Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (April)

Apr 06, 2016

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. No exclamation point, because I'm under the weather, and some blankets, with what they call "con crud." Somewhere in last week's traveling and hand-shaking for the 20th annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, I came down with a cold or the flu or, I don't know, scarlet fever or something. (And I basically never get sick.) 

So please go easy on me.

As at the previous two conferences, the singular "they" was a hot topic -- using they/them/their/theirs/etc. to refer to a person of unknown gender, or a person who does not identify as male or female. The Associated Press Stylebook still hasn't come out with an entry accepting the usage. The Washington Post, as you may have heard, accepts it in the non-gender-binary sense (which comes up very rarely) and tries to avoid it in the other sense but accepts it when the alternative would be hopelessly awkward.

The AP did have one style bombshell: It will soon begin to lowercase "internet" and "web." At least one chatter is pretty happy about that ...


The recent announcement that the internet is no longer "the Internet" seemed long overdue. I noted that my autocorrect would change it and I often let it do so, but I thought it odd that I would capitalize the web whereas I would not even think to spell it Phone or Television. Will the Post be adopting this new (and correct) convention?

"Internet" isn't a brand name or a trademark, but it did enter the language as a name rather than a simple term. It didn't have to, but it did. So, in keeping with my general bias, I like the idea of respecting that precedent. 

The arguments for the lowercase form seem to be as much about "Aw, c'mon, people today don't have time to hit the shift key" as they are about names vs. generic terms. 

Of course, the same is true of the hyphen in "e-mail." We eventually joined the wave on that, and no doubt we eventually will lowercase "internet," but for now it seems too soon.  

There's also that pesky "the." "Television" and "phone" don't have that complication. Internet is more like "the Bell System" than it is like "phone," I think.

As for "web," that has other, generic meanings, as opposed to [World Wide] Web, so there's that. But, sigh, that cap is also on the way out. For AP, now. For The Post, eventually.

The argument that there is a general trend away from capitalization would be more persuasive if I didn't see the same people who champion "internet" and "web" writing about being "Sophomores who are majoring in History and love Sushi."

I have conservation-of-____ theories about capital letters and commas and hyphens and extra-letter variant spellings and spaces (spaces in compounds, as opposed to smushedonewordization). Whatever trends may be happening, they are dwarfed by entropy. A lot of people just don't have a good feel for these things.


I used to hold AP Style in highest esteem but that is fading fast. It seems that rather than standing firm on high standards, AP gives in to bad writers who either don't know better or don't care. First Web stie became website and now, starting June 1, Internet and Web will lose their proper-noun status and become internet and web. At this rate, AP Style may someday approve of no proper nouns at all.

Standards do change, and AP style reflects AP editors' approximation of what's current. 

Having said that, I do share your frustration somewhat. I think there was something to be said for an approach closer to the one we were used to until the past decade or so, with change happening more gradually.


I agree with the lower case, since they aren't derived from a person's name (which could create a Kafkaesque situation)

Well, there are plenty of proper nouns that don't involve people's names or trademarks or brands.

The white house?


I was stumped by this construction this morning. Any help? In this sentence: "Mandy is one of the cooks who knows how to bake a really great cake." I struggled with whether "knows" should be singular or plural. It sounds better to me as singular "Mandy...knows" yet it seem like it should go with "cooks" and therefore be plural "cooks who know." I wasn't sure which was correct. (Obviously this is a made of example, the actual sentence was something for work and I don't want to use that here.)

Good question. See the next answer!


When did the worm turn and make it okay to not use a comma after the state or year in the "city, state," or "month day, year," constructs? I know that good punctuation has taken a header in recent years, but I seem to remember this rule as one that my grammar school teachers absolutely drilled into me, if only because it's not that intuitive. It irks me whenever I see it, but especially when I see it in newspapers (often the Washington Post, ahem), where they really should know better. (I know there have been AWFUL cuts in editor jobs, but jeez, shouldn't the writers know this one themselves?) This isn't one of the biggest grammar transgressions in the world today, but man, is it ever a pet peeve of mine. --Speaking of which, are there any grammar mistakes that bother you to an outsized degree?

This is probably the answer if you ask me about the most common error I see. It was the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination -- once you set off the year with a comma, you need to finish the job.

The grammar mistake that bothers me most, largely because people who commit it tend to be smart and are often sanctimonious about how right they are, is the use of a singular verb with a "one of those" construction. (Longtime readers of this chat will be familiar with that peeve.)

