Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (January)

Jan 06, 2015

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


Christmas got me thinking about family, and family got me thinking about childhood, and childhood got me thinking about some of my language boo-boos from back in the 19[redacted]s.

You might remember Beverly Cleary's Ramona (The Pest) character and how she thought the national anthem mentioned a lamp called a "dawnzer" that gives a "lee light."

As Billy the Not-a-Pest-at-All, I thought "curd" was another word for "carton." You know, like all those small curds of cottage cheese we bought.

And TV sets, back when they had clunky knobs and switches, had one that turned on the set and controlled the volume. ON VOL, it was labeled, and so I thought that was the "on" vol. You know, the vol that turns on the TV. (I guess it would be churlish to point out that people who think microphones are "mics" are committing the same childish error.)

When I was in high school, my mom inexplicably started saying what sounded to me like "six and one-half dozen of the other." I never asked her "The other what?" or why she was talking about 78 of them.

These little linguistic blind spots aren't always childhood phenomena. Even pompous self-appointed authorities have blind spots. As I may have already confessed in this space, until very recently I thought "segue" was pronounced SEG and was a short form of "segueway." I encountered the latter spelling before I ever noticed the right one, so it was a logical inference.

And you have to admit that's a bizarre spelling-pronunciation combo. I have a vagueway desire to read Vogueway magazine. Hope I don't catch dengueway fever.

Have any dawnzers you'd like to share along with the usual geekery? A large curdful, perhaps?

Hello -- Lately I've taken to using double hyphens ("a double hyphen"?) to denote a shift or replacement for a colon. It looks better with a space separating the double hyphen from the preceding and following words, but I wonder about the "correctness" of doing do. What do you recommend?

You mean a dash, right? Two hyphens = a dash in plain old ASCII text or an old typewriter (though I used to use the "half-backspace" key when there was one to fill in that gap). 

I like the spaces, but more formal publishing eschews them. "Loose dashes" vs. "tight dashes."

You should lowercase "lately" there, BTW.


Hi, Bill. Two related questions: (1) Where do you stand on "such as" vs. "like"? I understand the supposed distinction, but "such as" always looks stilted to me -- one of those terms we never use in real conversation. (2) Advice on issues like (such as?) this often depends on whether it involves "formal writing." Do you consider a daily newspaper formal writing? Thanks.

I cling to "such as," but, well, you know how I am. I wouldn't refuse a beer from someone who disagrees. (The New York Times has long insisted on "like.")

The idea is that "people like me" doesn't include me. I'm not like me; I am me. ("I am Hugh." "You are me?" "No, I am Hugh!")

But, yeah, maybe that's a fine point.

Newspapers are kind of in-between on the formality scale. Like, 40 if 0 equals friendly conversation and 100 equals a paper for Professor Kingsfield.


Why dis and not diss?


Diss came from people mistaking the inflected forms. Dis, dissed, dissing.

It's a newish word, though, and usage might override logic.


Dear Mr Walsh, I have a quick question regarding the irregular verb "hang," particularly when used in the passive voice. My HS Language Arts teacher was adamant: "Pictures are hung, People are hanged." Yet I often hear differently, especially in the news media; For example: "Saddam Hussein was hung--" Which is correct?

You and your teacher have the traditional distinction correct.


I recently argued with some government types about the persistent use of "shall." My belief is that it not only sounds stiff and fussily biblical, it carries needless ambiguity. "Shall" can mean either "must" or "will," so I contend that people should just use "(you) must" for commands and "(we) will" for promises. Come to think of it, there's a third possibility - "should." Seen from the world of contracting: Contractors shall come to work on time = command or contractual requirement. Why not replace this with "should"? We shall provide adequate work space = promise. Replace with "will." Solution shall provide 24/7 capability = an expectation (that may or may not be met). Replace with "should." In my view, it's time to send "shall" back to the Bible.

I'm with you. I use "shall" for jocular mock pomposity, never with a straight face.


