Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (September)

Sep 02, 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! I took August off, at least for chat purposes, which would qualify as the Frenchiest thing I did all summer, if not for all that Pernod I downed.

To get things rolling again, I'd like to call your attention to an unfortunate writing/editing trend: Have you noticed that every quotation on the Internet now "[b]egins like this"?

The point of the bracketed letter is to indicate that you're not being entirely faithful to the original material. It was capped and you're lowercasing, or vice versa. It's an acceptable style practice, especially in academic writing, but it gets more and more ridiculous as you go down the food chain. It's especially ridiculous when applied to a quotation that's spoken rather than written.

And some bloggers, I strongly suspect, have no idea about any of the above and just do it because they think it's a [c]ute [d]ecoration. 

Let's do what we can to stamp this out. Thoughts? What else would you like to talk about in your non-white shoes and non-linen clothes?


Have you not conducted a chat since the one on July 1st? And on a related note, could today's producer please tell us how to find the links to your previous chats?

Sorry! Je regrette, or something. There's probably a better link on the Post site, but I have one (oops -- one update short) here.


On The Post site, you can use:

The first sentence of "About the Topic" reads, "Could you literally care less about the finer points of the language?" That's a pretty ironic instance of language usage, of course. It should read, "Could you literally not care less about the finer points of the language?"

Needed a smiley, huh?


I consider my grammar and spelling better than the average bear, but I must admit that the rule for when to use which and when to use that often escapes me. What is the rule for usage of these words?

A lot of experts would answer: Don't sweat it. 

If you want to sweat it, to suck up to me or avoid the risk of sounding too British, an easy rule to remember is that "which" is generally preceded with a comma (or comma equivalent -- dash or paren) and "that" is not. 

The specifics deal with "restrictive" and "essential" clauses, with "that" defining and "which" providing additional information. The bike that I ride is pretty. That bike, which is a Novara Randonee, serves me well. 

1) Is this chat the first Tuesday of every month? 2) Keeping up with the Jones or Joneses?

Right, first Tuesday when I'm not acting all French. More than one Jone would be the Jones. More than one Jones would be the Joneses.


Hi, Bill. The current AP Stylebook still says that "female" is the proper adjective when identifying the gender of a woman in a professional context, which is also what I was taught. I know that the Post generally follows AP style, yet I notice more and more references to "women senators," "women leaders," etc.--but zero references to "men leaders." That inconsistency is jarring if not offensive, so I'm wondering what the rationale for it is. What say you?

Actually, where we follow AP style it's pure coincidence. We have our own stylebook. 

Why "women leaders" but not "men leaders"? Just because. The language isn't always consistent. But I do prefer "female."


If a team is singular, then why are sports teams referred to in the plural form? Are the Washington Wizards a basketball team or a bunch of wizards?

"Band" is singular, but "The Beatles was great"? We follow conventional subject-verb agreement with such names -- it sounds silly not to. So the Beatles were. Then again, the United States is. And how about the Miami Heat? I use singular, some use plural (the British way), and neither way sounds right.


I'm very fond of the relative adjective, which predilection probably marks me as a weirdo. I think it may still be widely used by the British, but Americans (and many of my fellow Canadians) actually seem to think it's incorrect. Is it dying, or do you think it's already dead? Not that that's going to stop me.

Can you give us an example of a relative adjective? You mean like your "flaky mother-in-law"?


A dozen eggs (were or was) broken.

A dozen eggs were broken, though maybe you'd say was if you were talking about each dozen as an individual unit, as in the container. "We unpacked 100 dozen eggs this morning, and only one dozen was broken."

i work with a woman who spells the word "citation" with an "s." It's hard for me not to think of her as an idiot but i wondered, are some spelling impaired?

Sure. And maybe she thinks you're capitalization-impaired. :-)

"The Southbound lanes of I-95 are jammed due to an earlier crash" This kind of nails on a chalkboard annoyance is repeated so often on D.C.'s news-talk station, especially during traffic reports, that listening is becoming unbearable. How can we break these reporters of their bad habits?

Oh, they do things much worse than that. "A brokendown is working on the Spring-filled Interchange."

I enforce the distinction between "due to" and "because of," but it's fading fast.


