Most bestselling books benefit from the anonymous work of copy editors. Dreyer’s English has a copy editor’s name right on the cover.
The subtitle of Benjamin Dreyer’s bestseller, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, is a tongue-in-cheek hint of the light touch within. He really is an expert — vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief of Random House — but he’s more interested in sharing his love for great writing than in rapping anyone’s knuckles. Well, mostly.
The result is a very useful style guide that’s also a delight to read. Dreyer believes in rules, and he explains them with admirable clarity. But he also believes most rules have exceptions — and that some shouldn’t even be rules.
Take that last sentence. I’ll bet many of you were taught to never start a sentence with “and” or “but.” And wait a minute, I just split an infinitive. What kind of pickle are we in?
That last sentence is an example of the third of what Dreyer calls “The Big Three” in his chapter “Rules and Nonrules.” He writes, “Why are they nonrules? So far as I’m concerned, because they’re largely unhelpful, pointlessly constricting, feckless, and useless. Also because they’re generally of dubious origin, devised out of thin air, then passed on until they’ve gained respectable solidity and, ultimately, have ossified.”
So, he recommends, start a sentence with “and” or “but” when it works. Follow the example of Raymond Chandler, whose reaction to being copy-edited Dreyer quotes admiringly: “When I split an infinitive, G-- d--- it, I split it so it will stay split.” And if your choice is to end a sentence with a preposition in a way that sounds natural or to “tie a sentence into a strangling knot to avoid a prepositional conclusion,” do the natural thing. He does note, though, that before you start breaking rules, you need to know what they are.
As he tells it, Dreyer wandered into copy editing as a freelancer in the 1990s and found he had a knack for it. His instincts, though, were there in childhood. He describes being sent to the bakery by his mother when he was a boy and being “fascinated” by a sign that misused quotation marks: “This, as they say in the comic books, is my origin story.”
What authors has he worked with? Check the book’s acknowledgments for an all-star list, most of them fiction writers. These days his job involves more oversight than editing, but he does still copy edit one author: Elizabeth Strout, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge.
Some of his advice is aimed specifically at people who write fiction, but overall the book is a worthy guide for any writer.
I am, I’ll admit, Dreyer’s target demographic. It’s not just that my current job as a book critic requires careful attention to language. I’ve also been an English teacher and, like him, a copy editor, in my case at this newspaper (a job that taught me more about journalism than any other journalism gig I’ve had).
As a result, I’m a total word nerd, and I have my own set of opinions, rules and “Peeves and Crotchets,” as Dreyer titles one of his chapters.
He and I are in agreement on many matters. He gives a hard no to efforts to reproduce dialects in dialogue, urging writers to avoid “tricks that might have worked for Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, or William Faulkner but are, I assure you, not going to work for you. At best you’ll come off as classist and condescending; at worst, in some cases, you’ll tip over into racism.”
I’m in full solidarity with him on the web-driven metastasis of certain punctuation marks: “No one over the age of ten who is not actively engaged in the writing of a comic book should end any sentence with a double exclamation point or double question mark.”
And, like Dreyer, I’m a fan of that most subtle punctuation mark, the semicolon. “I’ve been known to insist,” he writes, “that the only thing one needs to say in defense of semicolons is that Shirley Jackson liked them.”
Do not skip the footnotes. They’re often home to Dreyer’s cleverest snaps, as when he writes about a “certain magazine” (it’s the New Yorker) that insists on arcane diacritical marks and “refers to adolescents as ‘teen-agers.’ If you’re going to have a house style, try not to have a house style visible from space.”
Several of the chapters offer helpful lists of troublesome words and names, and he makes even those entertaining. He identifies T.S. Eliot as “Person ultimately responsible for Cats” and Finnegans Wake as “A novel by James Joyce that you’ve either not read, not comprehended, or both, despite what you tell people.” Of the trademark Reddi-Wip, he writes, “I’m trying to imagine the meeting in which someone inquired, ‘How much can we misspell two perfectly simple words?’ ”
For anyone who loves the English language and hates to see it battered and abused, there’s an orange elephant in the room these days. Dreyer never names him, but he gets a few licks in.
And that brings me to what makes the tone of Dreyer’s English so appealing. He lays out the rules, but it’s done in a spirit of compromise, of wanting to help people understand them with the aim of making everyone’s writing better.
Take the contentious series comma, a.k.a. the Oxford comma. Use it, he says: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.” I’m in the other camp, as he anticipates: “Many journalist types, I’ve observed, abhor the series comma because they’ve been trained to abhor it and find its use as maddening as its champions find its nonuse infuriating.”
But his argument for using it has nothing to do with Anglophile snobbery. (British writers, he notes, are less likely to use it than American ones, “even Oxford Brits.”) He also makes short work of that hoary example of the sentence about Nelson Mandela’s world tour.
His reasoning is utilitarian: “No sentence has ever been harmed by a series comma, and many a sentence has been improved by one.”
But how do you tell which is which? The rule exists, he says, so you don’t have to try to figure it out. “It uses up fewer brain cells simply to apply the damn thing every time, brain cells that might well be applied in the cure of more serious issues, like grammatical blunders and one’s overuse of the word ‘murmur.’ ”
Simplify. Even when I disagree with Dreyer, we understand each other.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
By Benjamin Dreyer
Random House, 291 pages, $25