Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (May)

May 04, 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! It's May the 4th, so happy Star Wars Day to youze people who care about such things. And who lisp, presumably. Baby talk, baby talk, it's a wonder you can walk! (Yeah, so my pop-culture references are even more dated than 1977.)

Today's sermon is short: Please stop insisting on using singular verbs with couple, as in husband and wife. Plural is usually a better choice. This becomes especially clear in sentences in which the writer treats the word as both singular and plural, changing midstream when the absurdity of the singular becomes apparent. The couple is divorcing, but they plan to live together in the short term. 

See! You admitted it's plural! They! If the couple is divorcing, then it plans to live together. The couple are divorcing. There. Now they can be they. (Yes, there is the singular they, but that's a different issue.)

The exception is when a couple is one unit among others. Each couple is expected to bring a side dish.

There. Now, what's on your mind?


why, oh why, do people insist on making a single word of "every day"? They're right about half the time.

People in general aren't very good at the one-word-vs.-two thing. It's the kind of error that separates well-edited writing from the other kind. What was my line from "Lapsing Into a Comma"? Something about "bare foot people in the buffetline."

That's why I get cynical about being too quick to accept widely used one-word coinages as correct for publication style. The onewordization often happens eventually, of course, and some of those coinages make intuitive good sense ("crowdsource" is an ironic example), but the same people who get agitated when old farts like me won't write "livestream" and "newsfeed" as solid will then turn around and refer to WordPress as "Word                    Press."

Feel free to transfer that argument to capitalization issues such as "Internet" vs. "internet," by the way. I'm not sure we should take our capitalization cues from people who never capitalize anything, or people who major in History and love Sushi.



What do you think of "decisioned" as a verb when "approved or disapproved" is too cumbersome?

Not much. Not much at all. 

Can't say I've heard of it, actually, outside the boxing sense. Frazier decisioned Ali in 1971, and Ali returned the favor in 1974.


I read in the Washington Post "The White House announced that eldest daughter Malia Obama will attend Harvard University after taking a gap year." The White House statement says "their daughter." Does someone at WaPo know of a third daughter, or is this a case where the superlative is acceptable when comparing two items (people)?

We should have used elder/older, and I fixed it in at least one instance, but that's not a rule I get terribly excited about.


I know the Washington Post doesn't abide by all AP Style rules I was surprised by "Zip" code in this article: ZIP is not a matter of personal preferance, but the acronym for Zone Improvement Plan.

Yeah, that's been Post style forever. It's an acronym, but acronyms aren't sacred. You could argue that it's derived from an acronym.

At least one reporter thinks it's zipcode -- I read that on my phone as I was waking up the other day and had to race to my computer to log in and change it.

Can you explain what an appositive is and when you are dealing with one? I have a pretty decent understanding of what it is, but sometimes I see sentences where there seems to be more than one! Is that even possible? It was my understanding that you can remove an appositive and the integrity of the sentence would still remain.

An example would be his wife, Jacqueline. Another would be his brother Teddy. 

You can remove an appositive without doing great harm in the first case but not the second. That's because the name of his wife is non-essential, or non-restrictive. He has only one wife. 

With a restrictive/essential appositive, you're defining rather than merely adding additional information. The subject has more than one brother, and we're talking about the one named Teddy.

Note also that you wouldn't use commas with a mere label. Wife Jacqueline. Brother Teddy (even if there's more than one brother). That's a rule that's often violated in sportswriting, especially at the amateur level -- high-school yearbooks, for example.

The difference can be subtle. You want a comma in the starting quarterback, Kirk Cousins. You don't want a comma in starting quarterback Kirk Cousins. It's a label. Some would call it a "false title." 

When did vendor become vender? The New Yorker uses the latter and it bugs me every time.

I haven't noticed that. Dictionaries do list it as an alt. spelling, but I'm surprised the New Yorker would use it. I'll ask Mary Norris the next time I see her.


But what if a drive is going to take "a couple of hours?" Do you say "some couple of hours?"

That's a different sense of the word. I meant only in the sense of "two partners of some sort."


Somewhat related to your rant about couple, the use (and overuse) of this term has bugged me. It's a group term, so saying "The General sent troops to cover the flank" is correct, but saying "Nine troops were injured in the skirmish" is technically incorrect. How many people were in each of those nine troops? Yes the meaning is very clear, but it still bugs me.

I sympathize, but there is a need for a word that works that way, and troop is evolving to fill that need.