I think I notice more grammar issues when I am listening to a news report on TV or the radio instead of reading the text online. I am not sure if the issue is more about the eyes or brain processing information differently or just that some things sound funny when spoken. One of the things that I heard lately was a radio station that says they play better music. But, they don't say better than what? Are they comparing their current music to what they used to play or to what other stations play? Can you really say that you are better without having a second item to compare?

Technically you're right, but usually the context makes the meaning clear. We can safely set the bar pretty low for radio-station promos.


A personal pet peeve: as an example, rather than writing, or saying, something is "10% of" or "one tenth," the current fashion seems to be "10 times less than." Your thoughts?

Ugh. I've vented rather extensively on this. "One time less" leaves you with nothing, right?

Not as bad but still annoying -- and confusing: "Ten times more." Usually it means 10 times as much as, but think about it: "One time more" would be "twice as much as," so 10 times more would actually be 11 times as much as.


is it ever hyphenated? thank you!!!


Well, always as its own term. Maybe not if the words are just coincidentally next to each other (well being a relative term).


Bill, after your last chat, a commenter suggested that if a compound noun stands alone in a different context (“They eat ice cream; the grand jury will convene”), it doesn’t take a hyphen when modifying another noun. If it doesn’t otherwise stand alone (“mineral rich”), it does (“mineral-rich region”). What do you think? And how *does* the Post stylebook decide on these things?

That's a good way to decide when something like "mineral-rich" absolutely must have a hyphen. It's not a good guideline for deciding when not to hyphenate, because it takes the most anti-hyphen stance possible. 

Others will disagree, but I think it looks sloppy and unprofessional to leave "ham sandwich" unhyphenated in something like "That was a good lunch, but it wasn't ham-sandwich good." Or "beer gut" in "One of those beer-gut dudes from Cleveland." You get the picture. 

Post style, I'm afraid, reflects the fact that others will disagree.


Our agency has slides for EEO training for employees. In a slide about disparate impact discrimination, it states that such discrimination exists when “facially neutral employment policy/practice…” I thought they meant “factually” rather than “facially”. I was told that “facially” is the legal term to use, and that its use in this manner is found on the EEOC ruling on Disparate Impact, Section 2 website: Somehow this use of the word still rubs me the wrong way. According to every definition I can find, the word "facially", as an adverb, means from a facial point of view. Is "facially neutral" grammatically correct?

It's not a question of grammar. The issue is legal jargon vs. real-people talk, and this is legal jargon, and jargon has its place.

(Note hyphen in "real-people talk," like "beer-gut guys." "Real people talk"? I don't think so.)


Just a "segue" sort of thing - my college roommate, a cool and erudite guy, amazed me once by pronouncing "lip-synch" as if it were "lip-cinch." That is all.

There you go! (Guess that's an argument for the sync spelling.)


Until high school, I thought "chaos" began with a "K" -- thanks a lot, "Get Smart."

Excellent! Missed it by THAT much!

I bet the Segway has spawned similar confusion. I mean, confusion similar to that but not quite similar to my own segue confusion.

How's that for a segue?


No one should be using "dis" under any circumstances unless you're (a) a rapper and (b) in 1999. The other day my 40-ish unbelievably white colleague said we had to "represent" at a group meeting. Ugh.

Word. He be illin'.



In today's Express the former, but corrected online later. Funny. Full of parody.

In a league with the "Utah Jazz," there's room for parody.


My parents bought their first TV set, an RCA portable (although it must've weighed 40-50 pounds, judging by how hard it was for my athletic father to carry), in December of 1950 when I was 5 and learning to read. The adjustment knobs were arranged in pairs consisting of an outer ring and an inner knob; their functions were marked below them on the control panel with either a large solid dot (for the inner knob) or an "O" for the outer ring. One of the outer rings, called "Fine Tuning" was for the purpose of bringing the image into sharper focus, but I always called it "O Fine Tuning" because I didn't realize that the ring symbol wasn't the letter "O." In retrospect I must've driven my parents nuts by always mis-referring to it, but I have no recollection of their punishing or correcting me.


