and edit news releases for a federal agency, and we use AP style. (If we used GPO style, I'd have to say I worked for a Federal agency.) I see AP changed its treatment of state names in stories to only use the full name--"a Syracuse, New York, man was found today..."--rather than "a Syracuse, N.Y., man." seems wasteful to me. Your take? (And we're a science agency where people seriously put an apostrophe in "Hawai'i," which I immediately edit out...)

I'm not as aghast about spelling out state names as a lot of copy editors are, but it does seem like a waste of space. AP's reasoning is that it has an international audience of readers who may not know what Mo. is. At The Post we've gone through a similar change of mind-set when it comes to local communities, which is why Arlington is now "Arlington, Va."

I would like to read about the 14th Bridge in Shakespearian English, please.

The Air Florida sonnet is a classic.


How do "it'll" and its ilk makes their way into the Post? I'd've thought it'd be a cold day in July before that would happen.

One person's hideous is another person's conversational, I suppose. I'd've edited some, but probably not all, of those examples.


Hi Bill, I see a lot of what used to be called run-on sentences or comma splices in everyday life, and don't think much about it. But I recently finished a well-reviewed book by a respected author (Life After Life by Kate Atkinson) and was stunned by the number of run-on sentences. I thought the first one or two were the result of sloppy editing, or a quirk in the author's style, but the book is replete with sentences like this: "The snow had obliterated everything familiar, the world outside was shawled in white." Have I missed something if that kind of construction is OK now? Have semicolons been retired?

"Quirk in the author's style" seems like the answer there. Novelists have wide latitude on such things. 

I look with horror at the train wreck over the use of me. At first it was 'John met Jane and I for lunch'. As if that wasn't winceworthy enough we've now moved on to 'John met Jane and myself for lunch. Poor lil' ole me.

Winceworthy is a great word.


The best guide to writing style: The boss is always right. If S/He prefers that style to She/He, go with that... irregardless (haha) of what the style books say.

And we'll end this installment of Grammar Geekery with those words of wisdom. Thanks, all, and see you next time!



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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