If two Americans fighting in Afghanistan are killed, one from the Army and one from the Marine Corps, what can you call them? They are two service members, but that gets awkward pretty fast. Soldiers? Nope. You're a soldier only if you're in the Army. Fighters and combatants are accurate but weird.


See it all the time where I work -- causes me personal angst, but doesn't stop the perpetrators!

Muhammad Ali should punch them.


Why not tv?

Is this a dig at "Zip code"?

Non-acronym initialisms tend to keep their caps (TV) or at least periods (a.k.a.). Acronyms, pronounced as words rather than letter by letter, are more flexible. Some publications, especially in Britain, refer to NATO as Nato, for example.



"How the improbable Cruz candidacy soared — and then unraveled"

Well, you know, threads become unstable at high altitudes, right?


An AP style adherent was arrested after police say he lapsed into an Oxford comma. What do you think about the tense-shifting type of construction in the police blotter? Shouldn't "police say" at least be set apart by commas?

I see your point, and Mary Norris at the New Yorker would probably use those commas, but lede-speak it is. Daily journalism (we used to call it "newspapers") has its share of such devices.


I won't bother with relative pronoun use of "which"vs "that".But could you explain the rampant use of THAT for WHO? I just read quote of one Presidential candidate doing so yesterday. And a million others. Am I incorrect in thinking all one has to do to know when to use WHO is to say, IS THIS A PERSON?

People can be that. Editors at the finest publications will change it as a matter of style, but the usage is well established. 

I'd rather see a person that than a company who.


What's a good one-word alternative for "decisioned" as a verb when "approved or disapproved" is too cumbersome?

There doesn't necessarily have to be one. Adjudicated? 


I keep seeing constructions like this, and they look wrong to me: The victim was stabbed then shot. He lived in Texas then moved to Canada. The carrot should be peeled then cut into slices. I would think there should be a comma in front of "then," but I see this so often that I'm starting to think I'm wrong.

You are correct. Comma or the word "and."


This aspect of the time element always trips me up: Should it be "The police said Friday the suspect escaped" or "The police said on Friday that the suspect escaped"? My preference is for the latter, but my boss prefers the former. His reasoning was that it has to do with the object of the sentence. I didn't follow or press him on it, but it seems like the former could become confusing: "The police said Friday Mae Brown escaped...."

Speaking of lede-speak!

My practice with on is to use it when it's useful and delete it when it's not. I called Sara on Saturday, to avoid invoking a person named Sara Saturday. In your first example, I see no need for the word. 

In other lede-speak news, you often see things like The police Friday said ...

 Your example avoids that sin but is missing the word that. The police said Friday that the person escaped, to make it clear that Friday refers to the police statement and not the escape. And be careful with suspect. You probably mean the robber/killer/burglar/rapist escaped, not someone suspected of being the robber/killer/burglar/rapist escaped. 

A necessary-evil exception on placement of the time element: When the time element refers to a bunch of things. President Obama on Wednesday did x and y and z.


Strangulation, like electrocution, ends with someone being dead. But when our media organization has referred to a person being "choked" by someone, emergency medical organizations have criticized this characterization, saying that "choking" means something is internally obstructing breathing. Any thoughts on how we can make clear that someone was squeezing someone else's throat but did not kill them? Without sounding silly?

Hmm. I think you're dead if you were strangled or electrocuted, but are you dead if you were choked? Did Papelbon kill Harper? (That would explain some things.)

My dictionary isn't helping, so I guess I'm wrong.


The SCOTUS decisioned (LOL!) otherwise in Citizens United.

Well played.


Why not good ol' reliable "decided"?

That could work.



There's a transitive-vs.-intransitive problem there, I think.


Do you happen to have a trick for remembering nonessential phrase/comma, essential/no comma rule?

You could think of the commas as carving out something that could be deleted.

Or imagine reading aloud. You pause a little with the commas, which lends an air of "This is additional info." Without the commas, it's like "His wife Jacqueline as opposed to all his other wives?"


From a Post article dated today: So vaunted is the Engelharts’ place among Los Angeles vegans and would-be vegans that they must iterate in their book, “Sacred Commerce: Business as a Path of Awakening,” that there is nothing untoward about their influence. Is that a new use for "iterate", to mean "emphasize"?

Not that I know of.

I don't go so far as to insist that reiterate is redundant, because practically nobody knows that iterate means the same thing, but the latter confusion is no doubt responsible for erroneous applications of the word.


One out of four tax returns contain/s inappropriate losses.

