Grammar Geekery With Bill Walsh (March)

Mar 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.


The chat moved back a day, but it wasn't quite enough to get us to National Grammar Day. So happy Grammar Day Eve Eve! The day is March 4th, because that's the only date that's a complete sentence. (Get it? March forth?) Actually, newspaper style would be March 4, which would raise the question "March for what?," but whatever.

The good news is that there's still time to enter my friend Mark Allen's National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest. And you may have missed my friend Mignon "Grammar Girl" Fogerty on "Today" today, but you can still watch the segment thanks to the magic of the Internet.

Now that you've met both of my friends, it's time to chat. What's on your mind?


Perhaps this is a more suitable question for Hax, but what do you think should be done, or not done, if one's boss uses poor grammar? This person usually is a correct speaker and writer, but sometimes says or writes "Joe and I" or "Joe and myself" when it should be "Joe and me." I Googled this topic, and the consensus seems to be not to get involved.

I agree with Mr. Google, for the most part. I'm sure Carolyn would, too. Especially for a boss and especially for something so trivial, especially in speech. In speech, the "and I" error is probably more common than the correct form. It really doesn't matter.

In writing, if you're talking about an important document, it might be a different story. A gentle "proofreading" correction might be appropriate.


This is a spoken word issue, but I wanted to get your take on it. I live in New Jersey (your condolences are accepted) and can watch the New York City TV stations. During the early evening New York Lotto drawings, one of the announcers has the habit of closing the segment (AFTER the numbers have been drawn) with "Good night and GOOD LUCK!" I can see saying "Good Luck" BEFORE the numbers are drawn, but once the winning numbers are selected, there's no longer any luck involved. Am I wrong in my thinking here? Lately, the station we watch (WABC) has been cutting away from the Lotto segment early when this announcer is on, so that we might hear her end with "Good night an..." before they return to Wheel of Fortune. I'm guessing that it bothers someone at the station, too.

I guess it makes sense for those who haven't checked their tickets yet. And I'll grant poetic license for the Edward R. Murrow allusion.


This quotation from a story in today's NYT caught my eye. It's an example of what I think is saying the opposite of what is meant. The context is, the author is trying to explain the effect of the economic meltdown as one reason for Trump's success. “I don’t think you can underestimate or underemphasize the impact of the bailout,” Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think Washington think tank, told me in an email:" Doesn't Ornstein mean you can't OVERestimate or Overemphasize? I hear this frequently from educated people on all news media. Am I misunderstanding something?

Works both ways, right? There was a great "Saturday Night Live" skit many years back about that ambiguity. 

"You can't put too much water in the nuclear reactor." 


Could you do a refresher on the mistake a certain copy-editor-turned-author made when fudging up the subject-verb agreement of "One of...". Thanks.

The topic has been debated here before, and my tweet on the subject drew some furious blowback, and my colleague Pat Myers's seconding of my position ignited a parallel argument on Facebook, but there really is no debate. Here goes.

"The Road to Little Dribbling," by the great Bill Bryson, who was once a copy editor at the London Times, begins:

One of the things that happens when you get older is that you discover lots of new ways to hurt yourself.

The word happens is incorrect there. It should be happen. To some, that will be obvious. To others, not so much. Never mind whatever credentials I have. Never mind Pat the Perfect, as our fellow colleague Gene Weingarten calls her. Never mind that the concept is easily look-up-able online. Hundreds, thousands and probably millions of self-styled experts will still shout "BUT THE SUBJECT IS SINGULAR! THE *SUBJECT*! HAVE YOU ALL GONE MAD? DID I MENTION THE WORD 'SUBJECT'?"

As I've said, I've covered this subject before, so as a value add I'll try to make this answer a complete compendium of my attempts, and Pat's attempts, and other people's attempts, to set the subject-fetishists straight. I feel strongly about this topic because I see so many smart people letting their idea of "grammar" trump basic logic. Grammatical terms are tools that help us understand grammar; they aren't cudgels to be used to batter a sentence into saying something other than what was intended.

