The Importance of Giving a Shit: On ‘Dreyer’s English’

February 27, 2019 | 2 books mentioned 3 8 min read

As this review goes to press, Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, sits at #1 on Amazon’s Best Sellers list (Words, Language, & Grammar Reference). Shortly after the book’s release, he tweeted its march up the overall sales ranks, as it broke the top hundred, the top ten, and made it all the way to number two. Already in its fourth pressing, it is also currently at number two on this week’s New York Times Best Sellers list (Advice, How-to, and Miscellaneous). Think about that: a book by a copyeditor about the niceties of style elbowing up to the table with the likes of Marie Kondo and Michelle Obama. As Dreyer himself said in another endearingly flabbergasted tweet, “It’s a freakin’ style guide, for Pete’s sake.”

In one sense, I share his amazement. It would be difficult to think of a current subject that feels, superficially, less likely to top a list of best sellers (or best-sellers or bestsellers—Dreyer devotes an interesting page to the accelerated life-cycle and evolution of open, hyphenate, and closed words). We live, after all, in a paradoxically hyper-literate yet hyper-illiterate age—never before in human history have more people written more, and never before has less care gone into the production of this writing. We are inundated with emojis, unpunctuated tweets, garbled emails, and dashed-off chyrons rife with errata, not to mention the self-publishing phenomenon: hundreds of books going up on Amazon daily, thousands of Tumblr and WordPress sites, all the bloggy flotsam of the Internet’s wild reaches. The writerly ethos of the age would seem to echo Blaise Pascal’s famous apology: “I only made this letter longer because I had not the leisure to make it shorter.”

Which is not to say, reading Dreyer’s English, that it’s hard to see why people like it. Dreyer, Random House’s longtime copy chief, is funny and charming, delivering a style manual with a great deal of style. Here he is (in a passage more or less randomly chosen) on the word “bemused”:

The increasing use of the word “bemused” to mean “wry, winkingly amused, as if while wearing a grosgrain bowtie and sipping a Manhattan,” rather than “bothered and bewildered” is going to—sooner than later, I fear—render the word meaningless and useless, and that’s too bad; it’s a good word. My own never-say-die attitude toward preserving “bemusement” to mean perplexity, and only that, is beginning to give me that General Custer vibe.  

Throughout the proceedings, Dreyer is simultaneously meticulous and unfussy, a winning combination and surely a byproduct of dealing with authorial egos for the better part of his adult life. As the tongue-in-cheek subtitle implies, a good copyeditor has to both believe in their absolute correctness, while allowing for the mutability of language, authorial eccentricities, and the fact that most rules can and should be broken if they’re broken in the service of clarity. Dreyer’s tone is authoritative, yet relaxed and playful, with the presence of teacher that you do not fear, but do fear disappointing.

He is not a grammarian, and certainly not a so-called “Guardian of Grammar,” as a recent Times profile had it. Chapter Six is titled “A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing,” and the first line is, “I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I hate grammar.” Grammar is, he explains, important—a firm grasp of the basic rules allows a writer to convey thought clearly; grammar jargon, on the other hand—and the oft-attendant starchiness about it—is not. Lynne Truss is a grammarian, and popular on that basis with people who see dashed-off text messages as the sign of a culture in shambles. Dreyer is not fighting this sort of proxy culture war; he simply wants people to write well.

But beyond the pleasure of Dreyer’s prose and authorial tone, I think there is something else at play with the popularity of his book. To put it as simply as possible, the man cares, and we need people who care right now. Dreyer’s English is, beyond a freakin’ style guide, the document of a serious person’s working life. At sixty, Dreyer is at the top of his game and profession, an honorable profession he has worked diligently at for more than three decades. To write a book is to care deeply and in a sustained way about something; to copyedit a book is to care deeply and in a sustained way about someone else’s deep and sustained caring. And to have copyedited books for one’s adult life is to have spent one’s adult life caring about other people’s words and the English language. As he writes in the introduction:

I am a copyeditor… my job is to lay my hands on [a] piece of writing and make it… better. Not rewrite it, not to bully and flatten it into some notion of Correct Prose, whatever that might be, but to burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make it read even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it. That is, if I’ve done my job correctly.

Our current era is marked by cynicism and nihilism—it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that we managed to elect the worst person in the world as president, a con artist and pathological liar who will say anything to stay in the public consciousness and keep the inverted pyramid of his shabby criminal empire from toppling down onto his empty head. Trump is an avatar of everything impermanent, incompetent, and insincere about this era, and I believe there’s a great inchoate hunger for the opposite, for someone who thinks that words and ideas matter. What Benjamin Dreyer provides in Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is the increasingly rare and refreshing public spectacle of a person caring about their job and doing it well. Fundamentally, Dreyer’s expertise is rooted not in credentials and accreditation. As he says, “I wandered into my job nearly three decades ago…and that’s how I learned to copyedit: by observing copyeditors.” His advice is not only correct, but also, crucially, idiosyncratic and eccentric. Above all, it is personal. Its basis, and the basis of Dreyer’s English, is a lifetime of thinking and caring deeply about something, a lifetime of giving a shit.

Mr. Dreyer was kind enough to respond via email to a few questions that came to mind as I read his book.

The Millions: In the introduction to the book, you discuss how you got into copyediting. You’d been waiting tables and bartending after college—“faffing around,” in your great phrase—and started proofreading on the side, and one thing led to another. As someone who also took a roundabout path to their profession, I’m curious if there was an “a-ha” moment, a particular book or editing experience, when you realized this was what you were really doing with your life—a moment when it felt like a calling, if that isn’t too grand.

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Benjamin Dreyer: What a good question, to which I don’t quite have an answer. But I can think of one particular job that loomed, and still looms, large in my memory: One of my first copyediting jobs was a book called Not Since Carrie, which was a history of Broadway musical flops. Basically, I was born to copyedit that book, because Broadway musicals are totally my thing, but I couldn’t, back in the extremely early ’90s, possibly have been wetter around the ears. I did, if I may say so, a first-rate job of it, and the book is, still, a great favorite of aficionados. But I remember distinctly what a challenge it was for me: so many copyeditorial things to figure out that I wasn’t confident about, that I was still learning—even rudimentary things like number treatment, which is important when you’re copyediting a book full of dates and numbers of performances. Had I copyedited it just a few years later, I would, I think, have sailed through it. I’m glad I applied myself so diligently to getting it right, but I like to think about something that I guess is obvious: The more you do a kind of work, the better you get at it. Perhaps that is the answer to your question, though: Perhaps it’s then that I realized that copyediting was a thing I could do, and not merely do but do well and make a difference, a contribution.

TM: I follow you on Twitter, and was amused and charmed, as I think were many writers and followers, by your incredulous delight at the book’s runaway success. In my review, I posit that one reason it has resonated with readers is simply the pleasure people feel, in our nihilistic and cynical age, encountering someone who cares deeply and sincerely about their work. In your case, obviously, someone who has spent decades thinking about writing and developing a book’s worth of idiosyncratic ideas and opinions. Have you gotten this sense? Why else do you think it has connected with the reading public?

BD: “Incredulous” is certainly the word for it. I’m utterly floored by the book’s success. Not merely that people are buying it—and reserving it at their local library! I love being a library book!—in numbers I couldn’t possibly have expected—though, okay, there’s nothing “merely” about that. But the joy that people seem to be taking in it: Truly I beam every time someone tweets a photo of their newly arrived copy or screenshots a favorite passage. I’ve also received a number of messages from people who want to tell me how much the book means to them, and that just undoes me. I’m going to rely on the wisdom of my wise mother, who might have been the first person to articulate, at least that I absorbed, that after two years of an administration whose every utterance is an insult not merely to democracy but to the English language, people are eager to embrace a book that suggests something so simple as: Words have meaning, and a clear, effective sentence carries a kind of truth. I don’t mean to be grand about it—truly I wrote the book essentially to be helpful and amusing, not to make a statement—but it seems to have struck a nerve. (And as my mother also pointed out: That it took me a lot longer to write the book than I’d intended certainly got us to a point of, apparently, spectacular timing.)

TM: Spare a moment for the em-dash, if you would. The most popular article I’ve published at The Millions is a paean to the em (found here). People love it, as do I, though with some guilty compunction. In a brief section in the book about the em, you mention that you feel it’s overused, and I wonder if you could expand on that—is it that it’s often an approximation of more precise punctuation? Or is it just generally overused, and as an editor, why do you think that is?

BD: I too love an em-dash—not as much as (oh, look, there goes one now) I love that scamp the en-dash or my favorite piece of punctuation, the semicolon—but people do, I think, lean on them a little hard because it’s easier to drop a couple of em dashes into a sentence than get a sentence’s various parts to adhere with, y’know, words. But I’m happy to repeat here that though traditional copyediting wisdom tells you never to use more than two em dashes in a sentence, one of my own sentences, up there in the answer to question two, includes three of them, and I have no regrets about that. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

TM: You are generally philosophical in the book about changes in grammar and usage, often striking a tone of resigned, if lighthearted, acceptance. Is there, however, one trend you imply can’t abide? What stylistic hill will you die on, if any?

BD: There’s remarkably little that’s occurred lately in This Our Evolving Language that bothers me, and though I’ve become aware these last few weeks that some people expect me to rail against the destruction of English as it’s being carried out daily on the Internet (which I still capitalize), I think that all that hand-wringing is utter malarkey and I have zero intention of participating in it. I suspect that my tone of resigned, if lighthearted, acceptance has much to do with the fact that I’m well aware that I’m not as young as I used to be in all regards, and not just how English works or is made to work. But okay, let’s do this: That people have come to condemn that excellent and necessary comma in such constructions as “Hello, Karen”: Well, that just boils my blood. How’s that?

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

3 comments:

  1. Great article – (em dash!) bolsters the egos of us copyeditors everywhere, which is needed after another wrist slap for insisting on following my Agency’s style guide (which I wrote, so I guess that makes me guilty as charged). Now I have to get Benjamin’s book…

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