 One of the things that HAPPEN (not HAPPENS) when you get older is ear hair. Things happen; ear hair is one of them.


Re: But as Post copy editor Bill Walsh explained, the singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.” Question: What about coining an appropriate word? When taking personal notes, I use thep. It looks like it belongs with the words them and they, and (in my mind) thep is short for "the person." Thep works for he/she and theps works for his/her (the person's). 

That just isn't the way the language works. Words get coined, but coinages and acceptance of those coinages are an organic process. Many catch on, and many others don't. 

With "Internet" ("internet"?), that was once a new thing and that was the name and that's that, but with pronouns that show up in a large proportion of our sentences, there's no governing authority that could force people to start using a new one.

"They" has been used as  both singular and plural for hundreds of years. Would people who still think the singular form is always wrong really be willing to embrace THEP?


I think the change to lowercase is a good thing. It's long bothered me to have it capitalized, especially when it's used ad an adjective.

But what would that have to do with it? Bob Dylan holds bob dylan concerts?


An editor is telling me that if I QUOTE the opening of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," I must used "cruelest" (the American spelling) instead of "cruellest" (as Anglophile Eliot used). Which is correct?

I wouldn't change the spelling of a quote from written material, unless there are various versions with various spellings out there.

Exception: If a reporter uses e-mail to conduct an interview, as opposed to "quoting" the e-mail as a document, we fix spelling and capitalization and punctuation. We would never put words in someone's mouth, but to reproduce that sort of error would be like spelling nuclear "nucular" in a spoken quote because that's how it was pronounced.


I bought a 3-ring dictionary for the kids of a family friend. End page includes punctuation tips including a "double dash" used when hyphenation word with a natural hyphen. Yet, I have never seen any publication use it. It this a new rule?

That sounds like an en dash. Longer than a hyphen, shorter than a(n em) dash, also used to hold together more-than-two-word modifiers.

So: cherry blossom-themed cocktails (pretend the hyphen is a little wider).

To use your example (natural hyphen), maybe you'd see "anti-lock-brake critics" with a hyphen in the first instance and an en dash in the second.

I'm not a big fan of the en dash. It's a hoity-toity publishing nicety that I don't think most readers understand, and I think "anti-child abuse policies" and "high school-age kids" look funny no matter how wide that hyphen/dash is.




Yikes! You're kind of being short with the chatters today!

I am? 

I'm so relieved I've been getting the "one of that plurals that [plural verb]" right.

I'm always surprised when people say they think the singular verb sounds more natural. To me, using it requires some degree of OMG OMG WHAT IS THE SUBJECT?? hypercorrection. Not natural at all.


I see that AP has changed it from what it was (that favored under way) to always using underway. What do you think of that?

For a long time, I thought The Post was too far ahead of the game in using the one-word form. When I gained some influence over the stylebook, I thought of changing it to "under way," but my research showed that the one-word form was pretty well accepted.

I had a similar experience just last night with "anytime." I'd write "any time she goes away" in "Ain't No Sunshine," whereas Post style decided a few years ago to just make it one word in all such usages, but apparently "anytime" has overcome everyone's objection but my own.


Seriously, they use "=" to show you hyphenate at a natural hyphen.

That's the proofreading symbol for a hyphen. Maybe that's what it was indicating?



But they can't take (sic) leaf.

This is the first time I've done it in quite a while. Unless you count this as work, of course.

Somebody at the conference pointed out that the youngs are using [sic] ironically, like "so-called." 

The renowned foreign-policy expert [sic].

Then there was some talk about the punctuation of Lands' End, maker of my [sic] new shoes.


But if you can't live by the rule that nouns inside a prepositional phrase aren't the subject, then how can you know with absolute certainty when to keep the rule and when to deviate? Seems subjective to me. Ordinarily, I'm not one who advocates playing by rules, except with the exception of grammar, spelling and punctuation. Having those rules take out the guess work.

This is by no means a deviation from any rule. Observer:

One of the things that happen when you get older is death.

"One" is the subject of the sentence.

"Happens" is NOT the subject of the sentence. It's the subject of the clause.

"Is" is the subject of the sentence.

One ... is.

Things ... happen.

Now, the fact that in rare cases it can work either way, depending on the facts, further illustrates my point.

One of my friends who lives in Sacramento is coming over.

(Correct if I'm saying one of my friends is coming over and further pointing out that this friend, presumably unlike many others, lives in Sacramento.)

One of my friends who live in Sacramento is coming over.

(Correct if I have more than one friend in Sacramento but only one is coming over.)


