Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (December)

Dec 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'm running a little late this afternoon, so I'll keep the intro short. I invited my Twitter followers to submit their usage beefs -- should have come up with some sort of "list for Santa" theme -- and so I'll be addressing some of those, and perhaps you have some to add. 

What's the Post's policy on hyphenating these? It seems arbitrary to me: no hyphen for "grand jury investigation" or "revenge porn law," but "mineral-rich region"? And what are your thoughts on hyphenating "simple" compound nouns (e.g., real-estate agent, high-school student). Thanks!

That's probably where my work practices and my personal practices differ the most. The Post would write "grand jury investigation," whereas I would write "grand-jury investigation." I even hyphenate the simple ones. Post style does not, and one of my problems with that philosophy is that it's hard to draw the line. We're not always consistent, and one of my goals is to come up with an easier-to-follow rationale for those pesky hyphens.

If you quote one word from a previous statement, and that word ends a question, where does the question mark go vis a vis the quote marks? Is this correct: What do you mean by "intelligent?"

If the quote itself is a question, the question mark goes inside. If the entire statement is a question, it doesn't. So:

What do you mean by "intelligent"?

If both are questions, inside. Just because. That's the arbitrary practice:

Have you seen "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"


"It’s humbling to know I am one of the few people who was there for these moments, that he's no longer around to share them." This appeared (on a reputable publication no less) in a postmortem essay on Robin Williams, and is but one example of the rampant misuse of the verb form of 'humble,' which I see all too often from all too many publications and people. Should we grab the bastardized child of 'humble,' pinch its cheeks and tell it that we accept it no matter how much it's changed and misused?

I'm more concerned with "one of the few people who was there." A few people WERE there. 

I'm not even sure what the writer means by "humbling" there. You wouldn't object to "It was humbling to be in his presence," would you? 


dead heat: (lack of) serial comma & non-hyphenation (or non hyphenation)

I'm with you on hyphens (see above), but I can't get too worked up about the serial comma. 


Ending a sentence with "to do so" with no antecedent.


People who have pet peeves.

In my role as a usage critic, I walk a fine line. (Is that an expression? Or am I walking a tightrope?) I'm interested in the quality of published writing. I'm interested in common misconceptions. I'm not interested in shaming people for their level of education (hence the "... Without Being a Jerk" part of my latest book's subtitle), but there is some overlap between that and common misconceptions. Increasingly, because the Internet has made so many of us "published" writers, there's overlap there, too. So ...

Hypercorrective misuse of "I," particularly "between you and I." *shudders* (Also "myself," to a lesser degree.)

Continuing the previous thought:

I get this one a lot, and it gives me pause. In published writing, yes, a professional should know better. But this error is more common from amateurs, and, as I said, I'm not as interested in their foibles. 

The hypercorrection part, of course, puts us back in overlap territory. That fine line again.


It's the rare person these days who says "who" when referring to people. Instead, a woman that I met ... a man that witnessed the crime ... people that rioted .... Is there any stopping this?!

"That" isn't wrong-wrong in such cases.In some cases, it's better than who/whom (of course, I'm drawing a blank on an example right now). I'd rather see "the person that" than "the company who ..."



Copy edit or copyedit? And should we really let the copy editors/copyeditors make such an important decision for themselves?

I've ranted about how the onewordization of "copyedit" and "copyeditor" and "copyediting" strikes me as ironic, given that one of the missions of the copy editor is to minimize jargon that people outside a certain field might not understand, or at least might not read so easily. Those forms strike me as hard-to-read mishmashes of letters. Like "servicemember." 

Christmas vs. Xmas?

I'm not a big fan of "Xmas," but I caution against taking it as offensive. Snopes has a good debunking.


WHOA, NOT WOAH. I'm about to turn into Yosemite Sam, yelling, "When I say whoa, I MEAN WHOA!!"

You have my permission to shame people over this one.


Not so much asking a question as seeking support and validation from the forum -- unnecessary capitalization. This is as rampant as the free-wheeling insertion of "quote marks" where none are needed. Perhaps it's because I'm a writer/editor by trade that I see this all the time and feel powerless against it. I suspect my clients believe that capitalizing something imparts that it is something you should NOTICE and consider IMPORTANT. But if I have to correct another executive bio that says, "Joe Smith has 12 years as an Account Director in the Pharmaceutical industry," I may lose it.

Restaurant menus are also rife with Arbitrary Capitalization.


I still refuse to say or write "to wait on" in the incorrect but nowadays commonly-used senses of waiting in line or waiting for someone or something. To me, "to wait on" is what a server does in a restaurant, a clerk in a store, and the like. Is there any chance of stamping out this misuse, besides keeping on using the correct preposition after "to wait" in hopes it will sink in to the brains of others by continued exposure?

