The Washington Post

Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (May)

May 05, 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!

In case my brothers' career choices weren't enough proof (one is a copy editor, and the other is ... a copy editor), there seems to be a genetic component to editing.

I spent most of last week in Tucson, where my mom had major back surgery and my stepfather, with her at the hospital, promptly had a heart attack and a quadruple bypass.

Both are recovering now, sharing a room in a rehab center (I've alerted the reality-show producers), but I'll share one moment from my mom's hospital room.

When it came time to remove the staples from her back, one nurse had to teach another how to work the staple remover. Mom was on her side, uncomfortable, woozy, just hoping the latest indignity would be over with, when one nurse pointed the other to the "cervical" vertebrae, misspeaking when meaning to say "thoracic."

"IT'S NOT CERVICAL!" came my previously silent mom.

Anyway, I hope your loved ones are in one piece. What's on your mind?

 

Is there a non-awkward way to use pronouns if you don't want to (or know) the sex/gender of your subject? For instance, we're going hire a new position. In answering general questions, I find myself doing the awkward "When he or she is hired, he or she will have 6 months of training and then he or she will assume the following responsibilities as part of his or her job" which is so wordy and seems to just scream "I don't default to 'he'!" I hate to use "they" since it's a plural, but it just seems easier.

As I mentioned last month, the singular "they" was a hot topic at this year's American Copy Editors Society conference. 

Defaulting to male pronouns, in the spirit of "mankind," was the traditional answer but has long seemed sexist. "He or she," as you observe, is hopelessly awkward. Attempts to invent a non-gendered pronoun have gone nowhere. The singular "they" is well established in speech and informal writing but remains tainted for many in published prose. 

While that taint lingers, we're left with writing around the issue (often in the form of pluralizing everything) and sparingly tossing in "he or she," "him or her," "his or her," etc.

Your example strikes me as a good candidate for writing around the issue. "The newly hired employee will have six months of training and then will assume the following responsibilities as part of the job."

But it's not always so easy. "When a Roger Federer or a Serena Williams says ____ are going to win a tournament, I listen." The singular "they" seems like the only sensible answer there, and I think you'll see it more and more in published writing. I don't think it will seem tainted to the next generation of writers and editors.

 

Could you weigh in about nauseous vs nauseated? If I say, "This food makes me nauseous," I'm really saying that the food makes me make other people sick. The finicky, proper way to say it would be, "This food nauseates me." If I say, "That swill they are serving is nauseous," I have used it correctly, because I'm saying the food makes ME sick, not that the FOOD is sick. If I say, "That swill they are serving nauseates me," I have said it correctly. But if I say, "That swill makes me nauseous," I have misused the word, because I'm technically saying that after I eat the swill, I will make others sick (unless I really mean that eating it will make me make others sick). I have a feeling I know your answer--this ship has sailed and we might as well go with the flow (if I may mix my metaphors!)

This ship has sailed, and we might as well go with the flow.

(How often have you seen/heard "nauseous" used the "right" way?)

 

This is not a question but a gripe. The grammar in one of the front page headlines from last month was appalling. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/16/who-millennials-trust-and-dont-trust-is-driving-the-new-economy/

At least "millennials" is spelled correctly, I'd say if I were a jerk.

 

Mr. Walsh - I have a brother-in-law who is a grammar expert. I'm scared to death to write him an email for fear of committing a linguistic sin. What tips might you offer?

Don't sweat it. Either he's not a jerk and he won't judge you or he's a jerk (and who has time to worry about jerks?).

 

I guess you missed the joke.

And then I botched the order of the last two answers. Not my night this afternoon?

Always singular? Sometimes plural? I'm a stickler for always singular, but editing "Hey Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where are The Smiths?" to "where is The Smiths?" earlier today felt stranger than usual. Just curious for your thoughts. Thanks!

Follow the number. The Smiths are; Blondie is.

Except in the U.K., where Blondie are. 

The Nauseous vs. Nauseated tiff inevitably leads my brain to the grocery store scene in Animal House and the discussion of sensual vs. sensuous. Which may make you nauseated if you aren't a big fan of raunch.

And how many of us are old enough to remember that book by "J"?

 

Hi, Bill-- This question might be better addressed to either Carolyn Hax or Judith Martin, but here goes. When you receive an e-mail from a friend or colleague with an egregious misspelling in the subject line, do you correct the resulting subject line in your reply (without acknowledging that you are doing so, naturally) or do you let it go? In most cases, I don't think the sender realizes the mistake, so I do correct the spelling in the hope that seeing it will somehow make a repeat less likely. Would your answer change if the spelling was of a person's name? Thanks.