In journalism, often I see in quotes something like this: "The ship sank in 10 minutes. [The Captain] got everyone off safe, however." Do the brackets signify a different term? An omitted term? Either?

They can work both ways. There, "the captain" is no doubt there in place of "he" or "Smith" or whatever. 

Or brackets could indicate an insertion.

A third option: "Smith [the captain]" -- clarification of what's in the sentence.

I used to insist on ellipses when the bracketed insert substituted for words that were deleted, but that seems pedantic to me now. Still, I hate brackets and I avoid them if at all possible.


but what I really don't understand is why people use it when the gender of the person is obvious because the person has been named earlier in the paragraph or conversation. Or the recent example in this newspaper of a woman who tried to "raise" her cats gender neutral but was really just trying to get used to referring to each one using a singular "they." The animals are cats. Except to a veterinarian, the gender shouldn't matter. Use "it."

Obviously, if the gender is obvious, "they" is silly.

With cats, the policy of sensible stylebooks is to use "he" and "she" when they are pets, especially pets with names, and "it" for wild animals, farm animals, etc.



Soon? Why would they announce what they are going to do, rather than just do it? Do people need a grace period? I can't imagine the logistics are very difficult. It's not like they're negotiating the transfer of power from British Empire to the people of India.

That is a little weird, isn't it? There was no such delay with "email" or "website" or "mic" or any of the AP's other big changes.


"One of my friends in Sacramento is coming over."

You don't get to edit the examples! That's like telling your CPR instructor to get a dummy that isn't drowning.


And then there is the less/fewer debate. Drives me nuts how otherwise apparently intelligent people get this wrong.

Well, that one's more complicated. "One fewer bell to answer"? Nah. 

I also think "10 items or less" is fine. Not just fine, but better than "10 items or fewer."


I once worked at a magazine that had a complicated set of rules for when to use hyphens and when en-dashes. In 8 years or so, I never got the hang of it. So now I let MS Word decide (you know, it has automatic settings that will create hyphens and en-dashes and em-dashes according to its whims).

I'm sure it's flawless! :-)


This may be a little off-topic but I'm curious as to why you think so many people now feel compelled to begin the answer to a question with the word "so." I listen to NPR a lot and hear it all the time when one of their reporters is interviewing someone.

So, we humans, like, like our buffer words. You know, somehow it sounds softer, less strident, if you use "so" or "like" or "you know" to ease into an answer rather than confidently launching in.


Hi Bill, I'm an avid reader and once upon a time was an intended English major (in the hopes that I would eventually teach). After I learned what an "appositive" was as a freshman I think it was all down hill for my writing. I've been told several times by several people I struggle with "excessive comma useage." My question to you is: is there a rule of thumb to decide when a comma is/isn't appropriate?

There are so many permutations, I could build an entire chat around the subject if I did a lot of homework.

The New Yorker is on the comma-crazy side, and as I recall, my friend Mary Norris, of that august publication, discusses the issue in her wildly successful book. "Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen."

One example (mine, not Mary's): Although you must use both commas in "her Norfolk, Va., home," you need not end the score string with a comma in "Federer's 6-4, 6-1 victory."


It's like I don't even know you.

"Ten or fewer items"? Sure. Sounds better, follows the traditional rule.

But "10 items or fewer"? It's not the same thing. There is not an implied "items" after "fewer." There COULD be, but I read it as "10 items or fewer [than that]."


I had an interesting discussion with a friend about this recently. I'm all for it, but he scoffed at it as being "new-fangled." Yet, earlier in the conversation, he relayed a story where he said he'd called a customer service representative and "they" told him blah blah blah. I pointed this out and I think it made him realize how much he uses this "new-fangled" construction and just hadn't noticed.

In speech, it's completely natural. I would never write such an account that way, unless I couldn't tell the sex of the customer-service rep, but we've done it in speech that way for a long time.


"You speak better than I." "You speak better then I do." Which is correct?

Both! The first implies the second.

Perhaps more controversially, you could also say "better than me."

There are fancy grammar terms for all this, but with "I" you're comparing how you speak with how I speak. With "me" (essentially)  you're comparing "you" with "me." Either way is fine.


Is "fun" a noun or an adjective? Can something be "so fun" or is it "so much fun?" When did "so fun" become acceptable? Is it now preferred to "so much fun?" Are the comparative and superlative now "funner" and "funnest?"

It's easy to see how "fun," the noun, got confused with an adjective. When you read "It was fun," it's more natural to think of fun as meaning enjoyable than as meaning ... enjoyment.