1. The verb goes with things, not with one. Things happen when you get older, and this is one of them.

2. Yes, the subject does matter, and verbs should agree with subjects (with certain exceptions that aren't relevant here). But clauses within sentences have subjects as well. One is indeed the subject of the sentence, and the verb that goes with that subject in this sentence is is. The subject of the relevant clause is things, and the verb that agrees with things is happen.

3. If you're mathematically inclined, perhaps brackets would help. One [of the things that happen when you get older] is that you discover lots of new ways to hurt yourself.

4. No? Well, if only that one thing happens, then why is Bryson talking about "the things," plural? This is "one of the things," and it happens? No. (What things? And heck, why isn't it one of the thing, then?) It is one of THE THINGS THAT HAPPEN WHEN YOU GET OLDER.

5. (From former colleague David Hall.) Q: Discovering new ways to hurt yourself is one of what?

A: The things that happen when you get older. It's one of _them_, not one of it.

6. (From Pat.) He's talking about the "things that happen when ... ," and he's naming one of "the things that happen when." It can't be one of "the things that happens when ..." 

The singular verb to go with "one of" comes after this phrase: 
"ONE of the things that happen when zub zub IS ..."

7. Consider this (grammatically correct) sentence from the same book:

On that occasion, I was one of a party of three or four people who were shown around by a keen National Trust volunteer.

If you're a subject fetishist who considers that first sentence right, you have to be consistent and mark this one wrong. But then what happens then? Instead of describing three or four people who were (a) in the party and (b) shown around, the "corrected" sentence would be describing those three or four people as being in the party but not being shown around. It would be saying that only Bryson was shown around.

It's rare to find an example that could work either way depending on meaning, and you probably wouldn't write the sentence exactly that way if you were the only member of the party who was shown around, but there you have it. Words matter, and the words have to say what the writer means. There, you could make the verb agree with two different subjects and get two different meanings. If your idea of grammar prevents you from saying what you mean, there's a good chance you're mistaken on the grammar.

By the way, I want to emphasize that the error in question was not necessarily Bill Bryson's error. It's entirely possible that his copy editor(s) changed the word.


I've read a number of articles and heard a number of TV journalists referring to Bernie Sanders as "self-described socialist Bernie Sanders." If he's self-describing himself as socialist, would it be better to just refer to him as "socialist Bernie Sanders"?

That would be easy enough if it were true, but he's a self-described "democratic socialist." The qualifier signals the fact that, at least in American politics, the term has no clear definition. It would sound funny (though I'm sure we've done it) to just say he's a democratic socialist, as though we expect every reader to know exactly what that means.


I suffered in silence when Taco Bell coined the word "melty" to describe its cheese. Now Starbucks has come out with "roasty" for its new Latte Macchiato. please make it stop! We already have "melted" and "roasted" to accurately describe these states of being!!!

Well, you know. Marketing. 

Life would be duller if ad copy didn't stray from the norms.


How do you handle odd spellings in a typical news article? It seems awkward just to put "[sic.]" and assume people know what it means.

"[Sic]" can also look pretentious and condescending. 

Instances vary, but we would try to make it clear in context, or maybe use brackets to substitute the more conventional spelling in a written document.


My general practice is to avoid indefinite singular contexts whenever possible. And when necessary I use "they/them/their," but that just feels wrong. Am I alone in that reaction? Style guides typically recommend using the masculine pronouns in such contexts. This ignores the fact that the usage treats being male as a default, as if women were something other than human. But deliberately created singulars like "zie" also feel inorganic since they didn't evolve from everyday use. What alternatives do you prefer personally?

Style guides used to recommend a default to masculine, but that is no longer palatable, for the reason you state.

I avoid the issue when possible, often by recasting as plural. When such avoidance becomes too awkward, I allow "they/them/their" in its well-established and ages-old singular role. Washington Post style now does the same, cautiously.

If a made-up singular pronoun rises to widespread use, we can revisit the issue, but that's not something that can be forced.


Outside of direct quotes, under what circumstances will the singular "they" be considered acceptable in the Post? Thank you kindly.