I like that approach, as passive-aggressive as it might seem to some.

 

When describing a photo which includes yourself and other people, do you say "The group and I" or "The group and me?" I suppose this is the same question as whether to say, more generally, "This is I" or "This is me."

I wouldn't say "I," but that's just me.

 

I learned from your teaser post on Facebook that "till" can correctly be used as a preposition; ever since high school when a teacher marked out my use of till and put 'til, that's what I have used. (Don't put her down -- she was one of my favorite teachers ever.) Now that I have verified your usage via Merriam-Webster, I grant the option. Why do you prefer till over 'til?

"Till" came first. " 'Til" is valid enough as a truncation, but there's no need for it -- "till" already existed when people mistakenly assumed it was a truncated form of "until" and started spelling it that way.

Hi, Bill. A sentence from National Geographic: "In 1860s America the railroad was more than just a new technology -- it was a kind of national cult." A lot of editors would put a comma after America. I've noticed NG frequently does not in constructions like that. Is there a guideline on this?

I smell a fear that a comma would create a comma splice or run-on or something. A semicolon would be silly, so a dash fills the role nicely.

Nothing wrong with a comma, I'd say. But the dash is fine, too.

 

<< This ship has sailed, and we might as well go with the flow. (How often have you seen/heard "nauseous" used the "right" way?) >> I've heard "nauseous" used the right way countless times. By thoughtful people who care about retaining a language that provides such exquisite precision in so many cases -- until that precision is discarded for fear of being pedantic. I am still routinely invited to parties, and am even greeted with smiles, despite being a stickler, a purist, a . . . well, the misinformed would likely call me a pedant. The would be wrong, of course -- I am not excessively concern with rules and formality -- I am *appropriately* concerned with them. The tapestry of words we've been handed by prior generations is too colorful to lose them (and create a confusing array of synonyms that once held unique meanings. Come, brothers and sisters -- to arms !

Fair enough. But you acknowledge that some ships have sailed, right? You're not speaking/writing like Chaucer. 

Therein lies the sport: arguing over the relative seaworthiness of these linguistic vessels. Or something.

 

(This misinformed might call us pedants. The really misinformed might call us "pendants.")

 

A member of my vast entourage points out that I misread the National Geographic question. I stand by my brilliant but unrelated observation, but here's an answer to the actual question:

Commas after introductory clauses are eminently flexible. I would have used one in that 1860s America example, but not if a parallel followed: In 1961 I was born, and in 1962 my family moved to Michigan.

 

<<Therein lies the sport: arguing over the relative seaworthiness of these linguistic vessels>> You, sir, are a genius, sir.

Thank you. Now I need to work on the whole reading-comprehension thing ...

 

I saw this in a recent Post article on Ben Carson: The crowd rose to their feet. Shouldn't it be its feet?

I could go either way on that one. "Their" is better if you need to say something else about the crowd and the inanimate pronouns start to sound silly. It filed out, it lived happily ever after, it, it, it. 

In the article : http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/04/13/hillary-clintons-insultingly-vapid-video/?hpid=z3 we find the text : "It disrespects them. . . " Is this usage of the word 'disrespect' as a verb an error or is this now considered acceptable usage in the WP ? I know this usage is allowed in the dictionary, but is it now allowed in the WP ?

If I were editing a story, I would avoid such a usage, the same way I try to avoid blog-speak such as "walked back" and "slow-walked" and "called out" and "pivoted," but there's no specific ban. And that's a blog post, where blogginess is to be expected.

 

Are there any bulletproof rules about the placement of the time element in the story? It's often irrelevant, unnecessary or otherwise shoehorned in to seemingly check a box for the five-Ws. Do you have a preference for "Big Corporate Monolith announced today..." versus "Big Corporate Monolith today announced..."? I favor the former, but I've seen the latter used by otherwise respectable writers.

The "today announced" word order has long been derided as journalese borrowed from TV news, so I use the "announced today" wording when I can.

Sometimes, though, the long-derided wording is better. Maybe Big Corporate Monolith announced something and hired somebody and you want the "today" to apply to both events.

I'm with you on irrelevant/unnecessary/shoehorned, by the way. If I had my way, ledes in print stories would go without time elements if something happened the day before, as is true of practically everything in the print edition, and the time element would be tucked discreetly into the second or third paragraph.

Similarly, if it's Wednesday morning's paper and we're reporting on something that happened Tuesday, why on Earth do we have to specify that all the reaction quotes also came Tuesday? When else could somebody have commented?

 

What's the plural of horse and buggy?

