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Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them [Paperback]

Bill Walsh
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 22 2000

No writer's or editor's desk is complete without a battered, page-bent copy of the AP Stylebook. However, this not-so-easy-to-use reference of journalistic style is often not up-to-date and leaves reporters and copyeditors unsatisfied. Bill Walsh, copy chief for the Washington Post's business desk, addresses these shortcomings in Lapsing into a Comma. In an opinionated, humorous, and yes, curmudgeonly way, he shows how to apply the basic rules to unique, modern grammar issues. Walsh explains how to deal with perplexing situations such as trendy words, foreign terms, and web speak.

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Who knew a stylebook could be so much fun? For lovers of language, Lapsing Into a Comma is a sensible and very funny guide to the technicalities of writing and copy editing. Author Bill Walsh, chief copy editor in the business section of the Washington Post, humorously discusses the changing rules of proper print style in the information age. Is it "e-mail" or "email"? According to established grammatical rules, it should be e-mail, but in common practice, we often use email (which should be pronounced "uhmail," but we all know not to do that). Therefore, email is OK.

Walsh does not advocate tossing your AP Stylebook, but he does encourage using your head and not blindly adhering to formal rules. "A finely tuned ear is at least as important as formal grammar," he says, "and that's not something you can acquire by memorizing a stylebook." What about companies that use punctuation in their logos? Walsh cautions against confusing a logo with a name. You wouldn't use "Tech Stock Surge Boosts Yahoo!" as a headline unless you wrote for a very excitable newspaper. And then there's arbitrary capitalization. "The dot-com era has leveled a wall that Adidas and K.D. Lang and Thirtysomething had already cracked," says Walsh, "and suddenly writers and editors faced with a name are asking, "Is that capitalized?"--a question that's about as appropriate as asking a 5-year-old, 'Do you want that Coke with or without rum?'"

The first half of Lapsing Into a Comma zips along, making you think about the intricacies of grammar and editing--all while trying not to choke on laughter. The second half is Walsh's personally crafted style guide. Remember--Roommate: Two m's, unless you ate a room or mated with a roo. --Dana Van Nest

From Library Journal

This style manual is meant to serve as a companion to the Associated Press style manual. And what Walsh, copy desk chief at Washington Post, adds to Style is styleDthe element that the ever precise and dry traditional manuals often lack. Walsh's acerbic tone adds humor to the dry distinctions between "there, their, and they're," which never hurts and may, in fact, contribute to permanent retention. Taking on the web's contributions to slang, such as the prefix "e-" before mail and business, Walsh strikes frequent compromises between traditional style and contemporary usage and concisely explains correct pronunciations and proper definitions of words frequently used incorrectly. A few of the examples of common incorrect usage apply primarily to news reportage, but most have broader application. Those who like curmudgeonly humor find Walsh's writing method rather amusing. A good title for public and college libraries, especially those with the AP style manual.DRobert Moore, Raytheon, Sudbury, MA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lapsing into Too Much Personality Feb. 28 2002
By A Customer
This book is worth the 15 bucks if only for the section on quotes--it really shows how to properly construct them. Many other grammar books discuss the things we find in this book, but this author often goes a step further in his explanations. He writes, 'Semi-colons are ugly.' This is good because now we've heard something no other grammarian thought to tell us. It should be pointed out, though, that for the beginning writer there are other more practical grammar books. 'Woe is I' is one; 'English Grammar for Dummies' is another. Still, this book is a must-have for the serious writer.
The book is also annoying for several reasons. This notion that funny makes things more learnable has gotten way out of control. I want to go back to this book time and again but cringe at reading the same joke over and over. I also find the author's relentless name-dropping distracting. How can I concentrate when he's always going on about Nicole and OJ, Muhammad Ali, Newt Gringrich, et al? Then there's the subtle humor he's wont to use to make a point that's often too subtle--you need an extra second or too to deduce the gag.
In sum, the author obviously has a lot to share with us but overdoes the personality thing. When I want hip, subtle, and scads of personality I'll watch 'Friends,' I don't want to see all this in my grammar books.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Just remember that this is the _author's_ opinion July 14 2004
"Lapsing Into a Comma" is perhaps the most interesting stylebook one will find in print today. Reader's just have to beware that this is the _author's_ stylebook.
You'll find the usual suspects here with clear explanations about how to handle them. Punctuation, grammar and spelling are all covered, from the use of commas to the proper spelling of some famous individuals. The latter is one example of how different this book is. Knowing the proper spelling of Nicolas Cage's name might be entertaining and useful to those working for a newspaper, but I'm not sure it makes for a better reference book.
Some of the "rules" presented here will invariably be treated arbitrarily by the public. Some rules we follow, others just don't sound correct when we speak them so we move on. And sometimes what we think we know is not true at all.
Three examples:
Walsh makes the grammatically correct point that sports teams (or rock bands) with singular names (e.g. The Who, The Orlando Magic, etc.) must be combined with singular verbs. He argues that this is subject-verb agreement. While that is true, people simply don't think this way. The Magic are a team full of individuals. (See, I just made the "mistake" in the previous sentence! I did it without thought.) People don't think of the Magic as a he. They think of the Magic as a them. Just like the Yankees. Walsh dismisses these concerns, but he's ultimately spitting into the wind. People don't talk or think in this manner, subject-verb agreement or no. Fifty years from now someone writing about grammar will lament the fact that no one follows this rule. Get over it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Useful and fun May 1 2004
Bill Walsh, the Washington Post's copy editor for national news, is an unabashed "prescriptivist" -- someone for whom, in writing, there are things that are wrong because they've always been wrong. "Even if you think it's arrogant to condemn a perfectly understandable bit of prose as 'wrong,'" he writes, "you have to answer one big question: Do you want to look stupid?"
With "The Elephants of Style" you'll reduce the chance of sounding stupid, increase the likelihood that your writing will have style -- or, as Walsh puts it, FLAIR! ELAN! PANACHE! -- and have a lot of fun. "The Elephants of Style" is the rare book about writing and style that you may (as I did) read from cover to cover for sheer pleasure -- like the pleasure of learning that "the New York train station is Grand Central Terminal," but "Grand Central Station remains the correct expression for mothers yelling at their kids about running in and out of the kitchen."
I'll admit it: I'm one of those lovers of English who has shelves full of books about writing and the use of our language. I regularly read Walsh's website "The Slot: A Spot for Copy Editors," and I also purchased his first book, "Lapsing Into a Comma," which also was a delight. "Lapsing" was aimed at an audience of more sophisticated word users or, as Walah says, was written for editors and writers. "Elephants of Style," he says, was written for writers and editors. It will benefit everyone, I say, from professional writers and editors to middle-school English students. I recommend it highly.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An engaging read March 7 2002
Bill Walsh is the copy desk chief (business desk) for the "Washington Post." He explains his background in journalism and refers, at times, to the AP style. Don't let this mislead you. Even though a few items are related directly to newspapers (like the section on headlines and captions), the wealth of information is helpful to anyone trying to better his or her writing.
With many grammar textbooks, the reader tries to understand correct grammar and punctuation with rules explained in a confusing manner. The reader will re-read the rule a few times just get the basic idea. In Walsh's book, I found the explanations clear, witty, and helpful. I found his explanations and examples help me in developing my ear for proper grammar.
In the latter half of the book, Walsh has a stylebook with many common errors in writing. Granted, some are so specific that I don't know if they would help me (like knowing that it is Elisabeth Shue and not Elizabeth Shue). Nonetheless, I feel stronger about my grammar skills after reading this book.
I would recommend this book to all people wishing to improve their grammar skills.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Lapsing Into a Comma : A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Thin
Whether you're editing your own writing or someone else's, you will find Lapsing Into a Comma an invaluable and entertaining resource. Read more
Published on May 28 2004 by B. Viberg
5.0 out of 5 stars The next Bill Safire?
Bill Walsh does a great service to the English language by building a potent barricade in the war against imprecision, obfuscation and outright misuse. Read more
Published on March 15 2004 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Even a grammar maven can learn something new
I thought I knew English grammar inside and out until my father-in-law got me this book. Not only have I learned many new things about grammar and good writing, but I've been... Read more
Published on Nov. 30 2003 by Robert G
2.0 out of 5 stars Moderately informative, modestly funny
Walsh makes many fine points about style in writing, particularly writing for a newspaper. But his smartypants humor wears thin very quickly. Read more
Published on Feb. 3 2003 by J Scott Morrison
5.0 out of 5 stars Not for the weak
'Lapsing Into a Comma' is one of the best grammar books on the market today. You can almost hear the sarcasm in his voice as he talks about people with annoying grammar habits! Read more
Published on Nov. 1 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read for copy editors. Money Well Spent.
I just ordered this book. I recently heard about it at the author's website and had to have it.
It was money well spent. Read more
Published on July 14 2002 by Scott Helm
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read
I've bought a lot of grammar books; generally, they help me get to sleep. Walsh had me laughing out loud at 2:00 a.m. - not with contrived examples, but with terrible truths. Read more
Published on May 30 2002 by Karen Bledsoe
5.0 out of 5 stars Grammar Fun
It's refreshing to see a style guide that doesn't take itself so seriously! Bill Walsh gives witty, clever, and most importantly, CLEAR guidance on how to communicate effectively. Read more
Published on Dec 26 2001 by "schmoopy13"
5.0 out of 5 stars Grammar Fun
How refreshing to see a style guide that doesn't take itself too seriously! Bill Walsh gives witty, entertaining, and, most imporantly, CLEAR guidance on effective communication. Read more
Published on Dec 26 2001
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