Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (June)

Jun 02, 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'll kick things off today with an illustration of Our Ever-Changing Language in the form of a Wall Street Journal style decision. The Journal's Style & Substance blog announces:

● Ice tea is our style, following the trend away from “iced” tea. After all, what they used to call “iced cream” and “iced water” eventually changed to “ice.” Also: ice-tea spoon for the thin spoons with long handles.

Well, yes, and hash browns used to be hashed, browned potatoes, but this strikes me as a tad too soon. Eventually "ice tea" will be standard, just as eventually we'll graduate college rather than graduating from college, but I think educated writers still write "iced tea." As for educated speakers, it's hard to tell, because that d gets absorbed into that t. (I'm reminded of "safe-deposit box" being rendered as "safety deposit box" because "safe-dee" sounds like "safety.")

The Journal says nothing about "ice coffee," so presumably it would say "ice tea and iced coffee," which would be weird. But Bill, you might say, isn't "iced tea and ice water" weird? I don't think so. I have an elaborate defense of how ice water is a totally different thing, but it's sounding less and less convincing even to me. 

Bottom line: Things do change, and it's fun to argue about when to resist change and when to accept it. (That's fun as a noun, not as an adjective, by the way.)

Agree? Disagree? What else is on your mind?


From a June 1 Washington Post article on a Muslim's request to be served an opened can of Diet Coke: "Ahmad, who is Muslim and wears a headscarf, asked for an unopened can of diet coke “for hygienic reasons,” she wrote in an angry Facebook post from the air." Coke and Diet Coke are proper nouns, so why the lower case? The photo accompanying the story is of these products so the writer can't legitimately state she was using coke generically for soft drink. If she had, that still is wrong because Coke is a registered trademark.

It's a mistake.

Maybe the writer thought the logo was lowercase (we'd still cap it, but not everybody knows that). Maybe the writer was quoting the Facebook post, which uses lowercase, but then chose to use less of the quote and forgot to go back and capitalize. 


When should we use "invoke" and when should we use "evoke"?

It's more complicated than this, but I think of "invoke" as active and "evoke" as passive. A person invokes a rule or a higher power; an article evokes something in the reader's mind. 

In response to your discussion about change and the example of "iced tea" becoming "ice tea", it seems like "iced" is a modifier and should stay the same for coffee and tea. Otherwise, it sounds like it is tea made of ice.

Right, and that gets at my rationalization of "ice water" (ice and water are the same substance!), but more and more I think iced tea and ice water are in the same category -- liquids cooled with ice -- only at different places in their linguistic evolution. 


Merriam-Webster just added a whole slew of words, including WTF and NSFW. In light of this, what's the style of either acronym on first reference? Would they be as recognizable as CIA?

I don't think WTF and NSFW are in the same category as CIA. The initialisms (technically they're not acronyms, because they're not pronounced as words) are deliberately cheeky; they almost exist for their own sakes, and not primarily as abbreviations for the things they're abbreviating. Or something like that. TMI?

Headline on a restaurant billboard in town: "Free refills mean never having to say goodbye." Couldn't "free refills" be considered one thing, thus allowing the word "means" to be used?

That could go either way. Sort of like 10,000 barrels of oil WAS discovered (oil was discovered; the barrels are just a unit of measurement) or 100 barrels of oil WERE loaded onto the truck (see the barrels?). 

I like the plural verb in your example. In the interest of ear-friendliness, sometimes you just have to let agreement be agreement. Remember LABA, an acronym I just made up.


Many people say that translation software (e.g., Google, Bing) has improved greatly in recent years. Yet whenever I enter a sentence in a foreign language that I want translated in English, it almost invariably turns out to be at best awkward, or at worst factually wrong. This occurs with a number of foreign languages, so I'm becoming convinced that it's a matter of computers not being sufficiently programmable yet to recognize linguistic constructs that the adult human brain finds to be second nature. Whenever I try using translation software, I inevitably have to make so many corrections and rewrites that it doesn't save time in the long run (compare to just translating the sentence myself in the first place!). Has this been your (or your colleagues') experience, too?

I haven't used translation software enough to have an opinion, but I'm reminded of a Web site that took a piece of text and translated it to another language and then back to English. Hilarity ensued.