I guess it would be "horses and buggies" (and "bows and arrows," etc.). Not ideal, but the alternatives are worse.

I was on a panel with Ben Zimmer a few years back and he mentioned trying to figure out the plural of a cocktail called a Captain on the Porch. Captains on the Porch? Captain on the Porches? (Sexes on the Beach? Sex on the Beaches?)

 

Remember "s/he"? That was big in the 90's, when we were also debating whether to describe our target customers as "black" or "African-American" (the debate was ended when a Caribbean-born woman said "I'm not African").

Yes, that's one of the failed attempts to coin something.

 

<<(This misinformed might call us pedants. The really misinformed might call us "pendants.")>> You've been . . . hanging around here too long.

And now I'm thinking about unpleasant things.

 

Would that be any worse than "pundant", which one hears all the time instead of "pundit"?

Welp ...

 

I was attempting to channel a legendary journalism professor, the late John Bremner, in my answer on the crowd on their feet. Here's Bremner on the subject, and specifically the word "couple":

 

In fact, I treat collectives most of the time as plurals. What are you going to do? Most American newspapers will say, "The couple was married yesterday." Great. God bless 'em. The couple was married yesterday. And then, if you're going to be consistent, then it went to Florida on its honeymoon, yes-yes, yes-yes. Well, then it had an argument. And then it decided to have a divorce. It went its separate ways.

 

Hi Bill - do you speak any other languages? I found that learning Spanish growing up helped clarify quite a few English grammar rules too.

I got good enough at French in high school that I was able to avoid taking any foreign language in college.

(Je suis un idiot.)

 

 

Perhaps you have already explained this and I missed it. But when did 'gift' become a verb? And why?

I could be wrong, but my impression is that it was trendy ad-speak in the late 1950s and early 1960s and it has held steady or even declined in popularity since then. 

It strikes me as a concern that was at its height around the time we were worried that "through" would become "thru."

 

What do you make on the numerous errors in the "Comma Queen" book? That nobody's perfect? That writing is difficulty, and anyone who edits their own copy has a fool for a client? FWIW, I found no errors in the Walsh trilogy.

I can't say I've spotted numerous errors in Mary Norris's book, but if they do exist, I would chalk it up to the messiness of the publishing process. 

Plenty of errors in the Walsh trilogy, I'm sorry to say. (The publisher managed to misspell my brother's name in the dedication of the first printing of "Yes, I Could Care Less," to name just the most comical and not-my-fault of those errors.)

Several other errors were my fault.

 

When one person notices another's typographical, spelling or grammatical error, isn't the best way to handle it be to correct it oneself if possible, otherwise to point it out as tactfully as possible if it's correctible by the person who made the mistake -- and not to say anything if it can't be fixed? But shouting "Gotcha!" just for the sake of being smug is, well, smug at best and cruel at worst.

Or just look the other way unless you're collaborating on something that will be seen by others. 

 

I too have heard of it only in the past few years -- a decade at the very most. UGH!

The recency illusion! Once you are attuned to something, you see/hear it everywhere. I wrote about a couple of errors that I would have sworn were of recent origin until I heard them in a 1959 movie and a 1970s TV broadcast.

 

You may have also addressed this one too: St James' Place or St. James's Place?

Proper noun, so it is whatever it is, right?

As for plain old James' vs. James's, it's a matter of style. The Post would write James's, as would most book publishers, but most other newspapers would write James'.

 

Last month a chatter said, "If the person is a she, a prostate exam is not an issue." This is not always true. See http://transhealth.ucsf.edu/trans?page=protocol-exam

But, but, but ...

 

I'm a fan of Mad Men and more often than not find the portrayal of the 1960s as accurate from what I recall. (I was 13 in 1969.) But in an episode last season someone was offered a coffee. I remember it always being phrased then as a cup of coffee. What do you think? Would that have been a common phrase then?

Really? How could I have missed that? 

Very much a British usage, as far as I know -- not common here then or now.

The aforementioned Ben Zimmer found some hilarious anachronisms in "Downton Abbey," including "I'm just sayin'."

 

I once had a wonderful boss who would make the most embarrassing errors--and we worked at a publishing company. We were at a big, important meeting, and I noticed in the notes she was getting ready to pass around that she had written, "We have to work efficiently and not be duplicitous." She of course meant we should be careful not to be duplicating each other's work or doing things more than once. Sadly, this was not an uncommon type of mistake for her. She was brilliant at her work; don't know how she failed so miserably at vocabulary.

Nothing wrong with not being duplicitous, though!

Time for me to get to my day night job -- thank you for joining me! If all goes according to schedule, I'll see you again on June 2.

 

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: