Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (February)

Feb 02, 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! Today I'd like to start with a task that consumes a great deal of time for copy editors: deciding whether a compound is one word, two words or hyphenated.

A decade and a half ago in "Lapsing Into a Comma," I wrote, with perhaps less sensitivity than I'd exhibit today:

If there’s one thing the average civilian will screw up more often than not, it’s the distinction between one word and two. One of my guilty pleasures on the Web is reading Las Vegas trip reports. Several sites publish gambling pilgrims’ minute-by-minute diaries, and you can be sure they’ll contain sentences like “I wanted to get me some primerib, but they says there ain’t no bare foot people allowed in the buffetline.”

The writers and editors at The Washington Post are not average civilians, of course, but we still struggle. Dictionaries and stylebooks differ, and in cases less obvious than barefoot and prime rib and buffet line, the decision is often arbitrary. We choose cabdriver over cab driver not because it makes any particular sense, but because that's what the dictionary says and we want to be consistent. 

Reading a Post blog entry online one morning, I saw a couple of egregious examples of smushedtogether onewording, and so I decided to start a compilation of such errors in the online stylebook. I figured it would consist mainly of that class of error -- one word where it should have been two -- and indeed over the weeks I've collected a fair number of those. Punchline, floorplan, railcar, dataset, wildcard, webfeed, pitbull. All should be two words.

The big surprise, however, was that far more often people write two words where our stylebook or dictionary calls for one. Fist fight, tea house, shanty town, master stroke, boom box, snow fall, time line, school work, stop light, snow plow, pink eye, fire truck, tree house, meal time, oil men, gun fight, ear muffs, guard house, home ownership, eye strain. All should be solid.

Is this a glamorous line of work or what? Now, what's on your mind?

Here is your quote: 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.” Why is this "the only sensible solution?" I am fully in favor of creating new neutral third-person words (ze/zer has been proposed). What could possibly be wrong with creating these alternates?

The insensitive 1999 me might answer, "Because you'd sound like an idiot going around saying ze and zer."

But I was shy about (if in favor of) the singular they then, too. The real answer is that nobody has the power to create such things. The singular they is in widespread use because it's in widespread use, and has been for hundreds of years, not because some doofus recommended it in The Washington Post.

If, at some point, a majority of Americans are saying "ze" this and "zer" that, well, there you go. It could happen. Ms. happened. But a change of that magnitude is unlikely, and it most certainly cannot be imposed on people. It has to bubble up.


Thank you for taking my question. If you would, please describe the best way to explain which verb form is correct for this sentence: "There is/are a variety of city parks." This sentence format pops up frequently enough. Thank you.

That's a good example of a case where your ear is more reliable than any set of rules. A native speaker of English should recognize that "There is a variety of city parks" would just sound wrong. Misguided sticklers will stammer about agreement in number with the singular variety, but what you're really saying is that there are parks, not that there is variety.

Think of other words that work that way -- lot, number, bunch. They are technically singular, but though "notional agreement" they represent a plural.

My go-to example (sorry to those who have heard it a dozen times) is that you would never say "A bunch of us is going to the mall." A bunch of us are going. A lot of people like this wine, not a lot of people likes. And yet bunch and lot are singular. 

(See: There are ample opportunities for equal-opportunity insensitivity! For every Cletus I mock for writing "primerib," there's a Poindexter I can mock for priggishly insisting that a lot of people is doing something.)


Which one should I love more?

"Basically" is less offensive. Basically. Or are they (!) literally referring to the new meaning of basic?


For years now this word seems to have replaced a simple yes. Sometimes this enthusiastic response is warranted, but not always. What happened to the simple yes response?

Yep. Though "gotcha" and "got it" are rapidly taking over.


When making a list, and then making a list under one topic, should I switch to using semi-colons?

I'm not sure I can picture what you're referring to. I've made clear my aversion to semicolons in bulleted lists, where I prefer periods, and I think people are too quick to go to semicolons in simple series when commas would do fine.



Yet "There's a variety of city parks" sounds right.

Would you also say "there's a number" and "there's a lot"? (Yes, I variety is a closer call, but I would never say is there.)


Is it correct to say one has "over exaggerated" something. If something is exaggerated, there is no modifying of it. Either it is exaggerated, or it isn't. Agree/disagree?

There are degrees of exaggeration, no? But overexaggerated (one word! ) does seem flawed, unless it's referring to a situation in which a certain degree of exaggeration would be proper.


So what you're saying is that the world needs "Ze Magazine," a singularly gender neutral volume.

Editor: Inspector Clouseau.