It's messy in the editing trenches, and those split-second decisions will differ from day to day and from editor to editor. The test is whether it would be "hopelessly awkward" to avoid "they." That leaves a lot of latitude.


Why isn't the noun one? Isn't of the things part of a prepositional phrase, meaning things isn't the noun?

There you go again!

Stop thinking about grammatical terms and think about what the sentence is saying. "One" is a noun, yes. And it agrees with the verb "is."  There is another noun in that sentence that agrees with another verb in its own clause, and that's the one that's relevant to this discussion.




Sometimes judicial opinions are great for grammar geeks. Yesterday's Lockhart opinion was no exception. The Court divided 6-2, with Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan taking opposite sides (and both citing the late Justice Scalia's book on interpreting legal texts) over the meaning of the statute that increases a maximum sentence for possessing child pornography if the defendant has "a prior conviction . . . under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” Six Justices said that "the rule of the last antecedent" means that only "abusive sexual conduct" was modified by "involving a minor or ward," so that the defendant properly had an extra ten years tacked onto his sentence because he had a prior conviction for sexually abusing an adult. Justice Kagan's dissent said (effectively) "all well and good, except when the series that precedes the profile have a close relationship to one another, the modifier applies to the entire series, not just the last antecedent." Frankly, I think Kagan got it right. What say you?

This is a good counterexample for the serial-comma fans who keep laughing about "my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

If serial commas were used only cases of ambiguity, the presence of the serial comma in this case would make the majority opinion clearly correct.

Otherwise, the statute is hopelessly ambiguous and the justices are left to guess.


Hi Bill, Several weeks ago, I penned a letter to the Post that I never (e)mailed because I thought my position might be a bit curmudgeonly for someone just north of the Millennial cohort. Today I realized your chat might be a good venue to raise this "issue." I'll excerpt it below and would appreciate your thoughts. As a journalism student in the late nineties, I was taught that The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White was an elemental reference for journalists. So it has been with surprise and disappointment that The Washington Post copy editors seem to have overlooked Strunk and White's rule to omit needless words by publishing the phrase, "let me be clear" where a simple conjunction or even nothing would suffice. This weekend's Spirits column describes the proclivities of certain bartenders, then states, "Let me be clear: I don't know a single bartender who is actually like that." To paraphrase Strunk and White, if you feel you are possessed of clarity, simply state what is clear; do not give it advance billing. While politicians, including the Commander in Chief, have employed the phrase throughout the last decade, I wish that The Post would apply Strunk and White's principles and reject its use.

That sounds like an excellent letter to the editor.

Let me be clear: "The Elements of Style" has some wonderful qualities, but it shouldn't be treated as scripture. My most recent book has a chapter called "My Lovehate With Strunkwhite." Some others are firmly on the "hate" side.

Even Strunk and White didn't always follow their own advice. Even within that book. And I don't always follow my own advice either, but I try to be careful about banning words and phrases. 

"Omit needless words," in particular, is a Strunkwhite dictum too often abused. It tends to result in what I've called "staccato ridiculousness."

So, yes, writers are wise to listen to criticism like yours and police their tics and their wordiness, but there is no one way to write. "Let me be clear" may not be ideal, and I'm not necessarily defending the example you cite, but it can perform the useful function of making the reader slow down and take in a passage that the writer considers important.


Is the Chicago Manual of Style a good reference for news writing?

Chicago style isn't generally used for news writing. Most news outlets use the Associated Press Stylebook.

(The Post has its own stylebook, but it's an internal online document.)


If phil+ander means a lover of men, wouldn't I be a philogyne?

You've already been warned, Mr. Clinton.


I'm old enough to recall when the honorific "Ms." for a woman was non-standard usage -- it had to be either Miss or Mrs. Nowadays, it's standard operating procedure in most publications, although I admit that "President Barack Obama and Ms. Michelle Obama" (and, to be bipartisan, former President George W. Bush and Ms. Laura Bush) look silly.

"Ms." is the rare example of something like that actually working.


May I make a plea that people stop using the phrase “out of pocket,” which means “from money at hand,” to mean “out of touch” or “out of communication” or the like? I don’t know when that use started becoming common, but I’m seeing it all the time. It’s a misuse of the idiom and it makes me nuts.

