Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

What Does the AP Have Against France? Out Over Your Skis. Lands' End. Tolater.

Episode Summary

913. This week brought us a silly kerfuffle in which the AP may have insulted France. Plus, we investigate the origin of the phrase "out over your skis" and why the apostrophe seems wrong in the company name Lands' End.

Episode Notes

913. This week brought us a silly kerfuffle in which the AP may have insulted France. Plus, we investigate the origin of the phrase "out over your skis" and why the apostrophe seems wrong in the company name Lands' End.

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. Today, we’re going to talk about whether it’s dehumanizing to refer to people in France as “the French,” seriously, and then we’ll talk about the phrase “out over your skis” and the apostrophe in the company name Lands’ End.

What Does the AP Stylebook Have Against ‘the French’?

A listener on Mastodon asked what I think about the kerfuffle over the AP Stylebook suggesting that it might be dehumanizing to use the phrase “the French.” And if you missed the whole thing, 1) I’m actually very happy for you, and 2) here’s the background.

In its relatively new section on inclusive storytelling, the AP Stylebook says, "Don't use dehumanizing "the" terms such as ‘the homeless,’ ‘the blind’, ‘the mentally ill,’ ‘the poor,’ etc." 

Note that there is no mention of “the French.”

And here’s a short part of what the Stylebook says about inclusive storytelling. It’s about “the stories we choose to convey; the sources we talk with; the images we select; the framing, approach and specific words we use; the details we include or don't include — and the understanding that all of those various parts of a story can be seen and interpreted very differently, depending on a person's background and experiences.” 

The way I think about their published advice not to use phrases such as “the homeless” and “the blind” is that those phrases can sound othering —like “none of you are homeless, but those homeless people, who aren’t you, do something we’re talking about”— and those phrases can also result in overgeneralizations, which is something I’ve become a lot more aware of in my own writing over the years. 

For example, I don’t recall ever writing about homeless people or poor people, but I do write about British English and American English all the time. And for the last few years, when I update old articles, I often change wording from something like "'Learnt' (with a T) is the British spelling," to something like "The 'learnt' (with a T) spelling is more common in Britain," because to say that everyone who uses British English spells it that way would be an overgeneralization, and it’s just not true. It’s just more common in Britain.

So when you are saying “the homeless” or “the mentally ill” do something or believe something, you’re saying everyone who is homeless or mentally ill does something or believes something, which is almost certainly not true because no group is that homogenous. When you find yourself using those phrases, it’s a great time to check your wording. For example, instead of writing something like, “The poor buy cake mix because it provides a good calorie-per-dollar value,” you might write something like “Some people with an income below the poverty line have described consciously buying cake mix because it gives them a lot of calories per dollar.”

And it’s also important to consider the context because this kind of phrase can be a lot more dehumanizing in some instances than others. Patty Boyd, owner of Steel Pencil Editorial, who I was chatting with about this online, pointed out that the objection is primarily when what follows is an adjective turned into a noun—that labels such as “the disabled,” “the blind,” “the poor,” “the intuitive,” and “the hardworking” are different from simple nouns such as “the baristas,” “the farmworkers,” and “the editors.”  She wrote, “Compare ‘Some of the disabled have made great strides in blah blah blah,’ and ‘Some of the disabled people at Chi-Chi's couldn't use the downstairs bathroom.’ [Emphasis added.] So even though ‘the’ is used in both, one uses ‘disabled’ as a dehumanizing lump, but the second one is an adjective descriptor before the word ‘people.” And she also thought it would be even better to write something like "Some of the people who use wheelchairs couldn't use the downstairs bathroom at Chi-Chi’s.” 

OK, so what does this have to do with the French? Well, a tweet the AP Stylebook posted had a few more examples than the Stylebook itself. It read, “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated. Instead, use wording such as people with mental illnesses. And use these descriptions only when clearly relevant.” [Emphasis added.]

