Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (November)

Nov 11, 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! Well, we pushed the chat back a week thinking that Election Day might be a distraction, and here we are on a much-more-distracting-than-usual Veterans Day. There's no Blue Line, you can't drive anywhere, and Springsteen and Rihanna and Eminem are doing their gargling exercises in preparation for a blowout on the Mall.

Tramps like us, in a hopeless place -- success is our only m---- f---- option; failure's not!

So ... hit me with your best shot. (Or is Pat Benatar not on the program?)


Have you ever been tempted — perhaps, for the fun to it — to use two colons in one very adventurous sentence?

Like rubbing up next to each other? Hot colon-on-colon action? Oooh. But I'm afraid this isn't that kind of chat. (And I kinda wish "colon" didn't have that other meaning right about now.)

Actually, I find myself fairly regularly having to edit out double-colonization. For instance:

Here are the three states I've never visited:

-- Alaska: Because it's far away.

-- Hawaii: Ditto.

-- Washington: This one makes no sense.

In a bulleted list like that, I'll keep the introductory colon but use periods in each item.


Why doesn't the Washington Post update its editing software and change "Wal-Mart" to Walmart, the name used by the company? How often is the software updated?

Software? Perhaps you mean the stylebook used by human editors?

But that is a good question. The answer is that the company is Wal-Mart. Its most recent logo says Walmart. Wal-Mart might change the logo next week and make it Tram-Law or something. 

Wal-Mart is welcome to change its actual name to Walmart; if and when it does, we humans at the Post will change the stylebook we use accordingly.

We could write about Wal-Mart and its Walmart stores, but that would be kind of silly. In a lot of references, the company and its stores are one and the same. The same goes for Exxon Mobil and its ExxonMobil gas stations and J.C. Penney and its JCPenney stores.


I sometimes use quotation marks to express sarcasm, e.g., referring to Russell Brand's "profound analysis" of Stephen Harper's speech after the attack on Parliament in Ottawa. Is this a legitimate use of quotation marks?

The risk there is that people will think you're quoting somebody. Conversely, quotation marks around a word or short phrase can be read as sarcasm when we intend them to mean a quotation or the introduction of an unfamiliar term. "So-called' has a similar problem. 

I text with my girlfriend a lot, and I've noticed that ways we add meaning to our missives with unconventional punctuation - like omitting periods, adding line spacing, or splitting thoughts or sentences with the send button. To me, there is a real art to a beautifully designed romantic text. I know this isn't a question really, but I'm wondering if linguists like yourself see texting as the evolution of a new form of expression with new rules?

I'm not a linguist (but I do play one on television). But I would think there are some studying that very thing. My pickypants brethren are more likely to be hmphing about nonstandard abbreviations and lowercase-gone-wild and the end of punctuation, but I'm with you: Those devices, as long as they stay in the texting realm, can start to resemble poetry.


I recently came across "all for not" and it occurred to me that homonyms are at the root of a lot of things that bother us language nuts. So I say we should eliminate homonyms. Does anyone out there know of any languages which are homonym-free (perhaps because they have very regular spelling rules)?

Indeed. (Anyone know the answer?)


Does that sentence bother you? I bet it does.

Yes! Okay, so when was "last summer"? It's fall, and summer was the previous season, so does it mean "the last summer that occurred," or is it shorthand for "summer of last year"? You may think you know, but the person saying/writing such a thing may well think of the concept differently. 

Once the new year comes, of course, there will be no ambiguity. And the ambiguity does fade a little as September turns to October to November to December. But careful writers will say "this summer" or "this past summer" or "summer of last year" or "summer of 2013."

What can be done to get people to stop saying "Sundee" or "Mondee" instead of saying "Sunday" or "Monday"?

That's a regionalism, isn't it? Or maybe it's generational -- I picture an old man when I think of that pronunciation.

Or, er, an even older man.


what are your thoughts on the Interrobang? That question mark/exclamation mark that was introduced in 1964 for redundant questions.. Typically done by pressing alt and 8253 in caps lock mode.

