Remembering Bill Walsh's Way With Words

Mar 16, 2017
Originally published on March 17, 2017 9:08 am

I've shed many of my physical books during my various moves, but one that I still have is Bill Walsh's Lapsing Into A Comma. Its subtitle: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong In Print — and How to Avoid Them. I either loaned it to someone at some point or I intended to, because I wrote on the dedication page: "A book I read and loved, that it takes a grouchy writer to appreciate."

That comma should not be there, so that's embarrassing.

Lapsing Into A Comma from 2000, along with The Elephants Of Style in 2004 and 2013's Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk, introduced Bill Walsh to people who wanted to improve their writing, but also to people who wanted what we all want: to read a good book. Walsh died on Wednesday from complications of bile duct cancer, and there's a thorough remembrance at The Washington Post, where he worked for 20 years as a copy editor.

I never met him, but years ago, like a lot of other people, I crossed paths with him online and we became, as I think of it, internet-acquainted. (A longtime advocate of capitalizing that "i," he would say Internet-acquainted or, more likely, he would say something more elegant entirely.) We became Facebook friends in late 2007, and I followed him on Twitter, where, in mid-February of this year, he devoted one of his last few tweets to a news chyron that referred to "the killing of a DC transgender woman." He commented, "I'd have said 'transgender DC woman.' Would you have said 'DC gay man'?)"

I think he was right, despite his not citing a rule, and hiding in that simple point were things I admired about him and about everyone who understands language. He trusted his own ear, and he looked to language not simply to be correct in the sense of obedience to rules, but to be nuanced and perfectly chosen. I still can't explain precisely why his way sounds more respectful to me, any more than I can explain why, for instance, "homeless DC man" sounds more humane to me than "DC homeless man." You wouldn't say "a DC married woman," for instance, in a news story. You'd say "a married DC woman." I don't know why. Bill Walsh probably knew why, but he also just knew and noticed.

The best copy editors are empaths in a very specific way, I think, because writers and even other editors are so close to a piece that they grow to see it from the inside out. It's the copy editor who has to be able to see it from the outside in. He has to put himself in the position of the reader at the last minute and make sure that what has been so carefully conceived won't arrive imperfectly finished, like a delicious bowl of soup slopped over the edge of the bowl. Copy editors must see your story as the reader will see it; they must pretend to know only what a reader can know, even if they know more.

Copy editors are quality junkies; there is nothing else to drive them. Their names will not appear on the writing they make better, they are increasingly overburdened almost everywhere, and if they are imagined by the average reader at all, it's often as nitpicky technicality cops.

What a great copy editor is instead, and what Bill Walsh was to me, is both that exacting crafter of print at the atomic level and a final eye for good sense. He says in Lapsing Into a Comma that every newsroom needs someone juvenile enough to know which headlines shouldn't have words like "blow" and "stiff" in them. He says jokes about illegality of removing tags from mattresses are dumb. He points out the problems of class bias inherent in discretionary cleaning-up of some people's speech and not other people's when presenting quotes in print. And he says this, about one unintended consequence of blanket substitutions of "African-American" (which he agrees is useful in some instances) for "black" in a sentence like "The Klan members admitted to the attack and said they did it because the victims were African-American":

Such a sentence lends undeserved dignity to the racists, as if they checked passports and genealogy before making the educated decision to harm a fellow human being. Racists don't do such things — they base their hatred solely on skin color, and this should never be forgotten.

Bill Walsh played with words at work, but also not at work. He mused about what "seasoning" means on Top Chef versus what it means elsewhere, and whether "stream on your favorite devices" really ought to mean he could watch it on his stand mixer. He was very funny — in Lapsing, he begged people to write "home page" and not "the ghastly homepage (which begs to be pronounced 'HOME-pudge' or 'huh-MEH-pudge')." And he was stubborn but always courteous when I respectfully argued with him about "e-mail," in which he treasured that hyphen and I did not.

I read from Lapsing Into a Comma for about half an hour this morning, and in that time, I laughed several times and realized I'd misused an irregular plural a few days ago. And then I brought the book to work, because that's where I'll continue to need it.

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