The Washington Post

Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (April)

Apr 07, 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! I recently attended the American Copy Editors Society's annual conference (the organization's 19th and my 18th), where I talked about some rookie mistakes that even veterans make. Once I got that out of the way, the highlight for me may have been a talk by Mary Norris, the New Yorker's "comma queen," on her new book, "Between You and Me."

At one point she was talking about her magazine's fondness for spelling some words the British way, changing -er endings to -re ones in words such as theat(er), and she explained: "And the reason we do so ... is ... that ... we're pretentious." Exquisite timing. (You had to be there.)

You may have seen Buzzfeed's roundup, wherein my people registered their pet peeves. I agree or pretty much agree with 20 of the 30, I have "yeah, but" reactions to seven, and I disagree with three. (Can you spot the two to which I take strong exception?)

Let's get started!

 

Please tell us why not? I'm too lazy to redraft and I'm sick of my boss insisting he/she is appropriate!

As Buzzfeed indicates, this came up more than once at the copy-editing conference. For those who don't know the shorthand, the idea is that you would write "Each student should bring their notebook" rather than "his notebook" (traditionally correct but sexist) or "his or her notebook" (the long-accepted but awkward alternative). Yes, it is often possible to avoid the issue ("all students should bring their notebooks"), but not always.

The only why-not at this point is the risk that you will alienate readers who "know" it's wrong. The Washington Post and the New York Times and the Associated Press avoid it because they've always avoided it and because style changes of this sort have tended to happen at a glacial pace (thought that is not as true as it once was).

I have long said that the singular they is the only good solution to this problem. I think the major stylebooks will pull the trigger on a change before long, especially given that the issue goes beyond grammar and extends into gender identity.

 

With the 2016 presidential race gearing up, I thought it would be fun to share political phrases we wish would be retired. While some sound innocent enough, I get the feeling they are code words that only those of a particular political persuasion truly understand, such as passwords for a secret club membership. Those I'm tired of (in order as they come to me) are: boots on the ground; legislate from the bench; hard-working Americans; my fellow Americans; nanny state; fiscal cliff; family values; job creators; job killers; fair share; values voters; and kicking the can down the road. We could have a drinking dream during the debates and be drunk in no time (not that I'm advocating intoxication, of course).

Buying that many drinks would require quite the war chest. Or coffers, if you prefer.

 

PBS always says funding is provided by "Viewers Like You." I'm glad their viewers like me, but I think the correct phrases is "Viewers Such as Yourselves"

Like vs. such as is a fine distinction that you can choose to observe or ignore, but I think we want you there, not yourselves.

One of my pet peeves is the use of "chaise lounge," rather than the proper (if French) "chaise longue." Do I just need to get over myself on this one?

Depends on how you pronounce chaise, non?

When introducing a list, the information before the colon should be a complete thought. However, in the workplace, more often than not, I see lists in documentation that include the colon in an awkward place. They include: They are: For example: Should I just give up?

I'm with you, and I often perform that colon surgery.

 

I apologize if you've covered this before, but it just hasn't sunk in yet: I'm struggling with verb conjugation for a "group of people" (or a "flock of seagulls" or whatever). "The group IS ready" sounds fine to me, but "The group of people in the lobby ARE waiting for their seats" does too. Then it gets murkier at "The group of teachers IS upset and THEY plan to make THEIR opinions known" (here the shifting subject seems preferable to giving everyone a single Borg-like "ITS opinion"). Thanks.

You're already over a big hurdle, so first let me make sure everyone else is caught up. Those who tend toward grammatical correctness (GC) often fetishize subject-verb agreement to the point of denying its obvious nuances and exceptions.

The word bunch is singular, but you would never say that a bunch of us is here talking about grammar and usage. Lot is singular, but a lot of us say things. Got that, everybody? 

Once you're open to that idea, you need to ask yourself what your sentence is truly saying. You're talking about both the group and the people, both the flock and the seagulls, but is it more people than group? Is it more seagulls than flock? And then, yes, are you wanting to use plural adverbs later in the same sentence?

So a group of teachers is making its opinion known when that group is the National Education Association. A group of teachers are making their opinion or opinions known when that group is Miss Scafuri, Miss Burkhart and Miss Kerfoot.

 

I asked a friend, "Did you see the stupid question that I submitted to a grammar chat last month?" Should (or could) "that" be used in such sentences? It seems fine without it (I mean that), and shorter is usually better, no? What do you think about that?