I've long thought a plural verb is better there. You're talking about a ratio, not a literal one. But most authorities disagree. So I've enforced the singular rule, but I'm ready to stop.


That reminded me of my youth in New York, where axe murderers found in bloody clothing were referred to as "the alleged perpetrator," and in the UK where "He is aiding police with their enquiries" means they're working him over with a rubber hose in the basement of Scotland Yard.

I know I've beaten this horse with that same hose, but the suspect fetish is especially annoying in stories that end with Police have no suspects. 

... but then, I suppose it would be "Friday, the suspect"?

Everybody knows that Friday is the cop.


I believe it used to be Post style that when first using an acronym, you spelled it out and then put the acronym in parentheses, as in "Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)." Now the acronym in parentheses seems to be skipped, which means an acronym just shows up in the story and if you're not familiar with it, you have to skim back to try to figure out what it means. In the Howard University story in the Post Magazine Sunday, HBCU was used and was never fully spelled out. ("Historically black college" was used, but the U was never spelled out.) I don't think HBCU is so common that it should just be assumed everyone knows what it means. What do you think?

The parenthetical would silly with FBI (How stupid does The Washington Post think you are?), but it's useful with unfamiliar initialisms. 

And the U should have been spelled out.

One of my great frustrations with AP (Associated Press) style back when I used it was that it forbade the parenthetical explanation. Not sure whether it still does.


But it is in fact a word without the space, right? Meaning commonplace, ordinary. As in 'a suit for everyday use'. That expamle sentence came from the American Heritage Dictionary, BTW.

Everyday events happen every day. Backyard sheds look great in back yards. Hometown decisions sometimes happen in a fighter's home town.


I remember years ago seeing this, which covered it in detail.

My pals Grammar Girl and Neal Whitman! You could do a lot worse.


Why not avoid the whole "The police said Friday Mae Brown" problem by starting with "On Friday?" All of the examples concern when a statement was released. Not when an even occurred. If Mae Brown escaped on Friday, that's straight up "Police said Mae Brown escaped on Friday." If police ~announced~ it on Friday, why not: "On Friday, police reported [that] Mae Brown escaped." The "[that]" is my preference, but I think it's optional.

Another of the rules of lede-speak is that WE MUST GET THE IMPORTANT STUFF AS HIGH AS POSSIBLE. That ignores the fact that the end of a sentence is a very powerful place, and sometimes it results in awkwardness, but it's our tradition, damn it!


We were going to name the company Technology Insertion Techniques & Services, but the acronym didn't work out.

Thanks for keeping us abreast.


AP recently weighed in on the nuances of reporting traffic mishaps as "accidents", saying "avoid using the word when negligence is claimed or proven". I tend to agree, and would go further to say it's fine to use accident, but only after a thorough investigation rules out every other avoidable explanation. There's opposition to this style suggestion that says there's nothing wrong with using accident in all cases because it doesn't change the way police investigate, doctors treat, or insurance claims pay merely based on the descriptive word. Is it careless to call every incident an accident, or should we literally care less?

Avoiding accidents is a good policy on more than one level. Do we ever really know that a car crash wasn't road rage or a murder plot or a suicide plot or insurance fraud? Is it fully an accident when a drunk was texting while motoring down the bike lane and he hits a cyclist?

I haven't brought this up when it comes to Post style, but perhaps I should.


From a Monday Post story: It was always a risky bet, and as the primary’s dragged on, Cruz has piled on chips and tacked further to the right. Shouldn't this be primaries?


There are two ways of looking at that, both of them errors. Either there's an incorrect plural (primary's where it should be primaries) or an incorrect singular (primary's is a contraction for primary has, which is incorrect because the major parties in U.S. politics do not choose their presidential candidates in a single nationwide primary).

Given the amateurish level of the former error and the ubiquity of the latter one, my guess is that the writer meant the contraction -- as the primary has dragged on


After the Indiana primary last night, I saw more examples of media outlets clearly going out of their way to avoid describing Hillary Clinton as a potential "female president." It always seems to be "woman president," and the use of "woman" as an adjective in general seems to be growing. I know using "female" as a noun has become frowned upon, and I avoid it, but is there any grammatical reason to avoid using "female" as an adjective? After all, we wouldn't describe Donald Trump as a potential "man president." Am I missing something here, or is this simply an overcorrection by people who don't understand the difference between a noun and an adjective?