At the risk of being politically correct (oh, no!), I thought the pun in yesterday's headline "Suspected suicide of ‘world’s best chef’ highlights pressure-cooker of haute cuisine" was insensitive to the tragedy of the person's death, especially the manner in which he died, and disrespectful to his surviving family and friends. Who's monitoring headline writing at the Post anyway?

Where did that headline appear?


Shoud you always use semicolon in a list that starts with a colon? I contend commas are okay for short lists but semicolons are helpful for long or complicated ones. However, a reader of story I wrote once called me out for my use of commas following a colon. My defense was that the list only contained three items.

I have heard of, or maybe just inferred, that guideline, but I've never seen it in a usage manual. If that's your style, it's perfectly valid, but I don't see a need to eschew commas in such a case.



I'd be exaggerating slightly if I said I look five years younger than my age. I'd be over exaggerating if I said I look ten years younger.

You'd be really or extremely or grossly exaggerating, but the over- prefix (again, prefix, one word, not two!) implies that there's a degree to which you're supposed to be doing it.


Why should I call something by the name its owner wants me to call it, if it has a commonly known name? I'm thinking of stadiums and other big buildings that get sold or have "naming rights" sold to some corporation. Why will every major publication automatically recognize the new name is the "right" name? Or is it just that sportswriters have to play nice?

It's tricky. Easy enough to take Tostitos out of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, but then what would you call Wrigley Field? "Field"?


After a discussion with a co-worker on split infinitives, I consulted AP Style. Its (their?) rules have relaxed to allow them to avoid awkwardness. I'm all for that, but this example cited as prefered, to me, would read better without the spilt. What do you think? "He wanted to really help his mother."

Not a good example at all. I'm assuming he really wanted to help his mother.

But the so-called rule against the split infinitive had never been valid, and AP is among the parties guilty of propagating the misguided prohibition.


Hi Bill: Been noticing some publications going with "1 out of 5 players are injured" whereas formerly the copula would have been presented in the singular ("is injured"). I can see several things going on here - proximity affects the question, and notionally we're talking about lots of players in total, not just one. Do you think we'll see a general trend in house style toward this more casual usage?

I have always found the plural to be more logical. It's a ratio, not a literally reference to "one." 

I'm this close to making that change in the Post stylebook. In fact, I let one through last night because fixing it would have been hopelessly awkward.

(If I ever get to build my dream house, it's totally going to have a copula.)


Have I missed out on a usage change of "lie" and "lay"? Even in written material I encounter "When you lay down" and "I was laying down." It took me some time to figure out that "alright" was accepted as correct. But "lay" for "lie" makes me shudder! And I hear it all the time, even from otherwise English-savvy commentators. Thoughts?

Confusion over lie and lay is nothing new. I grew up saying "lay down," and I probably still do when I'm sleepy. But the formally accepted usages haven't changed.

I don't think alright has established itself as formally correct either, though we accept already. If I had the power to decree such things, I just might decree that alright is alright -- the meaning isn't exactly "all right," after all.



Can you do anything to stop the misuse and abuse of the word, impact? As a verb, it means to strike, not affect, but nearly everyone in the Media loves to use the word that way. It's never "How will Metro's new rail cars affect ridership?" but "How will the new cars impact ridership?" Make me want to vomit every time I hear or read "impact" misused that way, and lately that happens almost every day.

That usage and that complaint have also been around a long time. In edited prose of any degree of formality, including something as informal as a newspaper or news website, we would avoid the transitive impact except in the dental sense.


You should never mix Greek and Latin roots.

Maybe for a fusion restaurant? Jicama gyros with guacamole? (And all your lovers?)



Going back to your opening spiel, about one word vs. two vs. hyphenated - how do you determine what gets hyphenated and what doesn't? I'm talking about unit modifiers where the necessity of the hyphenation really falls into a gray area. People tend to hyphenate "weight-loss drug" but not "public service job," but I'd say there's more grammatical room for ambiguity (thus need for a hyphen) in the latter than the former. I have my own theories as to how these things "should" be, but do you have a rule or a guideline?

I like to hyphenate pretty much all compound modifiers.

The tradition at The Post is not so hyphen-happy, and so things get a little muddled. We exempt the usual suspects (high school, real estate, law enforcement), plus some arbitrary examples (___ rights activists), but often the call is arbitrary. We hyphenate health care as a modifier, even though it's every bit as familiar and non-ambiguous as law enforcement.

Slightly a case of apples vs. oranges, because Wrigley is also the name of the family that owned the gum company. Likewise for Busch Stadium. But Tostitos aren't named after a Tostito family, to the best of my knowledge ;-)

Fair enough, though I've never heard of apple or orange Tostitos. :-)

Better examples: The Russell Athletic Bowl, the Quick Lane Bowl, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Outback Bowl. 

