Book review: Bill Walsh’s Lapsing into a Comma (2000)

by Nadine Bachan

Published at 2010-07-29

During my third year at university, the professor of one of my copy-editing courses began her first seminar by listing the names of several useful style guides. These were the books we were expected to get our hands on if we truly wanted to become well-read and informed editors. She, of course, mentioned every editor’s staples: The Chicago Manual of Style, the Canadian Press Stylebook, and the MLA Handbook.
However, one title stuck in my mind, perhaps because my professor held the publication in such high regard or maybe because its witty title made me chuckle, I can’t remember now. In any case, the title fluttered in and out my mind over the last four years, and finally, a few weeks ago, I purchased a copy of Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print — and How to Avoid Them and quickly settled in for a good and educating read.
Right away, I was pleasantly surprised by the personality in Walsh’s writing. Until now, I never thought someone could write a style guide that held the essential characteristics (an alphabetized list, proper terminologies, a detailed index) while being witty and — dare I write — entertaining. Well, Bill Walsh pulled it off.
Walsh is the currently the Copy Desk Chief of the Washington Post. At the time this book was published, he had almost 20 years of editorial experience. He spent several of those years as a newspaper copy editor. In that light, Lapsing into a Comma is focused on many of Walsh’s personal anecdotes of his run-ins with countless typos, glaring errors, and unresolved grammatical debates.
From the rampant misuse of acronyms to the controversial acceptance of slang terms to the often-condescending ways writers use the words “female” and “women,” Walsh has a clever response to most any editorial query you can think of. In some cases, the choice is left to each editor’s preference. Walsh simply explains his reasoning, which is refreshingly sensible, for some of his own editorial choices.
I absolutely love this style guide and would recommend any editor, young or seasoned, to give it a read. I’m sure you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement, even laughing out loud at some of Walsh’s real-world examples, just as I did.
There are so many wonderful nuggets of information in the book, but I will only reveal one here:
TILL, ’TIL: Till is a perfectly good word meaning “until.” (In fact, till existed before until.)
’Til is a bastard child created through confusion — people heard till and assumed it was a contraction of until. Use until in most cases and till when an informal touch is called for; never use ’til.  
We’ll quote another as our Quip of the Week, but if you’re hungry for more, you’ll just have to go out and get your hands on a copy.