So the adjectival form is pretty well established, though I'd avoid it in formal writing. "Funner" and "funnest" have a ways to go, though. 

(I was dinged for using "funner" in a seventh-grade presentation, so it's been around ... a long while.)



Hi Bill - an editor/colleague of mine insists on making a big deal of the proper use of "ago" and "earlier." I think that if you have proper context ("Earnings declined in fourth quarter 2015 from a year ago"), then "ago" works just fine. He disagrees. Can you settle the dispute?

"Earlier" is technically more accurate, because you'd be reporting fourth-quarter earnings after the fourth quarter is over. But it's not a huge deal, unless you're talking about that quarter WAY after the fact.


Shouldn't this be composed of? It's from an April 3 Washington Post article: "Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster, recently conducted a focus group in St. Louis comprised of Republican voters — with the aim of understanding the Trump phenomenon and its durability."

Yes. It's probably a lost cause, though -- people just love to type "comprised of," for some reason.

I hate the whole comprise/compose/constitute arena -- when you're wrong, you're wrong, and when you're right, you look as though you're showing off. I'd have said "made up of Republican voters."


Mr. Walsh, how do we address a specific film or book in a series when the creator specifies that storytelling order is different from order of appearance? e.g., is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace the fourth movie or the first one? And am I allowed to break fingers if writers insist on bowing to the creator's whim rather than the actual timeline?

That is annoying, isn't it? My wife is a big "Star Wars" fan whereas I hate sci-fi and I refuse to sit through any of those movies, and so I'm always saying to her "Part 2, Which Is Really Part 6" or whatever.

But the title is the title, right?

So you could say "the fourth movie in the series, 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.' "


In a March 31 column concerning salaries for soccer players, Matt Bonesteel wrote: "In the complaint, the players cite USSF figures from last year showing that they were paid nearly four times less than men’s players despite generating much more revenue." Realizing that not everything can be caught by the Copy Editors (upper case for emphasis), and forgetting "men's players" versus "men players" or "men's salaries", "one time less than men's players " means the women will be working for a negative salary. Is it that difficult for professional writers, especially reporters, to remember? That said, speaking as someone who moved from the Washington area and who, because of the above "times less than" looked to see where the Copy Editor was, it was nice to see this chat, and remind myself to read "The Slot." And in the meantime, as an owner of a very dog-eared "The Elements of Style", thank you for your writings, and may you carry on the tradition of Jack Kilpatrick and Bill Safire. One of my great memories is Mr. Kilpatrick e-mailing me after I commented on the phrase "went missing". He noted that he had finally given in to the phrase after a long resistance to it, and then got up the next morning upset that he gave in. Cheers from Jacksonville, Florida.

"One time less" gets you to zero, so "four times less," to the extent that it makes any sense at all, would be negative. Of course, many will say this is an idiom for "one-fourth." It is. A sloppy idiom.

"Times more than" isn't quite as bad, but it has a similar problem. One time more would be twice as much, which means two times more would be three times as much, etc., but when people say "three times more" they mean three times as much, not four times as much. 


I'm seeing more and more of this construction, where X is objectively true, but Y is posited as a counterpoint. No, it's not "may be" true, it is true! Why not simply, "It's true that X, but Y."? Because "may be" seems more dramatic, literary? Thoughts?

Sometimes I get pedantic about that, and sometimes I relax and acknowledge that it's an idiom.


This might be a matter of regional preference or individual taste, but neither explanation suffices when you're dealing with two entrenched camps, so I'm seeking an expert opinion: If a car crashes in front of 824 Mulberry St., did the crash occur IN the 800 block of Mulberry or ON the 800 block of Mulberry? I've tried the Google method of settling this dispute, and there's about a 60-40 preference for "in" -- pretty close, as these things go.

I've always said "in," but either would be an acceptable style choice.

And how many know what "the unit block" is? I had never heard that before I came to Washington. 

It's the 0-to-100 block, or "the first block."


I don't want to be offensive, but does someone "pee his pants" or "pee in his pants"? I've always used the latter, but I'm hearing the former more often. I'm assuming the same usage applies to other bodily functions.

Skipping the "in" makes more literal sense with "wet his pants" or "soil his pants," but the transitive "pee" has become idiomatic.


Do you ever find yourself mentally editing songs with incorrect grammar. I'd like to start a cover band that plays certain songs with the correct grammar instead of the original lyrics. Like "I Still Haven't Found for What I'm Looking" by U2.

But of course! It's fun. The noun, not the adjective. The thing that girls just [want to] have.



