06 April 2019
by John Floyd
by John M. Floyd
The other day I discovered, while piddling around on Amazon, a book called Dreyer's English--An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. At first I didn't pay it much attention--I already own a lot of books about language and style. Some are worthwhile and some are not.
Then I remembered my wife telling me about a recent NPR interview with the author, Benjamin Dreyer, who is vice president, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House. I looked up the broadcast online and listened to it, and that made up my mind. This book sounded different from most of the others. I ordered it, received it in two days, and read it in one evening. (The book is no small, stick-it-in-your-pocket volume like The Elements of Style; it's almost 300 pages.)
As it turned out, it was delightful. Or as close to it as that subject can be. Literary style--grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, paragraph structure, word choice, word usage--can be a dry (Dreyer?) topic. But this book was not only informative, it was fun.
Here are just a few of the (mostly paraphrased) pointers and observations I found interesting in Dreyer's English.
- You don't always have to precede a sentence-ending "too" with a comma. It's okay to write "Me too."
- Feel free to end a sentence shaped like a question with a period instead of a question mark. It makes a statement, doesn't it.
- Always use the series (or serial, or Oxford) comma. You know this already, but the second comma in "red, white, and blue" is the series comma. Its use can prevent the following disasters:
Dreyer's example: Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector. (Which implies that Mandela might've been older than we thought, and had an odd hobby.)
My example: Attending the party were two hookers, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. (Which implies two people instead of four.)
- Limit your use of words like very, rather, really, quite, just, pretty, and surely.
- Ignore the Big Three grammar/style "rules":
1. Never Begin a Sentence with And or But
2. Never Split an Infinitive
3. Never End a Sentence with a Preposition
(I happily break them all the time, but it's good to hear an expert say it's okay.)
- Never use an apostrophe to pluralize a word. This also holds true for abbreviations: CDs, ATMs, IDs, SASEs.
- When a possessive apostrophe is used with a word ending in "s," put another "s" after the apostrophe. (Strunk and White agree with this.) Mr. Jones's tractor, Colonel Sanders's recipe, the boss's wife.
- If the title of a work starts with "The," include it in a possessive construction:
Incorrect: Carson McCullers's Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Correct: Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
If you don't follow this rule, you could end up with something like this:
James Joyce's Dead
(Which Dreyer says sounds more like a tragic headline.)
- Cut back on exclamation points. He says, "Some writers recommend that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points per book; others insist that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points in a lifetime."
- Always use a comma if there's any question of clarity.
His example: In June Truman's secretary of state flew to Moscow.
My example: In time travel will become less frustrating.
- Hyphenate multiple-word adjectives:
- Merge prefixes with main words hyphenlessly:
(Unless such a combination looks confusing or awkward, like recreate or coworker.)
- Don't use "hissed" if what is spoken contains no "s" sounds. "Take your hand off me, you brute," she hissed.
- A tip for recognizing passive voice vs. active voice: If you can append "by zombies" to the end of a sentence, you've written a sentence in the passive voice. The floor was swept (by zombies).
- "Blond" is an adjective: He has blond hair; she has blond hair. Both "blond" and "blonde" are nouns: A man with blond hair is a blond; a woman with blond hair is a blonde.
Examples of our evolving language:
"light bulb" became "light-bulb" and then "lightbulb"
"Web site" became "Web-site" and then "website"
- Dreyer's view on internal monologue (or what he calls "articulated rumination"):
In the old days, authors said: "What is to become of me?" Estelle thought.
This eventually became: What is to become of me? Estelle thought.
And now we're more likely to see: What is to become of me? Estelle thought.
A final piece of advice:
- Sometimes it's better to just reword a sentence than to struggle with what's right or wrong or politically correct.
Instead of saying "It is I who am late" or "It is I who is late," say "I'm late."
Instead of saying "Everyone take their seats" or "Everyone take his seat" or "Everyone take his/her seat" or Everyone take his or her seat," say "Sit down."
Some of his advice I didn't agree with. I prefer a.m. and p.m., he prefers A.M. and P.M.; he prefers "mind-racking" to "mind-wracking"; he doesn't like the word actually and I wouldn't be able to live without my actuallys, etc. (But my wife was kind enough to remind me that he works for Random House and my major was electrical engineering, so . . .)
The book also clarifies dozens of often-misused words and phrases: breach/breech, continual/continuous, discreet/discrete, everyday/every day, evoke/invoke, loath/loathe, mantel/mantle, onboard/on board, peak/peek/pique, underway/under way, workout/work out
And it lists (as a sort of bonus) many often-misspelled or mispunctuated people names, place names, and brand names. A few examples: Anjelica Huston, Katharine Hepburn, Ann-Margret, T.S. Eliot, Nicolas Cage, Bleecker Street, Caesars Palace, Fontainebleau, Savile Row, Dr Pepper, Froot Loops, JCPenney, Plexiglas, Reddi Wip
To sum all this up, I haven't enjoyed a book about language this much since Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and that was sixteen years ago.
Give Dreyer's English a try.