The Washington Post

Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (March)

Mar 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, and happy Grammar Eve!

Yes, tomorrow is Grammar Day, so you can expect all manner of language-related clickbait, some of it downright dubious. I guess I regard the observance the way an alcoholic looks at St. Patrick's Day. (Interesting analogy, there, Bill W.)

And this is where I again have to plead guilty to misusing the word "grammar" in the name of this chat. The word has come to stand for usage in general, but only about a third of the questions I fielded in the February installment dealt with grammar -- we also talked about spelling and punctuation and style and speech customs, among other things.

On the bright side, Grammar Day is an occasion for excellent haiku.

What's on your mind?

 

 

Old Man Winter bad.

And not only in the down-with-patriarchal hegemony sense! I'm all for the four seasons (and the Four Seasons and the Four Seasons), but suddenly I'm remembering what I liked about living in Chandler, Arizona.

Though you're raising that pesky theodicy question.

 

That expression conveying an intent to have a child or children always sounded odd to me, as though a childless couple is NOT a family. What's wrong with simply stating we hope to have a child soon or something like that?

Stay away from "House Hunters" if you don't like that expression!

But yes, that's just one of many examples of the semantics of other-hood. It's something writers and editors need to watch out for. Not everyone is a white suburban 9-to-5 worker who's straight and married and has kids and drives a car and goes to a Christian church, or church at all.

I recently changed "across the Anacostia River" to "east of the Anacostia River." The former just assumes that readers are west of the river.

The examples are endless.

 

I prefer simply using the word whether because including or not seems redundant. Are there any rules on this or is it a matter of preference?

Sometimes it's redundant, and sometimes it isn't. It's pretty easy to tell.

"I need to know whether or not you're going to the game." (Redundant.)

"I'm going to the game whether or not you come with me." (Not redundant, because "I'm going to the game whether you come with me" would make no sense.)

 

What's your stance on "I would like to make clear..."? Have we reached a tipping point and good ol' "make it clear" is far too wordy?

I used to insist on the "it" -- I even put that peeve in my first book -- but now I'm not so sure.

Is skipping the "it" fine when that "it" is spelled out? I want to make clear that I am innocent, as opposed to I'm innocent -- I want to make it clear

Anyone have a thought?

 

 

When I (meaning me) am a direct object (or an indirect object) in a sentence, I'm supposed to use "me," right? i.e. "Marty spoke to Helen and me."

Right.

 

Hope you saw (or can find online) the skit performed on "Saturday Night Live" last weekend sending up the misuse of "literally." I thought of you throughout the piece.

I need to look that up.

I did see the Kristen Schaal character on "The Last Man on Earth" insisting to a comical degree that the last man on Earth not end sentences with prepositions.

 

I'm so glad it's March now, because if I hear one more broadcaster say "Febuary" [sic] I'm going to scream!!!

You'd think people would have learned that sort of thing at the liberry.

 

Does a comma go before because as if it was a coordinating conjunction like for, and, nor,but, or yet, or so. I see that construction everywhere although not a single grammar book indicates that is the proper usage. What's the story with 'because'?

It depends.

He didn't buy the suit, because it was blue. (He dislikes blue.)

He didn't buy the suit because it was blue. (He bought it for some other reason.)

 

My 7th grader gets advanced math, yet gets all spun around when diagramming sentences. Why is that?

People still diagram sentences?

(Confession: I've never done it.)

 

In fact, avoid all poke purchases.

I make an exception for delicious Hawaiian fish salad.

 

"Scientists have found the complicated reason Indian food so delicious" Sigh.

Fixed now? 

If so, it's a naan issue.

 

What do you think of "via"? Too casual to use in journalistic or business communications? I have team members who love to use this word. My rule of thumb is that once in a while it's OK for variety, but in general I try to replace it with "through." Is this the right approach?

Sounds as though we're on the same wavelength.

But don't get me started on "per." ("Per Joanne, all expense reports have to be submitted by the end of the month.")

 

But do be careful not to confuse a predicate nominative for a direct or indirect object!

Or a Cretaceous crustacean, for that matter.

 

 

Wow! My kids' schools no longer teach that and it makes me sad. I actually found it useful, especially later in school when I was trying to learn other languages. Having broken English down into its parts made understanding foreign constructions easier. To be honest, though, I think our teachers were using diagramming as a form of advanced torture. I went to Catholic school. They made us diagram prayers.

A fair amount of misguided usage advice seems to have been imparted with the whack of a ruler.

In other Catholic news ...

