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English As She Is Spoke

May 5, 2019

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer, Random House, $25.00


Two things some readers don’t like reading about, I’ve found, are my interest in subjects peripheral to baseball and my contrarian approach to opinions voiced by Bill James, so please take warning that this review is both.

Or at least it began that way. Bill was asked a few months back if he had heard of a new book entitled Dreyer’s English, an updated sort of Strunk & White, which Bill was on record as disliking intensely for its prescriptive approach ("Write this way! Never write that way! Do this! Jump up and down on my command!"). Not terribly surprisingly, Bill expressed a vehement distaste for all prescriptive writing advice, especially that offered by professional copy editors, which Mr. Dreyer is by trade, as being intrusive, unsolicited, largely unnecessary and irritating to authors who, like Bill, wished for their writing to appear as they wrote it and not as some geeky wannabe-author with too many sharpened red pencils and too much time on his hands wanted to change it into. Over the years, Bill has expressed views of professional copyeditors that rival my hostility towards preachers of the Gospel on crowded New York City subway cars, for whom beheading is too gentle a remedy.

Since Dreyer’s English seems to be beloved by its readers, who rave about its wit, its usefulness, and its overall readability, I expected to defend it here contrary to Bill’s perorations, and to stand up for my brethren and sistren copy-editors. Unfortunately for that aim, I hated it.

I might actually dislike this book more than Bill would if he would ever take an hour to thumb through it. At first, Dreyer’s English’s tone towards prescriptivism in general seems ironic, as implied in the book’s subtitle: "An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style." Of course (Dreyer seems to say in striking so arch a tone), no one can achieve utter correctness in matters of such subtlety as clarity and style, so he must be taking the opposite approach, but no.

Dreyer is perpetually laying down the law on words we cannot, must not, ever use again, and informing us which words we must instead employ. Far more obnoxious than Strunk and White, if only because much, much longer and more systematic, Dreyer quite unironically tells us what to do. (In its brevity, Strunk and White always seemed harmless to me: how could a pamphlet-sized book ever begin to cover the whole of English usage? Without ever saying so, it said implicitly, "This is just a few tips to improve your writing."  S&W, for those who’ve never picked up its few ounces, is a book by New Yorker editor E.B. White based on a literal pamphlet written by his English instructor at Cornell, a guy named Strunk whose first name I’ve forgotten, and who I think was actually deceased when White caused the book to appear in print. If Strunk wasn’t literally dead, his function had been performed several decades before White resurrected and amended the pamphlet in the late 1950s—it had begun as an in-class guide to writing well, of the type composition professors have written for their classes’ use since comp classes began. It was officious in spots, no doubt, and partly out of date in the 1950s, which makes sense because it was based on usage that was 40 years old when the first edition of S&W appeared, and far more out of date today, 60 years later. This is Strunk’s centennial year, I think, if my arithmetic is right.

Dreyer’s reputation for wit derives from his tricky engagements with his reader, whom he addresses quite directly throughout, partly in imperatives ("Do this! Do that! Stand on your head!") and partly in direct addresses ("As a rule you should avoid comma splicing.") (I made up that first quote; the second is from p. 28.) He tends to fool around, as I did in spelling "copyediting" three different ways in paragraphs 2 and 3 of this review, sticking his thumb in your eye by mentioning that he did it after doing it, as I’m doing here, to illustrate how carelessly we all read. Why an author wants to illustrate this point is somewhat beyond me, since a reader who skims is largely the fault of the writer for boring his readership.

But Dreyer’s point is that "copy editor," "copy-editor," and "copyeditor" are all three perfectly acceptable ways to present that noun. The phenomenon is one that I’ve illustrated to my writing students using the example of "base ball," "base-ball," and "baseball."  A new word often starts as a normal two-word phrase, adjective and noun, which gradually gets joined into a single hyphenated word, and finally settles into usage as a single non-hyphenated word. It happens that he prefers "copy editor" and therein lies my complaint: Dreyer’s English is all about his personal preferences.