"The Bowl"?


I'm using second-annual to start a headline but would it be 2nd-annual when not starting a sentence?

No need for a hyphen, though I see that a lot. And I would always use second. Don't think I've seen a stylebook that would go with 2nd.


I think "there is" is gaining ground fast, especially when contracted: "there's a lot of problems." Even among educated speakers and writers. I think the singular is going to become the norm, even if grammarians don't like it. I suggest (with all respect) that you listen for a while and see if you don't agree.

You're right, though I think it's a slightly different animal. People also say "there's three men with that baby" and the like.


My pet peeve of the moment is the overuse of the word "epicenter." Recently the Post has printed, "Living in Recife in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, she is at the epicenter of the Zika outbreak...," "The Bataclan theater, the epicenter of the terror attacks in Paris...," and "For a time, D.C. seemed the red-hot epicenter of arctic exploration." (It's not just the Post, of course. I see this all over.) Is there anything the matter with the word "center," which would work just as well in these stories that have nothing to do with earthquakes?

I feel your pain. But writers like that extra oomph, and the new meaning is well established. 


While driving through the Midwest, I saw a fitness chain emblazoned with the motto "Judgement Free Zone." That is all.

Who are we to judg?


Increasingly, I'm seeing these words interchanged, especially on the web. I have a two part question: 1) Why? 2) Why now?

Woman/women strikes me as a typo. A part for apart would be a pretty egregious error.


Weren't the Sugar, Orange and Cotton Bowls (inter alia) were named, albeit generically rather than for a brand-name, by the agricultural groups representing those crops?

Ah, maybe. I kind of like the Potato one, because that harks back (yes, not harkens or hearkens!) to the things-that-you-could-actually-picture-in-a-bowl tradition.


As someone who suffered from two impacted wisdom teeth, I'm not so sure that "impact" is a transitive verb in the dental sense.

Some common errors do make our teeth hurt.


British spelling has "honour" and "favour," but not "doctour" or "tenour" :-)

People smarter and/or more British than I probably have a good explanation for that.


I confess. At my ripe old age (no disclosure), I STILL get confused with affect vs. effect. I sometimes fall back on "impact'. I know I'm not alone. I've heard others say the same thing. I feel unclean...

You probably need to lay down.


I was hyphenating it as a compound modifier for ceremony but was in too big of a hurry to explain. Thanks!

But that's not a compound modifier. It's an annual event, and the second of them. 


Or Redskins Stadium ...

Isn't that over in Raljon?


Because that's its name no matter how you feel about naming rights deals.

Can't argue with that.


Is this correct? A leech leaches blood out of a source.



I find myself easily and naturally using the word "whom". But I recently stopped myself when I began to write "whomever". "Whom", while a smidgen stuffy, seems perfectly acceptable. But "whomever" seemed to cross the line. As our resident arbitrator, what are your thoughts?

Hmm. My initial thought is that they're equally stuffy, but you may have a point. I stand by my desire to get rid of whom except in its obvious habitats.


I received "Lapsing into a Comma" and "Yes, I Could Care Less" as gifts this year. They were actually on my wish list because of these chats. I love your sense of humor as well as your valuable guidance in all things grammatical. (Was that correct?)

Awesomely correct.


Everyone congratulates, but no one ever gratulates.



In Portuguese, the 3rd person singular "há" is used for "there is" regardless of whether what follows is singular or plural. Not sure if the French use "il y a" for plurals as well as singulars, however (would it be "il y ont"?).

I think il y a goes with both, but my eighth-grade French can't be trusted.

I don't care what other people call it, but I WILL NEVER use the name of the President who decertified the air traffic controllers' union. It's solely "National Airport" to me.

President Tostitos, I think it was.


It's surprising how often I read or hear the word "spit" used in the past tense. Perhaps I simply notice it because I find it jarring to my ear. I was taught to say "spat" (although cautioned not to do it). Has that past tense disappeared? And does anyone say "I have often swum..."? What do you say?

The Post's official dictionary lists spit or spat, which means we would use spit as the past tense.


Tostistos pulled out.

I was afraid of that. Those reading closely will note that all my references are at least a decade old.


They come from different roots. Arrows whine and dogs whinge.

Ah, OK. (Or, as we say at The Washington Post, okay.) This is in reference to something that came up in last month's chat.


Thanks for the great questions! We're out of time, but I need to close with a programming note.

Starting next month, this chat will shift to Wednesdays. The first Wednesday in March is March 2, so I hope to see you then. Still 2 p.m. Eastern.

The reason for the switch is obvious: We're being clobbered in the ratings by "Laverne & Shirley," and the network brass is tired of it.


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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