Book Review: “Lapsing into a Comma”

By Mark Nichol

In 1995, when the Internet was still a relatively obscure phenomenon, a newspaper copy editor named Bill Walsh began sharing his knowledge and opinions about his craft on a website called The Slot. Five years later, Walsh transferred that lore to print with Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print — and How to Avoid Them. Writers — not just journalists — should be grateful for the creation of both resources.

Walsh is still curmudgeoning away at The Slot, and Lapsing into a Comma is still in print, and you’ll be a better writer (and/or editor) if you avail yourself of either, or both. Note, however, that The Associated Press Style Book is Walsh’s bible, so some of his recommendations will vary from those of an adherent of The Chicago Manual of Style, the premier guide for the US book-publishing industry (and many magazines as well). (That, for instance, is why the second word of his book’s title is not initial-capped here, as it is on and in the book itself.)

Lapsing into a Comma begins with a brisk condemnation of what Walsh calls the “search-and-replace school of copy editing [sic],” a slavish devotion to style at the expense of natural writing (for example, invariably revising passive writing), followed by a brief guide to using a dictionary to resolve issues of style (for example, start-up, or startup?) and a discussion of complications engendered by the ubiquity of the Internet (for example, why email is, according to Walsh, an abomination).

He then points out the importance of precision, whether in a reference to iced tea (not “ice tea”) or to a hospitalized infant no longer needing oxygen (how it that possible?), and touches on numeracy, the mathematical equivalent of literacy (for example, a rate falls one percentage point, not one percent). A chapter on sensitivity to race, gender, and sexuality includes an excellent argument for not using “African American” and black interchangeably.

The chapter “He Said, She Said” comprehensively covers how to format and attribute quotes (and includes a helpful sidebar that discourages grammar-tidying corrections of them). A brief discussion of headlines and captions will be useful not just to copy editors and newsletter editors but also to bloggers, and the chapter on punctuation is a must-read, period.

The second half of the book consists of a stylebook-within-a-book with standard entries such as the one about the distinction between assure, ensure, and insure, as well as less commonly discussed issues as why a hyphen belongs in “sport-utility vehicle.” The few entries about well-known people are outdated (when is the last time anyone wrote about Rosalynn Carter?), but I was amused to see an item clarifying that the Vulcan science officer on the original Star Trek series is not also an influential twentieth-century pediatrician; I’ve seen that apparently common (and timeless) error, too.

Be sure to visit The Slot, too. You’ll find much of the book’s content covered in the site’s section titled “Sharp Points,” but Walsh’s blog entries are also a trove of information and advice. (For site visitors interested in copyediting as a career, the page titled “What Exactly Is a Copy Editor?” provides a short list of helpful essays.)

The book includes what I think is the finest encapsulation of my profession I’ve ever read: “Copy editors are supposed to make sure writers are actually saying what they think they are saying.” It, and Walsh’s website (apologies to the author, who vehemently favors “Web site”), will help writers accomplish the same goal.

You can find the book on Amazon.com

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2 Responses to “Book Review: “Lapsing into a Comma””

  • Alice Kemp

    Do you mean to say that people actually confuse Mr. Spock with Dr. Spock? How bizarre! They don’t even look alike. (LOL)

  • thebluebird11

    @Alice: It’s all done with mirrors. Have you ever seen them together? And I hear Vulcan babies are very well behaved thanks to Mr.–I mean, Dr. Spock LOL

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