Redundant questions? Isn't it for questions that are also exclamations? It would be useful sometimes, but it's a novelty and not something used in prose more formal than, say, Mad magazine. 

Why is it allowed to skip the comma when listing things? For instance, "I like the ice cream flavors chocolate, butter rum and strawberry?" I was taught that it should be "....chocolate, butter rum, and strawberry..." since the butter rum and strawberry are not apart of a single title like tom & jerry.

So you're a fan of the serial comma, or Oxford comma. In journalism, we generally skip it. Purely a matter of punctuation style. 

(This might be a good spot for my occasional reminder that we deal with more than just grammar here on Grammar Geekery -- punctuation, spelling, capitalization and levels of formality don't qualify as "grammar.")


Nothing, because there's nothing wrong with it. Surely you don't think anyone else actually cares about this?

Every dog has its dee.


Being asked if I'd like a water, a coffee or a tea has always sounded weird to me. I visualize an unrestrained beverage floating in air and feel like the questions should be worded would you like a bottle of water, a cup of coffee, a glass of tea, etc. On the contrary, being asked if I'd like a Coke or any other soda doesn't sound weird because, unless it's a fountain setting, the question is self-explanatory since sodas are served in bottle or cans. Any validity to my claim or am I the weird one and not the phraseology?

"A coffee" used to be a British thing, but it seems to have established itself here. I haven't heard "a tea" (I'd think of that as meaning a tea party, a formal tea service.) And "a water" wouldn't have made sense 30 years ago, but now that we buy it in bottles ... (Imagine a time traveler from the '60s or '70s marveling at how darn thirsty the people of the future are.)

I grew up in Michigan saying "pop," and so "soda" sounds a little weird, but "A soda," to me, means an ice-cream soda. When I went to college in Arizona, this led to a comical exchange at the Swensen's in Tucson. I wanted "a coffee soda," meaning coffee ice cream in soda water with maybe some coffee-flavored syrup. The jerk (!) ended up shrugging and giving me the seltzer and the syrup, no ice cream. 


Excuse the silly word play, but it really gets my goat that “goat cheese” has become “chèvre”. French is my mother tongue, so hearing or seeing the language doesn’t bother me at all, but this just seems pretentious.

You have to admit it sounds more elegant, though. And it might trick some of those misguided goat-averse people into trying it.


Two words I can't stand are disinterest (in the sense of uninterested) and preventative instead of preventive. We have two perfectly good words already in use. Why these made up words?

Yes, "preventive" is preferred, though the extra syllable is harmless enough. And we do seem to be losing the battle on "disinterested," which is supposed to mean "impartial." 

Do we really have to accept "a even older man?" Even when the "a" a long "a"? (No comments on my own grammar/punctuation here, please. )

No. Two exceptions:

"The law is a ass." (Dickens.)

"Can it core a apple?" ("The Honeymooners.")


Should a Latin phrase be in italics? Typically I use italics for foreign words and phrases . But much of Latin is a part of English.

It's a matter of style, but generally you would draw a line when a term from a foreign language becomes assimilated in English. So no italics on quid pro quo or ipso facto, maybe, but yes on e pluribus unum. 

Say Sundae! November 11 is National Sundae Day 1945 Vincent Martell of the music group 'Vanilla Fudge' was born.

That's what I should have ordered at Swensen's!


AMEN, BROTHER! I too have always wondered about this, but I think there's no answer.

In speech, "last summer" might be easily understood, but writing has higher standards. And we have these weird do-si-do moments with "Not THIS weekend, but NEXT weekend."

Which is correct? (a) None of my family members has visited Australia. (b) None of my family members have visited Australia. Grammar geeks insist on (a) but (b) sounds OK and is common -- even among educated native English speakers.

Right. Either is acceptable, but I'd say "have," meaning "not any." Some will insist that "none" always means "not one" and therefore is always singular. Some are wrong. 

That one is right up there with commentator/commenter. Grr. In other news, if my yoga instructor says "lay down on your mat" one more time I might cry real tears. Except I adore her so I'll try to keep it to myself.

