Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (October)

Oct 07, 2014

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

Greetings, ladies and gentlemen, adults and adultresses, active shooters and persons of interest! 

I'll kick things off this month with the observation that this seems to be the year when America truly went missing. That's a linguistic observation, not a political one. We didn't use to go missing. British people went missing. We Americans did not. We vanished, we disappeared, we ... no, that's about it. Vanished or disappeared. 

So it's not as though we couldn't have used another way to express that thought, and one less likely to conjure up Doug Henning at that. And yet, for me and a lot of people like me, it grates. There's nothing wrong with it, but it grates because it seemingly came out of nowhere. I did a spot check of the Post archives and found that, as recently (!) as 1994, "went missing" did not appear once in the newspaper all year. It stayed in the single digits for the rest of the '90s before it started creeping up, which is remarkable considering how much foreign-corresponding is written in British. (All stores are shops, all legislatures are parliaments, etc.) 

But usages do travel across the Atlantic, as my British counterparts (or opposite numbers) often complain. They travel pretty easily across Niagara Falls, too: Americans used to talk about open floor plans, but now we watch HGTV shows, 90 percent of which appear to come from Toronto, and suddenly it's "open concept" this and "open concept" that. 

What to do? Well, you're free to use the usages you like. I might edit out "open concept" and "gone missing" because they don't quite sound right to me in American English, the same way I edit instances of "which" where Americans would generally use "that," but that doesn't mean those things are wrong. I can't very well say we don't say it that way because we don't say it that way. Because we just did. 

And someday I'll retire, and there's a good chance the person in my chair won't think anything negative about those usages, and life will go on and the language will keep evolving. 

As they used to say to invite "responsible spokesmen for the opposing point of view" after the editorials on WJBK, TV 2, Detroit, what do YOU think?

All topics welcome. Or is it "welcomed"?


Small gripe, perhaps, but why do people use apostrophes when making a word plural? If you ask me, "How many copy's do you need," I feel as if this is an incomplete sentence, and I'm missing out on what belongs to 'copy." How does this even look right to the person who wrote it?

It's a common mistake, of course. Irregular plurals don't help, and consider how the trailing "s" indicates both plural and possessive. And how possessive pronouns don't get apostrophes. And how apostrophes sometimes are used for possessives (A's and B's, p's and q's, do's in "do's and don'ts").

I don't condone the mistake, but, as Chris Rock once said on another topic, I understand.

I'm old enough to remember war coverage going back to Vietnam. Until recently the media and politicians would use phrases like deploying or sending troops. Now it's always "boots on the ground." I would categorize this as the most over-used phrase of 2014. Is it my imagination or is this a new phrase? I'm in the minority of having grown weary or hearing it?

Yes. Yes. YES. YES!

Are data still plural? Most print publications, e.g., The Washington Post, have data as being singular.

You can look at "the data" as meaning "the statistics" or "the information," and so either is correct. In modern writing, outside hard-core math and science, the feeling is that treating the word as plural seems increasingly unnatural. (When's the last time you talked about a "datum"?)

Still, the singular usage is a relatively new style guideline at the Post. (Excuse me -- The Post. I find it hard to capitalize that "the" when I'm not on the clock.)

We still allow "the data are" in a sentence where you can see each datum, but we go with singular in general.



I noticed in a story a few weeks ago a description of someone in a parade "pridefully" carrying a flag, and I thought, why not "proudly"? Some people seem to think that one word has positive connotations, the other negative, but I can never remember which is which. It's probably relevant that I'm from the UK, and I don't think I'd come across 'prideful' until I moved here. It still grates on my ear, and seems unnecessary. What's your take? PS I could have asked a version of this question about healthy and healthful...

The primary definition of "prideful" is "haughty and arrogant," so "proud" would have been better in the flag sentence.

My favorite misuse of "prideful" was in a "Mr. Show" sketch where a Jerry Springer-type host is at sea in a lifeboat with some guests. David Cross is proposing to his girlfriend's mother. "Tammy, you are having my baby, and I am prideful and honorable of that ..."


Glad the Post was on top of this breaking grammar news last week. Did you lend your expertise with the blog post?

The better half of my household may have had something to do with that.


About two weeks ago, your Post colleague Jonathan Capehart quoted a White House statement as follows: “The president has full confidence in the Secret Service and is grateful to the men and women who day in and day out protect himself, his family and the White House.” I assume that there is a White House staffer in charge of the grammar, diction, etc. in such statements, and it seems to me that that person has fallen down on the job, which probably pays quite well and would be quite prestigious. This is your chance to make the big time!

That's in kind of a dangerous neighborhood, though, isn't it?