Well, the tweet went viral, and they were widely mocked. For example, according to a BBC article, the French embassy jokingly and briefly changed its name to the Embassy of Frenchness in the United States, and political scientist Ian Bremmer suggested "people experiencing Frenchness" as an alternative.

The AP deleted the tweet and Lauren Easton, the vice president of AP corporate communications, told the newspaper Le Monde: "The reference to 'the French' as well as the reference to 'the college educated' is an effort to show that labels shouldn't be used for anyone, whether they are traditionally or stereotypically viewed as positive, negative or neutral."

It feels like they may have gotten out a little over their skis on the tweet, as my dad would say, but I do see the point they were trying to make. And remember they said the labels are “often” dehumanizing, not that every example they gave was dehumanizing. 

I probably wouldn’t notice a problem with something like “The French voted in their national election last week,” but I thought a follower on Mastodon named David States made a lot of sense when he wrote, "I can see an argument for discouraging use of the Chinese, not because it is de-humanizing, but because it is ambiguous. Are you referring to the Chinese people or the Chinese government? That is often a distinction of considerable consequence." And I’m sure it would matter in some instances when you are talking about the French, or the Americans, or the Australians, and so on, which I think means it’s generally better to avoid such terms. And that’s what the AP said in the tweet: “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing” labels.” [Emphasis added.]

The whole thing was kind of silly and blown out of proportion, but people got some admittedly good jokes out of it. And the bottom line is that the way we refer to people matters. As the AP Stylebook says, “Is a person an addict, or a person with a drug dependency? Is the woman elderly, or a 70-year-old marathon runner?” I think it’s wise advice to think about the ways we refer to people and the loaded meanings that some of those words and phrases can carry.

And as an aside, if you sign up for my email newsletter at, I’ll have a completely unrelated book recommendation for you about an interesting French chef that came up while I was researching the anecdote about cake mix. 

What Does ‘Out Over Your Skis’ Mean?

I used the phrase “out over their skis,” which is something my dad says, and means something like “getting ahead of yourself,” “overextending yourself,” or “stretching a little too far,” and then I started wondering where it comes from.

Noreen Malone writing for New York Magazine way back in 2012, said the first instance she could find of the phrase was from 1991, and it seemed to come from the finance world (which makes sense to me because my dad worked peripherally in finance). She also said she found it widely in the sports world—talking about players in all kinds of sports, not just skiing.

As more of a low-level skier myself though, my trouble is usually not leaning forward too far. I fall when I’m leaning back too far, or not out over my skis. So the phrase seems odd to me. 

I looked on a skiing forum and found much the same sentiment about the phrase not making a lot of sense, although one or two comments mentioned that it could relate to ski jumping instead of just regular downhill skiing. 

More recently, the only examples in the Corpus of Contemporary English Usage database of the phrase “over his skis” or “over their skis” are from 2017, 2018, and 2019 and seem to all be from stories about politics. 

But I was still able to find examples from finance and sports in news stories. For example, in December of 2022, Allison Morrow wrote in a CNN Business story about Sam Bankman-Fried: “In the four weeks since FTX filed for bankruptcy, Bankman-Fried has sought to cast himself as a somewhat hapless chief executive who got out over his skis, denying accusations that he defrauded FTX’s customers.”

And in October 2022 on the site NESN, Dakota Randall wrote about Brenden Schooler getting “a bit out over his skis” during an awkward moment when he tried to hand the game ball to New England head coach Bill Belichick, who wasn’t interested.

So it seems like the phrase “out over your skis” originated in the 1990s among finance types—maybe as a reference to actual skiing or ski jumping—and people liked it and kept using it, mainly in stories about finance, politics, and sports.

Land’s End Apostrophe

After the show a couple of weeks ago about the apostrophes in Carl’s Jr. and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Lance on LinkedIn asked me about the company Lands’ End that writes its name as the plural possessive (“Lands” End, L-A-N-D-S plus an apostrophe), and it turns out to be kind of a funny story. 

