Books: The Elephants of Style
by Dick Gaines (Login Dick Gaines)
"Is there a compelling reason to capitalize the term "marine" when referring to a member of the USMC? It has been explained to me that because the term derives from an actual service, it is imperative that "marine" be capitalized. This doesn't ring true for me. I find now that sailors want "sailor" capitalized as well, since "marine" frequently is. And you cannot have them sitting side by side with one capitalized and the other not! This all smacks of prejudice to me--not just about service titles, but other titles that would never be capitalized, but are no less revered.
Books: The Elephants of Style
Copy Editor, Author
Monday, March 29, 2004; 1:00 PM
Most readers don't think much about style when digging in to the morning paper; but you can bet someone has. Post National desk copy chief Bill Walsh and his comrades in the world of copy editing pore over each story, each sentence, each word to ensure it shines with style. What is style: Grammar? Spelling? Polish? All that and more. In the new book, "The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English," Walsh addresses the dozen or so biggest issues that every writer or editor must master. Picking up where his previous book, "Lapsing Into a Comma," left off, Walsh guides readers through the often surprising and never iron-clad rules of stylish writing.
Walsh will be online Monday, March 29 at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss the book and how to add style to your own writing.
Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.
Note: This rather mundane introductory blurb was not written with the benefit of a Bill Walsh edit.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Bill Walsh: Good afternoon! I know you're out there. I've seen you flirting with the dreaded off-topic topic and peppering Weingarten and Levey with these kinds of questions. Here's your chance to talk about usage and grammar and punctuation and spelling and style and the things people write that drive you up a #$@#@#% wall! We can also talk about my new book "The Elephants of Style"; my old book, "Lapsing Into a Comma"; my Web site, The Slot (www.theslot.com); or those fearless nocturnal creatures we call copy editors. Let's get started. (I'll be forgiving of typing errors if you will.)
Chandigarh, India: I brought a well-received guide on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, recently. The book made for great and enlightening reading. But, the sub-title had me fretting. It said: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
My question is: shouldn't "zero tolerance" have been hyphenated? I reason that doing so would have made the words adjectival to the noun, "approach".
So, why wasn't it. and whatt is the grammatical status of "tolerance" in the sub-title if it isn't?
Bill Walsh: Yes, the zero-tolerance book on punctuation has a punctuation error in the title. Go figure. Not that I'm envious of Lynne Truss's success with that book or anything, No, sirree ...
Kirksville, Mo.: Please give us a quick explanation of the correct use of the phrase "begging the question." I hear/read it a lot lately and think most of the time it's used incorrectly.
People use "beg the question" to mean "raise the question." It's a distinction worth enforcing. To beg the question is to commit the logical fallacy of assuming the truth of what you're trying to prove: "God exists because he is all-powerful."
Alexandria, Va.: Some of the translators of the Jewish Publication Society's Bible wanted to split infinitives, and others objected.
Is it okay to split infinitives?
Bill Walsh: Yes. It's more than OK; I say it's generally preferable. The best place for a modifier is adjacent to the word it modifies, and that means adverbs work best next to verbs. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is a heck of a lot better than "boldly to go" or "to go boldly."
In "Elephants," I say split infinitives are the chicken cacciatore of English usage. The big, fat stereotypical Italian mamma in heartburn-remedy commercials is always talking about "my CHICK-en CAC-ciatore," and the stereotypical bespectacled nerdy English-major type on TV is always talking about split infinitives. Just as chicken cacciatore isn't the crowning achievement of Italian cooking, split infinitives are not the biggest sin in flawed English. They're not a sin at all.
I'm not exactly being a maverick here. Almost all authorities agree. The superstition, the story goes, comes from Latin, where infinitives were single words and therefore couldn't possibly be split.
Laytonsville, Md.: Mr. Walsh, you are a force to be reckoned with.
Is ending the previous sentence with a preposition acceptable now, as an old lover once asserted, or was our love never meant to be?
Bill Walsh: You've probably heard the quote attributed to Winston Churchill: "That is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put!" Or something like that. I agree, and this taboo is addressed along with the split infinitive in my chapter on "The Lies Your English Teacher Told You."
Camino, Calif.: When discussing a person who has done a number of things towards a final goal, is it "all told," or "all totaled?"
My guess is "all totaled," since we're writing about the culmination of a series of actions. However, even on the Poynter Institute website I've seen "all told" used.