I found this interesting enough to share on the May 20 Free Range on Food chat: "I also plan to submit this new AP Style rule for the WP grammar chat: preheat (Source: AP Stylebook, Food section) Avoid use of the term: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Use instead: Heat the oven to 350 F. Thoughts? Makes sense to me." Obviously your colleague Bonnie "could care less" based on the first part of her response, I've copied below. And yes, that WAS at the top of my list that day. As someone old enough the remember the late comedian Jack Benny and his signature word: "Well!" (LOL!) A: Bonnie Benwick So many other verbal excesses to amend; this one's at the top of your list? The prefix doesn't bother me, and Yes, sometimes helps clarify.

That one puzzled me when I first heard about it, but it makes sense. I can't imagine reading "Heat oven to 350" as a recipe step and thinking that means "Be sure to put the food in first, while the oven is still cold, and count all that non-cooking time as cooking time." But I'm sure Bonnie and others in the Recipe American Community have lbs. and lbs. of stories of people going out of their way to misread instructions.

My favorite recipe stories, possibly apocryphal:

The time we omitted "spinach" from "chopped baby spinach."

The time a copy editor changed "a soupcon" of something to "a soup can."


I use the online, which recently used terminology unfamiliar to me in citing a problem with one of my sentences: squinting modifer. The sentence is below. The sophomore will compete at the National History Day to be held June 14-18 at the University of Maryland. What is wrong with the way it is written? The words "National History Day" were underlined as the problematic section. BTW - What IS a squinting modifer and how come I've never heard of it? I'm 59-years-old and have been writing a long time now.

I'd put a comma before "to be held," but I don't see a squinting modifier there, no matter how hard I squint. Software for grammar is getting better, but -- like translation software -- it will never be perfect. My guess is that Grammarly saw the structure of the sentence and thought that maybe you were talking about the sophomore being held. 


Is it "wild, perennial plant" or "wild perennial plant"? I'm betting the latter, because "perennial, wild plant" doesn't work. I will cite the "great, white shark" rule for justification.

Ha. For the uninitiated, I've used "great, white shark" to illustrate the silliness of automatically putting commas between what look like adjectives before a noun. Some adjectives are more adjectival than others. A tall college student is a tall college student, not a tall, comma, college student.

I would skip the comma in "wild perennial plant," but this is a closer call than some. If you're introducing this plant to someone who knows nothing about it, you could justify the comma in the sense that you're describing it as both wild and perennial.


Everything I've read recommends the spelling "canceled" in the U.S. Should this spelling be enforced? I see "cancelled" everywhere I look and it really bothers me.

It's purely a matter of style (the New Yorker would double the L), but you are correct that "canceled" is generally preferable in American English.

It's funny how sometimes people go for the shorter less-preferable form (bandana rather than bandanna) and sometimes they go longer (cancelllllllled, and axe rather than ax).


What IS a "squinting modifier," as opposed to any other kind of modifier?

It's a modifier that appears to modify the wrong thing, or at least leaves it ambiguous. Think of Groucho Marx shooting an elephant in his pajamas. "How he got into my pajamas I'll never know!"


I read an history of English some time ago that explained the reason why traditional proper English grammar does not allow split infinitives is because medieval Monks essentially transposed Latin grammar onto English. As infinitives in Latin are single words and, as such, cannot be split, they decided that verbs in English should or cannot, either. I see them being split more frequently, and while I cannot personally bring myself to do I can't help but wonder if my point of view is, well, medieval. Thoughts?

The so-called rule against splitting infinitives is nonsense. Often, perhaps usually, splitting them results in clearer writing. I wrote about hearing Paul Harvey talking on the radio about an executive coming "personally to thank" his employees. (As opposed to coming impersonally? There's a squinting modifier!)

The guy came to personally thank the employees. That's  a split infinitive, and it's vastly superior to the alternative.


"The sophomore will compete at the National History Day to be held June 14-18 at the University of Maryland." Actually, Bill, I would respectfully submit that the biggest problem with the sentence is the second "the," which is not just superfluous but confusing. Here is how I would have written it: The sophomore will compete at National History Day, to be held June 14-18 at the University of Maryland. Thoughts?

Yes, better to skip that the.

Love your Groucho Marx analogy and I'll remember that. Are these lyrcis from a Donna Summer also an example, or is this a dangling particle? "Someone found the letter you wrote me on the radio," which was supposed to mean that someone who works in radio found the letter, as opposed to the letter being found on the radio.

Great example. Love to love you, baby.


Why not, "The guy came to thank the employees personally"?

That works, too. (Though I'm so attuned to attempts to avoid split infinitives that such a workaround becomes a meta-peeve.)


This is a pet peeve of mine - I shall never omit from. Whenever someone tells me he graduated college I can't but help thinking, "Clearly not from a good one." Snark, I know, but at least I use my inside voice.