According to the company’s “Our History” page and an old 2012 company blog post, the owner, Gary Comer, was an avid sailor, and the company got started selling sailboat equipment and a bit of clothing like raincoats and sweaters. It’s named after the real Land’s End (singular possessive), a headland in Cornwall, England, an area of rocky cliffs that juts out into the water and is a popular tourist and climbing destination. According to a Wall Street Journal article, the name was meant to reflect the ruggedness of the company’s early clothing. 

Regarding the misplaced apostrophe, the company says,  "A lot of people ask why the apostrophe in Lands' End is in the wrong place. The truth is, it was a mistake. It was a typo in our first printed piece, and we couldn't afford to reprint and correct it."

“The misplaced apostrophe continues to grace our name and our label. In fact, we still receive comments from new fans who are kind enough to point out our error. We don't mind repeating the story. It gives us a chance to remember our roots.”

I think it’s pretty great that they just admit the error and own it, going so far as to retell the story on their website years later. Sometimes you hear stories about typos costing companies a lot of money because they have to reprint things, but this one is a little different. It was such a young company they couldn’t afford to reprint it, so they just went with it and made it a somewhat endearing part of their story.

Thanks for the question. 

Before we get to the new familect story this week, I have another follow up about the “hockey” story. Here’s Carl:

"Good morning, Ms. Grammar Girl. This is Carl Webster calling from Telehoma, Tennessee. I'm calling about the familect you had about the hockey being used for excrement. I meant Air Force brat. So I've been all over the South, and I have grown up my entire life—I'm 66—and I have always heard ‘hockey’ used in that way. For example, someone says something and you would say, ‘That’s a bunch of bull hockey!’ Or someone would say something else and you go, ‘Horse hockey!’ So I have grown up my entire life in the South Let’s see, I've lived in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, and Mississippi. Heard it my entire life. Thank you very much. I've been listening to your podcast since November 2008. So they go back a long way, and I have enjoyed all your podcasts. Thank you very much you have a good day, Grammar Girl.”

Thanks for being such a long-time listener Carl, and thanks for the story. I also especially appreciated your nice clear audio!

And here is a new, cute familect story, and a question maybe you can help with.

"Hi, Grammar Girl. I had a question about language when referring to my children because I have five children, and I have three with my ex-wife, and I have one with my current girlfriend, and I have an adopted child who's an adult. And I'm wondering when I refer to my kids, if there's language that would help delineate which kids I'm talking about. For instance, I pick up three of my kids on Wednesday, and to just say’ I get all my kids on Wednesday,’ kind of implies that my adult child isn't counted with that. Or if I say I pick up my kids tomorrow, that kind of implies that I don't have a child that I live with full time. So I was just wondering if there's any old-timey … any kind of language devices to help declare which child I'm talking about that I might not be aware of. And I also wanted to share a quick familect story from my nephew. Twenty years ago, when he was a toddler, he used to say ‘I'll see you to later’ because that's like ‘tomorrow.’ ‘Today, ‘to later,’ Thanks Grammar Girl. I'll see you to later. Bye."

So first, thank you for the cute familect story. I love that and it makes so much sense. Regarding your question about what to call your different children, I can’t think of anything except to say that you’re picking up “some” of your children. I mean, you could say something complicated like “I’m picking up my children that I have with my ex-wife” or “who live with my ex-wife,” or maybe “my three middle children,” but I’m not aware of any old-time word you could use to describe them all. And I feel like most people probably don’t need all the details either, so something like “I’m picking up some of my children this weekend,” is good enough and also doesn’t run the risk of making any of the children feel like they are lesser than the other children in some way. But if anyone knows about old words I’m not aware of, please feel free to let us know.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL, and I might play it on the show. Be sure to tell me the story behind your word and call from a quiet place.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my editor, Adam Cecil, and my audio engineer Nathan Semes. Our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, our intern is Kamryn Lacy, and ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, who has 45 first cousins—her mom is one of ten and her dad is one of seven kids. And I have to say, that’s so fabulous. My mom was one of nine, and I loved growing up with so many cousins. So yay for cousins!

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.