Granted, this is an overused cliche, but one I see frequently. Which is... ah... correct, maestro?
Bill Walsh: I'm not familiar with this controversy, but "all told" is an idiom and "all totaled" sounds like a hypercorrection.
Liberty, Mo.: I believe "impact" should be used only when describing the collision of two objects. What do you think?
Bill Walsh: To use "impact" as a verb meaning "affect" is generally frowned upon, though etymologists will tell you it was well established long before we were born. (And entomologists will acknowledge that it bugs you anyway. Ha!) Anyway, some people take that prohibition and run with it, striking "impact" wherever they see it. I say something could very well have an impact (noun) on something else. It's a stronger word than "effect," and sometimes you want a stronger word. I do avoid the verb, though.
Washington, D.C.: Why doesn't the Washington Post use more hyphens? Stories refer to Washington area events, but you never use a hyphen there.
Bill Walsh: I love my employer, but that is a sore spot. I like to see hyphenation of compound modifiers (compound-modifier hyphenation).
Boston, Mass.: In a magazine article, with a title written in first person, would a third-person deck be OK, or weird? Is the deck considered to be a kind of editorial comment on the article?
Bill Walsh: I'd have to see the example, but I generally think headlines should read as if they were written by the author of the article.
Washington, D.C.: How do you feel about the use of "they" to avoid awkward "his and her" constructions?
Bill Walsh: I'm all for it, in theory, but my job as a copy editor is to enforce the status quo. There's a line in "Elephants" about it being a book that tells you how not to look stupid. For now, the use of the plural adverb for singular constructions looks stupid. For later, who knows? Personally, I think it's the best solution now that the generic masculine has come to be considered offensive.
Seattle, Wash.: My wife and I are both writers, and so we ran out and got a copy of your book as soon as it arrived in stores. It's a great resource and a lot of fun to read.
I wonder if you could expand on your discussion of the difference between "attorney" and "lawyer," and when it's appropriate to use one or the other. Like most people, I always assumed they were synonyms. But you say a usage like "he is a patent attorney" is incorrect.
Thanks again for a great book!
Bill Walsh: Attorney is to lawyer as rescuer is to lifeguard. To be an attorney is to act on another's behalf. Often that's exactly what a lawyer does, but it's not the name for the profession.
Arlington, Va.: Regarding hacker vs. cracker: should we all just go ahead and give up on this one already? I can't remember the last time I saw "hacker" used correctly in TV or print news. Is it time to just say that hacker has absorbed the definition of cracker?
Bill Walsh: Yes, I think "hacker" is the real-people word for what the geeks call "crackers." (The geeks tell us that "hacker" implies skill, not nefarious intent, and that "cracker" is the word for people who break in to systems to inflict harm.) Just spare me the really ignorant usage in which anybody who knows how to use a computer is "a real hacker."
Arlington, Va.: What's your stand on an apostrophe after singular words that end in "s?"
Bill Walsh: You'd think the answer to that one would be easy! It's not. One section of "Elephants" goes over just how many different ways different stylebooks deal with that issue. Short answer: I add apostrophe-s, with fewer exceptions than most. And I'm glad I work at a paper that writes "the witness's seat" and "Burt Reynolds's" movies.
Charlottesville, Va.: Bill, I was a copy editor at my paper and am now a reporter. Theslot.com has been a hit on the desk for a few years now, and I respect your judgment on all things copy. I have two questions. How do you feel about using verbs other than "said" after a quote in a news story? I've used "joked" and "thundered," as well as the more subtle "noted" and "explained." Some editors are fine with it; others object. Also, when is the passive tense acceptable? Ever?
Bill Walsh: News writing is more conservative than, say, fiction writing about variety in verbs of attribution. It's best to stick with "said" and maybe the occasional "noted" unless you have something that really cries out for something more explosive. Quotes speak for themselves.
Arlington, Va.: Why do prestigious publications -- The Washington Post and The New Yorker for example -- more and more frequently make anexception to the old rule that a pair of compound verb are separated by "and" only with no comma before the latter of the pair? Why commas now in compound verbs?
Bill Walsh: This dismays me, and adds precious minutes to my workload every night. (Oops!) Sometimes that comma is useful as a reading aid in a long sentence, but usually I think it's wrong.
Hartford, Conn.: Hi, Bill. I love both books and The Slot. I'm curious: what's you take the status of the semi-colon? I hate to say, it seems to be disappearing. Example from Grisham's Last Juror:
"His movements were faster, he was mumbling louder."
I see "compound" sentences like this all the time now!
Bill Walsh: I can't get past your proper use of the "comma of direct address" in "Hi, Bill"! Bless you!
I see semicolons overused more than underused, at least in news writing. In fiction, where rhythm is important and clunkiness is very bad, that comma doesn't bother me. Technically it should be a semicolon in your example, but the semicolon, you have to admit, is one ugly bastard.
Boston, Mass.: Back at the title-headline-deck magazine article question... here's the example:
Title: How I learned to pray when times were tough
Deck: One man's journey from turmoil to happiness
Bill Walsh: I think those headlines change course midstream. (Did I just mangle a cliche?) If you start writing from the author's viewpoint, I think you should stay thre.
Chicago, Ill.: I e-mailed this question once before. I can only assume it's so tough that Bill is ducking me.
What are the proper uses of disc and disk? Is disc proper for anything but brakes?
Bill Walsh: It's a confusing point. I have to look it up most of the time. I don't recall ducking you, but I would have been smart to. The biggest area of controversy regards computer storage, and the New York Times stylebook offers a great guideline: magnetic storage is on disks, but laser-read optical storage is on discs. So CDs are compact discs, but floppies are disks.
Washington, D.C.: What's the best thing about copy editing or being a copy editor?
Bill Walsh: I don't need an alarm clock.
Laurel, Md.: Another hackneyed necessity is "and/or". Is there any better way around the fact that English neglected to provide both an inclusive and exclusive "or"?
Bill Walsh: If you were told that if you spotted a fugitive you should contact your local police OR the FBI, would you think you were disobeying that instruction if you contacted both? I don't think so. "Or" works pretty well in most cases, I think.
Richmond, Va.: Can you please address "healthy" and "healthful"? It is my understanding that only a person can be healthy; diets and foods are healthful. Yet so often I see "a healthy diet."
Am I being too much of a stickler? Is it acceptable to write "a healthy lifestyle"?
Bill Walsh: "Healthful" is the word you're supposed to use to mean "promoting good health." It's a dying distinction, but I try to preserve it. Think of the difference between "a healthy appetite" and a healthful one.
Emporia, Kan.: When do the rules change? Recently, I have been plagued by "an historical." I see it and hear it everywhere: books, movies, even CNN.com. -I- know it's incorrect, and I imagine a handful of others out there know it's incorrect, but if I write "a historic," I get e-mails and comments about my error. I'm so frustrated with it that I simply avoid anything historic in my press releases and other writings. Will "an historic" ever truly be acceptable?
Bill Walsh: I don't think you'll see the incorrectness of "an historic" evolving into correctness. It's a mistake. It has no utility. Unless you say "istoric" when you see the word "historic," you must use "a." Only vowel sounds get the "an."
Cody, Wyo.: I love your books and your web site, they're fabulous!
Do you ever feel like copy editing is a dying profession? That people think that spell-check and grammar-check in MS Word are good enough? Or that someday we'll all just be writing "u r so gr8"?
Bill Walsh: It's hard to say. At newspapers, at least, recent developments have been heartening. You see kids going directly into copy editing, rather than it being a field where they dump the reporters who have become too drunk to function. But that lack of reporting experience has a downside, of course.
Laurel Springs, N.J.: Do you discourage or encourage the use of puns in feature-story headlines?
Bill Walsh: As I get older, my standards for headline wordplay get higher. I like good puns, but other forms of wordplay are more sophisticated. Easy, lame, predictable wordplay is not good, though it can be hard to avoid. (Thank goodness the Washington Post doesn't run stand-alone pictures of cute puppies -- there, it's hard to get away with "This Is a Cute Puppy.")
I had to talk the people who have the power to change my headlines out of a "Winter of Their Discontent" headline a couple of weeks ago. Ugh.
Seattle, Wash.: I'm an erstwhile copy editor myself, and I'd love it if you could help me with the term "late-model," as in, "a late-model sedan."
I can't figure out whether that means old or new, and I can't find a single citation in a dictionary or style book that clears it up.
Can you help, and maybe give me some etymology?
Bill Walsh: New. Late, as in the latest developments.
Washington, D.C.: You must be really busy, editing the Post and writing books and running a Web site. What do you do to unwind?
Bill Walsh: Unwind? What is this "unwind" that you speak of? Is that the beer part?
Washington, D.C.: When do you use periods with abbreviations? It's U.N. but EU. Why?
Bill Walsh: Style is often arbitrary. EU probably should be parallel to U.S. and U.N., but it was chronologically disadvantaged, and new things by default don't get the periods.
Alexandria, Va.: Is there any area of writing that results in more additions to style standards than technology? Anything even close?
Bill Walsh: There's slang in general, but technology is especially insidious because tech-averse writers and editors tend to grant a lot of deference to the geeks, as if keeping the hyphen in "e-mail" would crash the Internet or something.
Lone Arranger: Good afternoon, Bill. I do all the editing and copyediting and proofing and a lot of the writing for my team of about 115 people. There's always a lot of work for me to do, and often there's too much. I really want to hire someone who will care as much about writing and words as I do, but I don't know how to write (!) a good job description for an ad? Also, what's the best way to test a pontential candidate's skills? Thanks.
Bill Walsh: Hiring is tough, even for a big-shot publication like (such as?) the (The?) Washington Post. Write an ad more demanding than you intend; people will feel free to ignore your requirements anyway. Write up a test that incorporates the basics and some advanced stuff and the things you feel strongly about. Just make it clear what you're looking for. A big hazard of testing is all the things people will read into every little word you write, even if it's just filler to you.
Arrgh!;: Thanks for the opportunity to air my pet peeve: When did "would have" replace "had" as the past-perfect? This truly drives me up a wall!; I.e., "If he would have gone to the store" instead of "If he had gone to the store."
Bill Walsh: People do tend to complicate things a level or two beyond what is necessary. I find that kind of thing especially hard to catch.
Washington, D.C.: So, Bill, what's it like to have fans? Has anyone ever stopped you on the street or requested a picture?
Bill Walsh: Once, a few blocks from my house, a college-age guy on a bicycle recognized me and stopped me. It was bizarre.
Kirksville, Mo.: Thanks for the begging-the-question answer. I'm going to buy your book soon so you can count on another sale. How do editors generally respond when non-professionals contact them about style and grammer questions? From what I can tell many like to discuss the nuts and bolts of the job but maybe not?
Bill Walsh: I like getting questions, but I will admit I roll my eyes at a few of them. This area attracts its share of cranks, and I've tried very hard in my books and on my site to make it clear that I'm not One of Those People who hate writers and want to change everything and think everything is an abomination. I'm always polite, though, and I try to answer all of them. I'm not always successful, but I try. (Contempt for the audience? No. That's what killed Dennis Day.)
Washington, D.C.: What's the hardest thing about writing a headline? And what are some of your favorite headlines?
Bill Walsh: The hardest thing, of course, is conveying a complex idea in a very small space. It's a hard area to give advice on. I will share a couple of my favorite Bill Walsh headlines, one written when I was an intern (1982?) and one in the early '90s:
On a story about how a lot of toll-free telephone numbers were based in Nebraska, and therefore Nebraskans had to dial an alternate local phone number:
Except in Nebraska Rings in Ears of Cornhuskers.
On a story about the dawn of capitalism in the former East Germany:
Con Artists Find Easy Marks in Eastern Germany.
Washington, D.C.: You're larger-than-life, I know, but I disagree on this: compound adjectives should be hyhpenated when there is a real chance of confusion. No native speaker would be confused if I describe a "bright red apple"--they'll know the color is bright red, and won't think it glows in the dark.
Bill Walsh: Confusion is in the eye of the beholder. Plenty of commas could be left out with no danger of confusion. The could be "teh." Someday there might be a case where I'd want to write about a red apple that was bright, as opposed to an apple that was bright read. Here's one: real-estate agents. What if I wanted to write about a REAL "estate agent"?
re: "an historic": I'm not so sure about how wrong "an" is used with "historic". Many languages have distinguished between "h" and stronger consonants in similar situations. And this isn't even just a normal "h" either... the reason "an historic" is seen and "an history" is not is accent. The "h" in "hisTORic" is weaker than the "h" in "HIStory" due to the lack of first-syllable stress.
To my ear, "an histerical" also sounds better than "a histerical", and thats another case of an unaccented first syllable. The weak vowel also contributes, I imagine, since it makes the "h" even quieter. "an Homeric hymn" sounds a bit odd to me, for example, even though it has an accent on the second syllable.
Bill Walsh: Again, if you see "historic" in isolation, do you say "istoric"? I doubt it. If you're a Cockney, though, fine: The "an" is correct. But the noun governs the article. You don't go changing your ordinary pronunciation of the noun in order to use a different article.
Dublin, Ireland: What's the deal with "hopefully". It certainly looks like an adverb but is very commonly used to mean "I am hopeful...". For example, "Hopefully, you'll answer my question so that I may have a few seconds of my 15 minutes of fame!;".
Bill Walsh: It's in the gray-areas chapter of "Elephants." Plenty of other words work the same way the disputed usage of "hopefully" does. "Fortunately, the mugger was captured" does not mean the mugger was fortunate. So, really, the popular usage does make sense. The trouble is, you don't get to use footnotes to explain this to readers, and so if you try to get away with this usage, people will think you are stupid.
Washington, D.C.: Can the people around you tolerate the pressure of sending you e-mails knowing that any and all mistakes will be noticed or noted?
Bill Walsh: Some people apologize in advance. Personally, I think correcting errors in personal correspondence is beyond rude. Unless, of course, it's hate mail.
Rapid City, S.D.: Bill, would you settle an argument? How do you feel about using "no" as a modifier? This comes up at copy desk meetings.
"There was no compelling reason," versus "There wasn't any compelling reason." Our desk chief says there's no reason (ahem) to use "no" when you mean not any. Others disagree.
Bill Walsh: I see no problem with that use of "no."
Annapolis, Md.: Good afternoon,
Is there a compelling reason to capitalize the term "marine" when referring to a member of the USMC? It has been explained to me that because the term derives from an actual service, it is imperative that "marine" be capitalized. This doesn't ring true for me. I find now that sailors want "sailor" capitalized as well, since "marine" frequently is. And you cannot have them sitting side by side with one capitalized and the other not! This all smacks of prejudice to me--not just about service titles, but other titles that would never be capitalized, but are no less revered.
Bill Walsh: Technically, I suppose, "marine" is a word. But it's such an obscure word that I don't think that's what people are thinking about when they refer to Marines. They're using Marine because it's the U.S. Marine Corps. Soldier and sailor and airman are different. It's not quite as clear cut as the difference between "Hispanic" and "white" and "black," but it's a similar situation.
Bass Lake, Calif.: Hi, Bill!; I like your site. I've worked as a copy editor of textbooks and trade fiction for ten years. Maybe this isn't an appropriate question for this forum, but I'll ask it anyway: How can I make the switch from books to newspapers? Thanks!;
Bill Walsh: It's a different world. Your book experience would probably get you in the door at a small newspaper, and you could climb the ladder from there. But newspaper editing is all about speed and triage, and a lot of book and even magazine editors would be frustrated by the lack of precision.
Washington, D.C.: Do you have strong feelings about using likely as an adverb? I often see the construction "will likely" in newspaper stories, and it sounds wrong to my ear. I understand that Webster's New World (fourth edition) says likely can be used as an adverb, but it seems more correct to say something is likely to happen or that it will probably happen. What do you think?
Bill Walsh: I'm with you. "Likely" is misused as an adverb because people think "-ly" is an automatic adverb flag. I've seen people refuse to hyphenate "family-run business" because "we don't hyphenate -ly adverbs."
Dallas, Tex.: How did you get into copy editing? What set you on that career path?
Bill Walsh: I went into journalism school not knowing that copy editors existed. There were no copy editors on "Lou Grant"! I was well into my second year as a copy editor on the independent school paper when a professor mentioned that you could make a good living in the real world as a copy editor. I figured "real" reporters didn't need such help.
I started as a reporter because that was where the work was, and I was drafted to join the copy desk because of an illness on the staff about a year later. I never looked back. I liked the writing but not the reporting. As a copy editor, I enjoy the fact that I don't have to be thinking up story ideas for the next day, week, month ...
Dallas, Tex.: Bill,
It seems so much of newspaper copy editing involves punctuation and single words, on that level. Does it involve, say, changing "is symbolic of" to "symbolizes," or "is representative of" to "represent"? Or is that tampering with the precious "voice"?
Bill Walsh: Sure, that's the kind of change a newspaper copy editor would make as a matter of course.
New York, N.Y.: News viewer, here, wondering about TV reporters speaking in headlinese, if this trend--dropping verbs not gerunds, definite articles--bothersome to copyeditors, as well. Wondering, too, if other spoken journalism-isms bothersome to print copy editors.
Bill Walsh: The talking-in-headlines thing really bothers me.
Lyme, Ct.: I like the mention that the rules of proper writing style are not iron clad. Indeed, the rules of 19th century literature would probably not agree with the general Post circulation. What are the various reasons that causes these rules to change over time?
Bill Walsh: Predominance of usage eventually steamrolls old rules. I write in "Elephants" about trying to strike a balance between "it's always been that way" and "that's how everybody does it."
Scranton, Pa.: Hi, Bill. Another quote-attribution question. Some reporters I've talked to insist on using "says" instead of "said," arguing that it's more conversational. A few years ago it wasn't all that prevalent, but now I see it more and more, even in an occasional AP hard-news stories. What's your take?
Bill Walsh: "Says" doesn't bother me. I think "says" and "said" can peacefully coexist in the same story. One denotes a quote that represents a continuing thought ("I like boobies," Hefner says), and the other is more of a one-time thing ("She is my bride for life," Hefner said).
Seattle, Wash.: Bill,
What would you be if you couldn't be a copy editor? Other than "heartbroken," of course.
Bill Walsh: What else is there? I have two younger brothers. Both are copy editors. I set a bad example.
Comma Splice: I had an English teacher in high school who would automatically fail any essay that contained a "comma splice."
What was the big deal?
Bill Walsh: Commas aren't supposed to join independent sentences, she was right to fail you.
Side Salad: I bet you've noticed numerous style mishaps in the transcript of this conversation. Is it driving you nuts?
Bill Walsh: Not at all. Some were mine.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Walsh-
Do you sometimes wish you were in Style or another area where you would have more lattitude in writing puns and other clever heads?
Bill Walsh: Maybe sometimes. Different jobs have different advantages. I like the fact that I don't have to pretend Nicole Kidman is important.
Tampa, Fla.: One of my pet peeves is when writers say, "This is a high-quality (fill in the blank)" I mean, it means nothing because it doesn't describe what quality the person thinks is in large quantity. What are your favorite "pet peeve" phrases?
Bill Walsh: It's hard to choose a favorite from among my babies! But here's one: "One of those people that says ..." No! One of those people WHO SAY!
And "three times bigger" rather than "three times as big."
San Francisco, Calif.: Regarding the post on "Eats, Shoots and Leaves": I had the same problem with the hyphenless subtitle, so I emailed Profile Books and asked about it. Publisher Andrew Franklin gave me a very prompt and polite response ... and I completely disagree with his rationale. I'm also surprised that the book's author apparently went along with his preference to leave "zero tolerance" open. But then again, I haven't had a chance to read it yet, since (I think) it's not yet available in the States.
This is probably terrible etiquette to pass on Franklin's words without his knowledge, but I can't resist, and I will at least let him know I'm doing so.
Thank you for your email. It is very perceptive of you to notice that Zero Tolerance could, and indeed might, be hyphenated. However, the whole point of Lynne's book is that it argues for punctuation as an aide to understanding rather than as a rigid system that is immutably unchangeable. Rules of punctuation conflict (especially commas) and decisions have to be taken about what helps the reader understand the sense that the writer is trying to express. As publisher, I took the decision that the title would be better without the hyphen. Perhaps I was wrong, but it doesn't seem to have damaged the book and it is within the spirit of the book: understanding, appreciating and using punctuation thoughtfully.
Bill Walsh: It will be available in the States soon. I'm counting on everybody to buy a dozen or two dozen copies of "Elephants" to overshadow it.
Lynne Truss uses hyphens correctly inside the book, I must say.
Alexandria, Va.: Capitalization question:
On page 21 of The Elephants of Style, I was mortified to find your statement that "in all but the most formal of publications, District Attorney Adan Schiff is the district attorney." My association prints a magazine, several newsletters and many monographs on issues related to prosecutors, and I have always preached lower case when using district attorney. Are these publications considered "formal," and should we be using upper case for this job title? (Please say it ain't so.) What makes a publication formal?
Bill Walsh: My point was that it's capped before the name but lowercased otherwise. Same with president and pope and, well, pretty much every title.
Tampa, Fla.: Do you think R.E. M. should have split at the previously agreed upon date of 1/1/2000 in an effort to preserve their musical legacy and dignity?
Bill Walsh: It couldn't have hurt. But some of the not-so-good stuff was well before that.
Boston, Mass.: Would you please give some do's and don'ts on magazine article headlines and callouts and captions?
Bill Walsh: I can't go into much detail in this forum, but the most recent post on my Web site (www.theslot.com) deals with caption don'ts.
Baltimore, Md.: Bill:
When is it appropriate to use "if" as opposed to "whether"?
Why is "whether" so often used instead of the less-pretentious "if"?
Bill Walsh: I've never seen the issue addressed in terms of pretentiousness. To radically oversimplify things: I think it's generally thought that if "whether" can be substituted for "if," it should be.
Detroit, Mich.: Hi, Bill,
What general hours do copy editors work? Is it a 9-to-5 job for most, or do they tend to work the graveyard shift? Your "no alarm clock" comment has thrown me for a loop, as I am contemplating a career switch from ad agency proofreader to newspaper copy editor.
Bill Walsh: At morning newspapers (afternoon newspapers are nearly extinct), it's necessary for copy desks in hard-news sections to work a night shift to "put the paper to bed." That means something in the neighborhood of 4 to midnight, in most cases. Copy editors in feature sections that close early can work normal people's hours.
Anonymous: Any reason to use "gray" over "grey" (or vice versa)?
Bill Walsh: Yes. "Gray" is the preferred form, by far, in American English. Style is often about such choices.
Stafford, Va.: In "Lapsing Into a Comma" you logically argue that K.D. Lang, Adidas, and "Thirtysomething" should be capitalized. But later you give a pass to eBay and iMac because "at least there's a cap near the start of the word." Say it ain't so Bill.
Bill Walsh: I'm not sure I "give a pass," but I do say it's not nearly as reprehensible. Think of Charles de Gaulle. (But never, ever, begin a sentence with a lowercase letter.)
Omaha, Neb.: Is your wife employed in copy editing or a related field? If not, is she sympathetic to your stories related to the ongoing fight that is copy editing, or do you drive her nuts with it?
Bill Walsh: My wife (Hi, Jacqueline!) works at the Post, but on the computer side. She has been an editor. She understands.
Alexandria, Va.: Could you address an issue that bothers me, both on a stylistic--but also on a deeper, political level--: that is the very frequent use of the passive voice in news articles.
It seems that, especially in Washington, D.C., no one ever actually raises doubts about a proposal, rather "doubts are raised". In addition to the stylistic weakness of this overuse of the passive voice, I find that it creates a political landscape where acts are being done but the reader has no idea by whom!
Bill Walsh: Good point. But I argue against fetishizing the active voice. There are times when the passive voice is preferable: The winning lottery numbers will be drawn Wednesday (who cares who will draw them?). He was born in Detroit (who cares what doctor delivered him?).
Arlington, Va.: Are you mostly a verbal type of guy, or are you able to catch some of the egregious math errors that I see in the Post so often?
Bill Walsh: I catch my share. I ducked math and science in college, but since then I've used a lot of algebra in programming Excel spreadsheets, and I've developed a bit of an interest in math.
"Elephants" has a chapter on common math errors and other number problems.
Austin, Tex.: Web site ... web site ... website.
I know AP and Lapsing say Web site, with Web up because it's short for the World Wide Web. But at what point do I stop fighting this uphill battle? The world seems to be intent on lowercasing and one-wording.
Question #2: "Long-term care services"
That's how it's used on the Department of Human Services Web site in Texas. I was certain they needed a second hyphen -- but I saw a story from the New York Times today that left it out as well. Doesn't it need to be "long-term-care services"?
Bill Walsh: As long as AP holds the fort, that makes for a pretty good excuse -- if correctness isn't good enough.
Yes, long-term-care services would be correct, but in a hyphen-phobic world this is where even sticklers relent and settle for one hyphen.
I'm repeating myself, but here's where you can't settle for one hyphen:
Anti-child abuse centers. (It's one thing to be anti-child, but to open an abuse center?)
Bill Walsh: Thanks, everybody! We're way over our allotted time, so I will have to bid you good day. It's been a lot of fun. If you'd like to meet like this on a regular basis, I won't object to a petition drive.
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