A commentator is more than just a commenter, no? Was Howard Cosell simply commenting all those years?


does that also apply to "orientate"? or is that an actual word different from "orient"? I recently heard a Berkeley PhD (a scientist, to be fair) use "legitimate" as a verb, rather than "legitimize." Is there something inherent to words ending in "ate" that make people screw with them?

Some of those "needless variants," as the great Bryan Garner calls them, can grate more than others. Harmless, sure, but ...


But at what point does a word become assimilated in English? Is there an authority on that?

Some dictionaries use their own italics to show which ones, in their editors' opinions, are not assimilated.

Growing up, we always learned that singular possessives were formed by adding an apostrophe + "s," even when the word/name itself ended in "s," the only exception being the names of certain ancient figures (Socrates', Jesus'). Today the rule seems to have deteriorated to the point where it is now considered a question of personal preference—e.g. Mr. Jones' house, the dress' frills, etc. Presumably when people write this way, they have in their mind some vague rule to the effect that if a word as written ends in the letter "s," then it is somehow wrong or unhappy to tack on an extra "s" at the end. But the logic is arbitrary, and therefore easily confused with another rule, equally obscure, that applies to the sound "s," not the letter. Thus have I seen: Leibniz', Marx', Descartes' (silent "s"), Moravec', etc. I confess I tend to find this all rather infuriating in the light of the simple rule we learned in primary school. Do you have a position here?

"Mr. Jones' house" vs. "Mr. Jones's house" is a matter of style. The Post uses the apostrophe-s, but most newspapers use just the apostrophe. We'd also use just the apostrophe on Descartes'. With your other examples, I think, the apostrophe along would be nonstandard. 

I recently moved to New Zealand. I notice that collective nouns such as "Exxon" are used with the plural rather than singular verb. Example: Exxon are considering new environmental standards for drilling. I would have considered "Exxon" to be an entity that acted as a unit rather than a group of shareholders or employees. Is this a British thing or is the usage changing. Thanks for your consideration.

Yes, that's British English. Oliver's Army are on their way.

"The apostrophe alone," I meant, not "along"!

Is "epicenter" inexorably coming to simply mean center? It seems that "epicenter" is widely used by those who simply mean "the center," and almost never used to mean what a seismologist might say.

That's a common pickypants complaint. I've stopped worrying about it, not only because of the reality you're pointing out (that meaning is in dictionaries) but also because I'm not sure the objection ever made sense.

The first definition, of course, is the seismological one -- "the area of the earth's surface directly above the place of origin, or focus, of an earthquake," according to Webster's New World. That meaning hasn't gone away, but it's used only in reference to earthquakes. 

A non-earthquake use of the word would be inherently figurative, and so I'm not sure what the "proper" figurative use would be. Is the objection that what we really "mean" is the focus, the spot underground? If we're not seismologists, though, I think we would be more interested in what's going on on the ground.

Now, you could argue that "epicenter" (like "on the ground") is overused to the point of cliche, and you might be right, but I think it would be wrongheaded to simply change the word to "center" in a writer's description of Brooklyn as the epicenter of hipsterdom or whatever. The intent is to invoke something explosive, or at least radiating waves of influence, and "center" alone loses that. 

(I do wonder whether "epi-" is being misread as meaning really-very-most, the way some people think the "pen-" in "penultimate" makes it super-duper-ultimate, but that's a minor quibble.)

Normal English Usage: That's a regionalism, isn't it? Or maybe it's generational -- I picture an old man when I think of that pronunciation. Or, er, an even older man. Da translation is: ats a regionalism, isn't it? Or maybe it's generational -- I pitcher an old man whenever I think of that proNOUNseeashun. Or, er, an even odor man.

Pittsburgh, as it happens, is the site of next year's American Copy Editors Society conference.

Everyone's invited!


Do you put the trademark on ALL mentions of a trademark or just the first mention? Ditto the copyright?

