A Summer Grammatical Interlude

[ Posted Thursday, August 26th, 2021 – 17:06 UTC ]

[Program Note: This column was prepared in advance, because I had prior commitments today which prevented me from writing a fresh column. I realize that it is a grim day for America with the news out of Kabul, so I would like to apologize in advance for running one of my frivolous "Silly Season" columns today. But it was this or nothing, so I decided to just add this disclaimer and go ahead and run it anyway. Fair warning: if you are looking for Afghanistan commentary today, please look elsewhere, as you won't find it here.]


Today we are going to set aside politics and Washington and all the rest of what I normally write about and instead do some pedantic navel-gazing. Yes, it is the dog days of summer, the tail end of the Silly Season, and so I felt it was time to do a column on grammar and style preferences.

I've done these columns through the years whenever the mood strikes me, which happened at least once a year for a while but has ebbed a bit since then. The first one I ever wrote wasn't even a full column, just a little rant at the beginning of a Friday Talking Points column from 2009, where I insisted I would always use the correct spelling of the brand name TelePrompTer, even if I became the last editor on Earth to do so. Hmmph! So there!

Subsequent columns dealt with weighty pedantic editorial issues such as the correct apostrophization of: "lions' den," the compoundization of: "healthcare," and the touchy question of capitalize-versus-don't-capitalize for political groups such as Independents, Libertarians, and Tea Partiers. Or a column on the trend of adding "-mageddon" or "-pocalypse" to everything, which tangentially ended up taking a strong stand for "brinksmanship" (instead of using only one "s").

Sometimes these columns are written in frustration at the widespread acceptance of erroneous grammar, such as when I ranted about "winner take all" (that verb needs to be singular, dammit!). Once I devoted an entire column to all-but-forgotten English accent marks, for National Punctuation Day.

But since 2013 I can only find two truly pedantic articles in the archives, one written in 2015 wondering what to call supporters of Donald Trump (which was inconclusive, we suppose these days they're known mostly as "MAGA-hats") and then one from 2019 trying to use proper Silicon Valley technological rules for "1.1" as opposed to "2.0" -- which I have to say was spectacularly unsuccessful with the world at large (nobody took my suggestion, in other words).

In any case, today we have three grammatical issues to discuss. As always these discussions are more about the editorial board's style guide than they are about actual grammar. Which is why we just shifted to using the editorial "we" there, which we usually only do (lightheartedly) on Fridays.

First we have a very recent dilemma, since it arose only yesterday. Is "the Taliban" singular or plural? Is the proper usage: "the Taliban is...", or: "the Taliban are..."? A valid case can be made either way -- for instance, you would properly say: "the Irish are..." not: "the Irish is...." (Although, now that we think about it, in one specific case this would be right, if you were having a discussion on relative brands of whiskey, you would be right in saying: "The Irish is better than the bourbon." But then you'd also have to get into why Bourbon isn't capitalized, and if you started talking about Scotch then you'd not only have to delve into the Scottish/Scotch thing but also the "whisky/whiskey" standoff, as well. But we digress....)

Ahem. Where were we?

Oh, right. So while "the Irish are..." is correct, other collective nouns are sometimes used singularly. Two relevant examples are: "Al Qaeda is...", and: "ISIS is..." -- both of which are always spoken of singularly. That's a strong argument for saying: "The Taliban is in control of Afghanistan," and not using "are," but when yesterday's column was composed, it just sounded better somehow to use the plural throughout. When we think of the Taliban, we think of a group, not a single identity. We're not sure why that should be different when contrasted with thinking about Al Qaeda or ISIS, but it somehow seems to be.

This one we think we're going to have to ponder some more. We'll keep a close eye on newspaper writing (we've seen it both ways, so far) and as always we are interested in what our own readers have to say on the subject as well. For the editorial board, the jury's still out on this one.

The second issue is more specific, but we've already made up our minds on it, at least. The name of the virus which caused the worldwide pandemic is an acronym. Pedantically, it should really be written CoViD-19. This stands for: "Corona Virus Disease of 2019." However, as with most acronyms that sneak extra letters in (to be pronounceable), this was initially (sorry, little pun there...) all capitalized: COVID-19. This is the way we have been using it in these pages.

But since then, some editorial boards seem to have decided that it's too tough on the eyes to see all those capital letters (or something, we admit we do not have any clue what they were actually thinking...). So it has morphed into either: "Covid" or just the common: "covid." The numeric hyphenation is usually dropped, as well.

