The Washington Post

Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (February)

Feb 03, 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.

Greetings! Are you upset about allegedly poor grammar in "Fifty Shades of Grey"? Upset that "gray" has become "grey"? Would you take an ax to a gray mustache or an axe to a grey moustache? It's Grammar Geekery time! Let's go ...

Good afternoon - I could use some guidance on tact in the office. My boss routinely signs off his emails by telling his audience, "If you have any questions, please ask Sarah or I for assistance." Is there a gentle way for me to point out his error, or am I better to continue ignoring it? It's been eating at me for close to four years now, but I can't come up with any way to nudge him in the right direction without sounding stuck up. (In a similar vein, another colleague will not stop making reference to the "EPA O-zone Standard" and I really don't know what to do to help the poor man... )

The tactful thing would be to ignore it. Be a language snob without being a jerk :-).

Language does change. Should I just except the fact that "lay" has supplanted "lie?" And let's think of a way we can get people to stop using the abominable "him and I," (and other forms of the same error) as in, "Please send your report to him and I."

As with the previous poster's boss, the "him and I" thing is always going to be with us. Case is hard.

Lay and lie? I say "lay down" when I'm not writing or editing. But not when I'm writing or editing.

(And you've heard of Muphry's Law, right?) :-)

 

I was hoping that the tendency of people saying "no problem" instead of "you're welcome" or "that's all right" would fade away but it's still going strong. Any suggestions on how to respond without coming across as confrontational?

Actually, I've never understood why there has to be a scripted answer to "thank you." What if it truly is no problem? Or with "Would you like a Diet Pepsi?" (People get upset about "I'm fine" supplanting "No, thank you.")

I keep seeing (something like) "... a friend of my father's..." A friend of your father's what? Your father's barber? Doesn't the apostrophe forming the possessive obviate the need for the "of"? And vice versa? Shouldn't it simply be "a friend of my father" or "my father's friend"?

Think of "a friend of mine" as opposed to "a friend of me." That's the theory behind the double possessive, anyway, but it can sound rather picky and it certainly isn't mandatory.

I had planned to illustrate my rant with examples of excessive hyphenation culled from today's paper, but I couldn't find any. Has the post changed its style or automated punctuation inserter recently?

As I've said before, we're not very consistent on that issue. The best way to be consistent is to hyphenate compound modifiers pretty rigorously, but others at the Post (and you, apparently) aren't with me on that. 

We can agree to disagree over whether to scoff or smile at this.

 

We're editors, so naturally inclined to correct others' language. But in social situations, and many work situations, even, I consider it a dick move to point out others' errors. (And don't get me started on the whole "what really constitutes an 'error'' issue.) Do you have a polite way of discouraging that, when you're a third-party in that conversation between the corrector and the correctee?

I'm not sure I've been in that situation (I don't get out much), but the phrase "now, now" might come in handy.

Wish I'd known you when I was thinking of that subtitle. I kind of like "How to Be a Language Snob Without Making a Dick Move."

 

Is this a fairly new way of stating that a football team is declining to run a play? I've been a football fan for more than 40 years and don't remember it always being used. For some reason, I personally find it irritating.

I'm not sure. I heard it for this first time when arguing with a friend about 10 years ago about the whole "running up the score" thing. It strikes me as very odd that 300-pound men get their little feelings hurt if they lose 68-7 instead of 14-7, but girls in 12-and-under tennis routinely win or lose 6-0, 6-0 without crying about it. 

 

WHY HAVE BOTH OF THESE WORDS, FANTASTIC AND FANTASTICAL?

ALL GOES BACK TO 17TH-CENTURY SUPERHERO.

FANTASTIC
AL.

 

Oh, I've been waiting for you, Bill. Have adverbs gone extinct? Is this another acceptable evolution of the language? Other things on my mind: is it correct to say that someone has become a "new" (grand)parent for the second, third, etc., time? This is nitpicking, I know, because we all understand what's being said. But it seems inaccurate, nonetheless, to say that, for example, Stanley Tucci just became a new father at age 54 when he's already got teenage kids. Or that the woman who died in the Metro fire had "twice become a grandmother." Last thing -- busted vs. broken. I was admonished by my prescriptivist mother that "busted" was poor grammar and made one sound uneducated. Yet, I see mainstream media (or mediums? I see that too) report on a "busted water main." Thanks for letting me vent.

On adverbs, do you mean the dropping of -ly? "I darn near died" instead of "I nearly died"?