 

Is one of these correct (or preferred)? I recall Cardinals being addressed as firstname Cardinal lastname, as in Francis Cardinal Spellman. Now I see them referred to as Cardinal firstname lastname, as in Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Not even the Diocese is consistent in its press releases. Is this a matter or WaPo or AP style?

The John Cardinal O'Connor construction strikes me as dated. I may be wrong on that, but Post style would be Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

How has the use of social media changed grammar rules? I know that the auto spellcheck feature often gets people in trouble by changing words that people type. Some people don't bother with capital letters or punctuation or worse yet, just type in ALL CAPS. My guess is that we are reading much more written words than 10 years ago. It sometimes seems that there are more chances to offend someone by making a poor choice of written words. I imagine all of these things are working to alter how we communicate and the rules for writing.

Ordinary people certainly are doing a lot more writing for public consumption. And there is the capitalization thing. Beyond that, I hesitate to make generalizations other than to observe that all this volume, volume, volume seems to have accelerated the pace of language change, for better or worse.

 

I accidentally wished "my wife Amy" a happy birthday on a certain social media site. Are all my friends laughing at me because I've implied that I'm a practicing polygamist? Or is that distinction mostly by the wayside these days?

I doubt your friends noticed, unless you hang around with weirdos like me, but nothing has changed when it comes to punctuating "restrictive" vs. "non-restrictive" (or essential vs. non-essential) clauses.

My wife, Amy takes a comma because the Amy part is unnecessary -- it merely adds additional information (her name) about your wife. A polygamist's wives would go without commas because in that case the names would be "essential" -- my wife would not provide enough information to identify the woman in question.

This becomes a nuisance for copy editors and reporters as we find ourselves having to determine whether a brother/sister/son/daughter is the only one.

 

Not to be a dessert pedant, but in your last chat you stated that the Boston Cream Pie had nothing to do with Boston. It was created in Boston and is Massachusetts' official dessert. Now Boston Coolers are a different story.

I stand deliciously corrected.

What about the baked beans?

 

This is the sort of judgmental nonsense that drives and students crazy. The rules for coordinating conjunctions has been in concrete for years. Now, it depends? Sorry, even a good reader cannot in good conscience grasp your distinction of usage. Otherwise one is in the world of creative writing, something a good reporter should strive to avoid.

Did you read the examples? There are different meanings depending on the presence or absence of the comma; you can't just rubber-stamp a supposed rule on all instances.

 

Outside of your own books, what other tomes do you recommend for the poor benighted souls -- pardon me, read that: cool dudes and dudettes -- who actually like this stuff?

Anything by Bryan Garner, Patricia O'Conner, Constance Hale, Barbara Wallraff ... 

The list is long. 

 

My favorite was the late Filipino Jaime Cardinal Sin.

Yes!

 

Does the Post prefer one or the other?

We use the the. Traditionally, there was no such thing as "a reverend." We said the reverend before a preacher-person's name the same way we say the honorable before a judge's name. Because reverend looks like a job title rather than an adjective there, people started to treat it as such, but well-edited publications still observe the distinction.

The Post does make an exception for second references in obituaries, where you'll see Rev. Jones and the like.

 

I find this fascinating, because one of my pet peeves is people using too many capital letters in places they don't belong. Like this: "My Dog Fido has been sick today and the Vet says she needs more Medicine".

Right, the arbitrary cap, as in She majored in Biology. 

For decades, people in my line of work policed against companies' attempts to grab attention through all-caps logos. Now we find ourselves imposing initial caps on names that use all-lowercase logos.

 

I've been translating an essay that includes a 124-word sentence. Sentence diagramming skills have helped me to identify the subject and predicate, and to recognize how all the clauses in the sentence fit together. (True confession: I plan to split up the behemoth into multiple short sentences).

In my experience, a fair number of people who learned to diagram didn't get the advanced lesson, and so you see them tossing around part-of-speech terminology to defend "He is one of those people who spits" as opposed to the correct "He is one of those people who spit."

 

It seems to me that many writers of impromptu, unedited web content did not grow up reading anything more complicated than Peter Cottontail. They seem not to have seen a lot of words spelled out. How else to explain "phased" instead "fazed" or "shuttered" instead of "shuddered"? These dont look like typos or autocorrect to me.

English spelling is tricky, and plenty of people were lousy at it before the Internet.

I do find it ironic, though, that on the other side of the coin you get spelling pronunciations -- such as often with the T pronounced.

 

In some languages, book titles are written as though regular words or phrases, e.g., "Lapsing into a comma," "The elephants of style" and "Yes, I could care less."

That is true.

And styles differ when it comes to when you start to cap articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. Newspapers cap the four-letter ones; book publishers generally don't. So I had to beg for Into and With instead of into and with.