Hi Bill! I have seen the double-comma in more and more things I am reading and I was wondering what you think about it. I started seeing in in blogs and on the Internet, but I just assumed they were idiots (no offense) or couldn't really type well. Then I saw it in some magazine articles and this past weekend I actually saw some in the book I am reading. If I understand correctly, it directs the reader to pause slightly longer to contemplate the first clause of the sentence before reading the next clause than they would with just one comma. I have to admit, at first I found it a bit silly and cumbersome, but the more I encounter it the more I like it. Aren't there diminishing returns on punctuation as well? If people get used to two commas will they add a third?. Thank you for your thoughts.

This is the first time I've heard of such a thing, outside programming in pauses for speed-dial on my cellphone. 

You can put me in the "silly" column. (That didn't come out quite right, did it?)

Also the diminishing-returns column.



Also, sometimes people are typing quickly and their hands are outpacing their brains. Case in point - I just started typing the word "their" above as "they..." and then backed up and fixed it. I am very well aware of where apostrophes do and do not go, when it's your v. you're and whether to go with their, there or they're. Sometimes the part of my brain that knows these things implicitly, seemingly without even having to think about it, just isn't keeping up with whatever part is moving my fingers. (This does not excuse people who get official signs printed up telling me to try the apple's)

Exactly. People are stupid, but they're not as stupid as we sometimes think.


[Looking back on September's chat ...] In my mind (and according to several dictionaries I own) "couple" is synonymous with "pair." That makes it simple. I would never pick a pair pears, I would pick a pair OF pears. I would never have a pair hundred people, so would never have a couple hundred. I would RARELY have a pair of hundred people, either. Either I would have exactly two hundred, or I would have a FEW hundred. I think the confusion stems from treating "couple" as if it means "few," when it fact it means "pair."

I had expressed unease with "a couple of hundred people," and I'm not sure "a pair of hundred people" sounds any better. (What's a hundredperson, and why would I want a couple/pair of them?) 

Then and now, though, I'm not registering an official protest, just saying it sounds weird to me. Say the word "glove" a few dozen (couple of dozen?) times and that sounds weird, too.


I was proofreading a paper for a colleague who insists on the construction "both A as well as B," although I tried to convince her that "both" demands a simple "and" as its parallel. She ignored my suggestion, so I'm hoping you'll back me up (or am I the one in the wrong?) Any tips for the best usage of "as well as"?

You are correct, of course. It's useful when you're wrestling with one too many "and."


"The ABC said ..." or "ABC said..."? What's with the "the" in front of some organization names using acronyms?

With an acronym, you wouldn't generally use "the." (ABC is not an acronym, because it's pronounced ay-bee-see and not as a word.) With other initialisms, it's complicated. Often the answer is that you use "the" before the abbreviation if you use "the" before the spelled-out version. So the Environmental Protection Agency is the EPA. A good illustration is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. (The "explosives" part is new, so forget about that for a sec.)

Some people use the ATF abbreviation; others use BATF. BATF would get the (the bureau), but ATF would not, because it's not "the Alcohol, Tobacco ..."

That's my rule, at least, and you might have to buy one of my books to get the full explanation :-). And  not everybody does it the same way.


You were reading my mind! I had planned to bring this detestable phrase up. "Went missing" to me is like "he broke his arm" instead of "his arm was broken." It sounds like something done deliberately to oneself. What's wrong with "is missing" or one of the phrases you provided?

Well, "is missing" doesn't work when you're describing when somebody vanished/disappeared/went missing. 

The "he broke his arm" parallel does trouble me, too, but I'm on shaky ground there, too. If I go broke, it doesn't mean I meant to. 

I have heard "she passed" in conversation, but lately I have been seeing it in print, where to my eye/ear it cries out for "away," Otherwise I'm wondering what exactly she passed--her test? The tray of hors d'oeuvres? Thoughts/feelings/preferences?

It's like "caved in" becoming "caved," and dozens of other examples. These things happen, and my job as an editor is to decide when they're happening consistently enough that the usage is acceptable in print as well as in conversation.

This has got to be the worst offender (and it was on a sign!): Easter lilie's.

That is indeed a double whammy, to use the technical term.


The number of simple errors in the paper just keeps going up and up! Some are such that a simple spell check would have caught them; others just require someone to READ the article and see the problem. I'm convinced that very few Post reporters read their own work. Today in the Metro section, B8 story on the boy shot in the head (I'm a daily and Sunday print subscriber), one sentence reads: "The boy was later transferred to the cildren's hospital in the District, where he was rushed into surgery..." I've lived here all my life and have no idea what and where is a cildren's hospital! Three graphs later, "It was known for drug dealing and violence during the late 1980s and early 1900s." Maybe it's just me but that's an odd time span. Any chance you could hire more people who know how to read and edit?

Hiring more people is always good. More hours in the day would also help. Putting out the newspaper looks less like a bunch of learned elders sitting around a conference table than it does Yosemite Sam dodging bullets shot at his boots.