Interesting point on new parents and grandparents. There's definitely a redundancy in those examples -- you don't suddenly "become" a longtime grandparent -- but I suppose you could argue that the newness is in the "parent/grandparent to" sense. He was already a grandfather to John and Jason and Caitlin, but he's newly the grandpa to Kaydenn or Mahkaylahh.

"Busted" is informal, but I don't see it as wrong.

 

On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being horrible, how bad is impactful. And if so, why is it used so much? @drjohnm

Bryan Garner, probably the leading authority on American English, calls it "barbarous jargon" and says it doesn't work the way other -ful words do. 

I wouldn't use impactful, but I have to register a mild (and rare) disagreement with Garner here. The -ful sense seems clear to me -- full of impact -- and not inherently flawed unless you're objecting to impact as a noun meaning influence or effect.

Now, impact as a verb meaning to influence or affect is hopelessly tainted as biz-speak, and I think that's the problem, perhaps to an even greater degree, with impactful.  

It's jargon, but I'm not sure it's barbarous. I'm not sure where that puts it between 1 and 10. 

 

 

Is it "a couple of weeks", or "a couple weeks"? i.e. is the "of" necessary? Outside the US, they seem to always include the "of". Is this an American thing? ... and while we're at it, why do Americans hardly ever say "fortnight"?

The "of" is considered necessary. Although it gets confusing with something like "a couple hundred dollars." A couple of hundred dollars? A couple hundred of dollars? A couple of hundred of dollars?

We do say "fortnight" during Wimbledon. When we're not saying "Wimbleton."

 

A friend and I are constantly arguing whether the correct verb to use is 'bring' or 'take.' For example, I brought a cake to the dinner or I took a cake to the dinner. Can you clarify the rules for us?

The standard distinction is that it depends on which perspective you're writing from. You take something to Barcelona on your vacation and bring something home to the Hybla Valley section of Fairfax County. 

But that's often hard to decide, so just say what sounds better.

 

I'm confused about a comma rule. I understand that a comma should be used in a compound sentence, as in: "The boy missed the bus, so he had to walk to school." I thought that when the second subject is removed, no comma is necessary, since the second sentence is no longer complete, as in: "The boy missed the bus and had to walk to school." Yet I frequently see this construction: "The boy missed the bus, and had to walk to school." I see it in novels and articles everywhere. Isn't this incorrect? Or am I missing something? I see it often enough to assume that I'm the one who's misunderstanding something here. Thanks for your help in clearing this up for me.

I call that the "take a breath" comma. It's usually unnecessary, but occasionally it injects a useful bit of nuance.

 

Bill: In President Obama's State of the Union address, he uses contractions like "we're," "can't," etc. Uses them throughout the speech. These are given as such in the official transcript that was released prior to the address. So we know that the speechwriters put them there intentionally. And in many style guides, there is advice to avoid the use of contractions, as these are considered informal. Slangy even. Well, there's nothing more formal than a presidential address to the nation. Ergo, can we retire the idea that contractions are verbotten in formal text?

Yes. When you studiously avoid contractions, you run the risk of sounding like a robot, or like a non-native speaker.

Still, it's tricky. (It is tricky?) I bristled at the Post stylebook's admonition against contractions for many years, but now that I've deleted that guidance, I find myself un-contracting a lot of words in copy. You want some level of formality. Police said he has killed 17 other prostitutes, not he's killed.

 

What is your approach to the 12am/pm/midnight problem? Some parts of Europe use 24 hour time and use 24:00 to mean "the last moment of the day" and 00:00 to mean "the first moment of the day."

In journalistic style, as opposed to flashing VCRs and microwave ovens, there is no 12 a.m. or 12 p.m. It's midnight and noon. 

That gets tricky when you want to tell readers that something is going to happen "at midnight Tuesday." We know, from looking it up in the stylebook, that midnight ends Tuesday, before midnight and a nanosecond begins Wednesday, but most readers probably don't. So sometimes I change that to "the end of the day" or use some sort of 12:01 or 11:59 cludge.

 

I suspect you're referring (Muphry's Law) to the "except" in lieu of "accept" which came about due to my (not "me") dictating and not editing my question.

I figured it was something like that, or an easy typo if you're in a hurry. That's why I didn't get more snotty, in which case I no doubt would have committed my own error. 

Is it correct to use the word 'firstly' in this country? I only see the British use it.

It's not incorrect, but "first" does the trick, doesn't it? 