For some reason that reminds me of the Channel 4 anchor named Pat Lawson Muse. The intro would say her name as though you were supposed to hear  "Muse" as "news" -- "Pat Lawson Muse (News), Bob Ryan weather, whoever sports."

Mussolini was hung though. Even upside down.



Can you recommend some grammar books for a regular guy who wants to write better? A regular guy is not a writer by trade.

I should have a good answer, but I don't. Anyone?


I'm a writer and editor (and other things) for a federal scientific agency, and you should see some of the language I get from brilliant people who have never been taught to write for the public. Lawyers and scientists (and one who's a lawyer AND a scientist). I'm assuming "facially" refers to something like "on the face of it." But as (I think) James Thurber said, "It's still cabbage and it stinks."

I say it's spinach and the hell with it?

Get a nice tomato and we've got ourselves a salad.


The "plain language" movement is gaining more and more traction in government. Is journalism embracing it as well?

Haven't we always? (We've tried, at least.)


Without naming names, what is the most heated disagreement you've ever had with a writer (or editor) about a grammatical issue?

You've seen that argument in this space. A lot of very smart people can't wrap their minds around the fact that it's "one of those people who are ___," not "one of those people who is ___."

I remember reading about Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear, and Minnie, Minnie, Tickle the Parson.

I wonder whether those resonate anymore in Our Secular Society.


I have noticed that TV and radio reporters seem to have fallen into the trap of double subjects, e.g., The Redskins coach he announced today.... The accident it blocked the beltway. HELP!

Me, I haven't noticed this.


This is probably more of a Mondegreen than a Dawnzer, but my alma mater has many school songs, including a hymn-like choral piece that opens "California, here's to thee." One of the lines near the end is, "Stand for right, let there be light" (the latter phrase referring to the university motto), but one time we heard a freshman sing, "Stanford right..." Poor kid just about got run out of the room, and no doubt never made THAT mistake again!

Cardinal sin? Dictionary of errors (Cody, Sherwin, 1686-1959. New art of writing & speaking the English language) [Sherwin Cody] on

Here's one.


It's not a grammar book per se, but if the person who inquired about such books hasn't read _The Elements of Style_, it's a must. Just the thing to help a "regular guy" write better.

There's some controversy about that little volume. They didn't follow their own rules, etc. My latest book, "Yes, I Could Care Less," has a chapter in which I outline my lovehate for Strunkwhite.


As a child I would never eat it because I associated the word "curd" with "turd." Too close for comfort

Wow. You must have been the only kid who didn't love cottage cheese!


Yes. And E.B. White, not Thurber. Spinach not cabbage. But I was in the same ballpark, er...vegetable garden.

E.B. White. Where have I heard that name before ...?


"Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong." I was just charged for four items and got three. The stupid are real stupid and working as store clerks.

Anyone interested in mathematical illiteracy should look up John Allen Paulos's books. "Innumeracy"!


I thought they were called vanilla envelopes

I bet that's pretty common!

The color is sort of like French-vanilla ice cream.

Now I'm thinking of somebody's (Billy Crystal's?) Howard Cosell impersonation. "Manila. The Philippines. Home to the finest folders known to mankind ..."


I still use my Random House Handbook written by Frederick Crews, from a college English class I took 40 years ago. A quick search shows it's still published. (An updated version, I presume.) It is excellent.

Here's another.


Actually, the Philippines long had a cardinal named Jaime Sin, referred to as "Jaime Cardinal Sin."

I've read chats about the Philippines that had less Philippines than this.


You have sometimes (including today) noted that your style opinions don't necessarily mesh with the Post's. If you're not the decider on these nuances, who is? Can't you just beat them into submission? Or is it a bureaucracy problem?

It's a group effort, but even if I were an all-powerful style czar I would continue to think it's important to respect precedent.


Off-topic, but I've always loved spinach, ever since I was a little kid -- fresh-cooked, raw, frozen or even canned. I get so tired of one of my favorite vegetables getting such a bum rap.

