A copy editor at the Washington Post returns with his third rant-cum–English usage manual (Lapsing into a Comma, 2000, etc.).
The volume sometimes has the appearance of a cut-and-paste job: Recto pages feature headers selected from the author’s tweets; occasional text boxes offer information about compound words, hyphenation, famous movie lines that people commonly misquote (Bogart said only, “Play it, Sam”) and the meanings of abbreviations (GAO is now the Government Accountability Office). Some chapters are principally argument and/or exposition (Walsh goes after Strunk and White); others are lists of usage issues and the author’s views about them. The author’s tone and diction vary from serious to silly. “The en [dash],” he writes in the latter way, “is a prissy punctuation mark that I have little use for.” Walsh does have some serious points to make. Writers should know the conventions of written English and know their audiences. Other folks still do judge our commas, our capital letters, our use of lie and lay. A little grammar helps, too. Knowing the difference between an essential and a nonessential clause, knowing when something is in apposition, when it is not—it’s hard to use commas correctly when you don’t know the grammatical structures you’re employing. He deals with many common issues, and he takes on the double possessive, the use of hopefully (lost cause, he believes), comma splices, disinterested and uninterested, who and whom (he is softening on this one), subject-verb agreement with collective nouns, and the expressions graduated high school and going to prom.
A frisky reminder that usage issues are part convention, part passion.