Everyone is a public writer now. What would you say are the 5-10 errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. that you see spreading--that is, becoming more common--as a result of the Internet and Social Media? In your opinion, which of these current errors will eventually become accepted usage (and thus, no longer be regarded as errors)? (Personally, my teeth grind whenever I see Washington Post writers--yes, The Washington Post!--writing phrases such as "give it to you and me" or putting quotation marks inside the period. They do this in online chats when they don't have your assistance.)

An essay question! I don't have time to come up with a thorough answer, but my shock at the transition from "e-mail" to "email" would be a very early example. 

More recently, I've noticed the spread of blog-speak -- "walking back" a statement, "slow-walking" a proposal, etc. (On the plus side, we're doing a lot more walking!) 

And today I mentioned "grey" and "axe." Not sure I can blame the Internet, but I have my suspicions. 

 

I recently had a boss editing an important petition to be filed in the Supreme Court. It used a simple, precise verb -- one for which there is no substitute. Essentially, I was writing the sentence "The Beatles comprised John, Paul, George, and Ringo." The boss's edits returned. I found a slash, and read that "The Beatles were comprised of John, Paul, George, and Ringo." When I stopped weeping, I asked a colleague how to tactfully let my boss know that she had gone astray, joining so many others in killing one of the great verbs. The brief was painfully filed, with "The Beatles were composed of John, Paul, George, and Ringo." And I was sad. America, bring back "comprise"!

My position on comprise/compose/constitute/consist is that even if you do it right, it looks like showing off.

So I usually change those to something like "is made up of."

 

 

Do you share my disdain for seeing forgo spelled forego when the meaning is to do without. Has this become an acceptable alternate spelling to you?

No, but you can see how people less erudite than you and I (you and me? you and myself? George and Ringo?) would make that mistake. 

Do you ever see that in the "forward" of a book?

 

... or "You speak better than I?" Is the "do" superfluous?

It's not necessary, but it doesn't hurt anything.

 

I really think Dick Emberg is responsible for getting the all the other tennis announcers to speak of fortnights rather than two weeks. I thought I'd be glad when he was gone, but now I miss references to "the magical Majorcan" and "the fiery Serb." And I can't hear "terre battu" in any voice but his. (sort of off-topic, but I know you're a tennis fan too. We could do a whole chat about American tennis announcers vs. everyone else)

And don't forget Bud Collins. "The Barcelona Bumblebee"?

I have had a recent recurring problem where I cannot keep the definitions of the words "wary," "weary," and "leery" separated. I keep find myself halfway through a sentence, only to realize I've backed myself into a conversational corner where I'll be forced to pick the correct one for the context, and I usually slur out some hybrid word that probably sounds a lot like "Larry." Clever mnemonic to keep them straight?

Weary rhymes with bleary, as in your eyes when you're sleepy?

 

For ten years I've been listening to my boss use "akin" as a verb, as a synonym of "compare." One day I'm just gonna lose it.

Wow. 

Do you work at Akin Gump?

 

I corrected a CNN anchor via Twitter on a grammatical point on something she had said on air. Someone who saw my Tweet said that I could correct grammar on Twitter or I could just type, "I am an asshole; I am an asshole;..." over and over. Point made (but not taken well). I wasn't correcting Twitter-speak but on-air grammar. I think the media should be setting examples not making errors to be perpetuated (presumably) by their (its?) audience.

It is a fine line. Even when you're trying to be helpful, you risk coming off as a jerk.

And I don't envy broadcast types and their no-backspace-key media.

 

John, Paul, George and Ringo comprise "The Beatles."

Quotes and caps? Nah.

 

Does a sentence beginning with the word "Currently" always require a comma?

No. Commas with introductory phrases are eminently flexible.

It's not hard to imagine going both ways with the same thought depending on what else might be in the sentence:

Currently, I'm working on a biography of Harold Solomon.

Currently I'm working on a biography of Harold Solomon, but next week I hope to start my book on Eddie Dibbs.

 

Is Dick Emberg the slightly wider and longer-pausing version of Dick Enberg?

Dash it all!

I’m an editor and I’m really getting tired of all the grammar police in the world today. Check any online dating site, and you’d think grammar is the single most important thing to a woman today. Seriously. If you ever confuse your and you’re, you’re so screwed. But I feel like a lot of this grammar outrage is affected. Why do people care so much? I get paid for these things to matter, but when I’m not getting paid for it, I don’t care. It seems like it’s some sort of insecurity or need to feel smart. What do you think?

You're so screwed, or not, as the case may be?

I address this a little in the latest book. In a lot of cases, all we have to go on about another person's intelligence is how they speak or write. It's unfair to people whose intelligence takes different forms, but it's a reality.