I dislike nouns-becoming-verbs (couponing, summiting, medaling, even parenting) but I have to admit that plenty seem just right (gardening). How do you decide which just seem silly and which are part of the language, like it or not?

Some are well-established, some new ones are useful, and other new ones are just silly. Some well-established ones are forever tainted as jargon. You just know, you know?

Comment. It seems as though every few months, there's a pet phrase you hear overused, especially among political commentators. -to start out comments - "Look..." - "So..." -"That said...", "that being said..." "...if you will..." Your take...

Remember when it was "at the end of the day"?


Hello, Mr. Walsh: I use MS Word frequently to do spell-check and grammar-check on my documents. Whenever this tool encounters a sentence it deems to be "passive voice," but has no suggestions for converting the sentence to active voice, I'm either stuck or click the Ignore Once button in the dialogue box. What's the best way to make that conversion to active voice when the Spell-Check/Grammar-Check indicates that to me in the dialogue box? Thanks.

Treat the advice as optional. If the sentence doesn't sound silly, don't worry about whether it's technically active or passive. People get too worked up about that issue. 

A fellow editor has expressed concern over the AP Stylebook guidance on hyphenation. To wit, this passage: "Use of the hyphen is ... optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgement, and style sense." She would prefer an iron-clad rule to apply consistently in all similar cases. My argument is that hyphen use changes over time and is too fast of a moving target. The editor needs some leeway, and any hyphen you can avoid is worth omitting. So. How does one gauge whether one is indeed employing good "taste and judgement"?

Well, hyphen use changes over time if you're talking about "ice berg" becoming "ice-berg" and then "iceberg," but I don't think that's applicable to compound modifiers.

I'm in the minority on this issue, but I'm with your fellow editor and I strongly disagree with "Any hyphen you can avoid is worth omitting." A hot-dog stand is a hot-dog stand not because anyone would think a "hot dog stand" is a hot stand where you can buy a dog, but because, well, it isn't a hot stand where you could buy a dog. (Structure and practice aren't always strictly about clarity. Nobody thinks "supercede" means anything other than "supersede," either, but one way is the way it's done and the other isn't.)

As I said, your colleague and I are outnumbered, and most publications, including The Post, use hyphens far less often than I would.


... that reading this stuff is so much fun. I shudder to think what that says about me.

"Impeccable good taste"?


Every species has females, but only humans have women.

Right, as nouns. The issue is how "woman" is used as an adjective where "man" is not.


I went to a creative writing conference where we were told to never write "...he said gruffly" or "she explained" but to only EVER use plain ol' "said." Any thoughts on that?

A lot of people who know more about creative writing than I would agree. 

I rather thought that my original question contained a relative adjective ("which predilection ..."), but let me attempt to construct a more clear-cut example: "He stated that ..., WHICH ASSERTION was vigorously denied by the other candidate." Or: "Joe Biden likes to travel by train, WHICH METHOD OF TRANSPORTATION he considers environmentally superior." I do acknowledge that it sounds old-fashioned.

It does!


My daughter offered him a pretend pizza. He said it would be just an amuse-bouche to a monster. I don't think he knows what it means, but I melted.

Awww. The Top Chef-ization of America! But do correct him when he refers to meat as "a protein."


What are the rules for using 'all' and 'all of'? Thank you!

That question is harder than it sounds, but maybe this:

If "of" can be dropped without hurting the sentence, go ahead and do it. Otherwise, keep it. 

What is the distinction?

"Due to" = "attributable to." The game was canceled because of rain. The cancellation was due to rain.


Why not "He stated '...,' AN ASSERTION THAT was vigorously denied by the other candidate"?

Sure -- I don't think the poster was saying his pet usage was the only way or even the best way.


Where do readers submit English usage or grammar corrections for currently posted articles? Example: In today's featured article about pseudo-unanimity on the Court, someone is quoted as saying, "I think one of the most interesting phenomenon..." Either the person being quoted sent the above in writing, in which case he is to blame for the error and deserves it to be presented as is (with "(sic)" after the error), or else the statement was made orally, and he is being made to look illiterate by a Post writer who substituted a similar-sounding singular noun where the plural was used by the speaker. If the article is already online, at least one writer and one editor paid to use the English language have missed the mistake; given that, where do readers point out errors so they can be quickly corrected?