Or, as I prefer to phrase it, Dreyer’s English is all about his stupid fucking opinions.

I prefer my own stupid fucking opinions, naturally, but I prefer for those SFOs to be rooted in some authority, preferably an authority accepted by most writers and available to all for consultation. In other words, if I’m going to opine on English usage, which two generations of students have wished I would cut back on, I’d like to do it based on something other than my whims.

That’s Bill’s chief complaint about copyeditors, and experts in general, I think:  they’ve taken it upon themselves to order other people around, with no one that Bill can locate who ever elected them as God. A born anti-authoritarian and small-d democrat, Bill seems to feel that everyone is just as good as everyone else, and should take orders from no one (except for waiters and waitresses, whose job it is to take orders from everyone). A fellow anti-authoritarian and small-d democrat myself, I agree with Bill’s stance here but I think he’s addressing the wrong problem.

As a former copyeditor and as a former writing teacher (I still do both, but only on occasion and upon request, preferably on hands and knees), I feel my job was to help people write in standard English. I viewed my teaching gig in particular as helping kids acquire writing habits that would get their feet into the doorways they wanted their feet in. Most college kids professed a profound lack of interest in acquiring said habits, but I assured them they were required to study this stuff for only a limited period of time, so I would give them a series of pointers and tips for that period of time, usually 13 weeks, after which they could disregard them freely, at their own risk.

The risk of disregarding was that certain doors would probably close on their feet, sometimes abruptly, often painfully. I told them of the job-candidates I had rejected personally when one of my more tedious tasks was screening the applications of candidates for job-openings in the English department—I had to look at hundreds of letters for every opening we had, and winnow them down to a dozen or so for the Personnel Committee to consider. I had maybe a minute or so to review each of them (unless I wished to make winnowing my life’s work) so I felt grateful to those poor slobs whose cover letters contained usage errors, typos, omitted words, grammatical problems, pretentious language, and misspellings. Such sloppy cover-letter writers cut my winnowing in half, probably unfairly but so goes the world.

I had probably gotten winnowed myself in just this way when I was a job applicant typing out dozens of cover-letters each day, but as I say, so goes the world. Some of the rejectees were probably brilliant scholars, but others were probably incompetent teachers of grammar and usage, and I was willing as Chief Winnower to lose both in favor of those applicants whose cover letters were grammatically impeccable. To a lesser degree, this process goes on with cover letters in many fields, and in interviews everywhere. I’d reckon that this process is a key unspoken element of most job interviews: if a candidate is thoroughly inarticulate, can’t express a single thought without "like" and "you know" and inappropriate colloquialisms and cursing and broken-off malformed sentences, and the job involves contact with highly educated co-workers or clients, that interview is unlikely to result in a job offer, especially if the other candidates are well-spoken and articulate.

My job, as I saw it, as composition instructor, was to make my students aware that there is a way of speaking that impresses those looking to be impressed, and it’s helpful to acquire the habits of this way of speaking and writing that is known as Standard English. One of the first things I learned about my university was that it took a perverse pride in educating students who were the first members of their families to attend college--students, in other words, who had a shortage of role models in their lives to show them how educated folks spoke and wrote and generally comported themselves. Most of my students came out of public high schools, usually in New York City, usually in inner-city areas, where the object wasn’t so much to learn things as it was to avoid getting stabbed. (I might have owed my own job, my cover-letter and interviewing skills aside, to being a product of such a background myself: I attended a high school on the outskirts of Coney Island that, in Woody Allen’s description of his own high school, a mile or so away, was "a special high school for emotionally disturbed teachers." My dad was a sixth-grade dropout, and my mom a proud graduate of that same special high school.) I told my students that they would compete-- for jobs, for further education, for society’s approval-- with kids who had attended fancy prep schools and tony colleges, who were born to parents who spoke English as their native language (my students’ parents generally did not), and who were born to money. Knowing how to speak and write would help level the playing field.