We have to come down on the traditionalist side of this one. We do understand that, over time, some acronyms somehow lose their proper status and are reduced to lowly common nouns. Thus we speak of "radar" and "lasers" and "scuba." All are properly acronyms, but are never capitalized anymore. But this isn't a generic term in any sense. This is a very specific disease (more correctly known as: "2019, SARS-CoV-2", in actuality), and not something like "the flu." It is not some class of diseases, but a very specific virus. So we will continue to use COVID-19 until (hopefully) the disease is eradicated worldwide and the only references we'll ever make will be historical ("Back when COVID-19 ravaged the planet...").

And our third pedantic grammar/editorial conundrum we have to admit we really should have worked out by now. Unfortunately, we seem to waver between one form and another, sometimes sticking to one method and sometimes using the other. Should ordinal letters be included in formal (well, "blog") writing or not, when citing dates? Previously, the one date seared into everyone's mind wound up being referred to solely numerically (likely due to the similarity to the emergency phone number): "9/11". However, now we are going to spend an inordinate (little pedantic joke there, sorry...) amount of time discussing the events of the sixth of January. So should we speak of: "the January 6 committee," or instead use: "the January 6th committee"? We already feel that "the January Sixth committee" is too much, and likewise "the 1/6 committee" hasn't seemed to catch on with anyone.

It's not just that particular date, of course; dates are referenced all the time in the writing we do here. And, like we said, we find we have wavered over the years from a hard-and-fast rule that no ordinal letters are required -- that readers can mentally fill it in themselves -- to using the ordinal "6th" because it looks better, somehow (especially, for some odd reason, when ending a sentence: "...which happened on January 6." doesn't feel as right as: "...which happened on January 6th.").

We would like to settle the issue once and for all (or maybe "for better or for worse" is closer). And when digging through all those previous links, we found one bit that was particularly persuasive, in our Punctuation Paean:

Now, my own editorial standards are always subject to correction, when I realize I've been misusing punctuation unknowingly. The most recent of these revelations dealt with proper names' possessive nature. I had thought that names ending in "s" or "z" only required a trailing apostrophe to indicate possessiveness. I was wrong. My style guide (which, in my own defense, I've only had for a fraction of the time I've been blogging) tells me that this is incorrect, and that this website should be referred to as Chris's blog (and not Chris' blog). When pronouncing the term, a second "s" sound is used, and needs to be present in the spelling. If there are multiple folks with the same name, they are properly Chrises, and if we collaborated on writing, then it would properly be Chrises' blog. The trailing "z" is treated the same, leading us to routinely ridicule Ted Cruz's buffoonery.

Sadly, that was written eight years ago and we are still having to ridicule Ted Cruz's buffoonery on a regular basis. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, we suppose.

But the reasoning seems sound. The written version should reflect (as accurately as possible) how the words would sound when read aloud. Thus the extra "s" is proper. Following this rule of thumb, we have to conclude that "January 6th" is really the proper way to write it. When you read a number, there is always the question of reading it "six" or "sixth," therefore when using it in a date, it should always reflect the common American usage of saying "sixth" (in other English-speaking parts of the world, ordinals are not so common for dates, they would actually say: "the events of January six," but we have to point out that we are not actually in other parts of the world, so we have to discount this).

Thus, henceforth ordinals will become ordinary here. Dates will have a few extra little letters after the numeral, to signify how we "hear" them when we write them. So mote it be.

Standards continually adapt and change, of course. We end with a prime example. Our own standards change when influenced by other editorial ponderings on such issues, and a while back we read a piece written by (we could be wrong, we are doing this from memory and are too lazy to look it up and provide a link, sorry) a former copy editor from The New Yorker -- which we have always seen as the gold standard of pedantic style guides. She made an excellent case for the continuation of the old-school usage of doubling consonants when adding suffixes -- "travelling," in other words, not "traveling." So, much to the consternation of our spell-checking software, we've been doing that for a while (although there are exceptions... for some reason, we just cannot write "focussing," because it just looks wrong, somehow).

So using the personal style guide we now use, that previous excerpt has an error. Instead of saying "Chrises" to denote plural... um... us, we instead would edit it differently and use "Chrisses" instead (to denote usses!).

Such is the evolution of the style guide. Always striving to be better, that's our motto! (Which, of course, can also be read as a snide rejection of Melania Trump's cringeworthy "Be best" idiocy, just for fun.)

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


19 Comments on “A Summer Grammatical Interlude”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    My votes,

    1- Although we commonly say
    al-Queda is and ISIS is I prefer the plural the Taliban are.

    2- I prefer Covid without the all-caps (which are hard on my eyes) and without the "-19." If one writes Covid everybody know what you're referring to.

    3- I prefer "January 6th."

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'm gonna go with Whisky a Go Go. :)

    Say, we need to do that again, some Sunday night ...

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    As for singular versus plural, I always use whichever one sounds right. Heh.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    The WHO uses COVID-19.

    I always thought that stood for Corona Virus Infectious Disease of 2019.

