Posted tagged ‘Bill Walsh’

Should “internet” be lowercased? How about “web”?

May 31, 2016

Tomorrow, it’s official: The Internet becomes a common noun.

At least according to the AP Stylebook. Back in April, the Associated Press announced several coming changes; lowercasing “internet” and “web” made the biggest splash.

“The changes reflect a growing trend toward lowercasing both words, which have become generic terms,” AP standards editor Thomas Kent told Poynter.

Both tech (Wired) and nontech (The New Republic) editors have advocated for the change, though with varying degrees of logic. Here’s what Indiana University professor Susan Herring wrote in Wired last year:

“According to Bob Wyman, a Google tech staffer and long-time Net expert, the ‘I’ should be capitalized to make clear the difference in meaning between the Internet (the global network that evolved out of ARPANET, the early Pentagon network), and any generic internet, or computer network connecting a number of smaller networks. … Yet … most people (other than techies) are not aware of any internets other than the Internet—that distinction is no longer relevant in ordinary usage. And for many younger folks who have grown up with the technology, the internet itself is ordinary—just another communication medium, like the telephone, television, and radio.”

(I’m picturing a poster on some computer science lab’s wall that reads, “There is no internet but the Internet, and Steve Jobs is his prophet.” Please tell me such a poster exists.)

As for “web,” Washington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh correctly notes that the word has other, generic meanings, so capping it in this case helps show readers which meaning is meant.

Another argument for the lowercase treatment of either word is that capital letters are speed bumps in reading, not to mention typing (the shift key being sooo difficult to use). Seriously? Ask any copyeditor: Reading comprehension goes up with caps, punctuation, serif type, and other well-regulated aids to understanding. In one of his monthly chats, Walsh wrote, “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.’ ”

Hmm. As an editor, I will enforce AP style when clients request it. Off the clock, though, this will have to be—like the serial comma—another area in which we agree to disagree.

A change I approve of: AP has gotten more real about child sex trafficking, banning such uses as “child prostitute” and “teenage prostitute” because they imply that the child “is voluntarily trading sex for money,” Kent says, and a child, by definition, can’t consent. A petition signed by more than 150,000 people, sponsored in part by Human Rights Project for Girls, helped make the case.

Others, FYI:

  • Being more careful about “accidents.” Either “accident” or “crash” is “generally acceptable for automobile and other collisions and wrecks,” says AP. “However, when negligence is claimed or proven, avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible. In such cases, use crash, collision or other terms.”
  • Avoiding “mistress”—because “mister” is not the equivalent. Rather, use “companion,” “friend” (really?), or “lover” if applicable. “Whenever possible,” AP’s new entry says, “phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship is preferred: ‘The two were romantically (or sexually) involved.’ ”
  • Keeping “spree” positive. No more using “killing spree” and the like. Though that could get subjective. “Spending spree” could arguably be positive, negative, or both, depending on who’s looking at it.
  • Somewhat defining “exponential.” As in, say, “exponential growth”—it now has to mean progressively larger (5 percent this year, 10 percent next, etc.) and not just fast growth.
  • Somewhat defining “alarms” in terms of fire. Because many of us have no idea what a two-alarm fire is, just that presumably a three-alarm fire is worse. No kidding, says Kent: Such terms are “meaningless” without context, so spell out the number of firefighters or amount of equipment used.
  • Making “dash cam” one word. Once again, though, AP goes halfway by keeping “body cam” two words, thus needlessly confusing both copyeditors and readers.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Comma chameleon: Punctuation makes news

March 8, 2016

958e15c68eae47f6c76eb1a68fd80f32-4Consider the comma. Often misused, often misplaced. Tiny, easy to overlook—but powerful enough to set off nonessential and introductory clauses.

The lowly comma has made the news at least three times in the past few months. Let’s give the mark its due.