Good one. Lost cause, of course, like my rants about "coffee shop" and "flash mob" suddenly meaning Starbucks and robberies rather than breakfast-all-day restaurants and performance art.


The New York Times is one of the few remaining media outlets still using courtesy titles on second reference. I think the titles are pretentious and out of place when the writer isn't addressing the person in question. Agree or disagree?

I have never liked honorifics. The Times is continuing a tradition born in a time when the last name alone sounded  vulgar and disrespectful to those of a certain social class. It's neither my time nor my tradition nor my social class, but I can see that. The Washington Post uses honorifics in obituaries for that reason.

Today, though, the tradition seems dated. But that's not my main problem with courtesy titles. The problem is that there will always be exceptions. Start with the very idea of "Mr. Hitler" and work backward from there. Who else shouldn't get that Mr., Miss, Mrs. or Ms. (or, now, "Mx.")? I used to work for a publication that used courtesy titles. The list of exceptions and caveats was long, comical and ... revealing. "Despicable persons" and "convicted felons" didn't get honorifics -- except when they did. This was a politically conservative publication, and that might explain why felons convicted of Watergate crimes got "Mr." whereas Nelson Mandela, convicted felon, did not. Women who preferred "Ms." had to specifically ask for it. A woman who did not take her husband's name was still "Mrs." Except if she was in show business, where all women were "Miss." And so on.

My wife tells the story of the day in journalism school when a professor praised the New York Times. Jacqueline's response: "I can't take seriously any publication that refers to Adam Ant as Mr. Ant."



I would lower case "south" or "southern" in a sentence, but capitalize "the West Coast." Am I right, wrong, a mixture, or just pedantic?

It depends on whether South Texas is a recognized region, and that depends on your audience. The Tucson paper would write "Southern Arizona," but The Washington Post wouldn't. 

Hey Bill, what do you do when you come across, for example, "a generation of voting machines are dying out?" Do you change to is? Re-write? Thanks -Ben

That's the not-relevant-to-the-Bryson-question exception I mentioned. "Notional agreement." If you mean the generation is dying out, it's "is." If you mean the machines are dying out, it's "are." 

I think I'd do "is" there, and not only to please the misguided purists. It really does mean the generation is dying out.

On the other hand, you'd say a lot of people are interested in grammar, even though technically lot is singular.


...Messrs, however, drives me up the wall. So there.

Oh, jeez, I forgot about that monstrosity as I was being thankful for no longer having to use honorifics.


"Retail politics" and "wholesale politics."

On the ground. 

Is there a trick to remembering the difference?

I don't know whether it's a trick, but it's not a hard thing to memorize. Affect is the verb, and effect is the noun.

There is a different noun that's affect and a different verb that's effect, but those are ... different.


Does Wimbledon still differentiate between married and unmarried women tennis players? E.g., I recall Chris Evert going from "Miss Evert" to "Mrs. Lloyd." Of course, Wimbledon's so old-school that they also still require competitors to wear all-white (or nearly all-white) tennis outfits.

That doesn't come up as often as it used to. But Kim Clijsters was still Miss Clijsters, I'm pretty sure, even after she became the equivalent of Mrs. Lynch.

I love the all-white, by the way. Irked me to no end in the '80s when players tried to "sneak" a lot of ugly red and blue into their outfits.


In my old Brooklyn neighborhood we had a coffee shop with an all-caps sign and a broken last E. We referred to it as a COFFEF SHOP.

Have you seen the Wafle Shop in Alexandria?


Every day of March is a complete sentence. Imagine a sergeant, pointing to each man in turn: March first. March second. And so on.

Ah, right. I knew I shouldn't have made that an absolute! 


I believe the Times also referred to the lead men of the Sex Pistols as "Mr. Rotten" and "Mr. Vicious."

Don't forget Mr. Loaf.


Located in fashional Highland Park, this historic home boasts 10 bedrooms, five bathrooms and newly renovated features.

It's a bit of a non sequitur. The Highland Park location doesn't necessarily mean a house has 10 bedrooms, five bathrooms, etc.

