Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them

by Bill Walsh

The Internet and print-on-demand technology have enabled almost everyone to become a publisher. In traditional media, professional journalists and authors have their writing cleaned up by copy editors before it is published. The average blogger does not have this luxury.  In Lapsing Into a Comma, Bill Walsh shares his advice on how to handle many common problems that he has encountered as copy editor of the business section at the Washington Post.

Language rules could be a very dull topic, but Walsh writes with a highly-opinionated attitude and a sense of humor, making the book more engaging than it otherwise would be. My favorite line in the book is: “Digerati need not be illiterati.”

The book starts with nine chapters covering various grammatical issues followed by a stylebook with approximately 340 entries. Most publishers adopt a style guide such as the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style. Walsh frequently refers to the AP stylebook, but sometimes disagrees with it. Style is not about being a slave to fifth-grade grammar rules. It’s about making informed choices and being consistent.

Here are a few examples:

Home and Hone. You can hone a skill, but you can’t hone in on something. The term is home in.

Minuscule. A frequently misspelled word: It’s not miniscule. Helpful hint: Think minus.

Nerve-racking. Preferred to nerve-wracking. Likewise, you rack (not wrack) your brain.

That, which. That introduces essential clauses; which introduces nonessential (also known as nonrestrictive) clauses. If you have a hard time with that concept, here’s a handy hint: Which clauses are always set off—usually by a comma, but sometimes with a dash or with parentheses. So your choice is between that and comma-which. If the comma seems out of place, that is your answer.

I disagree with the author on one stylistic point. He prefers the traditional use of parentheses around area codes in North American telephone numbers. In my view, this is a relic from an era when calling “long distance” was a big deal. Today there are at least ten area codes in Los Angeles county alone. I have to include the area code when calling across the street because there are two “overlay” area codes in the same geography. The area code is now simply part of the phone number, so the format should be ###-###-####. (And no, I don’t “dial” the number. I gave up my rotary phone years ago.)

The author also has a newer book called The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English.

Walsh, Bill. Lapsing into a Comma a Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print–and How to Avoid Them. Lincolnwood (Chicago), Illinois: Contemporary Books, 2000. Buy from