    I'm going with the WHO acronym, naturally.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    CAPITAL letters are easier to see. How can they possibly be hard on your eyes!??

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I favour the '6 January Committee'. Just because ...

  7. [7] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Language and it's evolution is fascinating to me. While I'm a fan of intellectual
    discourse, I also love slang and use words like cool, gnarly and bitchin' mixed in with more modern expressions.

  8. [8] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    All caps are a way of expressing emphasis on one word or thing but otherwise all caps expresses SHOUTING. I don't like shouting unless it's me who's doing the shouting, that's all.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That's not always true.

    Some people, in my experience, use all caps when they comment because it's easier for them to read what they right.

    It can be a dangerous business to make assumptions like CAPS always equating with shouting.

  10. [10] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    1. One of the differences between BrEng and AmEng is that BrEng tends to treat group nouns as plurals--the committee are--where AmEng tends to treat them as singular--the committee is. This is mostly just convention, but sometimes changing from one to the other reflects thinking of a group as a unit or as the individuals composing it.
    2.In blocks of type, all caps are actually harder to read, especially for people with eyesight problems or dyslexia, because there is less space between the lines and because there is less variation in the shapes. People used them when typewriters were the only option outside printing presses and with early IT devices, but bold and italics are much better options. That's before we get to the 'shouting' issue.
    I won't quarrel with those who prefer COVID, however, just as the names of some products are meant to be in caps.
    3. In a substantial part of the world, dates are written day-month-year, so it's 6 or 6th January, as Elizabeth says. In the UK that's spoken as '6th January' as often as 'the 6th of January'. What annoys me as a newsletter editor is inconsistency within the same short article.

  11. [11] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    And space between paragraphs makes blocks of type easier to read, too, as the above demonstrates. I couldn't remember whether WordPress automatically adds space or not and guessed wrong. Sorry.

  12. [12] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    It is not often I hop on the grammar wagon.

    Most everyone so far has bits and pieces correct ( the author included).

    COVID-19 is the correct way to use the acronym when used in toto or to communicate specific information as it relates to the specific disease. Covid and covid are acceptable when used in the case of passing discussion without the 19. I.E. What existing covid screening practices does your program have in place for the safe packaging of food?"... or at least that is how it has evolved, after all it is not everyday that we get a new acronym.

    To some extent, I think that the hybridization of how acronyms are used is how well it lends itself to the being understood in proper conversation. Everyone understands that I had to do three scuba dives below 60 ft for my SCUBA certification. Conversely SWAG will always be SWAG ( Scientific Wild Ass Guess)as swag can be used as a term for draperies or pirates treasure and given that I have never had anyone ask "whats your swag for the fuel burn rate on that gen set?" it is always SWAG, at least in that context.

    As to taxonomy of COVID-19, it is important to remember that virus causes diseases.

    The most basic definition of disease is "a particular abnormal condition, a disorder of a structure or function, that affects part or all of an organism". Many dictionaries try to tie it to sickness and illness but most of the current medical system trends towards the most basic definition.

    In this case a problem was discovered that was initially called the "2019 Novel Coronavirus", as data came in and the causal item of the abnormal condition was identified as the "severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2" other wise known as SARS-CoV-2.

    You discuss diseases to repair the abnormal condition, you discuss viruses to eliminate the causation of the abnormal condition.

    As a disease has already been named SARS a new disease name had to be formulated to avoid multiple issues the most principal being disease confusion and fear( especially in Asia), thus coronavirus disease was named, otherwise known as COVID-19.

    I could dive further down the taxonomy hole but I think I have it spot on.

    Ok that's enough. I could go off the rails on the grammar train...

  13. [13] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    Damnit I hate the preview function. It betrays sometimes...

    Coronavirus Disease ...

    There that's better.

  14. [14] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    One last thought.

    With the GOP ramping up on the outrage front, would it be fair to coin the term that "the withdrawal will be the GOP's next "Afghanazi"?

  15. [15] 
    andygaus wrote:

    Chris, you need to take back your rant about "winner take all" and apologize. "Winner take all" is perfectly correct. It's a rare instance of an English subjunctive. It means "Let the winner take all." It's like "public be damned" or "God bless America."

  16. [16] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    "We will hunt you down and make you pay!"

    Does that have the same kind of meaning as "We will evacuate you."?

    I'm just sayin' ...

  17. [17] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    ...because it's easier for them to read what they right.

    In your case, I'll grant permission to use all caps in advance.

  18. [18] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Ain't naming any names, but some people use all caps for single words or short phrases because they are not sufficiently computer savvy (too dumb) to know how to italicize.

  19. [19] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    FUI CW the underline function displays correctly in the Preview, but doesn't post any underlining ever.

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