 

Why is that sports teams are considered plural or singular based on the name of the team? It seems silly. You’re referring to a team of people, and it should be consistent. It makes no sense that the Miami Heat is to singular and the Washington Wizards are plural. A team is a team. Can we change this rule?

This is one of those cases where either choice sounds wrong. Unless you go all British and say "Miami are" while you're saying "the Heat are," there will be some seeming inconsistency.

 

Hi! I work for a global organization that employs many practitioners of the Queen's English. I notice that even the most educated Brits (and otherwise articulate BBC radio personalities) tend to ignore distinctions in word usage that well-educated Americans are taught to observe. For example, I always use "that" to introduce a restrictive clause, while universally apply "which" for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. I have also noticed that Brits tend to ignore the distinctions that we Americans use to differentiate toward/towards and further/farther. What do you think? Am I misreading the situation?

There is no shortage of grousing on both sides of the pond about the migration of usage preferences. Suddenly Americans are saying "went missing" and "have a coffee."

But your examples are, to varying degrees, debatable even within American English. Brits are more likely to say towards, I think, but it's perfectly acceptable in American English. In fact, if I had to guess, I'd say towards is more common among normal Americans, as opposed to Associated Press Stylebook-observant Americans, than toward

Further vs. farther is a well-established nicety, but it's not a huge deal.

That vs. which is more complicated. The debate fills nearly four pages in my most recent book. The British are indeed more enamored of the restrictive which than Americans are, but many very smart Americans make the case that there's no point to the distinction. 

Bryan Garner and I like the distinction, but -- another rare disagreement -- I don't think there's an issue of clarity or utility there. He does. I'm of the mind that observing the distinction digs a little moat to guard against a clarity problem. I cling to the distinction (in college I kept track of one professor's irregular use of which), but I won't argue if you dismiss it as a mere peeve.

 

Thoughts on AP Style's change on this? AP now is okay with sentences like "The restoration cost more than $25 million" reading "The restoration cost over $25 million." AP used to be so strict on the former that relaxing that rule is taking some getting used to for me,

I agree with the relaxed guideline. "More than" sounds better in a lot of cases, but there's nothing wrong with "over" in a lot of other ones.

And don't get me started on my fellow copy editors who would change the idiomatic "just over" to the non-expression "just more than."

 

You bring things here. You take things there.

A simpler explanation, no doubt from Hybla Valley.

 

But "grey" is not wrong. It's just, if you are American, pretentious.

Right-O.

 

Unless this person is truly confused by who the "I" refers to, there's no reason to seek a correction. However, if you're looking to really endear yourself to your boss, by all means correct them over such a petty matter. Just make sure you hit "reply all" button. - Brought to you by Bad Advice jeans.

More sound workplace advice.

As opposed to more-sound workplace advice.

(The hyphen is a necessary evil with "more" sometimes, but it's always ugly, even to hyphen-loving Bill Walsh.)

 

I sent an email to my softball team about the upcoming spring/summer season and I wasn't sure if I should have subtracted the seasons ("spring-summer") instead of dividing them. I think subtraction is the better (or only proper) choice, but I prefer the look of division. I'd like to see your solution to this problem. Please show your work. Thanks.

For once, someone has the terminology down pat!

I try to avoid the slash, or virgule, when possible. It has an air of illegitimacy.

So I'd use the hyphen there, but the slash is probably more common. Purely a style choice.

 

Has there been an increase in errors since the Post bought out and retired some of its older, more experienced staff?

It's hard to say, but probably. There has also been a huge increase in workload in the Web era.

 

Is "very unique" always wrong?

Given that "unique" means one-of-a-kind, it is hard to picture something being "more one-of-a-kind."

That's not to say the word can never be modified. Here's a long post on the issue. (Bonus: It includes cheap malt liquor.)

 

 

... unless you hear "This point in time." Nails on a chalkboard.

Don't you mean "at this particular point in time"?

 

I've had to edit both AP and British style, and the "team" issue is the one case in which I think the Brits got it right over us. I think it would be better to go that way. Or ban teams from having singular mascots.

You're probably right. And who among us would say "I'm going to Harris Teeter -- it has good produce" rather than "I'm going to Harris Teeter -- they have good produce"?

 

It grinds my gears to see the word "couple" treated as a plural noun when no other noun indicating a group of things (well, okay, maybe "team") is so treated. "A couple go into therapy" is, to my ear, wrong. We don't use plural vers with words like "throng," "crowd," or "audience," so why do writers and editors insist on doing this with "couple"? Am I out of line here? "A couple goes into therapy." There! What's wrong with that?!