  1. Harper Lee’s first book? second book? never-meant-to-be-a book? … anyway, Go Set a Watchman was published last July, for better or worse, whether she was aware of it or not. Given the evidence past and present—or “present” before the publication—it’s certainly hard to believe she was. On the other hand, a HarperCollins editor reportedly showed her a mockup of the cover with a comma after “Go,” as the phrase is in the King James Bible (Isaiah 21:6), and she—again, reportedly—responded, “That’s the Lord’s book. This is my book. And there is no comma.” (The press and public love anecdotes, especially greatly embellished ones.)
  1. In a case that got lots of media attention, an Ohio woman used her beau’s eye for detail to strike back when cited for a parking violation. Andrea Cammelleri left her Ford pickup parked on the street for more than 24 hours. She got a ticket. A West Jefferson, Ohio, ordinance forbids—or did—“any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle from daylong parking.”

Guess what? As her beau pointed out, a pickup truck isn’t any of those. Cammelleri protested. West Jefferson officials argued that the missing comma was a typo and that her truck illegally overstayed its welcome. Last summer, the Court of Appeals, Twelfth Appellate District of Ohio, ruled unanimously that maybe so, but the law should say what it meant, so the ticket was as gone as the comma. (Apparently West Jefferson has now restored its missing punctuation.)

  1. Should Avondale Lockhart spend 10 years in prison for child porn? In a U.S. Supreme Court case decided days ago, commas were central to the outcome.

The federal child-pornography law at issue says that anyone caught possessing the stuff is subject to the mandatory minimum if he or she has a prior state court conviction “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” The folks who wrote and approved that should have paid more attention to their grammar. Does “involving a minor or ward” apply to all three crimes or just to the last one?

Lockhart v. United States came down to, yes, the “series qualifier” v. the “last antecedent.” Team Lockhart favored the former (he’s off the hook). Team Fed favored the latter (see you next decade). In oral arguments, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Mr. Stick-It-to-the-Government, was Team Lockhart. Even without him, the court ruled 6-2 for Lockhart.

Said a commenter in Washington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh’s chat, “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.”

Replied Walsh, “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.”

If the Supreme Court operated the way the Twelfth Appellate District of Ohio did, it would have sent the law back to Congress and told that august body to rewrite it to be far more clear. Maybe the court ought to try that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, score three for the comma. It’s mightier than it looks.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

The Washington Post changes “mike,” “e-mail” to “mic,” “email”

December 8, 2015

1-12433511551KPgDays ago in an op-edWashington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh announced some changes in the paper’s stylebook. Long after the Associated Press and even the New York Times, the Post has changed the following:
—“e-mail” to “email”
—“Web site” to “website”
—“Wal-Mart” to “Walmart”
—the short form of “microphone” from “mike” to “mic”

“Why did we wait so long to make the changes?” he wrote. “As the keeper, more or less, of The Post’s style manual, I’ll tell you why: because the new spellings were wrong.”

If all copyeditors were laid end to end, would they ever reach the same conclusion? At the same time? (Oh, wait, that’s economists.) Walmart changed the way it referred to its stores—if not its official corporate name—in 2008. AP changed “Web site” and “e-mail” in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The Times did so in 2013. Walsh decided to propose his changes only once the Post was about to move to a new building. Better late than never, I guess.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Email. We don’t say “tshirt” or “xray,” Walsh says, so why “email”? But he caved to pressure both internal and external because “yesterday’s vigorously defended norm can be today’s laughingstock.” Wrote Grammar Girl in 2011, “I asked the AP Stylebook editors why they made the change, and they said most of their writers already turn in articles with the ‘email’ spelling, and copy editors found ‘e-mail’ increasingly difficult to police. They emphasized that they don’t consider themselves to be on the leading edge of language change; that instead, they ‘bow to common usage.’ ”

My take: Don’t be fooled by the fact that tech users are early adopters; the world is not aligned on this sort of thing. AP also uses “e-book,” “e-commerce,” and “e-business”; a well-funded, global legal association uses “e-commerce” and “e-discovery.” To me, it’s about readability; do readers trip over the word? Digital readers were much quicker to give up (on) the hyphen.

Website. “I don’t know why I made such a big deal about it all these years,” said Walsh.

