Review of Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob without Being a Jerk, by Bill Walsh
One of the surprises I encountered when I began not only editing but paying attention to other editors, e.g., through social media and their writing, was that there are celebrity editors. I’m not sure how well known they are outside the editing world—especially since I didn’t know of them until I was in the editing world—but their names are familiar sources to cite in discussions of style and in the ongoing conflict between prescriptivists and descriptivists. Unsurprisingly, they’re editors who write, whether that writing is done in books, in blogs, or just on Twitter.
Shortly before I attended this year’s ACES conference, I had purchased Bill Walsh’s Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob without Being a Jerk but hadn’t started reading it yet, so I was pleased to discover that he was attending the conference himself and giving a presentation the first night. I was going to see a celebrity editor!
The fun part about Yes, I Could Care Less is that you get even more of a look into communications among celebrity editors. The first chapter contextualizes Walsh’s particular level of being particular, in comparison with other people who write about language and its evolution, lack thereof, and right thereof. If I didn’t already know these conversations took place, though, I probably would have been a little lost.
It was also a challenge to nail down where on the peeve spectrum Walsh lies, especially because he seems to be more of a stickler than I had perceived from his ACES talk. (If there were a Kinsey scale for grammatical sticklerism, where 0 denotes no sticklerism at all and 6 is full-on peever, I’d have guessed he was a 3, but the book makes him more of a high 4 to 5.)
He describes his aim, at an rate, to be to “explore what I care about (and hope you do, too), what I don’t care about (and think you shouldn’t either) and why” (p. 3). And although he professes in that sentence to wish everyone had the same standards he has, he also suggests “be[ing] your own stylebook” (p. 68). His biggest peeves are with wishy-washiness, a lack of reason behind style choices, and (true to copyeditors all over) lack of consistency.
The above discussion of peevers and sticklers and pre-de-sub-scriptionists is contained in a section called “In Theory,” following which, quite naturally, is “In Practice.” This, I felt, was the strongest part of the book.
“In Practice” contains the tips, suggestions, and context for how to apply your specific level of sticklerism. This was the most useful part of the book, with fewer rules and more guidelines. For instance, although the chapters contain a fair number of concrete examples, the overarching strategies for addressing them provide a more memorable takeaway than whether “different than” is one of Walsh’s peeve points (it isn’t). The concept of “tiny acts of elegance,” meanwhile, is something any editorially minded reader (whether an actual editor or not) would find means of applying.
“Tiny acts of elegance” is a reminder that sometimes elaborate style rules don’t result in readable, comprehensible prose as well as simpler alternatives. This doesn’t always mean the fewest keystrokes (p. 121); it just means that the cleanest result probably won’t look like it was edited at all.
The other weapon of a true ninja editor is the ability to assess not only the current text you’re working with but the text that your style choices now might affect later on. Everyone’s favorite helper punctuation mark, the hyphen, features prominently in this section. You write “light-blue jacket,” he suggests, not because there is any ambiguity in the unhyphenated color of a jacket but to allow yourself to refer to a “light[weight] blue jacket” later, if you choose to do so (example on p. 160). While Walsh feels strongly about this hyphenation strategy, what I like best about it is that it can be put in one’s editorial arsenal but then used at one’s discretion. There might be a context in which both meanings of “light blue jacket” are used, with neither hyphenation nor ambiguity. And if I trust my context to do the hyphen’s work, maybe that will end up being the tiny act of elegance appropriate for that piece of text.
The section that had me alternately nodding and shaking my head was “The Curmudgeon’s Stylebook,” a 70-page glossary of common usages that range from error to peeve (of Walsh’s) to somewhat even-handed controversy. (One of these, in fact, is the “false range,” a peeve embedded in the entry on whether that I have just unapologetically violated. I can see why it bothers him to toss around “random titles . . . in an attempt to convey the idea of ‘a wide variety,’” but I consider it an idiomatic way to say “including” while emphasizing the wide variety of exactly what you’re including. Nonetheless, I appreciate that he included it because I had not really thought about it before, and I’m likely to be more aware of it [and more sticklerish about it] when I’m editing formal writing, though I’ll continue to do it and to allow it in less formal writing such as in blogs.)
This seems designed to be the type of section that should have readers agreeing on one page and disagreeing on the next. Our tempers will flare up when talking about language use because we love language, and many of us live it. That passion and occasional irritation is a sign of life surrounding a subject that can keep us communicating effectively as long as we’re communicating about it.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.