"Surpasses Even Shakespeare"

I was more or less a stranger to correct English usage when I started in journalism. I learned by reading and by hearing editors crack up at my mistakes. Over the years, I’ve improved. And I’m still improving, mostly because I’m editing more. Almost every day, I’m confronted with a question of grammar or usage I can’t immediately answer. I pick up a reference text and acquaint or, more often, reacquaint myself with the rules. I probably stand in the top 1 per cent of English users but I should be in the top .001 per cent given how long I’ve been at this. I’m still capable of stupid mistakes.

In a newsletter early this year on the subject of why we all need editors, I missed the apostrophe in “it’s.” My friend Tim, an editor at Penguin Random House Canada, enjoyed that one enormously and told me and the rest of the world so on Facebook.

I’m the sort of person who takes criticism well, so I responded good-naturedly:

“Fuck off, Tim.”

He enjoyed that even more and mailed me a copy of Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. With “compliments.”

I refused to look at the book, dropped it on a back shelf, and forgot about it. There it rested until last weekend. Looking for something else, I ran across Dreyer’s English, cursed Tim, and decided to give it a chance.

Benjamin Dreyer (above) is copy chief at Random House in New York. He has been a copy and production editor for almost three decades and has worked with E. L. Doctorow, Edmund Morris, Michael Chabon, Elizabeth Strout, among other worthies. He has dust-jacket blurbs from George Saunders, Amy Bloom, and Jon Meacham, who says that Dreyer’s “brilliant, pithy, incandescently intelligent book is to contemporary writing what Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry was to medieval English: a gift that broadens and deepens the art and the science of literature...”

Well, what would you say if asked to tout a book by the guy who’s editing your copy? Some week soon we’ll talk about the business of book blurbs.

Anyway, I opened Dreyer’s book. The first thing I noticed is he uses eight em dashes in the first thirty lines of prose. The em dash, for the uninitiated, is a versatile punctuation mark in the shape of a long dash (—). It can be used in place of commas, colons, or parentheses, or to emphatically set off a word or a clause from the body of a sentence, among other things. It is the laziest piece of punctuation going, and it is most frequently employed by people who don’t know how to build proper sentences or can’t be bothered.

Dreyer, in his opening chapters, has a lot to say about words we should avoid (very, rather, really, quite), and why it’s (!) sometimes okay to split infinitives or start sentences with “and” or “but.” He is firm on the controversial Oxford or series comma, the comma between the last two items on a list (writers, editors, publishers, and owners): “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.”

I found myself agreeing with most of Dreyer’s advice. Basic stuff. Trouble was, I found it really rather very quite hard to concentrate on his messages. I was mentally replacing his bloody em dashes—the man is an addict—with commas and parentheses.

I soldiered on. People get confused, says Dreyer, over navel/naval and pore/pour and affect/effect. Roughly 18 per cent of his short book is devoted to confusables. Not a lot of them surprised me, although I have to give him credit for mucus/mucous. The former is a noun, the latter an adjective. Mucous membranes produce mucus.

There is a chapter on editing fiction, and Dreyer knows his stuff. I accept his rule that the redoubtable Shirley Jackson can have a character utter the words “should of.” For everyone else, “should have.”

I encountered a Dreyer rule I can’t abide, although he’s technically correct. Cole Porter (above) wrote, “one of those bells that now and then rings / just one of those things.” Dreyer says rings should be singular. Something about relative clauses agreeing with the antecedent of the relative pronoun, which is the nearest noun or pronoun. Bullshit.

Did you know the word “factoid” was first used by Norman Mailer to describe “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the silent majority?” Thank Mr. Dreyer.

I lingered over his comments on em dashes. The audacity: “Likely you don’t need much advice from me on how to use em dashes, because you all seem to use an awful lot of them.”

In a lesson on the sublime use of sentence fragments, Dreyer quotes at length one of my favorite passages in Dickens, the opening paragraphs of Bleak House.

Here’s a sample:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog dropping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.”

It’s a beautiful long paragraph, and not an em dash to be found.

If I’m being snippy about this book, it’s more because of Tim than Dreyer, who has his charms. Here he is illustrating a point about prepositions:

Two women are seated side by side at a posh dinner party, one a matron of the sort played in the old Marx Brother movies by Margaret Dumont (above), except frostier, the other an easygoing southern gal, let’s say, for the sake of the visuals, wearing a very pink and very ruffled evening gown.
Southern Gal, amiably, to Frosty Matron: So where y’all from?
Frosty Matron, no doubt giving Southern Gal a once-over through a lorgnette: I’m from a place where people don’t end their sentences with prepositions.
Southern Gal, sweetly, after a moment’s consideration: OK. So where y’all from, bitch?

Dreyer’s not a pedant. He generally takes what works over what’s proper. He also makes the crucial point that his book is not intended to be definitive, in part because no two experts ever agree on all matters of usage, and also because English is continually evolving.

I’m not sure I agree with author Amy Bloom who writes on the dust-jacket that “if Oscar Wilde wanted to be helpful as well as brilliant” he would have written Dreyer’s “perfect” book, and I’m a long way from thanking Tim (below) for sending it over, but I think you might enjoy it.