Attention all you language mavens out there — we have a new hero in Benjamin Dreyer, author of the recently published “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style” (2019). Evidence that Dreyer illuminates his book with humor lies on the cover with a period between the r and the s in his name and an apostrophe above the i in English in the title.
Dreyer has the credentials to claim expertise: In his role as chief copy editor at Random House, he has edited thousands of books, many from popular authors. Four pages of acknowledgements express his appreciation for those who inspired his career and his writing of the book, which at first he wanted to entitle “The Last Word.” Second thoughts prevailed when Dreyer realized “there is no last word, only the next word.” He says, “There’s no rule without an exception, there’s no thought without an afterthought, there’s always something you meant to say but forgot to say.” These words occur in the “Outro” chapter of the book, subtitled “by Way of Conclusion.” In another ending page, Dreyer lists websites that he finds helpful, among them grammarist.com, grammarphobia.com, quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl, and John E. McIntyre’s You Don’t Say (baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog).
In Chapter 1, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose),” Dreyer asks us to fast for a week from writing or speaking these words: very, really, rather, quite, in fact, just (when it means merely), pretty, of course, surely, and actually. He calls these words and phrases “Wan Intensifiers” or “Throat Clearers,” and he admits that not speaking them would leave most of us mute, especially our nation’s leader whose reliance on very we all have noted. Dreyer admits that giving up these words entirely is an impossible goal, but eliminating them for a week makes us better writers. I blanched to consider how many uses of of course, actuallyand in fact have peppered these columns through the years; I felt better when Dreyer, in one of the numerous footnotes that act as asides, admitted to overusing actually most of his life. He said he realized the contagion when his 2-year-old nephew exclaimed, “Actually, I like peas.”
RULES AND NONRULES
In Chapter 2, Dreyer notes that the English language developed “without codification, sucking up new constructions and vocabulary every time some foreigner set foot on the British Isles.” He calls the necessary rules (like subject verb agreement) aids in communication, citing four reasons for rules: Convention, Consensus, Clarity, and Comprehension. He defines a “good sentence” as one readers can “follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion.”
As most writing teachers advise, Dreyer says to read the words aloud “to determine whether your prose is well-constructed. A sentence that can’t be readily voiced is a sentence that likely needs to be rewritten.”
Dreyer points out several “nonrules,” which we have all been taught but which he finds “unhelpful, pointlessly constricting, feckless and useless,” however well-meaning the keepers of these rules. He numbers “The Big Three”: Never begin a sentence with and or but. He warns that these beginnings, like for, or, however or because, weaken a sentence, but he uses many examples from well-known writers to prove the effectiveness of and or but. Here is one from Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”: “Francie became an outsider shunned by all because of her stench. But she had become accustomed to being lonely.” Dreyer says if he had been Smith’s copy editor, he might have suggested adding on the part beginning with But “to make one coherent, connected thought out of the two unnecessarily separated ones.” He acknowledges that Smith’s version dramatizes and emphasizes the “being lonely” and honors the way she heard it in her head.
Big Rule number two addresses never splitting the infinitive, though most stylebooks have eased up on this one. Dreyer cites the phrase from “Star Trek,” “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” noting that keeping the infinitive together results in either of these versions: “Boldly to go where no man has been before” or “To go boldly where no man has been before,” both of which Dreyer discards as sounding as if “they were translated from the Vulcan.”
Big Rule number three deals with never ending a sentence with a preposition, again one writing teachers have loosened about. Dreyer does say that the end of a sentence should be powerful and “not simply dribble off like an old man’s unhappy micturition.” He uses these two sentences as examples of a weak ending and an ending with a “snap”: “What did you do that for?” contrasted with “Why did you do that?”
Dreyer cites seven other nonrules, including the admonishment never to use contractions in formal writing, avoid the passive voice, never use fragments, use “who” only for people, the use of “none” only as a singular pronoun, the use of “whether” with “or not,” and the use of “like” (instead of “such as”) to construct a list. Again, Dreyer depends on what sounds better and what makes sense.
In this chapter Dreyer draws an analogy: “If words are the flesh, muscle, and bone of prose, punctuation is the breath.” He applauds the serial comma, that one that occurs before and in a series; the one space after the period instead of two; the comma after introductory words (depending on the circumstance); the avoidance of the comma splice, except in short, “closely linked related thoughts”; the sparing use of the colon, which he calls “little trumpet blasts, attention-getting and ear-splitting”; the correct use of apostrophes; the virtues of the semicolon; and the correct uses of that miscellany — brackets, parentheses, dashes, hyphens, etc.
Dreyer’s humor and experience make the book a delightful read for writers and teachers of writing alike. Next week’s column will explore more valuable advice from this newcomer to the canon of dos and don’ts of the English language.