Interviewers also often begin with "Let me ask you this....."

The question is, is, is, is that the question?


"Went missing" is preferable to "turned up missing" (which is a contradiction of terms).

As a petulant American, I'm still resisting these Britishisms, though I admit that "vanish" and "disappear" is a too-short menu of choices.


I just wish they'd accept "teh" for "the"--I could cut my misspelling rate in half.



I wait FOR people if I arrive or am ready before they do, but I wait ON people if I'm a store clerk or server in a restaurant. This isn't rocket surgery, folks!

That's how I use the words. But tell that to the Stones!


This sentence was in the Post <>: "He says he was 'kicking myself' because of it." Shouldn't it be "He says he was 'kicking [him]self' because of it." Is this proper use of the singular "they" in this ugly sentence? "The teacher said they were kicking themself." If I saw that sentence, I'd (incorrectly) think the writer meant "The teachers said they were kicking themselves."

Better to leave the obviously correct quote than to awkwardly bracketize it. The Onion routinely makes fun of such brackets.

As for the teacher, the only reason to use "they" instead of "he" or "she" would be if (a) the writer somehow didn't know the teacher's gender or (b) the teacher identifies as neither male nor female.

"Themself" is an interesting side note in the singular-"they" conversation. Technically you'd use "themselves," but that S really bothers me, and so I'm in the minority calling for "themself."


Shall it be the carrot or the stick, or some more axle grease on the wheels of the cart? That is the crux of the problem which faces Attlee and Co. in their discussion on longer hours, more food cuts and incentive payments to step up output and to convince the U.S. that a thrifty, hardworking Britain deserves the lion's share of Marshall's aid-for-Europe.

So, the British "their"? As in "The Wolverhampton Wanderers are up 2-nil"?



I blame Bill Lumbergh of Office Space. He would always ease into wanting you to work over the weekend. Have you been putting the new coversheet on the TPS reports?



I understand that a full scholarship gives one a free ride through college. But a full-ride? What's that?

Well, if a scholarship is a "ride" (you could argue that "free" is redundant), there are partial rides and full ones, right?

Not the most elegant term, though, I would agree.


...solved this problem. All nouns are capitalized. Make it so.

And it's just one long word!


Where do you stand on the increasing use of "search" and "social" as abbreviations for the nouns "search engine optimization" and "social media"? Any legitimacy at this point, or just sloppy abbreviating by a speed-is-everything world?

As jargon within the industry, it's fine. I'd rather not foist it on the outside world, though.


Isn't it capitalized?

My point exactly :-).


There's a song I rather like--"Gravity" by Embrace--that makes a rather obvious grammar error by using "I" instead of "me" as an object pronoun because the song actually uses both within the chorus ("me" because it rhymes with "see" and "I" because it rhymes with "sky").

We make these allowances for art, right?

Lie, lady, lie ...


Can you explain the meaning and usage of "writ" in this passage from last Thursday's Daily 202? "Another piece of oft-repeated conventional wisdom—especially by pundits on cable TV—is that nothing Trump does ever hurts him. This may be true among his core supporters, but it is not true among the electorate writ large."

"Writ large" means "obvious." I'm guessing the writer was looking for something like "the larger electorate" or "the electorate as a whole."


I applaud you, sir. It bugs me that so many people who make a fetish of the less/fewer 'rule' don't properly understand it in the first place, which is why you see things such as 'he served fewer than 7 years of his 20-year prison sentence.'

Yes! Great example. Try to drive fewer than 55 mph!


are very common. Heard the construction on NPR this morning. Hate it. I guess it is supposed to be clearer than "one fourth of" (25% of) which could be misinterpreted as "one fourth less" (75% of). I find it jarring enough to have to figure out what the person really means.

With "times more," obviously, the margin of error shrinks as the numbers get bigger, so it really makes no difference at some point, but that's still not the way that wording is supposed to work.


What's the best way to alert WaPo that there are typos in online articles? In the past, I've submitted comments identifying errors. Sometimes the article is modified, sometimes it's not.

As you might imagine, writers and editors are dealing with a fire hose of e-mail, so I'm not surprised your results have been mixed.

I would click on the byline, which should open an e-mail (yes, I still use the hyphen even if The Post doesn't) addressed to the reporter, and then cc 


Wow. That was the liveliest chat I've had in quite some time. I'm exhausted but happy. As Gomer Pyle would say, thank you, thank you, thank you!

If I can trust my calendar, our next chat will be May 4. Which I believe is "Star Wars" day, oddly enough. 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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