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Posted August 1, 2004
Alwayts Useful, Sometimes Funny
By Bill Marsano. What a jolly season for word-lovers this is, what with Lynn Truss's 'Eats, Shoots, and Leaves' and this book by Bill Walsh coming along neck-and-neck and cheek-by-jowl. Walsh, who is the copy chief of the Washington Post, has written a far broader work than Truss's, with punctuation just one of the things covered (and usually very well covered). There's also grammar here and more important there is style. The author of such a book sets himself up, always. Many readers will assume or claim that he's preaching perfection and will therefore fall upon tiny errors yelling nyah-nyah in spiteful disvalidation of his whole work, of his very right to speak at all. Sorry but, admirable as it may be, prefection eludes and always will (Lynn Truss's first error is in her subtitle!). Mark Twain said, of perfection in English grammar, 'the thing just can't be done.' So let's be willing to give a little, and even accept the odd contradiction. That done, we find a pretty useful guide. It's mostly newspaper-oriented, but it's still a help to the ordinary writer and ordinary person struggling to commit a sentence and finding between the opening capital and the closing period a morass of weird plurals, nightmare collectives, number-of-the-verb, stylistic conventions, punctuational deadfalls and a lot of other horrors that make not ending with a preposition a treat (which taboo is, by the way, nonsense, as Walsh neatly explains). Walsh deals with most problems briskly and helpfully, and if you keep this book ever close to your heart it won't be long before you can toss off elegant vanity plates, bumperstickers and ransom notes without so much as a by-your-leave. And you will begin to enjoy doing so, because you won't be scared out of your wits half the time. (Most people dread writing as they dread public speaking.) I am generally dubious of copy editors; I consider them a species of vermin that should be hunted for sport. But I will go a long way with Walsh because he clearly thinks about the language and tries to make intelligent, workable decisions that help reader and writer alike. (Most copy editors simply trot out their pet peeves and hobby-horses, salt with ignorance and prejudice, and then damage the writer's copy, the hideous effects invisible until the crime appears in print.) I will unyieldingly dispute with him on two points, however. First, (free-lance) writers should absolutely not waste any time studying client magazines to learn their style. Magazines routinely pay writers poorly and abuse them in general; if they want their stylebooks followed, let the editors do some work for a change. (Editors don't have jobs. They have lunch.) Second, what's this foolishness about a ship being referred to as 'it'? That's an example of what offends me most about copy editors: their char-woman's mentality. Always trying to neaten up; emptying the ashtray every time the ash hits the glass; making you move so they can plump up the pillows. Busy, busy, busy! The net result of all this is damage to a language of which varioty is its chiefest glory. Referring to ships as feminine is a tradition many centuries old: it goes back to the Romans; it is established and understood; it is not to be dismissed by some petty tyrant with an itchy pencil. Maybe it's a question of political correctness. Maybe someone is pained because it excludes an entire sex (the male, I believe). Frankly I'm disinclined to believe that this will cause little boys everywhere to be discouranged from becoming ocean liners, but copy editors might very well fall for that.--Bill Marsano is a professional writer and editor.
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Posted January 1, 2013
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