And why do so many people dislike beets? They're like candy. They're not even green. 


Hello! Lately I've been stumbling over the punctuation that precedes (or doesn't precede) quotations. Examples: The sign reads "Keep out." The policeman said "Keep out." The policeman said, "Keep out." She said, "I could really use a vacation." She said "I know." She said, I know." He wondered "How am I going to get out of this?" He wondered, "How am I going to get out of this?" Any help greatly appreciated—thank you!

Too many people, even professional copy editors, think every quotation mark needs a comma. So you see writing like:

When I say, "Jump," you say, "How high?"

You even see:

Her favorite movie is, "Gone With the Wind."

The role of that comma is to "introduce" a quote, and clearly "Gone With the Wind" is not a quote. Clearly "Keep out" isn't a quote when it's on a sign. It's a quote when a person says those words, but even then, the comma is not a sacred obligation. Feel free to leave it out when it makes things awkward, as in the example with "Jump" and "How high?"

Think of the Beatles lyric. Don't know why you say goodbye; I say hello. 

You can leave it that way, but if you choose to put the words in quotes, the song doesn't become DON'T KNOW WHY YOU SAY COMMA GOODBYE COMMA I SAY COMMA HELLO.

Don't know why you say "Goodbye"; I say "Hello."


Hi Bill, I had it drilled into me early on that this construction is redundant: "The reason {why} is because. . ." Instead, just say "The reason is." I have heard "The reason {why} is because . . ." so often, by educated folks in public forums, that I'm beginning to wonder if this is another ancient rule that has fallen by the wayside, like accepting that "hopefully" means "I hope." What are your feelings about this usage in formal writing? Should any attempt be made to avoid it in oral communication, or is it just generally accepted now?

See below.

Sir: Either "the reason this happens" or "why this happens" is clear enough, so I thought I was on safe ground editing "the reason why this happens..." as being a classic redundancy. However, it was pointed out to me that "the reason" is a noun and "why" is an adverb. Plus there are many examples of "the reason why" going back hundreds of years. MWDEU says "there's no reason why you can't use this phrase." My sense is that in most constructions it's just clumsy and could stand a light trim. What say you?

I edit out the mild redundancy to avoid distracting people who have been taught to be distracted by it, but it's not a big deal.

The place where, the person who -- we live with plenty of similar constructions.


By popular demand, more from the Philippines.




Greetings. What's the proper way of punctuating a sentence that ends with a word ending in an apostrophe? For example, which is correct? "I got nothin'." or "I got nothin.' "

The apostrophe needs to stay attached to the word.


More in the way of legal jargon: in legislative and regulatory jargon, either "shall" or "must" means "is required" while "should" means "is suggested or recommended." These days, in regulatory writing, "must" is preferred to "shall," though the latter still seems favored in Congressional drafting. The "must/should" distinction is very important in the regulatory world, as it distinguishes mandate from guidance.

What's important is important. Context is context.

I love tautologies almost as much as I love beets.



How many layers of review does a story go through before being published by WaPo? Do the reviews also measure journalistic and grammatical standards? Some stories are simply dreadful on many accounts. Thank you.

Layers of editing vary, as does dreadfulness.


Here's another book about English Usage:

The library continues to grow.


Should I give up on expecting people to use may/might correctly? The difference is so clear, I don't understand why 'may' has taken over.

I don't see any harm in using the words interchangeably in most cases. 

If anything, I see people hypercorrecting "may" to "might" and altering the meaning of the sentence.

"She may have gone to the concert" means we don't know whether she did. Change that to "She might have gone to the concert" and you have a statement that suggests something prevented her from going. She might have, had that babysitting gig not come along.

If you're hung up on the "permission" thing, first vs. second vs. third person is usually a good cue before you even get to "may" or "might." 

"You may go outside" isn't likely to be a speculative statement about the possibility, and "I may go outside" or "she may go outside" isn't likely to be a statement about somebody giving permission. 