My take: AP still caps “Web” as a proper noun while lowercasing “website,” “webcam,” “webmaster,” etc. (We’ll see how long that lasts.) I’m fine with making it one word but appreciate the cap for clarity.

Walmart. The company is Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; it changed its logo in 2008. A logo is not a word, but readers complained. Walsh found a loophole that he said let him make the change: “The Post no longer routinely uses Inc., Corp., Co. and the like in company names. So we could keep Wal-Mart Stores Inc. on the rare occasion when we’d spell out the name, while otherwise referring to the company and its stores by the name everyone knows.” (Huh? What does that have to do with Walmart vs. Wal-Mart?)

My take: Just pay your workers decently, whatever you call yourself.

Mic. Walsh spent six paragraphs trying to justify his decision here. No wonder. “As a purist, I’m still not happy about mic. As a pragmatist, I feel I have to accept it,” he said.

Pro “mike”: “A bicycle is a bike, not a bic. Bic, as in the pens, rhymes with Mick.” Plus, “mic” began as an abbreviation on recording devices; it was never meant to be pronounced or used as a word. Pro “mic”: “Enough people made the error that mic gradually crept into the language.”

My take: I completely agree with everything Walsh says above, though I hate that the Post and other guides are giving in on this. As he explained well, “mic is an aberration.” And call me Irish(-American), but I’m not getting over the bad historical connections here. He’s also correct, though, that “some now-common phrases—mic drop, hot mic—would look downright anachronistic with the old spelling.” Which … is how language changes.

As an afterthought(!), Walsh stopped short of changing the rule that a person must be called “he” or “she”—but the Post now also allows the use of “they” “as a last resort.” Say what?! This one Walsh actually advocated as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.” “He” is sexist, “she” is patronizing, “he or she” is awkward, and alternating and “s/he” are silly. “What finally pushed me from acceptance to action on gender-neutral pronouns,” he wrote, “was the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people.” Plus, he noted, sometimes you just don’t know the right gender to use.

Walsh claims to be surprised that people have protested this change more than the others. Seriously? “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle,” he wrote. “We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

My ultimate take: Of all the changes mentioned here, the fact that no one has brought a complaint about a newspaper of record breaking a basic rule of grammar is the saddest one of all.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

More public grammar and spelling don’ts

November 17, 2015

Ignorance, sloppiness, autocorrect (a bane if I ever saw one) … there are many reasons for poor grammar and usage. But there are few excuses.

No one writes the way they talk—see what I did there?—and few of us even write the way we’re “supposed to” in everyday writing. That is, in emails to friends and sticky notes to coworkers, who much cares how U write as long as yr understood? Emails to your boss or the board, on the other hand, call for a higher standard.

Companies, government agencies, and nonprofits are also held to a higher standard. Any entity in business with or service to the public should respect itself and its audience enough to use proper English. If you don’t know enough to make a noun and a verb agree—and know that it matters that they do—find someone who does.

As always, I’m not going to pound on regular folks who mess with the language. Those “entities” that know better or should, though, deserve what they get. Some examples:

In direct mail from a nondenominational Maryland church, “The decisions we make can transform our lives, the lives of our families and impact our future.” As Sesame Street says, “Which one of these things does not belong?” Parallel usage, please. Though fighting “impact” as a verb may require the Almighty.

From a Washington Gas marketing flier: “Cross bores can lay dormant for months or even years, their exact locations unknown.” Cross bores may lie low—that’s an example of an idiom—but they lie dormant. And that’s no lie.

A radio ad for a timeshare-rescue company says, “How’d you like to be the person that dumped that timeshare?” Another says, “You deserve a dentist that can restore a full arch of teeth in a single visit.” If this dentist is a person and not a robot, he or she is a “who,” not a “that.”

There’s a lot of this going around: Referring to veterans, the New Mexico Department of Health website says, “We are proud to serve those that have served us.” And “Tonight we’ve learned more about the prison employee that investigators think helped the men escape ….”—With two previous mentions here, CBS’s Scott Pelley is going for the ungrammatical hall of fame.

