I don’t normally review books here, but for this one I’m making an exception. Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print–and How to Avoid Them is a delightful and insightful work that would fit nicely into any copy editor’s reference shelf. (You might have to turn it sideways, but still. It would fit.) Walsh is copy editor at the Washington Post; journalistic concerns are prevalent in his writing for good reason. If that’s off-putting to you, get over it. Just because you have no need for datelines in your writing doesn’t mean you can’t make use of his assertion that every good copy editor needs the sensibilities of a 13-year-old boy. (It’s in there. I swear. And he’s right.)
Just over half the book is taken up by “The Curmudgeon’s Stylebook.” I hesitate to call this the meat of the work, because honestly the whole book is packed with important stuff. This section, though, is an alphabetical listing from “a/an” to “yes, I have/yes, I do.” (If you don’t know why that last entry’s needed, I envy you. I really do.) Preceding this are chapters with particular focus: how to think while using a stylebook (it’s not blind obedience to “the rules”), how to use a dictionary (in which I found out I did know what I was doing, despite what some folks tried to tell me!), how to deal with Information-Age trends (including a wonderful rant about the United Nations), how to “say what you mean and mean what you say,” why “innumeracy” is a problem (why is the sentence “An average caseworker might handle up to 100 cases a month or more” meaningless?), how to deal with sensitive issues like race, sex/gender, and the ubiquitous “singular they,” and how to manage punctuation.
Also included are two chapters specific to journalistic style, on writing headlines and dealing with quoted material. For my money, those two are the least helpful pieces in the book. I don’t write headlines per se (I don’t count blog post titles as headlines, particularly), and I don’t use much directly or indirectly quoted material (as in, “Bill Walsh of the Washington Post admits that he’s never seen an entire episode of ‘Star Trek,’ but he still knows who Mr. Spock is”). YMMV, of course. (Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means. Get thee to the Urban Dictionary and look it up.)
All right. That’s what’s in the book. I would hope you can tell from my writing that Walsh is of the same mind as I on many things (especially that mind-of-a-13-year-old-boy concept), with the same “reverent irreverence” I tend toward. I had no idea of this before reading his book. It’s very heartening to me to find out I hold the same views as such a big fish as he. The need to think while using a stylebook is paramount to my work. To quote him: “A finely tuned ear is at least as important as formal grammar, and that’s not something you can acquire by memorizing a stylebook. But reading and thinking about a stylebook writer’s reasoning might help you develop that ear.”
I’m pretty sure my ear is under constant development, and I need to thank Bill Walsh for his contribution to that. To get your own copy, you can click the Amazon.com link below if you like.
Lapsing into a Comma, by Bill Walsh