You could safely remove that there, or you could keep it. It's not hurting anybody, though some of my colleagues in that Buzzfeed piece would disagree.

 

You've probably answered this question before, but do the Post's copy editors edit the submissions of the paper's opinion columnists? I ask because of what I just saw in today's Richard Cohen column: "he punched out the Hollywood columnist Lee Mortimer, whom you could say (I can’t) had it coming". I mostly like Cohen, but you could say him had this coming.

It's a separate operation, but the copy editors in that section do edit the columnists. 

Bill, how important is this? "His proposals are radically different than mine" vs. "His proposals are radically different from mine?" I have my French MIL (is it mother-in-law with no caps?) reading your column every week now, so you're under extra pressure. About this one issue, I couldn't care less (is that right?), but she had it as an exercise question (she studies English). Best regards, Don Rockwell

Hi, Don. I am also in the couldn't -care-less camp on this one. I grew up saying different than, and I still do so in an unguarded moment, but I know that in American English the more established usage is different from. (The Brits use different to, which would sound bizarre coming from an American.)

There is an asterisk (there's always an asterisk), and I could spell out the grammatical terms involved but in real life it's pretty simple: If different than  sounds perfectly fine but different from would require a radical reworking of the sentence, go ahead and use different than

If your opinion of Hillary Clinton is different than it was in 2008, you're entitled to that opinion -- and to that than. Your opinion can't be different from it was. It can be different from what it was, but you are not grammatically required to perform that rewrite.

(And that's a nice aside: Of course a capitalized initialism can stand for a lowercase term. MILs need not be Mothers-In-Law, just as the non-Irish-terrorist version of the IRA need not be an Individual Retirement Account.)

 

I saw this in an online job posting, and I think it might go to the heart of the who/whom debate: "And ... a boss who you'll love!" Should be "whom," correct? Because you'll love him or her, not he or she. But using "whom" in that context reeks of fustiness, doesn't it?

Yes and yes. I would have weaseled out of that jam and written about a boss you'll love.

Last night I wrote a headline alluding to the song "The Man That I Marry." Now, do we really have to call that wrong? The man whom I marry? Come now.

 

Bill - Did I miss something, or is "there's" or "there is" now a suitable substitute for "there are" when referring to a plural? I have noticed this many times recently, and saw it in a title in the (online) Post recently. Thanks!

There are would be preferred, unless it's also a case where two things act as one. There's a hue and cry; there's fire and brimstone.

 

Hi, Bill. Where do you stand on "whom"? Obviously context matters. But some say it's an "archaic affectation" and “formal verging on pompous,” etc. Thoughts?

I think whom can be dispensed with outside obvious cases such as for whom the bell tolls and to whom am I speaking?

Why is anxious used so often when people actually mean eager? Should I start using it inappropriately too? I'm getting very nervous about the whole issue!

I police the distinction, but I wouldn't get hives if I missed one.

 

I wince whenever I hear Metro operators say a train will "service" a station. To me, there are only two ways "service" can be a verb - when dealing with a car, or when employing a prostitute (and the second always pops into mind on Metro). Do you agree?

I would say "serve," but planes and trains have languages of their own. Announcements in airports and on airplanes are worse, if you can hear/understand them at all. 

I recently was told that it's permissible to use data instead of datum "because everyone does it anyway" (or similar). Example: "The data indicates that the term datum is antiquated." My wonkiness cannot abide...

I don't think anybody uses data for datum. We use data to mean a bunch of data, with singular verbs and pronouns, because the word has come to stand as a collective noun and not a plural one. Outside scientific contexts, people don't use datum, and therefore data is not viewed as meaning "datums."

Close call, but I agree with the singular treatment. In most contexts.

 

What do you think: Is it time to stop insisting on the traditional definition of "comprise," at long last? The use of "comprise" as a synonym for "compose" begins to seem nearly inevitable. I have a prescriptivist's soul, but a descriptivist's sense of realpolitik.

I'm clinging to the traditional view, but with a twist. I tend to avoid comprise and compose and change them to is made up of or consists of or some other more down-to-earth wording. 

Bill, the consistent misusage of "take" instead of "bring" really annoys me. Is that usage purely and East Coast conceit? I'm referring to news stories that say "His friends brought him to the nearest hospital," for instance. Former copy editor

I've never lost sleep over that distinction. Maybe the speaker has a hospital-centric mind-set. Same with emigrate vs. immigrate, in a lot of cases. Change your focus and the two faces become a candlestick. 

