Bill Walsh and I sit down in a restaurant for an interview. As I set up my laptop, the author of Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Printand How to Avoid Them turns deathly silent. He stares intently at the menu; I ask what’s bothering him. “They got all the hard stuff right,” he says. “But they spelled ‘shoestring’ as two words. And they turned ‘water chestnuts,’ somehow, into one.”
Such is the life of the Washington Post’s business-section copy chief. At 38, Walsh has spent half his life correcting the grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation of cavalier reportersat the Phoenix Gazette, the Washington Times, and, since 1997, the Post. So why stop outside the newsroom? “I constantly read things that wayit’s an occupational hazard,” he explains. He says it’s “fun.”
Before concluding that Walsh is a humorless young fogy, check out his book. Parts of it are actually lighthearted, such as his groundbreaking chapter on how news outlets should treat the growing ranks of weirdly styled company logos, from USWEST and Guess? to Yahoo!, eBay, and E*TRADE.
“Just about everything has a nonstandard logo,” he writes. “Look around you: ‘CANADA DRY SELTZER,’ ‘annie hall,’ ‘Entertainment WEEKLY,’ ‘the AMERICAN HERITAGE dic•tion•a•ry of THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.’ Sure, the credits say ‘thirtysomething,’ but the credits also say ‘DRAGNET’ and ‘THREE’S COMPANY.’ These variations, employed in advertising and packaging, add visual interest to our world. Carry these variations over to print journalism, however, and they bring the look of a cheesy press release.”
Walsh was drawn into copy editing as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. He answered a posting for a “copy reader” position at the student daily. “I put on the application that I was an obsessive-compulsive who would edit the paper while reading it anyway, so they might as well pay me for it,” he recalls. “I got a call the next day saying that I should report to work immediately.”
At the Gazette, Walsh briefly detoured into reporting, including stints covering the night cops’ beat and writing wacky features. But nine months after he started that gig, a suburban editor had a heart attack, and Walsh found himself drafted into service to bolster the man’s old copy-editing crew.
In 1989, Walsh moved to the Times, where he had to grapple with the paper’s Byzantine rules on honorifics. “Convicted felons got no ‘Mr.,’” he recalls. “Nor did sports figuresin game stories, at least.” When reporters quoted women, they had to ask about their marital status, to know whether they should use “Miss” or “Mrs.” in the story. At the staunchly conservative paper, “it took an act of God to get ‘Ms.,’” Walsh says.
In 1995, the early days of the Internet, Walsh established his own little fiefdom in cyberspacea site that eventually became the Slot (www.theslot.com). Named after the ancient newsroom nickname for the head copy editor’s position, the site provided Walsh with “a forum for ranting” about common stylistic slip-ups. Over the years, e-mails to the site provided substantial grist for Lapsing Into a Comma. “The Internet provides a handy window on how we write today, and it’s pretty frightening,” Walsh says. “Search Altavista.com for ‘A-M-A-T-U-R-E porn,’ and you’ll get thousands of hits.”
Walsh’s biggest pet peeve these days is Americans’ habit of spelling “e-mail” as “email.” In the book, he calls it “an abomination,” not just because it breaks with common spelling tradition (D-Day, G-string, X-ray) but also because standard pronunciation rules invite the reader to pronounce it as “uh-MAIL.”
Lately, it looks as if the tide’s been turning Walsh’s way: This week, the online magazine Wired News’ copy chief penned a piece to announce that publication’s reversion to the hyphenated spelling.
Closer to home, however, Walsh knows he’s waging a losing battle. In a twist only Sartre could have dreamed up, Walsh is doomed to hand out standard-issue Post business cards that list his “email” address. In red pen, he carefully inserts a caret and a hyphen. Louis Jacobson