It seems to be getting very common to make this substitution.For instance,I hear people say such things as "I should have went" very often. Is this now considered correct usage?

No. It's a common error.


I never ate cheesecake or cheese danish as a child because I thought they were made with something like cheddar and they sounded terrible to me. I still won't eat sour cream, though I no longer think it's a higher-milkfat version of sour milk, but that's more self-preservation than a taste thing.

Never looked at pinup pictures either, then?


Dear Mr. Walsh, which is the correct way to write plural of in "Many NGOs fundraise at Christmas" or "The wait time at many DMVs has decreased". I've seen it written both ways. Is one correct? The same question for "the 2000s" or "the 2000's" when referring to years. Thank you.

No apostrophe, unless you're backed into a typographical corner such as an all-caps headline (NGO'S FUNDRAISE AT CHRISTMAS). Even then, it's optional. 

The New York Times, which uses some all-caps headlines, used to extend that option to other type for consistency's sake.


How do you decide the spelling of Arab names? Go with the source or do you use a list of preferred spellings?

That can be tough. What do you consider a source? With transliteration, there are often, even usually, conflicting "sources."

So we have a general guideline, but we'll follow a person's preference if that person is, say, doing business in the United States and styles his name a certain way on his card.


Hi Bill, My concern was not so much the phrase "reason why" instead of just "reason", but that is was followed by "is because." That's what makes it redundant.

Right -- I file those mild redundancies in the same vanilla folder.


When using a set of brackets in a quote for clarity (for instance, identifying someone who is referred to by a pronoun), should you replace the words being clarified or slot it into the sentence like a parenthetical? I've seen it written as both "He [Bill] told me he could not care less," and, "[Bill] told me he could not care less." Is it situational, a difference in style guides, or is one way just plain wrong?

I used to insist on leaving the original word in, and even on including ellipses when the word is omitted, but I've relaxed out of necessity, because so many writers do it the other way.


They are good for something

Have the hipsters started using beet juice as a chaser yet? That would be much better than the "pickleback."


Blame blogging.

Immediacy and polish are always in conflict. It was true for wire services for decades, and now, yes, it's true for blogs.


Hi. My grandmother was a legal secretary back in the 40s and 50s, working at some swanky firm in New York. She was a real stickler regarding grammar. When signs first started appearing that "elevators shall not be used in event of fire", it drove her crazy. (Comma in the right place?) I've never really understood why (and she's been gone far too long to help). I think "must" in place of "shall" would make more sense, but am I missing something else? Thanks for settling a really old question!

If there's ever a place for imperative wording, that's it.



When I was little I referred to that white flavor of ice cream as "Manila."

Hey, maybe that new Philippine restaurant serves that!


Thanks for Arab numerals. Try long division with Roman numerals!

See today's Frank and Ernest comic strip.


I know there's a massive genre of misunderstood song lyrics, but I must mention one passage I misheard for 30+ years (starting in high school). In "Stairway to Heaven," when the music turns raucous, Robert Plant sings "And as we wind on down the road ...." Until last year, I swear I thought it went "And there's a wino down the road ...."

And, of course, there's a bathroom on the right.


Uber backlash was soooo 2014. In 2015, ______ will face a backlash because _____. ■ Airbnb . . . of the confusion around lack of appropriate homeowner’s insurance. ■ Amazon . . . they will be the only retailer left. And they will decide it’s time to make some profits. ■ Bitcoin . . . it fomented a revolution in Russia. 4. Once Snapchat and Tinder become passé, the kids will all start using an app that _________________. ■ Sends your friends a joint — once they’ve registered their medical necessity, of course. ■ No one over 40 will have heard of until it’s valued at $5 billion. Just make__________________________________up. Say _______________loves it. Sell the ________________ not the ____________.



Beets, the Philippines, Frank and Ernest. We even snuck sneaked in a little grammar.

Thanks, all, and it looks as though the first Tuesday in February is the 3rd, so 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 "Yes, I Could Care Less." He tweets about language as @TheSlot.
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