The only one of those Buzzfeed photos that really rankled me was the Oxford comma one. You can try and take my Oxford comma from my cold, dead hands--though I doubt I'll give it up even then. There's a fundamental difference between "We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin" and "We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin." Harrumph. #Oxfordcommaforever

I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

No Oxford comma! Ha, ha, ha! Your parents are Ayn Rand and God???

I'd like to thank my father, God, and Ayn Rand.

Oxford comma! Ha, ha, ha! Your father is God??

(And you'd really be fine with banning that? Does your heavenly father agree?)

 

I can't tell you how many times I've seen "weary" used in place of "leery" or "wary," even in professional publications. Any idea when this started? My guess is that it probably began as a mispronunciation or something along those lines and that people just took it and ran with it...in the wrong direction.

Weary and wary are pretty darn close in every way, so I find the confusion easy to understand. Like hardy and hearty.

What are your thoughts on the “that” vs. “which” debate? I’ve always used the rule that states to use "that" for an essential clause, but I’m seeing more and more people use "which" almost exclusively. It’s as if everyone is trying to sound British.

That's another one where the linguists and lexicographers think people like such as me are nuts. I cling to the distinction not because of any chance of ambiguity, but because of the reason you give. Tossing in which for that sounds British, which sounds pretentious if you're an American.

 

Like I said. It just looks odd and wrong. Can't we reword heads so we don't have periods at the end?

We would lose a lot of good headlines if we reworded every one that consisted of more than one sentence.

 

OK, fine. Now that "they" is officially singular, "Each student should bring their notebook and they is expected to take copious notes." And so forth. It can be singular or it can be plural. It can’t be both in the same sentence.

But is anybody advocating "they is"?

 

is seeing it used in circumstances where the gender of the person is clear even if the person is not identified. It usually comes up in reference to medical procedures that only happen in one gender, not both, but I have seen this. I want to scream at my computer, "If the person is a she, a prostate exam is not an issue."

Right. I don't think anybody is calling for the abolition of he and she and him and her and the other sexed pronouns.

 

It's painful to hear how often speakers don't use the adverbial form when modifying verbs or the adjectival form when modifying nouns (for example, the "Democrat Party"). Am I imagining things or is this becoming increasingly common? Sorry to be elitist but it sounds incredibly illiterate to me.

Republicans say Democrat Party to express their opinion that Democrats don't fit their view of democratic.

 

I hear many people, especially Britts, say "try and do". Whether this is grammatical or not it doesn't seem logical. We don't say "attempt and do" --logically the same thing. Nor do we say "want and do," "hope and do," or "wish and do" but always say ...to do with these words.

There are parallels -- when we say the soup is nice and hot, we don't mean it's (a) nice and (b) hot -- but yes. Although the flawed idiom is well established, and my linguist and lexicographer friends will roll their eyes, I always change "try and" to "try to." 

When I was an editor some years ago, I used to insist on the difference. But after lecturing many writers and getting puzzlement and confusion in response, I decided I could no longer be sure quite what the difference was supposed to be, so I gave up the fight. And I do not feel bad about it. Well, hardly ever.

Somebody had a tweet last month that illustrated the distinction perfectly:

Good news: found the box in my house with things like decongestant. Bad news: no decongestant.


"Also" is an adverb, so its rightful place in AP copy is directly before verbs, correct? Doesn't that occasionally lead to clunkiness, as in this example: "An increase in the work or life demands of one spouse also is likely to affect the health outcomes of the other."

AP doesn't really say that, does it? 

I see that as a corollary to the mistaken belief that infinitives should never be split. That ancient superstition of grammatical correctness (changing to boldly go to boldly to go or to go boldly) spawned the belief that no verb form may be split (changing I have always done that to I always have done that).

And here we have the belief that, well, I guess that any word anywhere near a verb should be put in as awkward a place as possible? I mean, yes, you would be splitting the verb is to affect, but likely is already doing so. 

The answer to such an adverb-placement question is to place the adverb where it sounds best.

 

I suspect you disagree with the editor who advised us to avoid "that." Certainly, you can do without it sometimes, but I've seen too many passages made awkward or hard to understand by the overzealous deletion of "that."