From a Yahoo Music article: “The song lyrics warn about a wrath from God prompted by ‘the lack of raw humanity.’ ” I’ve heard of the wrath of God. Maybe this should say “a wreath”?

In an opinion column in the Washington Post: “the text of the Constitution, the legislative history, the legislative history of the civil rights statue that preceded it ….” Ooh, let’s see the civil-rights statue that preceded it. Pretty sure the Constitution came first, though.

The Hollywood Reporter, quoting Law & Order: SVU showrunner Warren Leight about an actor: “We’ve put his character through the ringer ….” No, you put his character through the wringer. My grandmother used a wringer. Being put through one would be very unpleasant. (See photo.)

From a Liberty Mutual magazine ad: “As an alumni of UVa, you could receive exclusive savings ….” Staff at the alumni association, whose logo is on the ad, should know that any graduate, alum, or former student is singular, not plural.

In the Washington Post Express, in a section on odd crimes: “After giving officers there a detailed description of the hat, police found it in a flowerbed and arrested him.” Police gave officers a description?

And in the Washington Post, those pesky vowels: “The decision does not effect the Ivanka Trump collection, which Macy’s also sells.” No. It doesn’t affect it, either, which is more to the point.

From a business coach’s newsletter on the subject of communication (irony alert): “If people don’t seem to be listening to you and reacting the way you desire, it is you, not them, that are the issue.” Oy! (Says Bill Walsh, Washington Post copyeditor: “ ‘They’ would be the quick fix, but I’d do more heavy lifting.”)

Another communicator who should know better is the writer/editor of FishbowlNY, which ran this sentence this summer: “The New York Daily News has received bids from John Catsimatidis and Jimmy Finkelstein, but neither appear to be the frontrunner.”

On a poster in Washington, DC’s, transit system: “A smart kid like you knows that eating and drinking in the system is against the law, right?” And a smart Metro knows that two subjects take a plural verb, right? (It didn’t mean only people who do these things in combination. Folks have been arrested for just the French-fries part.)

Okay, this is not strictly a grammatical error and seemed to be an off-the-cuff remark, nothing official. But it made me giggle while listening to WTOP radio: “Watch out for deer on the road in all this fog. I saw two of them driving in this morning.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Editors are funny. And that’s a good thing.

July 14, 2015

Many people assume editors, especially copyeditors, are a bit lacking in the humor department. People who fix other people’s grammar are like the ants at the picnic, right? Nope. Pat Myers, empress of the Washington Post’s Style Invitational, was a longtime Post copyeditor and still has a hand in at that. She’s an arbiter of humor who’s pretty funny herself.

And then there’s Bill Walsh, a current Post copyeditor, whose books include Lapsing Into a Comma and The Elephants of Style. In his monthly online chats about grammar and usage, he’s been known to have exchanges like this:

Q: Front page of the Post website: “Scientists have found the complicated reason Indian food so delicious.” Sigh.
A: Fixed now? If so, it’s a naan issue.


Q: Are formal conjunctive adverbs still used?
A: That’s the technical term for “pinkeye,” right?


Q. I’m so glad it’s March now, because if I hear one more broadcaster say “Febuary” [sic] I’m going to scream!
A: You’d think people would have learned that sort of thing at the liberry.

Lori Fradkin, a former copyeditor for New York, says her job supplied “the name of my future band, Typos on the Internet.” She was ecstatic when Panic! at the Disco removed its exclamation point, writing, “We only pray, moe., and !!! will follow suit”—and their choice not to, she said, was “sending a message to people like Ke$ha that kreativity is kick-a$$.”

When indexing The Subversive Copy Editor, Carol Saller went a step further, indexing “terrorists” with “see copy editors.”

Then there was that Twitter feed Fake AP Stylebook, which hasn’t posted in more than a year but had some great lines in its day. Among them:

“ ‘He/She’s not the only one’ as first sentence in second graf of a feature story ‪#ForbiddenPhrases

“While it’s tempting to call them ‘baristi’ because of the Italian roots, the plural of ‘barista’ is ‘journalism majors.’ ”

“The interrotilde is used to denote an ‘n’ that is pronounced as ‘WHUUUUUU?’ ”

“You cannot libel the dead. You can, however, libel the undead. Vampires have powerful lawyers and hypnotism, so be careful.”