 

Some people actually pronounce the "r"?

Yes!

I'm reminded of when Gene Weingarten was railing against the "shtrenth" pronunciation of strength, arguing that of course it's "strenth." 

Meanwhile, I (and at least one reader) was like, WHAT ABOUT THE "G"?

 

Actually, please do address this. What's wrong with that shorthand for "according to" in something professional but not widely published, like a memo?

Oh, nothing, other than it being biz-speak that seemed to suddenly take regular-speak by storm.

 

From a copy editor's perspective, what's the one thing that writers can do to help make your job easier? Or what one error do writers most often make that drives you and your fellow copy editors nuts?

I'm trying to come up with a good list of such things for a speaking gig. I think most copy editors would be happy to handle the picky little style and grammar things if writers promised to always get the facts right.

Alas, we're human.

 

A recent editorial in the Post used the awful phrase "at one point in time." What does the style guide say?

Well, the style guide can't cover every conceivable phrase.

 

As an editor by trade, I find the question of whether one should be descriptive or prescriptive about grammar to be interesting and important. I'm not a PITA about grammar (I don't correct people in conversation or make a nuisance of myself. Well, maybe a little), but as a professional copyeditor, I think it is important to know the rules. Otherwise, we all can talk any old way we want and claim to mean any old thing we say we mean. If the author I'm editing uses "which" and "that" interchangeably, I'm going to fix the usages per accepted rules of grammar, even though his or her meaning is fairly clear. If my author uses an "everyone/they" construction ("everyone should be sure their fly is zipped"), I'm going to fix it, even though the standard seems to have changed to allow it. If my author uses "only" in the wrong place in a sentence, I'm going to fix it, even if the meaning isn't really compromised (however, it can make a huge difference sometimes: John kissed only Mary is quite different from John only kissed Mary). Anyway, rules matter. I get it that language is a living, evolving thing, and that's a good thing, but when is it okay to ignore the rules? When does a rule become burdensome or ridiculous? Who gets to say when a rule no longer matters?

My most recent book was an attempt to sort through that question. It's complicated. 

I'm probably more liberal than you are on some of those specifics, but you're essentially summing up my viewpoint: There's a difference between the social science of how language works and the best practices we adhere to in professional publishing. 

 

 

The transcript of the president's last State of the Union address has this sentence: "2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record." Should numbers be written in words when they occur at the beginning of a sentence, particularly in the SOTU, or am I too fussy? I don't like the way it looks, but with your help, I can get over it if I have to. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I note a sentence in one of John Boehner's written statements: "We look forward to warmly welcoming Pope Francis to our Capitol and hearing his address on behalf of the American people." Since when does the pope speak for the American people? I think the Speaker has something dangling. How could anyone not notice Boehner's boner? PS Please gently tell us when we make errors in this forum. This is not the time or place for your polite restraint. We're grammar geeks. Its what we're hear four.

Styles vary, but if there's a place to make an exception to the don't-start-a-sentence-with-a-numeral rule, it's with years. Neither Post style nor Associated Press style would write "Two thousand fourteen." (Or would it be "Twenty fourteen"?)

The Boehner quote isn't a dangler; it's a case of ambiguity through proximity. The reader can draw brackets more than one way, as in "I saw the man who hit me with a chihuahua." 

 

Does anybody else think grammar-criticisms and typo-humiliation are going too far now? I'm starting to get tired of perusing the comments of articles because people lose their minds if they see a random typo or mistake. Never mind that 99.99% of the article is perfectly-formed and spelled English, and never mind what the article is actually about, people are spazzing out because the author accidentally put "it's" when they meant "its".

Yes, though I'm not sure this ranks all that high among the other nutbaggery and abuse that I find in comment threads.

And I have to take such comments as proof that good editing boosts credibility, though we now also have studies that show as much.

 

This word "hopefully" bothers me because when folks use it, as they constantly do, I sense they use it incorrectly. Example: "Hopefully mom will win lotto!" ... to me this means mom WILL (without question) win the lotto, and when she does, she will be in a hopeful state of mind. Any thoughts?

That objection has been pretty well debunked, I'm afraid. Hopefully functions as a sentence adverb, like a lot of other -ly words. Here's what I wrote when the AP Stylebook editors decided to accept it three years ago.

I am compiling a list. So far I have Euler, Goethe, Proust, and Yeats. Any journalistic ones whose mispronunciation mark you as an outsider? (My name is spelt ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced Throatwobbler Mangrove.)

Hi, Raymond!

This might be a better question for a TV or radio guy, but the (rather dated) one that comes to mind is Lech Walesa (vuh-WEN-za). 