Ding, ding, ding! 

Yes. The bigger picture on the singular-they issue is that, in a relatively recent development, the copy editors are hearing from lexicographers and linguists, who put our little peeves in perspective. 

Too many copy editors are cloistered in a world where stylebook preferences or their bosses' quirks, no matter now nonsensical, are seen as law. Now, when linguists tell us there is a solid scholarly argument to be made for "My head literally exploded," that doesn't mean we should start putting it in our publications. (And I do see examples of bending too far in the other direction.) 

But it's good to have that perspective.

Banning that is absurd on its face, but I have some concrete examples. The word helps writers avoid leading readers down the wrong path. If you read He declared his love for her, you're going to think ... he declared his love for her. If the sentence continues with the words had died, you've been misled, if only for a fraction of a second. But your reading experience has been disrupted. He declared that his love for her had died.

 

When I listen to reports of people who have previously held a position, they referred to as the Ex-President of XYZ Company or the Former Chairman of MNO, Inc. What is the proper use of former and ex?

They're the same; former is better if you have room, unless have a bunch of repetition and you're desperately seeking variety.

In headlines there's sometimes a need for an unfortunate construction such as ex-French president. Some would change that to French ex-president to avoid the implication that the person is formerly French rather than formerly president, but I prefer to let ex- act as a direct substitute. I'll do my best to avoid ex-French president, but I prefer that to French ex-president. Someone who agrees once said that people who make that switch should be copy ex-editors.

 

 

I would word the sentence: All students should bring their notebooks. I don't think I will ever like using they or them in the singular.

If Roger Federer or Serena Williams says they're going to win a tournament, I believe them.

 

What are your thoughts on including "etc." with an e.g.? For instance, "I enjoy Italian food, e.g., pizza, spaghetti, etc."

It's redundant, like using "among others" after "includes."

 

What's the difference?

The game was canceled because of rain. The cancellation was due to rain.

If you can substitute "attributable to," leave "due to" alone.

 

Like I said. It just looks odd and wrong. Can't we reword heads so we don't have periods at the end?

Post style is to end a headline with a period if it contains an earlier sentence-ending punctuation mark -- a period, a question mark or an exclamation point -- and there's no need for a question mark or exclamation point at the end. In other words, if it consists of more than one sentence or sentence equivalent.  So it would be:

Who killed Hae? Sarah doesn't seem to know.

As opposed to:

Who killed Hae? Sarah doesn't seem to know

The latter would be New York Times style, so it is a preference. I prefer our style. (And I wouldn't voluntarily enter into shackles that forbid multiple-sentence-or-sentence-equivalent headlines.)

 

 

 

Hi there. I've often struggled with the best way to punctuate a question when asking about a quotation. For example, how do I best punctuate the question: Did he really say, "This is definitely not a question."? Thank you for your help.

That one's easy:

Did he really say, "This is definitely not a question"?

The harder case is when there's a question within a question. There, and this is an arbitrary rule but just The Way It's Done, you use the first question mark. (Follow the same pattern if you're exclaiming about an exclamation.)

So:

Did he really say, "Who the heck are you?"

And:

I can't believe she shouted "Fire!"

 

This morning I saw "if worst leads to worst" (twice) in a Chicago Tribune article, instead of "if worse leads to worst," so I looked it up at Ngram Viewer. I was surprised: Ngram seems to show that "worst" was much more popular than "worse" a century ago and declined until a few years ago. Do you have better sources to see the actual trend of this expression?

I'm not sure there's a better source than the formidable Ben Zimmer, who wrote about "if worst comes to worst" here.

The tl;dr version is that "worse comes to worst" would be logical but "worst comes to worst" is the original idiom. 

Ben is far less likely than I to resist change, and so he allows for either usage today. Then again, he's also far less likely than I to insist on literal correctness, so we may have to go to overtime on this one.

 

In the Looney Tunes into, I've seen "Warner Bros. Present" and "Warner Bros. Presents". Which is correct?

Warner Bros. presents. I got a parallel question this morning about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and occasionally I see confusion from Post staffers about when and when not to apply the Post rule about using apostrophe-s and not just an apostrophe to form the possessive of a word ending in s.

Although Warner Bros. and the United States and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Goodwill Industries are singular entities that get singular verbs and pronouns, their plural form dictates treatment as plurals for the purpose of forming possessives. So although it would be Jimmy Connors's backhand, he was the United States' best tennis player.