“A sentence fragment occurs when you”

“.@jsgf: I don’t know, jsgf, when do YOU think it’s OK to use the passive-aggressive voice, MR. SMART GUY?”

“Christmas is the one time a year when you’re explicitly allowed to print stories that lie to children. Don’t waste it.”

Along similar lines, the smart-aleck people at Café Press offer mugs, T-shirts, and so on with such gems as these: “Volunteers Needed to Help Torture Victims” (no doubt a real headline once) and “One of the great things about being a copy editor is freedom from the vulgar desire for public recognition.”

A man wrote to Walsh last week to say that in reading a recent article, “I felt that the headline called to mind a sex act …. My girlfriend felt that such a reading would only occur to a stupid and immature child.” Walsh liked the question: “You have the kind of potty-brain that can be valuable on a copy desk.”

Which brings to mind a line from a profile in the Christian Science Monitor: “It is far from understood how smart and funny copy editors are as a group.” These attributes are necessary to the job. They make us good colleagues, too. And here’s the kicker, management: Who else is going to save your text, periodical, or website from pubic embarrassment?

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Word crimes and the grammar police

April 21, 2015

A still from Weird Al's "Word Crimes" video.They’re is no shame in misspelling…. Their is no shame in misspelling…. There is no shame in mispelling….

The anonymous nature of the Internet allows for plenty of unpleasant behavior, with trolling and cyberbullying right up there. Even where real names are attached, if you’re addressing strangers, it’s all too easy to lay into them in a way you wouldn’t if you were face to face.

Apparently a subset of this unpleasant behavior is shaming people for everything from being fat to being ugly to … using bad spelling? Even homophones?

Gee whiz, people. Sure, I notice when folks like former copyeditors Pat Myers and Carolyn Hax and current copyeditor Bill Walsh leave out a letter or throw in an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong. But first, occupational hazard. (They’d notice the same about me.) Second, there’s a big difference between a typo on the fly—in an email, Facebook post, or online chat, none of which is meant to be perfect—and something that’s at least read over carefully before print, let alone scrutinized by multiple professional eyes.

I adored Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” a video that has achieved almost 24 million viewings on YouTube. (Weird Al is brilliant. Parodying a top-selling and hugely catchy tune didn’t hurt.) But a Twitter account for the Grammar Police, with 19,000 followers, shames regular people for what Andrew Heisel calls “little language errors.” That’s just not funny.

Who’s Andrew Heisel? He’s a Connecticut writer who’s—excuse me, whoseop-ed in the Washington Post last week objected to this new trend. But he didn’t just object; he set out to find out why even those of us who know better slip up.

Turns out it’s pretty interesting stuff. Heisel talked to two cognitive psychologists, who mentioned everything from associative grouping to homophones (we often think in terms of pronunciation, which is why language patterns in the deaf vary so much from those in the hearing) to motor-system habits to cognitive control.

“Of course, people can and should proofread (a practice the brain complicates as well), but we can never fully curtail these slips that rapid-fire media like Twitter bring to the fore,” he wrote. “Mocking another person for making one of them is like mocking a heart for skipping a beat.”

Heisel noted in conclusion that he’d made numerous errors while typing his article. So have eye—I mean I. Spell check may have made us lazy, but any downsides are outweighed at least 10 to 1 by its upsides.

A few weeks ago, I was checking an old cover letter when I noted an inverted pair of words. The letter went out that way? I’d read it over and over and hadn’t seen that? Well, yes. The more you read your own work, the less you see such errors. Had the words been bigger, of course I’d have noticed, but these were very tiny words….

I suppose drunk-dialing an ex at 3 am might be more embarrassing than an editor’s sending a potential employer a letter boasting of how good an editor she is and including an obvious mistake like that. But the consequences are probably worse in the second case. Naturally, I never heard from the employer.

