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on 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.
While Walsh is annoyed by this example, he also states that the current oral tradition of using plural (they, them) instead of singular pronouns (he, she) might trump the grammatical rule. And he's OK with that. I happen to agree with him, but it only weakens his earlier point. If the oral tradition creates the rule in this case then why doesn't it in another?
Then there's at least one example where Walsh is just clearly wrong and, ironically, injects his own political views while accusing others of doing the same. Under the term gender Walsh claims that it came about as a result of the word "sex" being viewed as specific to the sexual act. He gives the example "race and sex preferences" and then says that _he_ thinks "sexual preferences" when he hears this term. Funny, I never thought of that until I read his words! But that's not the most important point.
Walsh criticizes those who would "politicize" the word gender by making it refer to behavior. His example goes something like this: Johnny likes to wear dresses so he's of the female gender. The problem is that the word gender came from the fields of sociology and psychology long before it was in common use today. The very roots of this word are _specific_ to behavior. There are no politics about it. In 1990 when you said the word gender you were talking about behavior, no genitalia. Walsh, who apparently didn't speak with a sociologiy or psychology professor before writing this, makes it appear as if the original meaning is the new "political" definition while at the same time injecting his own current political view - one that rejects the the need for a term which recognizes varying degrees of gendered behavior among the sexes.
Despite these criticisms, I still recommend this book. It's interesting and educational. Just beware of the fact that this is a stylebook and, by definition, expresses the author's viewpoint.
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on May 28, 2004
Whether you're editing your own writing or someone else's, you will find Lapsing Into a Comma an invaluable and entertaining resource. Part commentary, part stylebook, it addresses not only the usual usage topics (split infinitives, that vs. which and a historic vs. an historic) but also some issues too new or obscure to be found in the traditional manuals (e-mail vs. email, how to tell a playmate from a Playboy Bunny and why a right hook is a bad example of a punch). In an opinionated, humorous and, yes, curmudgeonly way, Bill Walsh of the Washington Post strikes an often unpredictable balance between the traditional and the progressive in examining the state of American English usage in the computer age
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on 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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on March 15, 2004
Bill Walsh does a great service to the English language by building a potent barricade in the war against imprecision, obfuscation and outright misuse. And he makes it a great read as well. A great gift for your favorite college student or federal official!
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on November 30, 2003
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 vastly entertained in the process. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in writing well.
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Walsh makes many fine points about style in writing, particularly writing for a newspaper. But his smartypants humor wears thin very quickly. He seems to think he's really cute - wink, wink, nudge, nudge - when, to this reader, he's simply tiresome. In his subtitle he calls himself a "curmudgeon," but I suspect he really is a frustrated stand-up comedian.
I don't know who his audience is. Surely this book is not to be used for reference: imagine having to read the same jokes over and over. And it's also not for the 'grammar for dummies' crowd: it's generally too sophisticated for them.
If I were his editor I'd suggest a rewrite.
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on November 1, 2002
'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! If you prefer proper grammar and find double negatives annoying, you'll love this book!
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on July 14, 2002
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. I'm buying several more for my favorite copy editors.
This is a necessity for every copy editor or anyone managing copy for print. The author covered all of my pet peeves and touched on capitalization, math, pronoun and verb use and tech terms.
Bill Walsh's choices are sometimes at odds with what we find in the AP Stylebook, but he provides reasonable explanations for his rationale. A good read! This one will remain at arm's length.
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on May 30, 2002
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. He tells you what's wrong with what you hear and read, and how to recognize what's wrong with what you're about to say and write. I'm still recovering from the warning about Reese's monkeys!
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on 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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