‘Dreyer’s English’ is a witty and useful writing guide

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Most successful books benefit from the anonymous work of copy editors. Dreyer’s English has a copy publisher’s name right on the cover.

The subtitle of Benjamin Dreyer’s bestseller, An entirely correct guide for clarity and style, is an ironic hint of the light touch inside. He’s truly an expert – vice president, executive editor, and copy chief of Random House – but he’s more interested in sharing his love for great writing than striking anyone’s fingers. Well, most of the time.

The result is a very useful style guide that is also a pleasure to read. Dreyer believes in the rules and he explains them with admirable clarity. But he also believes most rules have exceptions – and some shouldn’t even be rules.

Take that last sentence. I bet many of you have learned to never start a sentence with “and” or “but”. And wait a minute, I just divided an infinitive. What kind of pickles are we into?

This last sentence is an example of the third of what Dreyer calls “the big three” in his chapter “rules and non-rules”. He writes: “Why are they non-rules? As far as I am concerned, because they are largely unnecessary, needlessly restrictive, foolish and unnecessary. Also because they are generally of dubious origin, designed to start from nothing, then passed until they acquired a respectable solidity and, finally, became sclerotic. “

So, he recommends, start a sentence with “and” or “but” when that works. Follow the example of Raymond Chandler, whose reaction to being retouched Dreyer quotes with admiration: “When I divide an infinitive, G– d — it, I divide it to keep it divided.” And if your choice is to end a sentence with a preposition in a way that feels natural, or to “tie a sentence in a knot that strangles it to avoid a prepositional conclusion,” do the natural thing. He notes, however, that before you start breaking the rules, you need to know what they are.

As he relates, Dreyer got into freelance publishing in the 1990s and found he had a knack for it. His instincts, however, were there in childhood. He says he was sent to the bakery by his mother as a child and was “mesmerized” by a sign abusing the quotes: “This, as they say in the comics, is my origin story.”

What authors has he worked with? Check the book’s acknowledgments for a list of stars, most of which are fiction writers. These days his work involves more supervision than editing, but he still revises one author: Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winner for Olive kitterridge.

Some of his advice is aimed specifically at people who write fiction, but overall the book is a valuable guide for any writer.

I am, I admit, Dreyer’s target demographic. It’s not just that my current work as a literary critic requires special attention to language. I was also an English teacher and like him a reviser, in my case in this journal (a job that taught me more about journalism than any other journalism job 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 agree on many points. He categorically rejects efforts to reproduce dialects in dialogues, urging writers to avoid “tricks that might have worked for Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston or William Faulkner but which I assure you won’t work for you.” . The best. you will pass for classist and condescending; at worst, in some cases, you will fall into racism. “

I am in total solidarity with him on the web metastasis of certain punctuation marks: “No one over ten years old who is not actively involved in writing a comic strip should not end a sentence with a double exclamation point. or a double question mark. “

And, like Dreyer, I’m a fan of that most subtle punctuation mark, the semicolon. “I have been known to insist,” he wrote, “that the only thing that needs to be said in defense of semicolons is that Shirley Jackson loved them.”

Don’t skip footnotes. They often harbor Dreyer’s cleverest clichés, such as when he writes about a “certain magazine” (this is the New Yorker) which emphasizes obscure diacritics and “refers to adolescents as” adolescents. ” If you want to have a house style, try not to have a house style visible from space. “

Several of the chapters offer useful lists of troublesome words and names, and it even makes them entertaining. He identifies TS Eliot as “Person ultimately responsible for Cats” and Finnegans Wake like “A James Joyce novel that you haven’t read, that you haven’t understood, or both, despite what you tell people.” Of the Reddi-Wip brand, he writes: “I’m trying to imagine the meeting where someone asked, ‘How much can we misspell two perfectly simple words?’ “

For anyone who loves the English language and hates to see it mistreated and mistreated, there’s an orange elephant in the room these days. Dreyer never names him, but he does get a few licks.

And that brings me to what sets the tone for Dreyer’s English so attractive. It lays out the rules, but it’s done in a spirit of compromise, of wanting to help people understand them in order to improve everyone’s writing.

Take the comma from the controversial series, aka the Oxford comma. Use it, he says: “Only ungodly savages avoid the serial comma.” I’m on the other side, as he anticipates: “Many types of journalists, I’ve observed, loathe the show’s comma because they’ve been trained to hate it and find its use as infuriating as its champions find its non-use maddening. “

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 writers, “even the Brits in Oxford.”) He also does a short job of this hackneyed example of the phrase on the world tour. by Nelson Mandela.

His reasoning is utilitarian: “No sentence has ever been altered by a serial comma, and many sentences have been improved by one.”

But how do you say who is what? The rule is there, he says, so you don’t have to try to figure it out. “He’s using fewer brain cells just to apply that damn thing every time, brain cells that just might be used to heal more serious problems, like grammatical errors and the abuse of the word ‘whisper’.”

Simplify. Even when I don’t agree with Dreyer, we understand each other.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Dreyer’s English: An Absolutely Correct Guide for Clarity and Style

By Benjamin Dreyer

Random House, 291 pages, $ 25


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