Lesson for this editor: Watch out and do better next time. And there’s still no excuse for mess-ups by people who have editors. As for regular folks whose motor-system habits slip on occasion? Come on, grammar police (and Grammar Police). Lighten up.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

On compound modifiers and when to use a hyphen

January 6, 2015 Walsh, the Washington Post’s chatting copyeditor, has rendered an opinion on several grammatical (and other) issues that have grabbed my attention lately. One is when to use a comma in a compound modifier and when not to.

Way back in the 1970s, compound modifiers had hyphens: ice-cream cone, three-man spacecraft. In the 1990s and 2000s, a succession of editors and I imposed the same rule at The Washingtonian. We got some pushback from people who called the magazine “hyphen happy” (“hyphen-happy”?). As hyphen use fades away, it’s hard to tell where to draw the line—and stylebooks seem almost arbitrary on the matter.

That’s the background on Walsh’s first chat question recently. “It seems arbitrary to me: no hyphen for ‘grand jury investigation’ or ‘revenge porn law’ but ‘mineral-rich region’?” he or she asked. “And what are your thoughts on hyphenating ‘simple’ compound nouns (e.g., real-estate agent, high-school student). Thanks!”

I come up against this one almost daily. Since leaving my last magazine job—and my role as arbiter of grammar and style among people who actually care about such things—I admit becoming less hyphen-happy. But while some phrases read fine without a hyphen, others can be misread or just look wrong. If a stylebook is silent, do you just guess?

Here’s Walsh’s interesting reply: “That’s probably where my work practices and my personal practices differ the most. The Post would write ‘grand jury investigation,’ whereas I would write ‘grand-jury investigation.’ I even hyphenate the simple ones. Post style does not, and one of my problems with that philosophy is that it’s hard to draw the line. We’re not always consistent, and one of my goals is to come up with an easier-to-follow rationale for those pesky hyphens.”

Good point. We editors thought being called hyphen-happy was perfectly fine when we had a plain and easy-to-follow rule to follow that made the meaning clear and obvious to all. Once you start saying, “Well, not always,” editors won’t agree among themselves, and noneditors will have no idea. And there goes the neighborhood, grammatically speaking.

(Of course, we editors can stick our fingers in the dike only so long. Language changes, and eventually it will change around us. Which brings up that age-old question, should you be a prescriber or a describer?)

A commenter suggested that if the compound noun stands alone in a different context (“They eat ice cream; the grand jury will convene”), it doesn’t take a hyphen when modifying another noun. If it doesn’t otherwise stand alone (“mineral rich”), it does (“mineral-rich region”). Maybe that’s the rationale behind the Post stylebook?

I asked him those questions. Here are the answers:

“That’s a good way to decide when something like ‘mineral-rich’ absolutely must have a hyphen. It’s not a good guideline for deciding when not to hyphenate, because it takes the most anti-hyphen stance possible.

“Others will disagree, but I think it looks sloppy and unprofessional to leave ‘ham sandwich’ unhyphenated in something like ‘That was a good lunch, but it wasn’t ham-sandwich good.’ Or ‘beer gut’ in ‘One of those beer-gut dudes from Cleveland.’ You get the picture.

Post style, I’m afraid, reflects the fact that others will disagree.”

Speaking of disagreeing, here’s how yet another commenter responded: “Use them when not using them may confuse the reader. In the phrase ‘old money family,’ a hyphen isn’t needed because there isn’t such a thing as a ‘money family.’ The phrase ‘small-state senator’ needs a hyphen because there is such a thing as a ‘state senator.’ No need for the hyphens in ‘beer gut dudes’ or ‘ham sandwich good’ because the meanings are clear without hyphens.”

Yes, not confusing the reader is a main reason we have grammar. So I have to disagree with this commenter. No reader should have to spend even a second figuring out whether ‘money family’ or ‘state senator’ is a thing in those sentences. A hyphen makes it clear right away; no figuring or rereading needed.