I'm with you. The hashed, browned asterisk, of course, is that once upon a time you had to say "was graduated from college." In other words, all the 105-year-olds out there think you and I are ignorant.


For the record, the name of the trophy for the Big Game victory between the Cal and Stanford football teams is "The Axe" (not "The Ax").

And then there's the ubiquitous, malodorous bro fragrance.


I've often wondered why people say or write something like "He was taken to the hospital" as though there is only one. Why isn't taken to a hopital? Of course, when I write "was hopitalized" knocks points of my writing for use of passive voice.

Sometimes the answer is "just because." It's just the idiom.

The British say "taken to hospital," the way we say "go to college."

In journalese, it would be "taken to a local hospital." You know, because usually they take injured people to hospitals far, far away.


After giving this further thought, I do care! The prefix gives proper order to the very important order of directions in a recipe. It's a precise term; another nice quality of a well-written recipe. So I am not in favor of any change to "heat" instead.

You really think someone would read "heat the oven to this temperature" and think it means something other than pre-heat? 

If it's not at that temperature, it's not at that temperature. There's your sequence.



Seems like “great, white shark” doesn’t work as an example, not because it’s silly to put commas there but because “great white shark” is the official name of the creature. “Brown, paper bag” is more like it.

You have a point. 


I've read that Eric Partridge considers "relative to" gobbledygook, and Bryan Garner mostly sides with that point of view (recommending "in relation to" or "in comparison with"). In, say, a story that discusses taxes that increase relative to GDP, would you let the phrase stand or recast?

I was unaware of that controversy! "Relative to" doesn't bother me, but I'll check out Mr. Garner's entry.


I'm not 105, but still use this. I didn't know it no longer is in vogue.

Random Replacements lyric:

How young are you? How old am I?

Let's count the rings around my eyes.


National History Day is apparently three dayS long.

It just seems that way.


The only thing that should be "invoked" is the infield fly rule.

A higher power indeed.

That might have been a good example. An umpire invokes the infield fly rule (or infield-fly rule, if you're a hyphen freak like me). An obscure regulation in your office might evoke the infield-fly rule.


People who sexually molest children are called "pedophiles," which literally means that they love children. Yet they are in fact harming and abusing children with their behavior. Can you propose a more accurate term, so this one can be retired, please?

Suffixes such as -philia and -phobia have flexible meanings. Your contact lenses are hydrophilic, but they aren't capable of love for water or anything else. Homophobes like to protest that they don't fear gays, they just don't much like 'em.

And, if we're being technical, pedophiles are attracted to children but don't necessarily molest them, right?


One of my high school English teachers said this phrase was improper, but she thought it should be. Proper, that is. An example she cited was "I used to could ride a bike but can't now." This was 40-years-ago. What's the 2015 verdict on "used to could"?

Never heard "used to could."

"I used to be able to"?


The problem is that the Post chooses not to use the little squiggle under the ''c''. I think it's called a ''cedille'' in French. It's also used in Turkish, and does affect pronunciation and meaning.

I think that story was attributed to one of the Tucson papers.

The Post could be more consistent, but we're supposed to use the cedilla, at least in French.


I think that in a recipe where the verb "heat" and noun "heat" are used in such close proximity and so often in the same paragraph, the prefix makes it clear as to what we're talking about when we refer to order of cooking business. Yep, I could give you lbs. of instances in which people misread directions, beginning with "grease the bottom of a pan...."



National History Day is apparently five dayS long and THAT'S why it was underlined. Not really rocket surgery.

Thank you. Grammarly is vindicated.


I too think ice tea and ice coffee sound wrong. But I've often wondered why it's sour cream instead of soured cream.

Once it's soured, it's sour!


Just betwixt thee and me, which editor at the Post consistently turns in the sloppiest copy. It's ____, right?

Nice try!


thanks for the earworm. Gaaaahhhhh!

Think of the Replacements.


''And, if we're being technical, pedophiles are attracted to children but don't necessarily molest them, right?'' NO. Because it's the molesting that gets you called a pedophile. Also if an AU President makes creepy phone calls to day care providers.



an abnormal condition in which an adult has a sexual desire for children

In Portuguese, too?


([D]on't do that bracket thing! [D]rives me nuts!)



''The Post could be more consistent, but we're supposed to use the cedilla, at least in French.'' I'd be very interested in seeing an example. My impression is you never do.

Look up Monsieur Hollande.



Thank you for joining me! I should be back on the first Tuesday in July, which would be the 7th.


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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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