I'm from this next generation you speak of to whom this sounds perfectly natural. What was the common way to express this thought before?

Vanished, disappeared. 

You may be able to get all the Posts from 1994 to verify that. Just $3,650!


I propose starting a list of famous book titles, song lyrics, movie/TV lines, etc., in which hard-to-remember language rules are used correctly, as a device to help remember the right way to use them. E.g., for the counter-factual subjunctive, "If I Were a Rich Man" (because Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" is poor, with no prospects for increased wealth). How about songs that correctly use him or her in the objective case (especially when compound, or in a prepositional phrase)? Do you or the chatters have other grammatically correct nominees?


(And bravo. Damn. I wish I was your lover.)


I've noticed many, many modern writers who use an ellipsis to indicate a dramatic pause and it really bugs me! My 1985 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary makes no mention of using an ellipsis to indicate a dramatic pause. Celia Millward's "Handbook for Writers" states that ellipses are used to indicate "omitted material" and should never be used as a substitute for a dash or any other punctuation mark. Besides suggesting that I obtain a newer dictionary, do you have any comments on this distressing development in modern grammar?

I wouldn't call it all that modern a development. I used it in my sixth-grade camp log, and that was in 19__ ...


I know this is a stupid question, but if you wanted to use to write something about the stock prices of McDonald's in a possessive, how would you do so, given that McDonald's already has an apostrophe? Would it be, "McDonald's' stock prices are steadily increasing" (as an example)? Writing "McDonald's's" seems odd/wrong, of course. For the possessive of a word ending in 's', when is it appropriate to use the -'s and when would you only use the apostrophe? Is it simply a matter of personal preference/style?

The possessive of McDonald's is McDonald's, but I'm anal-retentive enough to try to write around it.

And I say "McDonald's's" in conversation, just to be an annoying smart-aleck.

At least it's an improvement on the previous abomination, "turned up missing," which is a contradiction in terms.

Ah, yes! 


You used to hear about people who do this and people who said that. Now it's something like 90% people that do this and people that said that. What happened a couple of years ago to make "who" go away?

It's people like you what cause unrest!

But seriously, yes. "That" isn't wrong-wrong, but, yes, "who" is better.


Am I the last person in the country who thinks this headline is wrong: Delusional Redskins are rich in moral wins — and more rich in actual losses When did we stop expecting people - copy editors in particular - to know that "more" isn't a default that can be used in every case. The team is richer in actual losses.

"Richer" would be a better choice, obviously, but I wouldn't turn down the opportunity to be more rich.


Why is it so hard to figure out the two?!

Well, they're pretty closely related, and you can't just say one is the verb and one is the noun, because there are those pesky exceptions where you effect change with your flat affect.

I went to a seminar years ago where a presenter explained that dashes should always come in pairs -- and should never be used to create a dramatic pause, like I just did. Even though I can't remember what his reasoning was -- it made sense at the time! -- I try to avoid the single dash because it tends to be overused. Do you follow this rule, and can you explain why or why not? Thanks!

Well, of course you can do what you just did!

Dashes both single and double are overused, and I try to cut down on them as an editor, but I have to confess that I'm guilty of overusing them as a writer. I use exclamation points and italics too much, too. Hyphens? Of course! 

For a mild-mannered copy editor, I can be a rather gaudy writer.


I have always been taught that em dashes (--) are not to have spaces on either side, but I saw in one of your answers a few minutes ago that you used one space on each side. Why?

Purely a matter of style. Some publications are "tight" on the subject; others are "loose."

Feel free to call me loose.


Why do you think that "'is missing' doesn't work when you're describing when somebody vanished/disappeared/went missing."? "Joe is missing" seems to communicate the same information as "Joe went missing"; that is, no one seems to know where Joe is. The only advantage I can think of is when you want to describe the time when others became aware that he was missing. But even then you could say, "Joe has been missing since Thursday," or "Joe was last seen on Thursday."

Yes, I was referring to the time of disappearance.


"Wreckx-N-Effect is in effects but I'm the wrecker" - did that help?

And my cultural literacy just got expanded. I must not have been paying attention in 1992-1993, when the multi-platinum hit "Rump Shaker" was teaching America how to shake its rump!


I am under the impression that there should never be spaces before or after a slash (/) except when describing line spacing in poetry (something that will likely never be terribly useful in my administrative job at a consulting firm). Is this correct?

Yes, though exceptions as a matter of visual style wouldn't be catastrophic. Especially along with loose (in both sense) dashes and pauserrific ellipses.