You can e-mail We avoid "[sic]," by the way, because it can be seen as condescending. And although we do not change quotes (alter reality) to save speakers embarrassment, that's a case where I might have given the speaker the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes that means asking the reporter. ("Now, is it possible that he was saying 'phenomena' and you just heard it as 'phenomenon'?") 

At the deli counter: a pound of turkey "sliced thin" or "sliced thinly"?

Either is fine, but it seems overly fussy to Lolly Lolly Lolly it up as though you're in Fort -Ly, New Jersey, or something. You want the turkey sliced [so that it is] thin. 

The Washington Post is still confusing "namesake" and "eponymous" in its reporting. Since it's such an easy concept to understand -- e.g., "The Washington Post March" is the namesake of the eponymous newspaper -- could you please instruct your reporters (and any remaining copy editors) to fix it when it's used incorrectly in copy? Thanks!

I confess I have to look it up every time.


I noticed that in today's A3 story about High Times, the magazine's founder, Robert Forcade, was honored with a cedilla (I can't do it in email...). That's very nice, but it seems to me that the Post has been somewhat erratic over the years in including foreign accents or not. It was only by reading another newspaper that I discovered that the former French PM, M. Alain Juppe, actually had a two-syllable last name, Zhup-pay-with-an-acute-accent. What's your standard practice with foreign names?

Yes, we have been erratic. A couple of decades ago we used no diacritical marks. Then we used only the tilde. Now we try to use them all, at least in French, Spanish, Italian, German and Portuguese, though we make an exception for place names, and we can't go and research every person's name in wire stories, which still don't use accent marks at all.


I think I prefer "murder". "Execution" suggests some actual government ordered the killing after maybe some semblance of due process.

That's a fair point. "Murder" has its own problems -- journalistic style generally requires a conviction for a killing/slaying to be a murder. 


While having had a number of college hours in linguistics (anthropology) and truly know that language changes, I find my skin still crawls at those who think they sound "learned" when they say "He had dinner with my wife and I" or "The bank told John and I that we had the loan". Here in Maine a great teachers simplified it for a bright bright 7-year old. "If it's at the beginning of the sentence it's *I*, but if in the middle or end of the sentence, it's "me". Likely too simplistic but a pretty good rule to follow. And, of course, I'm inconsistent. I say to a phone call, "This is he" but "That's him over there". Corruption of a language in inevitable; just wish it didn't come in the guise of someone thinking him/her self "proper".

That's one way to look at hypercorrection. Maybe it's just not the best example, but I would be a little more charitable and say that people who commit the I-vs.-me error are more likely to be honestly confused than haughty. They said "Me and him want to play in the sandbox" and they got corrected and it stung, and maybe their schooling didn't do a great job of clarifying the nuances of what is kind of a tricky concept. Now, when I hear someone studiously avoiding split infinitives, or see a fellow copy editor making a misguided "fix," I start to think what you're thinking. 

When does "none" act like a singular, when like a plural?

There's more room for flexibility than a lot of people think. Misguided purists, and (still!) the Associated Press Stylebook, insist on singular verbs unless there's a plural subject, reasoning that "none" means "not one." Usually, however, the meaning is closer to "not any," and so usually a plural verb sounds better. You wouldn't be wrong-wrong to say "None of us is going to the mall," but none of us are going to think that sounds particularly natural.

I tend to be a non-conflict kind of person when possible, but I'm curious how you feel about whether to correct people when they say stuff like "My son has prostrate cancer." or "I like to marionate my meat before I cook it." I tend to leave it alone, but can't deny that it sticks with me.

I correct such things when I'm being paid to do so. Otherwise, I try not to be a jerk. Especially not to the parents of cancer patients.



"The professor of psychology, Dr. X " or "Psychology professor Dr. X" or does it matter?

It's not a great idea to pile titles on top of titles (Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby), so I would vote for the former. 

There's also the matter of whether people with doctorates are "doctors," and different publications have different styles. The Post goes one step further and doesn't call anyone "Dr." on first reference, although once a physician or a PhD dies he or she is "Dr. [Last Name]" on subsequent references.