No need to use them at all, unless you're working for the company and the company wants you to.

There might be an exception if you're a competitor using a rival's trademark in an ad, but I don't think there's anything legally binding even there.


Watching TV last night and saw an add for a Jeep product, and the announcer intoned, "The most awarded car in American history" or some such nonsense. I have only started hearing this usage recently, and it strikes me as grammatically incorrect, probably just a way to avoid saying the longer phrase, "The car that has received the most awards in American history..." What do you think?

If anything, "the most awarded car" would be the one given to contest winners most often, right?


Are you as bothered as I am by this current (and confusing to meaning) use of the word "drops?" As in, so-and-so drops new album, meaning "releases" new album. It's even worse when applied to commercial products where it comes off looking like the exact opposite of what it says. To me, "drops" means stops making or cancels, not "releases or introduces." I seem to see this all the time now. What say you?

I suppose you could describe me as mildly "bothered," but that's more a function of my being an old fogy than it is about anything related to clarity. (Don't get me started on how every song is Somebody "feat." Somebody Else.)

The opposite-meaning objection hadn't occurred to me, but that could be because the situation might be even "worse" than you think. Just as video games and new gadgets now "ship" and soldiers "deploy," the verb "drop" has done sort of a transitive-to-intransitive reverse switcheroo. In my experience, at least, new albums "drop" these days; they aren't "dropped" by the recording artist or the record company.

(Do we still call them "record companies"?)

Getting back to your image-contrary-to-reality objection, though, I have a similar problem with prices or stock indexes or whatever "spiking." The meaning is a sharp upward movement, but I think of the sharp downward movement of a "spiked" football or a "spiked" news story. (I'm not old enough to remember copy paper being impaled on a spike, but I have worked in a newsroom that kept one of the spikes around as a relic.)


Update Jay Z too! Thanks, Xy-Z

We have! Are you still seeing the hyphen sometimes? (We've had our inconsistencies with the accent mark on Beyoncé, too.)

“Few of our own failures are fatal,” economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford writes in his new book. Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure [Tim Harford] on ... read in this space, I saw a new example I was unfamiliar with every third page.

I'm not sure I'm following.


Thank you for this. Signed, A Human Editor (Software hasn't replaced me yet, darnit!)

It's trying.


I see this on the sports page on the time -- resigns versus re-signs.


Then there's the difference between recreation and re-creation.


I tried the method outlined and got nothing.

Sorry. Is Bill Gates looking in?


Does it bug anyone else, that "invited" could mean you have to pay to get in? Invited to the American Copy Editors Society conference is $450 a day for non-members.

Sorry. I was being a tad cheeky for the benefit of my organization.


Both ?! and !? are used in chess notation to indicate a surprising move that may look stupid, but may in fact turn out to be brilliant.

Boris Spassky's looking in!


I dunno -- if you already have one kid, then re-creation CAN be recreation! ;-)

[Insert interrobang here.]


November 12 Chicken Soup for the Soul Day November 15 National Spicy Hermit Cookie Day Its American name derives from the Dutch word koekje or more precisely its informal, dialect variant koekie [3] which means little cake, and arrived in American English through the Dutch in North America.

Spicy Hermit Cookies?!



Why is Sylvie so brangy?

Why indeed?!


Have you noticed that “get the better of” seems to be mutating into “get the best of”, (though I'm not 100% certain the latter is wrong)?

Hm. I think they're both established idioms, though "better" is no doubt more common. 

Which is correct: I wrote the note for him and me. I wrote the note for him and myself. If you take the other person away, it clearly sounds wrong to use "me", I hear the first sentence very often, while the second sentence seems a bit clunky.

I'm semi-stumped here, but I think you're making a good case for "myself."


Thanks for dropping by, everyone. Please join me again on the first Tuesday in December, which appears to be the 2nd. 

We'll have all our holiday shopping done by then, I trust.


My error. I mean NUM LOCK and use the numbered letters (K=2) that works with laptops. Desktops you use the keypad. Not all fonts or software accept this.

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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