And that is why we have (ahem) hyphen-use rules.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

The Post shakes up its stylebook (somewhat)

July 19, 2014

Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copyeditor, has been chatting online again. As copyeditors are wont to do (an old English saying whose origin I don’t know), he’s been tinkering with the paper’s stylebook. “Some of that work is a game of old-fogy Whac-a-Mole,” he says, “in which I shake my head at Kids Today and break up brandnewterms with the space bar or the hyphen key.” Heh.

“These are judgment calls, and reasonable people will differ, but mass-market print journalism is inherently conservative with language. On the one hand, I can’t deny that there is a growing synergy between technological change and language change. On the other hand, there’s something absurd about onewording a five-minute-old invention when a paper clip still isn’t a paperclip after 115 years. So, for example, we cling to ‘voice mail’ (somewhat older than five minutes, but well short of 115 years) and ‘e-mail’ and ‘Web site.’ And ‘user name’ and ‘ear buds.’ ”

Come on, Bill. Even the Associated Press switched to “email” and “website” years ago. The Post is starting to look silly by holding out. But then, this is the news organization that hung on to “employe” for decades.

Also regarding the stylebook changes, he says, “More timelessly, I warn against saying someone ‘declined to be identified,’ which is sort of like declining to be punched in the nose—it’s not in your control.” Oh dear; I’m disagreeing with my colleague again. If it is not in the person’s control, he or she is identified: “ … said Jane Jones of Rockville” or “said John Jones, undersecretary of the Interior.” If it is in the person’s control, then he or she can decline: “ … said a witness at the scene who declined to be identified.” See?

Another recent change seems to bring the Post’s stylebook in alignment with AP—or at least alongside it—regarding state names. AP has gone to spelling out full state names. As Bill explains, “I’m not as aghast about spelling out state names as a lot of copy editors are, but it does seem like a waste of space. AP’s reasoning is that it has an international audience of readers who may not know what Mo. is. At The Post we’ve gone through a similar change of mind-set when it comes to local communities, which is why Arlington is now ‘Arlington, Va.’ ”

I’d wondered about that! There’s a line between fully informing readers, which a newspaper should do, and babying or talking down to them, which this change does, in my opinion. Any city, town, or large unincorporated area within the local readership zone should not have to be identified in this manner. A neighborhood, of course, would be described by context: “In King Farm, Rockville’s ‘new urban’ planned community ….”

That’s because no one in Prince William County (Virginia) can be expected to know a neighborhood in Montgomery County (Maryland). But it’s basic local literacy to know where Rockville, Ashburn, Bowie, Georgetown, Takoma Park, Arlington, Oxon Hill, and Reston are, at least generally. If you’re new here or otherwise don’t know where something is, you learn by discerning from context, which the story should provide. Likewise, the story should locate all but the very largest cities outside the local area. (The largest are identified this way in AP: “Atlanta: The city in Georgia stands alone in datelines.”)

In yet another change, the Post is now caving to common but confusing usage with “condo.” Rather than refer to apartments and townhouses, Bill says, the newspaper will use “condominium” or even “condo” “where once we reserved the term for discussion of the mode of ownership.” Ugh! It’s perfectly obvious to the eye what’s an apartment and what’s a townhouse. (This not being New York, we almost never have to get into the definition of “rowhouse” or “brownstone.”) Why muddle the completely clear?

On the other hand, it sounds like some housecleaning Bill did was long overdue. The Post stylebook apparently used to tell editors to “use play down instead of downplay” and that “unplanned events ‘occur’ while planned ones ‘take place.’ ” Now that’s esoteric.

Other old rules the new book throws out:

–distinguishing between “people” and “persons”

–distinguishing between a spiral and a helix

–not using “premiere” as a verb or “repeat” as a noun (as a synonym for “rerun”)

–getting worked up about “parameters,” “unless and until,” and “self-confessed”

As Bill said, “These are judgment calls, and reasonable people will differ.” I differ with the Post on many of its latest changes or lack of changes. I quibble with AP, too—especially about the serial comma—but AP is the most universally useful style guide out there.