Or is it an "assassination"?

That's another interesting word with interesting baggage. Mark David Chapman's murder of John Lennon often gets that label, though it doesn't seem to fit.


...on the phrase "At this point in time?"

I like to stick in "particular" to make it particularly comical.


I don't have a problem with hearing meat called a protein. I think it is industry jargon, just like reporters calling the first pararagraph a "lede."

Right, but it can grate when jargon crosses over into common usage when there are perfectly good alternatives. I agree not to use "protein" if chefs agree not to use "lede."

(I've bristled at "op-ed" being used outside the newsroom, for instance.)


It's the noise. You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does -- but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you'll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it's the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use. - A Tramp Abroad

Sure enough, my jaw is starting to lock up.

I saw that, and I'm now busy cleaning the coffee off my monitor. I have this vision of a headless chicken on strings being danced around a stage like George Bernard Shaw on the cover of the original My Fair Lady soundtrack.

Add a grammatically correct cat with lockjaw to that and you've got yourself a viral YouTube sensation, my friend.


That really knocks you down

Gotta love cancer humor.


How would you economically fix this sentence?: Please close my son, John Dough's, savings account. And that "?:" looks ugly. Is it right? Thanks for your two cents.

Please close the savings account of my son, John Dough. (Or no comma if you have more than one son.)

The question mark can imply the colon in that case; no need for both.

With today's high bank fees, I don't blame you for closing an account with only two cents in it. Or maybe I misread something ...


Would "a pound of 'thin-sliced' turkey" be correct usage?

I don't see why not. 


Is it "I have a couple of chairs to move", or..."a couple chairs to move"? A "couple of days" or a "couple days'?

The standard answer is to use the "of," though that gets weird with "a couple hundred people" and the like.


I always thought the word "manse" referred to a minister's house. Lately, though, I've seen it showing up in this newspaper and elsewhere seeming to just mean "nice house" -- the latest example is in the article from last week about whether Mary Landrieu lives in New Orleans or not. Has the meaning changed without my noticing?

The Post's official dictionary agrees with you but gives the other meaning as well, labeling it "archaic." In the real world, though, I wonder whether the "nice house" meaning is current and the other one archaic.


My college newspaper's style was to use the passive voice when referring to injuries such as described in the subject line because otherwise it sounds as though the person deliberately injured himself. Yet, most often the former is used and no matter how serious the injury I can't help but be amused at the implication of a man setting out to purposely break his own arm. Do you have an opinion on proper use of describing injuries that are not self inflicted?

Neither option bothers me there, though I do avoid using "had" that way for that reason -- "she had her purse stolen." (Why would she do that?)


I had a great admiration for Sour Mash, and a great affection for her, too. She was one of the institutions of Quarry Farm for a good many years. She had an abundance of that noble quality which all cats possess, and which neither man nor any other animal possesses in any considerable degree -- independence. Also she was affectionate, she was loyal, she was plucky, she was enterprising, she was just to her friends and unjust to her enemies -- and she was righteously entitled to the high compliment which so often fell from the lips of John T. Lewis -- reluctantly, and as by compulsion, but all the more precious for that: "Other Christians is always worrying about other people's opinions, but Sour Mash don't give a damn." They died early--on account of being overweighted with their names, it was thought. SOUR MASH, APPOLLINARIS, ZOROASTER, and BLATHERSKITE, -- names given them not in an unfriendly spirit, but merely to practice the children in large and difficult styles of pronunciation. It was a very happy idea. I mean, for the children. MARK TWAIN No pleasing the AD...

You said it!


I hear the double conjunction "but yet" so much. Isn't that somehow redundant?

Yes, if an extra syllable is desired, "and yet" would be better. 

I want to say, "62 firms have grown and 9 firms have shrunk." Have shrunk? Or is it just shrunk?

They shrank, they have shrunk. Shrink, shrank, shrunk!

(Though shrink, shrunk, shrunken is apparently also acceptable.)


The problem in being tactful is how to avoid a reply that uses "marinate" and "prostate" correctly, which could make the original speaker uncomfortable.

And would make for an offal cookbook.


Thanks, everyone, but it appears our time is up. 

Should we plan on Tuesday, Oct. 7? Yes, let's!


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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