The purist answer is that "female" and "male" are the adjectives, so "female president." You could even argue that "woman" can be pejorative, as in "women drivers." But "woman" as an adjective is pretty well established. We purists enforce the "female" thing, but we don't have much company these days.


Here's the worst: If I lay here If I just lay here Would you lie with me and just forget the world? Why would he (Snow Patrol, Chasing Cars) think it would be "lay" in the first two instances and "lie" in the third. All I can think is that he consulted someone he thought was knowledgable in this area who told him something about who is doing the laying and lying. Seriously, it would be less offensive if he'd used "lay" all three times. I can't listen to the song.

Could it be a double-entendre? They're telling untruths together?

As I've said before, lay/lie is one of those distinctions I observe at work but not at home. If I'm going to lie down, I want a wash basin at my bedside and perhaps a glass of sherry.


I know this is an old issue, but what was the deal with getting rid of the Oxford comma? I'm working in a place where I finally have to make that change to my writing and it's making me crazy.

Publications (books vs. newspapers) and cultures (U.S. vs. Britain) differ. No big deal. 

The mistaken insistence that the serial comma should never be used is about the only serial-comma issue that gets me riled up. Sometimes it's needed for clarity. Do you mean the department of public works, libraries, and parks and sports, or do you mean the departments of public works, libraries and parks, and sports?


How do decide what is a proper noun and what's just company marketing B.S.? (At the Apple store, it's a Genius Bar; at Best Buy, it's just the service counter.) Is it as simple as whether the corporation has named it?

The novelty is a good clue. If anything, the fact that it's marketing BS makes the capital letters even more necessary. (A reputable publication wouldn't want to embrace "genius bar" with a straight face, after all.)


We drive on the parkway and park on the driveway.

Thank you, the late George Carlin.


How do you handle foreign names, like "Хрущев." (Former Russian leader from 1952 to 1971.

That would be Nikita Khrushchev, right? Soviet leader from '53 to '64? 

In other words, names from languages that don't share our alphabet get transliterated. Because there are different systems of transliteration, that can lead to wide variations in spelling. Just ask Moammar/Muammar Khadafy/Qaddafi/Gadhafi. Well, if you could.


My understanding is that the word 'simplistic' is always a pejorative, so it would not be correct to say something like "At first the directions were too complicated; after further rewrites they were more simplistic" (since this implies that the directions were made too simple). If that's the case, is it redundant to say something is "overly-simplistic?"

 I suppose you could argue that, but there are degrees of good and bad. Really good, really bad. Sort of good, sort of bad. Understandably simplistic, overly simplistic.


Please indulge this gripe and comments from you and fellow chatters are encouraged to contribute. I am the long-distance caretaker of a family member who lives in Richardson, TX. The city sent notices to both my address and hers stating the Richardson's misson statement. Since it's common for companies and institutions as a matter of routine to send customers copies of their mission statement, I thought nothing of it, as did my relative's caretaker who opened the correspondence that arrived at her address, and we both recycled the papers. Then we got second notices and this time I saw that 10 lines and three paragraphs down, past a lenghty ordinance citation, the real purpose of the letter was to inform us that grass needed cutting in the back alley. I called the code enforcement officer and he was quite amused over my complaint that the first line of the letter should state the reason of the correspondence, which could then be followed by the mission statement and ordinance. My point, I told him, was that others receiving this notice probably made the same assumption I and my relative's caretaker did disregarded it. Several months (and lots of rain) later, we got the same notice worded the same way so I guess it's true that you can't fight city hall.

Sounds like a deliberate attempt to trick the recipient.


What's the style for making them plural? Sometimes I see SUVs used as SUV's, which drives (pun intended) me nuts. It's clearly an acronym, no apostrophe necessary (except when used as a possessive, of course).

In general, you're right. No need for an apostrophe in SUVs. The New York Times, for a long time, made an exception because it used so many all-caps headlines, where apostrophes were helpful, and so it extended that practice to the small type.

And it's a mistake to insist that plurals never get apostrophes. Individual letters, at least in some style manuals, get apostrophes -- all A's on my report card. There are other examples, including the do's in do's and don'ts, at least in some dictionaries and stylebooks.


I have literally seen bar fights erupt over this.

Really? My people generally eschew bars and fights.


H0H 0H0.

I still miss PQ. 


You'd be forlorn about your dog getting sick, postlorn afterwards.

And prelorn beforehand?


That's all the time we have. Thank you again for joining me. Let's do it again on the first Wednesday in June, which appears to be ... June 1.


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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