I see so many people write ellipses marks in sentences like this: "Just so you know..." or "She said that she didn't want to see me anymore...but then she liked my Facebook picture." I, too, have been guilty of using them in this way. However, when I consulted my trusted Gregg reference manual recently, I saw that ellipses are supposed to be written and spaced like this: "She said she didn't want to see me anymore . . . but then she liked my Facebook picture." Is this correct? What are the general rules for using ellipses, and how should they be spaced? When typing three consecutive, unspaced periods in Word, why doesn't it autocorrect the ellipses in this way? Thank you! Leith

Styles vary, but technically for publication you should have space, dot, non-breaking space, dot, non-breaking space, dot, space. In regular old typing, dot dot dot with a space on both sides is fine. 

Well, at least you use the dash correctly. I can't tell you how many people at my office (and in general) don't understand the difference between an em dash and a hyphen. On an almost daily basis, I have the strong urge to send a #Everyone e-mail explaining it (almost everyone I work with seems to think that a hyphen is simply an OK substitute for an em dash). And I won't even start on how people use the en dash--which is similar to a hyphen in terms of its look--incorrectly. Most people don't even know what an en dash is.

In some quarters, space hyphen space is "correct" style -- the ASCII dash for online use.

In the Post's editing system, stories pasted in from certain word-processing applications, chiefly Microsoft Word, get en dashes where there should be em dashes. I'm not sure cleaning them up is the most productive use of my time, but here I am cleaning them up by the dozens every night.

Why are you a copy editor and not a copyeditor?

I've never yedited a cop in my life!


I "cannot stand" when people "misuse" quotation marks. It gives me the impression that the "person" is "lying" to me, or that they are being "sarcastic" when that really is not their intention. It's driving me "crazy!" I'm not talking about using quotation marks to set apart a term or phrase that is being defined or discussed.

This is more something I hear on the TV or radio. They will mention a story that is coming up later. Usually, if they say something like, "After the break, find out if the Redskins won last night." it means they lost, because when a team wins, they say something like, "After the break, the Nationals win in game three." Why is it harder to report bad news without hiding it in the wording?

The goal is to keep you glued to the set, right? So they dangle a little hope. 

I still haven't forgiven "ABC's Wide World of Sports" for making me sit through all those lumberjack competitions and whatnot before letting me see the latest Muhammad Ali fight.


Why do we need the "a bit" in “doing quite a bit better”? After all, we say "doing much better". Or is "doing quite better" acceptable? It feels totally wrong, and yet it doesn't violate any rule I know of.

Not sure it's wrong, but it does sound a little John Houseman-y.


I LOVE the development of ellipses as dramatic pause. What a cool new use for a punctuation mark. I absolutely use them this way and am grateful for the added variety of ways to indicate a pause with various connotations. To me, ellipses say, "Wait for it ..."

It is a useful device, employed sparingly.


I've noticed a growing tendency to use the reflexive form of pronouns almost exclusively: "I took her with myself' instead of the objective "I took her with me" and "myself and Bob went fishing" instead of the nominative "Bob and I went fishing." This usage has always been common in conversation, but I am seeing it in written work as well, including by people who are fond of snuffing about the poor quality of grammar they see in job applications, etc.. Is the tide shifting? or is it just myself noticing this?

It's not a new complaint, so you may be suffering from the recency illusion. Also, there's that White House.


Ben and Jerry's (instead of Ben's and Jerry's).



I have always preferred to express the time with uppercase letters (e.g., 3:00 PM), though I know that it's technically supposed to be written as "3:00 p.m." Is it ever OK to do this? One of my big pet peeves is when people express the time as "3:00pm" or "3:00 pm," but perhaps my writing "3:00 PM" is just as wrong. What do you think?

Purely a matter of style. The Post, like most newspapers, would write 3 p.m. Lowercase, periods, no :00.

During the break I'm checking the score using my iPhone.

I could say something unkind about those who get their news from TV deserving whatever that entails. But I won't.


Far worse than "teasing" whether a team won its game are TV or radio news promos that tease on some urgent public safety issue, where not being able to find out until 11 PM could make a difference.

Remember when we got harangued about where our children were every night at 11?


I do too. The period used to be so boring... but now it has an exciting new life!

You've been punct'd!


I don't know, but if I met one in the street I'd certainly avoid their gaze.

I know, right?


I'm sharing for the comic value. I saw this handwritten sign recently on a gas pump, apparently to let customers know the "pay by swiping card" function wasn't working. Pay in said. Thank's

Ha. I'm guessing E as an S L, so I'm inclined to be kind.

(And at least people's cards aren't getting swiped, for now.)

Didn't you mean "used to go" in your introduction. Doesn't that phrase always imply past tense?

Finally somebody took the bait! Observe:

I had to go. / I didn't have to go.

I used to go. / I didn't use to go.


That's all for today, folks. Thanks for the great questions!

My next chat would fall on Election Day, so it's possible it'll be rescheduled. I'll keep you posted on Twitter.

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: