Good-bye to witty word man Bill Walsh. Copy editor was “undisputed king” of his craft

The world is down a copy editor – and we are all the poorer for it.

Bill Walsh of The Washington Post, described by the American Journalism Review as “the undisputed king of copy bloggers”, died last month in Arlington, Virginia. He was 55.

Copy editor Bill Walsh of The Washington Post loved our changing language

Copy editor Bill Walsh of The Washington Post loved our changing language

The Post’s obit described those in Walsh’s profession as, “the front-line mud soldiers in an endless war against bad spelling, ill-considered sentence construction and factual errors.”

It’s an unsung, under-appreciated and at times annoying position, that of copy editor, yet apparently Walsh handled it with humour and aplomb.

His blog, which is still up, is called Blogslot. The word “slot” is the name for the position occupied by the copy chief in a newsroom. (Lowlier copy editors sat at the desk nearby but on the “rim”.)

Bill Walsh was a lover of words and how they were used. He wrote a few books on the subject such as Yes, I Could Care Less – How to be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk and Lapsing into a Comma – A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print – and How to Avoid Them.  

Walsh was strict without being doctrinaire. He wading into the weeds on capitalization – The New York Times not the New York Times (“When you cap the The in The New York Times, you’re really doing so not because the word is capped in the flag, but because the word is present in the flag.”) and yet he allowed conjunctions to start a sentence and prepositions to end them.

Word choice was also a focus of his. He was known for this distinction: a Playboy Bunny is a Playboy Club waitress who has donned a cottontail uniform. A Playmate is a centrefold. These things are important.

Naturally Walsh had a position on use of the word hopefully. He pointed out that the fuss-budgets were wrong to hold that it only means “done in a hopeful way”. It’s a “sentence adverb” which means it applies to the whole sentence in the same way a word like fortunately (another sentence adverb) does not mean “in a fortunate manner”. News to me!

The august Associate Press Style Guide has adopted this expanded use of hopefully – a move with which Bill Walsh agreed.

Oh, beware of Syrofoam – it gets a cap S as it’s a trademark, not just a material. By the way real Syrofoam is used for insulation – not for making those little white cups.

I liked what he said about his profession in an interview: “People want guidance and there is nothing untoward about offering .. [it] … as long as you are in a role where you are being asked for that guidance.”

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