NON SEQUITUR: Raised in Baltimore, he has five children.

NOT A NON SEQUITUR (A SEQUITUR?): Raised in Baltimore, he loves crab cakes and the Orioles.


On the other hand, I think "Vice President Joseph Biden and Doctor Jill Biden" sounds wonderful!

The Post, perhaps oddly, doesn't use Dr. even on first reference for medical doctors. 


I’ve noticed in the supermarket that the plethora of Oh and O cereals use a possessive apostrophe in their names e.g. O’s intead of Os. Why? What is it that belongs to the Os? And does that mean the boxes come with no more than one O or Oh each?

Apostrophes are correct (at least in Post and AP style) for plurals of singular letters. Otherwise I'm getting all As (all as what?) on my report card.


... or those places in Amsterdam.

Ah, yes.


I know this isn't a grammar question, but it's pretty geekery and it's been bothering me. Why is the "Carrot and Stick Approach" considered a reward vs. punishment scenario? Wasn't the stick merely used to dangle the carrot in front of the horse to entice the horse to move forward? When was the stick ever used to beat the horse?

I love this question. I have never thought of that before.

I'm guessing the answer is "Well, you know, it's a STICK! It COULD have been used that way ..."


Don't forget the play (and TV series) "HOT L Baltimore."

My particular issue is with sentences like: "His words had a profound ___ on me". I think of affect as emotional, so I get confused.

I can see that.


"So it has been with surprise and disappointment that The Washington Post copy editors seem to have overlooked Strunk and White's rule to omit needless words by publishing the phrase, "let me be clear" where a simple conjunction or even nothing would suffice." Yes, and Strunk and White probably have something to say about dangling modifiers, too.

Excellent. Obviously I missed that. 


I'm not positive, but I think the OP was wondering about what it is called when the sentence does not lead with the subject, as opposed to "This historic home, located in fashionable Highland Park, boasts ..."

Possibly. But the issue I addressed was far more interesting!


He is very fond of the non-word "irregardless," and likes to say "at this point in time." I visibly cringe, but still haven't gathered up the nerve to correct him outright.

I think he means "at this PARTICULAR point in time."


Better to use the full sic erat scriptum?

That would be a sick burn.


What's the best way to write an email salutation that passes the Walsh test and won't make me look like an overly officious idiot? Writing "Dear So-and-so" seems way too formal. And ... any preference on closings? "Thanks for your consideration."

I tend to get right to the point in e-mail and skip those niceties, but I think there's room for a wide range of styles. Formality might make you seem old, though.

(I'm not entirely sure, but I think you used "officious" correctly! You don't see that every day.)

Yes, but the Os are not letters, they are pieces of cereal called Os. There's no reason to make them possessive.

For all practical purposes, they're O's. This reminds me of the weird affectation where books talking about an L shape will sometimes render the L in a strange sans-serif font to divorce it from letterhood.


I'm a translator currently rendering a novel into English. The author has a propensity for semicolons, many of which I'm turning into periods, then starting new sentences. The author also uses many ellipses and exclamation points, most of which aren't essential, so I'm turning them into periods as well. Do you think it's ethical for me to make these punctuation changes?

Ethical? I don't see an ethical problem. The question is whether you're detracting from the author's voice, and the answer is more art than science.


May 4 ("May the 4th be with you"). Thank you, "Big Bang Theory"!

Yep. Lispy but fun.


From today's Washington Post, near the top of the front page. Might want to tell Sarah and her editors about the style for Dr Pepper. Those who waited through cold and rain finally get precious seats for Supreme Court history Fueled by Cheez-its, Dr. Pepper, prayer and strong opinions, activists on both sides of today's blockbuster abortion case were finally rewarded for a long vigil with seats inside the court. By Sarah Kaplan

Yes, we should have skipped the period. 


OMG, Miss Manners just walked by my desk.

Anyway, thank you for that lively hour! Let's do it again April 6.

And if you're inclined to visit the Pacific Northwest later this month (I can't believe it's already this month), I'll be speaking in Portland at the American Copy Editors Association conference.


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: