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Grammatical Interlude

[ Posted Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 – 15:06 UTC ]

Today's column is a short interlude, or perhaps even intermission, from our usual political wonkery. This is due mostly to the fact that we're busy around Central preparing charts for tomorrow's "Obama Poll Watch" column.

Today, instead, we're going to pose a few stylistic grammatical questions to our readers, in order to see if our standards here are in need of adjustment or not. If that sort of thing is not your cup of tea, then you can check out this rampant speculation over who is jockeying to take over Harry Reid's leadership position in the Senate, should he fail to be re-elected this November, as it is about as wonkily fascinating as you can get.

For those of you still reading, I have a couple issues that make me scratch my head when writing, editing, and formatting these columns. I guess what got me on this subject was writing about last week's State Of The Union address, and realizing that the term "laundry list" seemed a bit dated, and a bit strange. Many responded that laundry lists were a military thing, or a more urban thing, but I still stand by choosing "shopping list" over "laundry list" because it works better metaphorically.

I realize, however, that I'm fighting a pretty strong headwind on this one, though.

The next day, an even-more-trivial editorial decision faced me: one lion, or many lions? In other words, do you enter a "lion's den" or a "lions' den"? Usage of this one is kind of all over the map, with some even using the (quite obviously) incorrect "lions den." I always thought that the story of Daniel (from the Bible) cited multiple lions, so I wrote it in the plural "lions' den" for Friday's article. But then, to my chagrin, when editing I found I had posted it inconsistently, and had myself used "lion's den" within the same article whose title included "lions' den." I made it consistent -- plural everywhere -- and hoped nobody noticed.

But the "lions' den" theme was used by many to describe Obama's trip to the Republican House retreat, and I noticed that many used the singular (probably because it feels more natural to type it that way, I guess).

So I went and looked it up. Daniel 6:1-28 clearly talks about multiple lions sharing one den. While the King James Version uses "den of lions" throughout (obviating the need for an apostrophe), it also uses the phrase "lions' mouths" as well. Other versions of the Bible use "lions' den" pretty consistently. Meaning the plural "lions' den" is the correct usage.

On an unrelated subject, I've been wondering about my continued use of "healthcare" instead of "health care." This one I actually have spoken of previously, in a "Grammatical Note" at the end of an article from last June:

I am finally bowing to what is becoming the conventional usage of "healthcare" instead of "health care," and will be using this standard from now on. I don't know why, since I am usually at the forefront of making one compound word where others still use two, but "healthcare" has always just looked wrong to me. But with the debate heating up, I think it best to now lay this issue aside and get on the etymological bandwagon, as it were.

But it still bugs me, because no real consensus has emerged among editors across the land. Some make it a compound word when it is used as a modifier ("healthcare industry") but two words when used as a noun ("providing health care"). Some consistently use it one way or the other. I've been fairly consistent in my own usage since I posted that note, but it's always looked a little odd to me as a compound word.

To dodge the grammatical issue, I think I may start using "health insurance reform," as the White House has been calling it for months now. It's more accurate, and it avoids the "health care"/"healthcare" problem entirely.

The last issue is on capitalization. In particular, the word "independent" when referring to those American voters who are not Republicans and not Democrats (and not party-affiliated in any way, actually). This is another issue where editors can't agree. Since, by definition, people in this group are people who are not in any party, then perhaps it shouldn't be a proper noun. But it has always seemed a little demeaning to write something like "Democrats, Republicans, and independents" as it seems to cheapen the third group somewhat. On the other hand, when used as a modifier, it seems odd to write "Independent voters." I've been splitting this hair by using it lower-case when used generically as a modifier, but upper-case when used to refer (as a noun) to a distinct group of voters.

This is because of the rule of thumb that any political party gets capitalized, no matter the size. Meaning "Democrats" or "Democratic Party" is the norm. I run into the same problem with "libertarian" as I do with independent, since it describes both a philosophy and a party. Same with "populist," which I tend to capitalize no matter where I use it, for reasons beyond understanding. One other which gets confusing is "progressive," which is a philosophy but also describes a group of elected Democrats.

Strangely enough, the most recent entry in the political field seems easy, because even though they're not officially a party it just somehow seems right to capitalize "Tea Party" or "Tea Partier." Maybe it's the word "party" in there that causes this reaction, I'm not sure.

Anyway, in case you're wondering if this is building to some sort of rational conclusion, it's not. As I said, today's a busy day, so I just decided to indulge some grammatical musings and throw it out there to the commenters, if anyone's got any strong (or even mushy) opinions on any of these semantic quandaries. Tomorrow we'll get back to politics and polls, I promise.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


19 Comments on “Grammatical Interlude”

  1. [1] 
    Herm71 wrote:

    I hear you on "healthcare" vs. "health care." I do the same with "highschool," which, as the little red squigglies tell me, is incorrect; it's high school (however, I wonder if there's a such thing as a highschool industry?). Nevertheless, I always find myself hitting the backspace key after typing "highschool." The thing is, I would caution against substituting "health insurance reform" for health care reform. To this reader, they're completely different; health insurance reform would be a pale shadow of health care reform. Health insurance reform is what the Republicans could possibly be OK with. To this reader, omitting a public option and tinkering with insurance regulations a bit, while sill leaving significant numbers of Americans without health CARE could be called "health insurance reform." And that that's simply NOT the change I want to see.

  2. [2] 
    akadjian wrote:


    I'm not sure I can abide your stand on healthcare.

    Let me explain. I have spent many a night pondering the use "health care" vs. "healthcare".

    Our editors, too, can not seem to agree on the proper usage, nevermind the proper usage of "never mind" or "cannot."

    We have a "health care blog," "health care providers," "health care information," and "health care industries."

    Yet, we also offer "healthcare solutions," a "healthcare architecture," a "design zone for healthcare," and a "digital media system for healthcare."

    The only theme that is even close to consistent is that if we are referring to something outdated, they tend to use "health care". And if we're referring to something technical, which they want to sound sexxxier, they use "healthcare".

    But even this is not consistent. So in the spirit of making a decision, I said #@^#*& it, and always go with "healthcare" because healthcare seems like one thing to me.

    I feel it in my gut.

    (It is also probably part of my German heritage to combine words into a single gestaltundfreund .)

    So I'm not sure I can abide your Obama-like avoidance on this issue :). I urge you to take a stand! Are you for or against "healthcare"?

    I think your readers deserve an "up or down" vote!


  3. [3] 
    Moderate wrote:

    (Psst, you missed another reference to Lion's den in your piece here:

    All kidding aside, this was a big week for Obama, and a not-so-big week for Democrats in Congress. Obama followed up Wednesday night's speech with a town hall meeting in Florida, and then a truly stunning performance today, managing to "bell the cat" in the Republican lion's den. More on that in the Talking Points section, though.)

    *Ahem* Nothing to see here, nothing happened.

    Anyway...I use Lion's Den, don't know why, I suspect it has to do with the show called Dragon's Den over here. I've always called it Healthcare, but American commentators seem to have inconsistent usage.

    I've always used independent or libertarian or even tea party when talking about a set of ideals (guess it's ingrained from the idea of having a party called the Conservative party and trying to distinguish that from being a conservative in terms of ideology) and capitalise when talking about the movement, but even then I'm probably not as consistent as I should be.

    For me terms like progressive and populist are adjectives, so I always leave those in lower case, but I suspect that's because, unlike America, we don't have a group that refer to themselves as "Progressives". Then again, I think the whole terminology of "Progressive" is a bit offensive as it implies other ideologies are "regressive", which is definitely a pejorative word.

    (It's a bit like my pet peeve about the concept of Global Warming Deniers, as that seems to draw parallels with Holocaust Deniers who truly ARE evil).

    I also agree with Herm re: your proposed solution. I'm not actually opposed to Health Insurance Reform (as, from the stories I've heard, that's very much necessary in the US) but as a man who lives in a country with universal public healthcare I've seen a lot of the bad and very little of the good.

    (Difficulty finding a doctor who can see you when you need to be seen, long waits to get surgery when you need it, and medical incompetence that goes largely unpunished. My mum went to the hospital with a heart attack, was given too much morphine and ended up having a major stroke. GG NHS)

    I also second Akad's stance on healthcare being "one thing" (it feels that way to me too) and, incidentally, I've always used nevermind no matter what the grammar police tell me (my spellcheck always tells me it's never mind but it just doesn't feel right that way). I've actually always separated High School, so I never ran into the problem that Herm mentioned. Could be because my High School's initials were PMHS, which meant if you dropped the "High" it was PMS (Kids really are that childish). If it's Highschool you lose the joke.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Herm71 -

    I hadn't considered highschool, but I can live with it as a compound word, personally.

    I bring up HIR as opposed to HCR, mostly because the White House has been pushing it since last summer. I think they're pushing it for the very reason you cite -- to lower people's expectations. But I have to admit, my expectations for legislation right now are pretty low, so the HIR shoe (I must reluctantly admit) seems to fit pretty well now.

    Wait a minute... have I been manipulated? Hmmm...

    akadjian -

    My bugaboo is currently "in to" or "into." I use it both ways, depending on how I would stress the words in actual speech, personally, and hope nobody notices...

    Don't even bring up the Germans... their penchance for compound words borders on the obsessive (and I'm like 7/8ths German ancestry myself...).

    I still have problems typing healthcare, because my thumb wants to insert a space in there. I would be willing to live with either, as long as I can be consistent about it.

    Moderate -

    That was the instance where I goofed. But any post-publication editing has to be done in three places on Fridays (HuffPost, here, and DemocraticUnderground) and I changed it in two places and forgot to change it here! Whoops! Thanks, I took care of it now.

    Interesting take on the political labels. I started out only capitalizing Progressive and Populist when I was talking about the historical groups from around 100 years ago, who were in a similar situation as they are today -- "almost" parties, but not true political parties (in some places they were bona fide parties, but not really nationwide). But then I thought it was demeaning to today's groups, so I started capitalizing Populist more often. But for some reason I am reluctant to capitalize Progressive as much, unless talking about the Progressive Caucus. Could be inherent bias on my part, I dunno. I never capitalize "liberal" though, making it even more confusing.

    I've seen some problems with European healthcare (Irish), but on the whole I would have to say that it also has a lot going for it as well (like people not going bankrupt when they get sick, for instance). Nothing's perfect, we can certainly agree on that.

    We could probably churn up a bunch of space here talking about the differences between British and American spelling as well, a favorite (favourite?) subject of mine, grammatically. Or the grammar differences. Such as -- in Britain, you are "in hospital" (or you go "to hospital") as in "my brother broke his leg he went in hospital" whereas here it is always "the hospital" as in "he went in the hospital" (or even "into the hospital"... "in to the hospital"?... now I'm getting confused). But the article is always used with the noun.

    My favorite thing that Brits say that Yanks think is funny, just because it "sounds wrong" to us is saying "drink driving" instead of "drunk driving." It's just the wrong tense, somehow, to American ears. Or the "drugs problem" instead of the "drug problem." I will quite childishly end on yet another phrase Americans find amusing, which you hear so often you don't even notice it over there (since it sums up what I'm saying here -- the gap between Brit and American usage):

    "Mind... the gap."




  5. [5] 
    Moderate wrote:

    Thanks for that Chris. I'm now obsessing over trying to figure out if I say "the hospital" or "hospital". It's going to drive me barmy all afternoon now.

    (Incidentally, it'd be "my brother broke his leg and went to hospital", or else "my brother broke his leg and was in hospital for a week")

    I've noticed certain words creep in from American TV, such as pronouncing the word schedule like Americans do (though I've never said route the same way - that just feels wrong somehow. Sort of like saying 'erb for herb).

    Oh, by the way, I think drink driving derives from the fact it used to be called "drinking and driving" and we shortened it. Sort of like how we say maths not math (which I still maintain is the right way to say it). Under the legislation it's called "Driving, or being in charge, when under influence of drink or drugs."

    Drugs problem depends on context, if you want to say your friend had a drug problem you drop the s, but we tend to refer to the wider problem of drugs as the "drugs problem". Makes sense to me, because calling it the drug problem would be like calling the "War Against Drugs" the "War Against Drug".

    Why is it that "mind the gap" is so funny to Americans? When in a low-ceiling place we often say "mind your head", or with a step we say "mind the step".

    How do Americans say it?

    As to the healthcare argument, there are definitely some positives to a public element to healthcare, and I'm actually in favour of us retaining some element of public healthcare here, but I like the idea that's currently in vogue here, the idea of private-pubic partnerships (PPP). Healthcare is certainly too important to fully trust private (for-profit, no less) entities with it entirely, but just like Big Pharma, for all its questionable ethics, provides a lot of money to medical research that's needed, it's important to keep some private for-profit entities around so they can keep bankrolling innovation and teaching hospitals.

    Of course if they're not re-investing enough (that's a subjective point) then we just tax them more and ensure that we earmark that money for medical research grants, but if we get rid of the profits altogether, what do we tax?

  6. [6] 
    Herm71 wrote:

    @Moderate - I think an American would say "watch the gap," or "watch your head;" unless we're talking about manners -- those we "mind." However, my family has retained a few British idioms. My Dad and Grandfather say "mind" your head and "bloody" fill-in-the-blank all the time.

    @CW - a passage I came across just last night in the book I'm reading, Neal Stephenson's "System of the World" (Vol. 3 of the Baroque Cycle):

    "To cross the Atlantic in winter and enter into the Lion's Den is a Herculean labor."

    ...for what it's worth. ;-)

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Herm71 and Moderate -

    Came across this old column from three years ago while looking for the Obama/Reagan column. It's interesting, because Bush did the same trek that Obama just did, except he decreed "no press" which is what made the Obama thing so unique, I guess.

    Anyway, it saved me from doing another search, because it also addresses the Question Time thing, meaning both of you may want to check it out.

    But, to my chagrin, I also said:

    Bush not only went into the Democratic lion's den (so to speak)

    Sigh. This editing stuff is harder than it looks...


  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Moderate -

    Herm's right. We use "watch" instead of "mind." Except in regards to manners (which we "mind") and children (more of a literal thing).

    Our announcements in the subway (read "tube") would probably say: "Watch your step when entering train."

    I don't know why "mind the gap" sounds so funny, it just does.


  9. [9] 
    Moderate wrote:

    I think it's probably because it sounds dirty Chris ;-)

    Yeah, now I think about it, some of us have started saying "watch your step", though I suspect that's probably come into our lexicon from America. US TV has a huge influence on our language these days that many people seem to speak and write in ways that are more American than English.

    I remember having to learn to write in "American" for my bar exam (I sat the New York bar exam back when I was 22). God that was a nightmare, it's so instinctual to write"favour" that many times I had to cross it out and write it again to ensure it read "favor". We were told that, despite it being correct in England, the NY Bar Examiners (well, actually, all US Bar Examiners) deem it to be misspelling and take marks off (which, I guess, is fair...when in Rome and all that).

    Heh, Herm, I say bloody all the time. Certain words are just treated so much differently here, like the c-word that I shan't repeat here (as it's considered very shocking and misogynistic in the US) which we use casually, or "fanny", which means something very different on this side of the pond.

    Equally I've heard that "knock me up" means "wake me up" up north, though I admit I've always used it the way Americans do. "Fag" is generally not used as a homophobic slur here, but rather to refer to cigarettes (I actually call it a "fag" all the time; whenever I tel someone I'm going for a smoke I say "I'm going for a fag"). Two nations separated by a common language and all that.

  10. [10] 
    Moderate wrote:

    PS RE Prime Minister's Question Time, I actually love all the kindergarten stuff in the background. It's part of the fun. I actually think it's intended, part of the tradition of PMQs from way back when the monarchy actually meant something. They also say "hear hear" when he says stuff they like (usually his own party), so it's not always disapproval you hear.

    (But, to be fair, the disapproval is always louder. It's great fun.)

    I also love the term "my right honourable friend", because it's usually said in a tone that suggests that they a) aren't friends and b) don't think each other to be all that honourable. Besides, honourable politician is an oxymoron.

    By the way often the MP's questions comes directly from constituents who've written letters to them. So many times we, the electorate, get to ask the PM questions, which I'm sure many of you would like to do with the President.

    It brings greater transparency and accountability and it's more democratic.

  11. [11] 
    Moderate wrote:

    (Ooh, a hat-trick of comments)

    Just a quick point. Whilst I totally understand WHY Democrats (it's OK to use it as a noun!) hate the term "Democrat" as an adjective, I hope it's also clear why calling it the "Democratic Party" (as it rightly is) is also difficult (though I'm with Buckley on this, just the fact that it's hard to explain doesn't justify the slur)

    Let's be honest, few Americans (outside of intellectual circles) know their US history. I wonder how many non-intellectuals know that the Democrats and Republicans used to be one party (Democratic-Republican) that incidentally preferred to call themselves Republicans (sorry, couldn't resist the dig) and only referred to themselves as Democrats occasionally.

    The thing is, back at the time of American independence, "Republican" had positive connotations, whereas "Democratic" only had negative ones (it was associated with the revolutionary movements in Europe, whereas Republic just signified a lack of a monarch). These days "democracy" is a much more positive word, and the problem with calling the Democratic Party that name is that it implies that the other party is undemocratic (a bad thing).

    I'd have no problem with Democrats returning "the favour" if that's the only way to solve the issue. Republic Party would only imply that Democrats are "unrepublican", something I doubt you'd be offended by, whereas whenever one refers to the "Democratic Party" it implies the other party is illegitimate.

    It would be very different if the average American knew their history, and I'd much prefer that (for starters if people knew that the Republican Party split from the Democrats because of their opposition to slavery, there might not be the same idea that the Republican Party is racist and pro-segregation).

    Especially when Democrats like LBJ were once pro-segregation too ;-). Both parties have some negative stuff in their history when it comes to issues like slavery, but it seems like one party always gets the blame due to people not knowing their history (like most people know that Strom Thurmond died as a Republican, but how many know that his segregationist days were actually as a Democrat, and that as a Republican he moderated on race?)

  12. [12] 
    pray4sneaux wrote:

    Thank you for caring enough about the dying art of grammatical correctness, which is far more important than political correctness, IMHO. Why, because grammatical correctness led me to find you, silly man!

    Today I did a Google search of "teleprompter spelling" for an article I'm writing, "A month of compliments for Obama, from a conservative."

    Had you not written your astute explanation of the proper spelling of "TelePrompTer," I would never have found your cogent and amusing blog. You may be pleased to know that the Random House Dictionary agrees with you:


    Pronunciation: (tel'u-promp"tur), [key] Trademark.
    a brand name for an off-camera device that displays a magnified script so that it is visible to the performers or speakers on a television program.

    Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Copyright © 1997, by Random House, Inc., on Infoplease.

    And here's another present for you... me!

    Cheers from Conservative Kelly in Reno... I'd be HAPPY to tell you who will be replacing Reid in November, my new liberal friend! Just ask away...

  13. [13] 
    pray4sneaux wrote:

    Allow me an editorial correction to my previous post, purely a typo of course!

    "Why, because grammatical correctness led me to find you, silly man" should have read: "Why? Grammatical correctness led me to you, silly man."

    My mother, a Cal English major, would have whacked me for that offensive, incorrect, and obtuse sentence. My bad.

  14. [14] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    pray4sneaux -

    Well, hello there! Welcome to the site. Good to know old columns live forever in the world of Google, as it were.

    For some reason I've been attracting some conservative readers and commenters this week, which I don't understand since I don't think I've been leaning right of late or anything. But here all (who remain polite) are welcome, and all points of view are valid and acceptible.

    I don't know why TelePrompTer is such a bugaboo of mine, probably because it's more fun to type that way. I'm wondering (but haven't bothered to research) currently how to capitalize "astroturf" -- as "Astroturf" or "AstroTurf"? It, too, was (and probably still is) a trademark that has entered the political lexicon ("fake grassroots"), so I really should figure it out soon, as I refuse to use "astroturf" since I know that's wrong.

    I'm interested, since you're writing from a different perspective, when do you capitalize "conservative"? Or any of the other political labels which are more philosophies than actual parties? Just curious.

    In any case, welcome again to the site, and I will check out the link you posted. And a big hello to the Biggest Little City In The World, as well.



    PS. Who've you got slated to replace Reid? You've peaked my curiousity. Over here in LeftyLand, we're already handicapping who will replace him as Senate Leader among Democrats, truth be told.

  15. [15] 
    Moderate wrote:

    (I won't presume to speak for Kelly but for my part, here's why I think you're attracting conservative readership. Don't worry, it's a good thing!)

    It's because you write a very good blog. You're not insulting towards those you disagree with, which is unusual in the blogosphere today. The blog's also very well written and often very funny too. A sense of humour and respect towards the "other side" are two things usually missing in the political blogosphere.

    Oh, and it's definitely AstroTurf. And not to be a pedant, but it's piqued my curiosity not peaked. Shh...go change it quickly while no one's looking.

  16. [16] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Moderate -

    This whole COLUMN is pedantic, so relax, you're in good company.

    I just knew something was wrong with "peaked" when I wrote it... it just LOOKED wrong... but I was lazy and let it pass (I don't spell check my comments that often).

    At least I didn't spell it "peeked," I guess that's something...

    Thanks for the kind words, as well. I try to be respectful... well, at least in non-Friday columns (Fridays are more of a partisan free-for-all). Something that often gets lost in commetary is that the other side (mostly) truly believes that what they're doing is the right and reasonable thing to do. I think both sides forget this way too often.


  17. [17] 
    Moderate wrote:

    Definitely agree. I was reading a right-wing op-ed piece recently that said that the left views the right as evil people with bad intentions whereas the right see their adversaries as wrong, maybe even dangerous, but not "bad" people.

    it was a piece about the comparing of Global Warming "denial" (scepticism) to Holocaust Denial. Whilst I did note that he had a point, in that I think the left do like to throw out "Nazi" references (Reichswinger, for example), there is hardly an absence of similar rhetoric coming from the left [ed: he really means "right" here, see other comment] (Obama is anti-American, wants to destroy America, he's Muslim, he's a terrorist etc.)

    Comparing Global Warming scepticism to Holocaust Denial is evil. But then so is comparing Obama to Bin Laden simply because their first names have similarity. Does that mean anyone called Jeffrey or Charles is a serial killer?

    I think a lot of people fail to apply common sense. Why would an American, like Obama, want to destroy America? He wouldn't, of course. Would Global Warming sceptics be happy if their scepticism caused millions of deaths as the Holocaust did? Of course not. We hold the views we hold because we're passionate, because we think we have the ideas that will make our world a better place, not because we want to make things worse. Why would we?

    Yes, there are those who are entrenched in views because of self-interest, greed and so on, but actually I'd say most of those already occupy roles in the system, be they lobbyists, politicians or the news media. The ordinary people out here in the blogosphere are (mostly) genuine people who care.

  18. [18] 
    Moderate wrote:

    Bah. That was meant to read "similar rhetoric coming from the right" (second paragraph). I originally wrote "similar rhetoric towards the left" and realised that by using passive voice I'd mentioned the left wing twice in one sentence and the right wing precisely zero times. Thought it seemed partisan so went back and re-wrote it. But screwed up. And made it worse. Oops.

  19. [19] 
    Moderate wrote:

    If you're keen on the Question Time idea, check out this site:

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