Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

"Yes, I Could Care Less": A Mixed Bag

There are two books here. I love one of them, but I don't care for the other. Somehow, they're both Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk by Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh.

For me, this book — billed as "a useful guide for writers and all lovers of language" — gets off to a rough start with about eight pages on could care less vs. couldn't care less. This was eight pages more than I could handle. While Walsh does an admirable job of discussing every possible aspect of this itsy-bitsy subject, citing just about every linguist and word maven in the book, it wasn't enough to hold my interest. For whatever reason, I find this language variation and the hubbub surrounding it boring and trivial, which isn't Walsh's fault. However, some annoying aspects of Walsh's style emerged in this section, and they are his responsibility.

In fact, some of my problems with Walsh started even earlier: in the subtitle How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk. Maybe I'm taking a lighthearted title too seriously, but I'm not interested in helping snobs not be jerks. I'd rather help snobs not be snobs. Even better, I'd rather avoid the counterproductive discourse about language that divides people into snobs (prescriptivists) and slobs (descriptivists). The parts of this book that are written as a self-confessed snob tend to be childish and passive-aggressive.

For example, Walsh is fond of making comments such as "Call me an authoritarian bastard" and "I guess I'm being churlish again," followed by a gripe that, sure enough, sounds authoritarian or churlish. I guess these comments are supposed to be self-deprecating, but they strike me as insecure and needlessly needling of the audience. If I had been Walsh's editor, my advice would have been: "Either be churlish and proud or stop being churlish, but don't be so cute about it." Walsh even starts the first chapter with "Now, don't get me wrong" — a staple of weak student writers trying to get away with saying something they know they probably shouldn't be saying at all. The persistently adolescent tone undercuts a lot of otherwise interesting writing in the first half of this book.

Walsh can also be flat-out insulting. Yes, I Could Care Less is sprinkled with oft-mangled movie lines, and their purpose is far from clear, unless it's to underline the "People are stupid" theme. Here's a cheap, throwaway insult of people who make common language mistakes: "No matter how many people drink ‘expresso' and eat ‘sherbert,' smart people insist on using the exact words." At one point, there's a joke about people in trailer parks — a weak jab at an easy target that damns the author more than anyone. If you've read any of my previous reviews or columns, you know I'm not the most mature knife in the drawer, but there's something about Walsh's blend of childishness and passive-aggression that really burned my toast.

This is especially frustrating because Walsh has a knack for writing perceptive, well-crafted sentence, like this perfect explanation of the difference between linguists and copy editors: "There are best practices and there is anthropology; there are exterminators and there are entomologists." On the other hand, he bizarrely ignores the distinguishing feature of linguistics: it focuses on speech. If this difference has been acknowledged, many annoying and unnecessary paragraphs that pitted snobs vs. slobs might have disappeared.

I hope you're still reading, because the second half of this book is absolutely wonderful.

When discussing specific usage issues, Walsh is one of the best writers I've encountered. His discussion of the passive voice — a topic that bamboozles so many smart people — might be the best I've ever read. I learned a few new things about comma use, and I've been writing professionally and teaching writing for over 10 years. His notion that a writer/editor should commit "tiny acts of elegance" in prose is beautiful. I dearly wish the second half of this book could be doubled. It is wonderful and would be a real help to any writer or editor. Walsh transcends this snob/jerk foolishness when he focuses on the details of language.

Ultimately, I don't think Walsh is a snob or jerk at all. Based on the stronger parts of this book, he's just an excellent copy editor and writer. My theory is he's playing the part of the churlish snob, probably to sell books, which is a pretty understandable motivation. He reminds me a little of comedian Anthony Jeselnik, who created an evil persona (based partially on pro-wrestling villains) that allows him to get laughs with jokes like "I've spent the past two years looking for my ex-girlfriend's killer — but no one will do it." In the passive-aggressive, reader-baiting parts of this book, Walsh is playing dumber and snobbier than he actually is. He gives the pose away by showing how smart and non-snobby he can be elsewhere.

If you've made it this far, I'm not sure what to tell you. This is a strange book. At times, it reads like petulant twaddle. At other times, it is one of the most informed, sensible books on language I've ever read.

I guess I'm being churlish again, but I can't wholeheartedly recommend buying this book.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.