Yes, you're out of line. A couple can go on their honeymoon. Yours would go on its honeymoon?

They broke up! (It broke up?)

 

I think The Beatles with a capital T is a trademark or something.

Bah. 

Who knows how much I hate that? You know I hate that still ...

Unless it's The The, I'm lowercasing.

 

 

I guess it says something about me that on the sites I frequent, the profile owners are more likely to confuse "dominant" and "dominate" than "your" and "you're."

You may also be familiar with "amature" porn, then.

 

And what is this--@--called?!

The "at" sign! Back when I was learning to type on a manual typewriter, we were taught that it was "at each," as in limes @ 10 cents -- at 10 cents each.

 

 

A co-worker recently took issue with a sentence containing the phrase "clothes with tears." She thought tears can only refer to a manifestation of crying and not torn clothes and that the word should have been tares, which I contended is old English. Which, here in 21st-century America, is correct?

Huh? Of course it's "tears," but I would have tried to rewrite such a sentence to use "torn" and eliminate the potential ambiguity (and possible DNA-testing of clothes).

 

Is there a difference? If so, what is it?

Technically, "presently" means "in a moment." Or at least it used to.

 

Does "them" refer to the boss? If so, wouldn't it be "him/her," or if you know the gender (please NOT "sex"), the appropriate pronoun. Are we feeling better about refer to an individual as "they" or "them?"

Short answer: Yes, we are feeling better about that. It's really the only good solution to the gender problem.

 

He has good produce.

Is/was HT a guy? I figured it was two names joined.

 

 

If news media is designed to convey information, why are headlines always so cryptic? They always seem to leave out the details. It might just tease people by saying, “Famous actor dies in accident” without saying who actually died. I realize this is supposed to get me to click the link to read the article (and see more ads) but it does a disservice to the reader by not just letting them know who the article is about. Why did I need to be tricked into reading a story? It makes it seem like the goal is less to provide news and more to get people to see ads.

It the actor is truly famous, yeah, that's some irritating clickbait.

Different issue, perhaps, but that reminds me of a fight I had with a top editor at a previous job. He was annoyed that we used "lawmaker" in a headline rather than the name of the congressman in the story. Only the congressman was a very obscure one with a very common name. Something like Rep. John Smith of California's 23rd Congressional District. That's who you would have thought of if a headline referred to Smith, right?

So I guess I'm adding an asterisk: Sometimes less specific could be more specific.

 

Have journalists/editors made any progress in adopting a better word than "mistress" for the non-marital (or extra-marital, or whatever) companion or sexual partner of a celebrity/politician etc? I cringe every time I hear or read it....it seems archaic and frankly, just awful. It suggests Victorian servitude, has no equivalent for the male participant in the "arrangement", and doesn't even suggest the reality of the situation. I mean, did Tiger Wood indeed have several "mistresses"? Is a sex worker a "mistress" ? Surely there is a better way to deal with this. Do any stylebooks even address this conundrum?

Good question. I have not seen this conundrum addressed. Any thoughts, my dear adults and adultresses?

Last month, I posted a comment to an article by a doctor who faced pressure to have her own child by C-section. It's bothered me for years that publications, and people, insist on referring to these procedures as Caesarean sections, even though there is ample evidence that Julius Caesar was not delivered using this procedure. Though I did receive a rebuttal to my explanation of the origin of the word "cesarean," I received no rebuttal to my insistence that the WP and other publications stop referring to it as "Caesarean." What's your take on this issue?

You would just say "C-section"? What would you say if somebody asked you what the C stands for?

There are all sorts of anomalies like that. Boston cream pie and Boston coolers have nothing to do with Boston. Coney Island hot dogs (like Boston coolers) are a Detroit thing. Julius never made a Caesar salad ...

 

As a deaf person, I suck at writings like most other deaf since our sign language is more visual. Geiger Grammar program helped me a lot..

I'm not familiar with Geiger Grammar, but thanks for the tip. Could be earth-shaking!

 

"Or ban teams from having singular mascots." The University of Georgia is nicknamed the "Bulldogs". Its mascot is UGA (an actual dog). This one really bothers me. It probably shouldn't.

Right. I've seen references to the controversy over the Redskins' mascot. No. It's over the Redskins name. Or the Redskins' name. Either the apostrophe or the lack thereof works in this case.

Well, this is a first: far more questions than I could get to. I'll try to answer the best of them next time, which, according to my calendar, would be March 3. (Darn these early Tuesdays!)

Thanks, 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 "Yes, I Could Care Less." He tweets about language as @TheSlot.
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