Washington Post Editor Bill Walsh on grammar gripes and being a more polite language snob

Bill WalshBill Walsh has been at the Washington Post’s copy desk for nearly two decades, riding out changes in both the newspaper business and the wider world of publishing. He helms their live grammar and style chat, Grammar Geekery with Bill Walsh, ruling on everything from hashtags to whether puns are encouraged at the Post. He has penned three books on grammar, including the recent Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob without Being a Jerk. This month, he talks to us about life at the copy desk and how to be a more polite grammar geek. Despite adhering to a different style book, his advice rings true for any editor.

First off, tell us a little about your day job. How did you end up at the Washington Post? Can you tell us how the copyediting process works there?

Living in Washington and working at the Post were both longtime goals. I got to Washington in 1989, with a job at the Washington Times, but I wasn’t able to weasel my way into the Post newsroom until 1997. Things have changed quite a bit in the seventeen years since. Where once we had separate copydesks for the national pages, the foreign pages, metro, business, and Style, now it’s one big desk for all those plus the website. We do everything except the opinion pages and sports.

The workflow has evolved as well. It used to be that every story in the paper got copyedited and then “slotted”— looked over by a desk supervisor—for the first edition, then read again on proof before the second edition. Now that the web has brought so much extra work, things are streamlined. Stories are posted online after one read. For the print edition, they’re usually slotted, at which point they will be updated online if there were significant fixes, but we skip that step for stories that are both inside and are read by one of our more experienced copy editors. There are also stories and photo galleries that appear only on the web. I’m in the slot role full time, aside from a handful of regular features on which I’m the designated first reader, and so my days look different from those of a lot of my colleagues. I still handle a lot of stories, but I’m more focused on the print edition than most.

Your most recent book Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob without Being a Jerk takes on the grammar wars, proclaiming, “There is a world out there beyond the stylebooks, beyond Strunk and White, beyond Lynne Truss and Failblogs.” Was there a particular moment that pushed you to write this book?

To be honest, I have to admit that it was my agent and the publisher that pushed me to write the third book. But that sentiment harks back to the first one, Lapsing Into a Comma, which I began with a caution to be skeptical of stylebooks. In many ways, I was talking back to the Associated Press Stylebook, which—sorry, CMOS!—is the bible for most newsrooms. I wrote Lapsing in the 1990s, before we had such robust online discussion of usage and style. Since then, my fellow copy editors have been increasingly influenced by descriptive linguistics. Where once I was the heretic, railing against AP style and rules that aren’t rules, now I’m looking more conservative and doctrinaire by the day. So I thought I’d take a stab at the language wars.

In writing the new book, I was simultaneously speaking to two audiences. To those people unaware of the descriptivist argument— which includes armchair grammar sticklers but also, I’m sorry to say, a lot of professional copy editors—I wanted to provide some education. You may think you’re the smart one when you say that “I could care less” or “irregardless” or the non-literal “literal” is wrong, but did you know that a lot of people who know a lot more about the language than you do would actually defend those usages? And to those people all too familiar with descriptivism, the aforementioned people who know a lot more than my fellow sticklers and I, I wanted to spell out where our mission as copy editors is different from theirs.

If there was a moment that crystallized my theme, it could have been the time I saw a fellow copy editor, one who educates other copy editors, declare that using literally to mean not at all literally is absolutely fine. A lot of the linguists don’t even go that far. Not wrong isn’t necessarily right. Yes, literally can be used as a hyperbolic intensifier. And a mattress can be used as a bank, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do so.

Where is the line between the so-called grammar stickler and the grammar slacker? Can you share a few tips for those hoping to be a more polite language snob?

The basic concept is pretty simple: Don’t point out errors in casual conversation, unless you’re dealing with a child or with somebody just learning the language. But the mind-set goes beyond your behavior, to a basic way of thinking. Some of us have to unlearn some pretty visceral reactions and realize that a lot of our pet peeves aren’t all that important. On the other hand, those visceral reactions come in handy when it’s your job to enforce a certain standard. Copy editors’ heightened sensitivity to silly details can be a tool of the trade, and sometimes we express it through mock outrage. To both the sticklers and their critics, I’m trying to emphasize the mock part. We can disagree about the crimes, but I don’t think anybody is calling for the death penalty. Hordes of ordinary Americans will go on for as long as you’ll listen to them about what an atrocity it is to wear socks with sandals, and yet they don’t get accused of being insufferable elitists. It’s fun to have opinions about style.

Online media has certainly upped the level of grammar consciousness and has introduced the ability to give and receive real-time, public feedback. Do you have some best practices for being a language snob online? For example, is there etiquette for correcting an error in an online post or publication? And is it ever okay to correct someone’s grammar on Facebook?

I take an “only in self-defense” position. Feel free to unload with both barrels if somebody accuses you of an incorrect usage that isn’t actually incorrect. Otherwise, no. And stick with the topic at hand. Resist the temptation to take tangential potshots, even if one of those people who are disagreeing with you thinks it’s correct to write “one of those people who is.”

You have said that you don’t always worry about strict usage in your “civilian life,” such as stressing over the eternal lay versus lie conundrum. Is this something you’ve had to work on or do you find it easy to switch off the grammar voice in your head? Do you have any advice for toning down the inner copyeditor?

We have to remember that communication is communication. It doesn’t always have to be perfect. It doesn’t always have to be showing off. Fashionistas wear sweats sometimes. Foodies eat at White Castle sometimes.

You run regular Q&As on the Post site, so you seem to enjoy these arguments over usage; the number of people writing in seems to show that many others enjoy them as well. Why do you think we find these debates so appealing?

Language is at the core of our being. Everybody uses it. And so it’s easy for people to think they’re experts, in a way that most of us could never be experts about rocket science or cosmology or the Middle East conflict. The funny thing about the chats is that my audience tends to be very rigid. So, whereas I’m on the conservative, prescriptivist end of the spectrum among the people who write books about usage and argue about it online, I often end up sounding downright loosey-goosey as I try to talk the chatters off their ledges about the relative importance of their gripes, or even whether those gripes are downright mistaken.

In a recent chat you made the insightful comment that, “things change, but we don’t have to be happy early in the process.” This seems to be a great point for today’s copyeditors and word fanatics. What are some of your other favorite copyediting words of wisdom?

Here’s a thought: It’s not about us. Our job is to help writers, not to bully them. Now, we sometimes have to assert ourselves with really bad writers, or if we work for publications where the editors hold a tight rein on the voice, but usually I’m not an aggressive editor. That might surprise the people who follow my pontifications. I think I’d feel that way even if I didn’t write, if I hadn’t been a victim of unfortunate edits myself, but that experience doesn’t hurt.

Bill Walsh has worked for newspapers since 1981 and for The Post since 1997. He is the author of Lapsing Into a Comma, The Elephants of Style, and Yes, I Could Care Less. He tweets about language as @TheSlot.

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