Bill is worth reading, though, as always. His latest chat closes this way, and let me agree with his agreement with a contributor: “Winceworthy is a great word.” If you like language, a language chat is worth a visit.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

“Me, myself, and I” on the stage … and on the page

February 6, 2014

I just finished stage managing An Inspector Calls for a local theater company. The director, cast, and I started in October with a read-through of the 1947 British script. Then came blocking, which is where the director sets up the actors like pieces on a game board and moves them around—then changes her mind and moves them somewhere else. The actors read from the script for about two months, until they were supposed to be “off book” (to have memorized their lines). That made their movements more natural, and they could gesture and pick things up. Later came set, costumes, makeup, theater staff, programs, an audience–and fabulous reviews.

What does this have to do with language, you ask? A few things. First, after 4-1/2 months, you’d think I’d be sick of hearing the same lines over and over, but my appreciation of the writing only grew. Second, had I been directing, I’d have made a couple of tweaks so that modern American audiences wouldn’t get the wrong idea—particularly where Gerald says, “All right, I did [adore her attentions]. Any man would have done.” To us, this line makes it sounds like Daisy would have fallen for just anyone, and Gerald happened to come along. What Gerald means is the same thing without “done”—any man would have appreciated Daisy’s attentions. Quite a different thing.

Third, modern language intruded anyway. About half of the actors read their lines as J.B. Priestley wrote them, proper grammar and all: “You don’t. Neither of us does.” Others “corrected” what’s wrong for Yanks but right for Brits, lines like this: “Milward’s [shop] suddenly found themselves shorthanded.” And one actor, once out of the script, never, ever got this line right: “Yes, and do you remember what you said to Gerald and me after dinner …?”

After each rehearsal for the two weeks before we moved in, the director had me email to everyone the lines missed that night. After each rehearsal, I’d type out that line. The first time, I added, “(Eric would not have made the grammatical error of saying ‘Gerald and I.’)” Soon I started capping “ME,” then boldfacing those lines people were missing night after night. Finally I started begging, “(Or say ‘me and Gerald’ if that comes more naturally.)”

But bad grammar didn’t budge. This son of the aristocracy continued butchering the language through the final matinee.

Some folks don’t know any better. (Not the case here.) Some don’t care. (I hope not the case here.) Some don’t understand grammar and don’t trust the editors or other experts who insist that this way is better than that way. (Sure; if you hear something two or more ways, why not throw up your hands about it? Why not assume that either way is fine and that it doesn’t matter?) And for many, bad grammar is just so ingrained that they can’t speak any other way.

Bill Walsh at the Washington Post has a theory on this. “People get freaked out by ‘me,’ ” he says. “I think it goes back to being corrected in childhood for saying ‘me and Sally’ instead of ‘Sally and I.’ The idea that ‘me’ is somehow wrong in anything but the simplest utterance is what sticks, and so you get people hypercorrecting and saying ‘Come visit my husband and I’ or using ‘myself’ inappropriately.”

Myself, yes! I once overheard an actor—not the same guy—tell someone, “She came to visit myself.” Huh? What happened to me? This one I have a theory on: backward-formation. People used to say, “She came to visit Sara and me.” Then, for pretentiousness or misplaced emphasis or who knows what, it changed to “She came to visit Sara and myself.” Once enough people actually accepted that, the next step—“She came to visit myself”—was inevitable.

What’s the answer? Better-taught teachers and parents to teach—and correct—better-taught children, for one. But that’s got to start somewhere. Getting people to care is part of it, but that too may be difficult. I never had formal grammar training, not really; I got to know and understand this stuff partly from having adults around who knew and cared about it and partly from reading well-written and well-edited books from an early age. So literacy is part of the solution, too. That means everything from Reading Is Fundamental to Sesame Street, from the Book on Every Bed project to Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other wildly popular young-adult series.

I’m not expecting miracles. But you wouldn’t think a single, skinny letter would be so hard to get out of a grown man’s head. It took years to teach and reinforce the wrong phrasing. Is there any hope that the coming decades will do what I couldn’t as stage manager and dislodge it? The decades probably won’t—but the next director might.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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

January 17, 2014

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.