“Impact” is for teeth, and other geeky grammar gremlins

Bill Walsh, the Washington Post’s most famous copyeditor (now there’s a funny thing to say), has been chatting with his fans early each month. Keeping with my practice of commenting on his comments, here’s a look at what he’s had to say this winter.

First, something I’ve tried to explain to colleagues for years, colleagues who with best intentions think they must follow whatever conceits commercial enterprises use for their own commercial products: “The company is free to call its product whatever it likes. Likewise, we follow the rules of grammar and this publication.” It should be easy enough, but a surprising number of fellow writers and editors just haven’t gotten that.

Here’s what Walsh says about it: “I’ve long been a stickler for following conventional capitalization in proper nouns even if logos are all lowercase or all caps or otherwise decoratively punctuated. I don’t care that your running shoes say ‘adidas’; when I write about them, I will write Adidas. NIKE is Nike.

“Yes, the lowercase conceit is part of Adidas’s identity. But so is the typeface the logo is written in. So is that weird marijuana-leaf logo. We can’t replicate all these things in print, and so we stick to some basic rules. As you learned in second grade, proper nouns are capitalized.” Thank you!

He goes on to explain that while he isn’t crazy about “iPod,” for example, “I allow the delayed capitalization the same way I do with de Gaulle and van Gogh. But I’d write IPod at the beginning of a sentence, the same way I’d write De Gaulle.” Good point.

Here’s a question one chatter brought up; if it were the topic of my post here, I might title it “Choosy mothers choose ‘affect.’ ” “How do you feel about ‘impact’ as a verb – a true pet peeve of mine,” she asked. Aha, I thought. His answer: “Impact as a verb is well established, but choosy writers choose to avoid it, at least in the non-dental sense, because it’s tainted. It’s biz-speak and ad-speak. So your wisdom teeth can be impacted, but sequestration affects the economy. Or has an impact on the economy. (Too many overzealous editors avoid the noun because the verb is tainted. The noun is just fine.)”

Walsh and I differ on occasion. This is one example: A chatter asked about the use of “they” to refer to a single entity, such as Congress. Walsh said this is proper in British English – “Oliver’s Army are on their way!” – and perfectly natural in speech on both sides of the pond, but we Americans don’t do that in print. In speech, he said, “I would never refer to the store as it. The they refers to an implied group of employees – ‘I like Wegmans; they have great pastries and bread.’ ”

True, but I do sometimes use the singular in speech, for precisely that reason: The plural not only is wrong, it sounds wrong (if only to me). Maybe it’s the “s,” an implied plural, that throws off his example, or maybe it’s that I’m referring to the chain of stores, not to the employees. If you’d say, “Giant has great pastries,” why not say, “I like Giant; it has great pastries”?

And last: the “farmers market” conundrum. At Washingtonian, our rule was “farmers market, girls locker room, teachers union.” Two chatters asked where to put the apostrophe – if at all – in terms like “voters guide” and “mens room.” I’ve struggled with this myself. Is the term really possessive? Is it a guide of the voters as well as a guide for voters?

“Newspaper style tends to look at voters as descriptive rather than possessive,” Walsh wrote. “It’s a guide for voters, not a guide belonging to voters, and so no apostrophe.” Not sure I entirely agree, but at least he’s definitive.

But wait, there’s more. “Men’s room is another matter,” he wrote. Men is already plural, and so there is no mens, except in menswear, which just sort of evolved just because. Mother’s Day is another just-because. It’s not for just one mother, but that’s where the apostrophe landed. Sometimes precedent overrides logic.” So we add an apostrophe because “men” is already plural?

Another chatter didn’t get that, either: “So why not say ‘men room’ because the room is for men, not possessed by men? Obviously it sounds weird to the ear, but would it be right?”

His reply: “Good observation. The already-plural thing forces our hand. So it’s women’s tennis, obviously, but different publications have different styles on girls softball vs. girls’ softball.”

Hope I don’t have to give up my Grammar Club membership card by admitting this is still confusing. But I don’t have to make up style rules. When I move on to another publication, I will simply enforce the rules already in place – or point to an authority elsewhere. Bill Walsh, perhaps.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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