That's a regional thing -- waiting "on line" rather than "in line." 

How would you characterize the verb "slice" in the sentence "The bread slices easily "? What about, the description of the start of a hockey game, "The puck drops at 7"? In both cases, the verb seems to have been changed from passive ("can be sliced," "will be dropped") to active voice. Is there now a third voice midway between active and passive?

"The soup that eats like a meal!"

There must be a term, though I don't know it offhand. New examples can grate, but there are well-established ones -- the car drives smoothly, the text reads fine.


You were concerned with "one of the few people who was there" but the writer was correct. The subject "I" was there. ("People" is not the subject.)

Yes, it is. (The other people weren't there?)



The opposite side of the coin is that I confess to referring to my beloved cats using "who"!

I like "who" for animals with names. ("Guga, which broke my heart when it died"? No.)



Mr. W., I think you have the definition of humble rather than the link to Snopes's debunking.

Thanks. Try this.


Your copyedit question reminds me of the increasing transformation of two words into one. I don't have an objection to underway, which until recently was correct as under way with few exceptions. I, however, still object to AP changing its rule on Web site (which I see the Post still uses) to website since Web is a proper noun. Is our society so fast-paced that even a hyphenated word like fast-paced will soon be fastpaced?

You could argue that "website" is like "congressman" -- Congress is a proper noun, but it loses the cap in the compound form. 

I rarely see "begs the question" used correctly. It is always used in the sense of "raises the question," and it means no such thing. I saw the latter usage in the Post recently, but I can't find the article now. I hear the phrase used on TV news as well and find myself questioning the intelligence and thoroughness of those who misuse the phrase.

That fight is pretty well lost, but I cling to the distinction. It's such a nifty concept, though it doesn't come up all that often, and what's wrong with "raise the question"?


Not exactly in your realm but did you notice the misspelling of "Advertise" in the Black Friday Mattress Warehouse broadcast commercial? How in the world does that happen? I can see it happening in print (and I do) but in a commercial? Where are the copy editors? The proofers? I guess I could ask the same question regarding print too but the TV commercial typo seemed SO much worse!

Sorry I missed that, and by "sorry" I mean "not sorry at all." Where are the copy editors in mattress ads? I think we know the answer to that question. 

(From the archives, my rant about "Black Friday.")


It was good enough for the Rolling Stones...

One of my favorite Stones songs!


What happened to the word farther? It seems everyone is incorrectly using "further" to describe distance. I can't put all the blame on Ford, but their ad campaign doesn't help!

I'd call that a little nicety; not sure it rises to the level of correct vs. incorrect.


Mostly I hear people speak a second "r" in Sherbet. (SherbeRt). Is this the new way?

That pronunciation has been around for a long, long time. It's why they went and invented sorbet, right?


The distinction between and the appropriate usage with the phrases "in contrast" and "by contrast" are little addressed in grammar books, including those of Bill Walsh.. What is the current thinking on using these phrases?

Do you have a rule of thumb?

Off the top of my head, I'd say that "in contrast" works wherever "by contrast" does but not vice versa. If the phrase is followed by "with," you always want "in contrast." As an introductory clause, "by contrast" is a little better but "in contrast" works as well. 


In this season of giving, help me understand if there's ever a good use of "gift" when "give" will do nicely. (Example: "They frequently gift us large sums of money") Do you have guildelines at the Post for this? Seems to me that give, gave and gifting covers all the bases.

Yes, The Post and I do avoid "gift" as a verb. My sense is that the usage was more common 50 or so years ago than it is now, but I could be wrong. 

How do you choose the spelling for foreign names that are not easily Latinized? Muammar Gaddafi is used by the Washington Post, BBC, Reuters, Wikipedia,, Al Jazeera. U.S. State Department uses Qadhafi. Muammar Qaddafi is used by the Vanity Fair, The Christian Science Monitor, Fox News, The Onion. It is Gathafi on his passport.

It's less orderly than you might think. (Or maybe not!) I don't deal directly with such issues much, but it's a combination of Arabic or Russian or whatever speakers weighing in, what others are doing, and some basic principles on which we try to stay consistent. 

I find sometime egregious mistakes in the hard-copy Post - does anyone really edit the articles or just use spell-check? For instance, in the Sunday Outlook Section, page 3, "Despite perceptions, today's young people are less prone to bad behavior than THERE elders." (Emphasis mine.) And I bet Stanley Weintraub enjoyed having his book called "....An Epic Tale of Courage and Survival During the KOREN War..." instead of "Korean War."

Yes, we really edit the articles. A lot of them, on tight deadlines. Believe it or not, we can even blame technical difficulties for some errors. But, yes, we fall short at times.


Have the rules of grammar changed since I was a child? I am often seeing people using "and" and "but" at the beginning of a written sentence. I was taught one could not use a conjunction in this manner. (One can use the word "however" at the beginning of a sentence if one is thinking of using "but" at such a location.)

It's a common superstition, but there has never been anything wrong with beginning sentences with conjunctions. 

In fact, "The Elements of Style" advises against beginning sentences with "however," because in that position the word can mean something different (However I try to work this gizmo, I can't make it work). That's overly cautious, of course (the comma or lack thereof clarifies things right away), but I still find myself substituting "but."


Why not finesse the problem by writing instead, "One of the people there"?

There are cases where writing around a tricky usage is appropriate, but I don't think this is one of them.

To insist on "one of the people who was" is sort of like insisting on "Federer is one of the greatest PLAYER of all time," because, after all, Federer is your precious subject.

I so totally agree with the original post! Begs the question is NOT raise the question. The former means phrasing that presumes the accuracy of your assertion in your own statement.

Begging the question is wrong because it is incorrect!


I know that protocol is going to vary from one publication to another, but what's the general consensus on correcting -- or simply improving -- punctuation in quotations? With the increasing use of email to communication with sources, or when using quotes supplied in a press release, what are today's standards for cleaning up punctuation without altering the source's meaning?

That's a good question. 

I would never change words in a quotation, spoken or written, but I think it's fine, even necessary, to fix spelling and punctuation and capitalization in e-mail interviews -- provided the attribution is worded appropriately.

If an interview subject writes "yeh i spose obamas gonna do it," a story might read:

"Yeah, I suppose Obama's going to do it," she said by e-mail.

If, for some reason, you're presenting the quotation as a verbatim transcript, and attributing it as "she wrote," then preserve the original spelling, etc. But that should be a rare case.

By the way, I think we're close to the point where specifying that a quotation came from e-mail is no longer necessary, but others disagree.


The mention of the Mattress Warehouse commercial reminded me of a Food Network spot about hunger, in which a cheflebrity announces "I wish that one in five children didn't have to worry where their next meal is coming from." What about the other four?



Less than half of the milk remains, but fewer than half of the children ate their spinach.

One in five get neither!

("Gets neither?" That would be the standard answer, but I like "get" there. It's a ratio, not a literal reference to one child.)


Yes, this is a middle construction that de-emphasizes an agent over the patient, but is formed with an active verb, not seen much in English -- it prefers a passive -- but perfectly grammatical. As to whether it "feels" natural, I leave that to the readers.

Thank you.


Anything to quote the Marx Brothers: Zeppo: Anything further, father? Groucho: "Anything further, father"? That can't be right. Isn't it "Anything father further"?

You said the secret woid!


I am a college professor who reads research papers and essays very regularly. By far, my biggest pet peeve is the incorrect usage of the chemical element "lead" as the past tense of the verb "to lead." How does this one rank with you?

It's an understandable error, both as a misunderstanding on the part of someone who knows that "lead" is sometimes pronounced the same as "led" and as an easily missed typo by someone who knows better. 


...whether the idiomatic 'two cents' calls for a singular or plural verb. If your "two cents" is* your opinion, which itself, in some instances, is* just one idea, is it your two cents or are they your two cents?

Singular, right? Here is my two cents, not here are my two cents?


Is there a rule for team names, their cities and who/which? AP says "Broncos, who" but "Denver, which." How does that follow?

In American English, at least, "Denver" = "the team" and "Broncos" = "the players," so it's a simple matter of subject-verb agreement. 

"The Broncos, which" would sound pretty silly. "Denver, who" would sound ... British.

With newfangled singular team names, it gets trickier. You could carry over the "players" idea and go British with "the Miami Heat, who," but most U.S. publications stick with subject-verb agreement and make it "the Miami Heat, which." Neither approach sounds great, but the latter makes more sense to me. 



I appreciate the validation on the origin of Xmas and find myself explaining it to people who get bent out of shape for believing its use is "xing out Christ." Likewise I don't understand the objection to saying "happy holidays" since this means happy holy days, and point that out as well.

My two cents: If you're offended by good wishes, word choice is the least of your worries.


Or like Hells Angels. One is fine, a gang and it's trouble!

Hey now!


This really irks me. "They were tasked with..." How about "The were told to.." or "They were given the task of..."

It is kind of biz-speak-y.


Thanks, all. If my calendar is correct, the first chat of the new year will be Jan. 6. Happy holidays (don't be offended!), and see you then.


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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