Here's a list of contemporary celebrities with hard-to-pronounce names, for those who like annoying slide shows.

 

Hi, Bill. I've noticed that the abomination "thusly" seems to be gaining a stronger foothold at the Post lately; sometimes I see it several days a row, mostly in the Style section but elsewhere, too. I've actually written a couple of the perpetrators polite e-mails pointing out that "thus" is not only correct but two letters shorter; both responded that they see nothing wrong with "thusly." Are you aware of any dictionary or grammar guru who agrees with them? I did once read (perhaps in your chat?) that many people think adverbs have to end in "ly," but even if that were the case, it wouldn't justify this mistake. Anything you can do to hold the line at the Post would be much appreciated!

Yes, "thusly" is unnecessary -- and even more pretentious than the already-pretentious "thus."

 

Manhattan's walkway between and parallel to Sixth and Seventh avenues is signed "6 1/2 Av." How would you pronounce that? "Sixth and a half avenue"? "Six and a halfth avenue"? How would you write it, using either numerals or words? Seth

Interesting! Halfth? I guess you'd have to say and write 6½ Avenue. That would be Post style, at least. We go to numerals at 10 -- Ninth Avenue, 10th Avenue -- but number plus fraction takes that form. Some people think you'd have to write out the words in speech, but that makes no sense to me. It's not as though there's a pronunciation difference between "six and a half" and "6½."

You mentioned an upcoming speaking engagement; is it something that would be open to the public? Care to list any opportunities to grill you live? (I'm not a WaPo plant, promise, just a fan!)

Stay tuned for my closing remarks!

 

My dad worked with a man whose last name was spelled "Featherstonehaugh" but pronounced "Fanshaw." His nickname on the machine shop floor was "Feathers."

Nice!

 

Is there ever an instance when the ending quotation marks should go inside a period or comma? (U.S. usuage)

Not in most style guides, though you'll find a movement toward British style in some quarters. 

Exception: Technical writing, in which you want to make absolutely sure the person you're guiding does not type that period or comma.

 

My kiddo reads *a lot* and so from time to time he says a word completely in context but pronounced wrong bc the only time he has encountered it is in a book he has read. It is adorable.

Adults do that, too, though not as often or as adorably.

 

Of course I understand the meaning with or without the comma. But I will argue all night that that kind of usage is bad writing. For such a simple sentence, it still depends on the grammar knowledge of the reader, and many if not most readers would either be puzzled or let it pass by. 'He didn't buy the suit, because it was blue.' is a very poor example of what you are attempting to say. Clear, effective usage should not be in the universe of Occam's razor. If you simple said, 'He didn't like the blue suit, so he didn't buy it.' is clearer.

"No comma after 'because' " is one of many guidelines that have some basis in practice but are sometimes erroneously elevated to unbreakable-rule status.

 

Oops: No comma before because.

It was not clear why Clinton, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, created the private account. But the practice appears to bolster long-standing criticism that Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have not been transparent. Bill, could you explain what the Clintons are, if not transparent? Translucent? Or opaque? Like this sentence.

Opaque is, yeah, something else. I don't think that sense of transparent has an antonym other than not transparent.


Besides Febuary and liberry I've always been annoyed by 'preciate it. I rarely hear anyone actually say appreciate.

That would be noying.

 

AS an editor with a government agency, I used the Government style. When the work was slow I would read 'Elements of Style' by E.B. White to keep my brain alert. Thanks for your work. Helen

Is this Helen from Fort Lincoln? If so, hi! (And if not, hi!)

 

In "How Green Was My Valley," a schoolboy from an impoverished coal-mining family was mocked for pronouncing "misled" (a word he knew only from reading) as "MY-zuld" rather than "mis-LED."

That is also part of a treasured family story -- it happened with my brothers in the back of Dad's '71 Datsun.

Decades later, at the Post, I caught a reference to that movie as "How Green Was My Family."

 

I recommended this during your last chat. I believe there would be widespread interest in a column on the nuts and bolts of grammar and writing. Everyone today is a writer. It's essential in business; it's essential in social media. You could even recycle questions from these chats, like Carolyn Hax does, so you wouldn't even have to work hard at it. My question: Have you ask The WP about this?

That sounds like work! But I'll put it out there -- thanks for your interest.

 

That's all the time we have today -- thanks for joining me!

If you're interested in experiencing my blather in person, you may or may not still be able to squeeze in for my talk Friday morning at the National Press Club.

Or better yet, there's the American Copy Editors Society conference this month in Pittsburgh.

See you next month, if not sooner.

 

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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