 

I remember learning to use the present tense when stating a fact, like "Lincoln is dead," but what about sentences like "Yesterday, I learned that Lincoln (is/was) dead," "Washington was dead when I learned that Lincoln (is/was) dead," "I didn't know what an astronaut (is/was)," and "I can't remember a time when I didn't know what astronauts (do/did)"? I struggle with tense frequently (not only when I go camping), so I'd appreciate some general guidance about using the present or past tense for facts when discussing a past event. Thanks.

The sequence of tenses requires the past tense in such instances. There is a vaguely defined "general truth" exception (He learned the world is round), and I am among those who argue for a journalistic exception.

Because the past-tense verb said governs so many sentences in news articles, a strict application of tense rules can rob them of immediacy and sometimes even clarity. If the companies said they planned to form a partnership, does that mean they reconsidered? I would write that the companies said they plan to form a partnership, sequence of tenses be damned.

 

I was tired of this sports phrase after the second time I heard it and was glad when AP Style, in its recent updates, listed it among phrases to avoid. While I doubt most sportscasters will pay attention, at least I feel vindicated.

Confession: I'm not sure I agree with AP on a lot of those, including this one. Sportswriting without cliches? Isn't that like a day without sunshine?

(Yes, now I'm alluding to 1970s commercials for orange juice.)

 

We say "A number of cars are stuck in the snow" but "The number of cars is greater than expected." I know that "number of" is a mass noun followed by a preposition, and that the article preceding the mass noun ("A" or "The" in these two examples) dictates whether the verb is plural or singular, but do you have any insight or wisdom to offer on this puzzling convention, which seems simple but nevertheless baffles a great many? your friendly neighborhood countererrorist

The simple answer is that you're talking about two different definitions of the word number.

Speaking of Metro, I had never heard the term "station stop" as in "Rosslyn is the last station stop" in the Commonwealth of Virginia." Is this a regionalism?

As opposed to all those stops the trains make in between stations!

Do you disagree with the "try and" pet peeve?

I do not disagree. I'm right there petting. Might as well be a cat cafe.

 

Should it not be, "If I were..." and not "If I was..."? Was is the past tense of the verb.

That's called the subjunctive. It's "if I were" because it expresses a "contrary-to-fact" situation. (Yes, I just linked to Grammar Girl's explanation.)

When and why would you use Had I known instead of If I had known?

Either is fine, though the former strikes me as a little fusty. As does the use of the former.

 

The WaPo is guilty, and it would not be the first time. Often on the WaPo online home page there is a small advertising section. It warns the reader/viewer that this is SPONSOR GENERATED CONTENT. Where is the hyphen between SPONSOR and GENERATED?

Now I'm getting hives!

 

Greetings from Winnipeg, where everyone is hoping to see the Jets "partake" in the Stanley Cup playoffs. To me, using "partake" instead of "participate" in this context sounds slightly off, but my dictionary doesn't seem to have any objections. What say you?

Man, oh, Manitoba! It's not wrong, but I would be more likely to use partake in something like "The winners will partake in champagne."

 

In 1327 the Welsh barons kidnapped Edward II. They would kill him, but wanted Queen Isabella to put it in writing. Their intermediary, the Bishop of Hereford, didn't want to be the regicide fall guy, so he wrote "Kill Edward not to fear is good." The killers placed a comma after the Edward, and he died. The Bishop's out was a comma after the not.

Commas can save lives. You may have seen the T-shirts about LET'S EAT, GRANDMA vs. LET'S EAT, GRANDMA. And you could make that argument about the Second Amendment's odd punctuation.

 

 

Many answering machines say "I'll get back to you at my earliest convenience." People don't realize they're saying "I'll get back to you are soon as I have nothing better to do." It should say "at my earlier opportunity."

Refreshing honesty?

 

What you are doing is timely. Can you address the declining structure of our speech in your coverage of grammar. I am sick of hearing broadcasters pronounce "st" as "sht": as in "shtreet." I was appalled to hear our new DC Mayor speak publicly, and consistently use this "germanic" style of taking about developing the new "shtreet car" system. What a poor example for our children! Thanks.

It's a regional dialect, right? Maybe you can take comfort in the fact that car ended with an r.

Time's up -- thank you for joining me! Let's do it again May 5. perhaps with buckets of Coronas.

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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