I’m not talking about acquiring habits such as Connecticut Lockjaw here, but habits like not saying "Between you and I" and "Whom is speaking?" To an attentive student, I could illustrate the rudiments of "case" (i.e., saying "Between you and me" and "Who is speaking?") in a class or two, assign exercises illustrating the concept of case, correct any errors, and resolve that particular issue for the remainder of that student’s life. At the end of 13 weeks of lessons in case, in diction, in syntax, in subordination, in split infinitives, in dangling modifiers, and the 20 or 30 other concepts I could cram into a semester, at the least my students would be aware of what they needed to work on, and how to work on such issues in the future, on their own.

Anyone with a grammar book and two brain cells to rub together could, of course, instruct them in such niceties. What I felt I was equipped to do was to prioritize these issues as well as explain them to my students. I could, in other words, read a diagnostic essay (an essay I assigned, usually on a very flexible, fun topic because the content meant close to nothing, as most composition topics do) and spot a dozen or more technical problems in it, which many readers could spot, but put the errors in order of egregiousness, for the student to work on one problem at a time.  The priority could be the problem’s conspicuousness, or it could be its ubiquity, or it could be the ease of fixing it. An example of "ease of fixing" would be a student who didn’t distinguish "its" from "it’s" or "their" from "there." A quick explanation of the principle, a few exercises, and voila—that student now understands the issue, and knows how to use possessive pronouns from that point on, and we move onto a new problem.

Part of the problem with "it’s and "its" is that logic doesn’t help there—it hurts. "It’s" LOOKS like it should be a possessive pronoun, on the model of "Arthur’s" or "Maria’s" being a possessive personal pronoun, with that pesky ‘ right before the possessive marker "s" but it is not a possessive pronoun. "It’s" is a contraction of "It is" while "its" (which LOOKS like a plural) is the possessive, so I had to explain (to college kids, mind you, repeatedly) that in this instance, logic doesn’t help. Memorization does.

But usually there is some kind of logic that prevails, and I tried to show it where it does: with split infinitives there is a kind of logic, and probably an excess of logic. In Latin, the infinitive form of a verb is a single word, and 19th-century British grammarians, trained in Latin, applied the Latin rules to English, whose infinitive form is a two-word form, the words "to" and the root form of the verb.  In other words, an infinitive such as "to go" is capable of being "split" by having another word, usually an adverb, inserted in between the two parts: "to boldly go" being the now-clichéd  example of a split infinitive. (Dreyer suffers from including too many trite examples, including this one. He also quotes the much-quoted Raymond Chandler wisecrack, "when I split an infinite, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split." After Dreyer, or rather after my quotation of Dreyer, we should impose a century-long moratorium on these two quotations.) Pedants delight in pointing out how "to boldly go" should properly be (or should be properly) "to go boldly" or even "boldly to go" in order to avoid splitting the infinitive "to go," which is nearly as dangerous as splitting the atom or at the very least as dangerous as splitting a cord of wood.  Don’t do it, kids!

But there’s a whole school of modern grammarians, including Dreyer, who don’t cry over split infinitives. They maintain that the split infinitive is a rule, invented by Brits in top hats and ZZ Top beards, that exists purely arbitrarily, applying the logic of a (dead) language with single-word infinitives to a (living) language with double-word infinitives, just to trip up uneducated users of that living language, English, and must be disregarded. They cry out, loudly and proudly, "Split infinitives! Split them openly! Split them hourly! Death to fancy-schmancy Latinist snobs!"

I’ve literally gotten into fights with colleagues over split infinitives—more precisely, I’ve gotten into ferocious arguments (no punches thrown) over whether our composition instructors should be teaching the split infinitive as a dread monster to be avoided. The present Director of Composition at Pace, a young woman who is probably my closest friend in the Department (formerly my officemate, before we both rated our own offices), have an ongoing debate about the use (or uselessness) of teaching this odd point, and the funny thing is that we both agree: it is an invented rule, and a somewhat silly, pointless one, that makes zero difference in the clarity of a sentence. We agree that "to go boldly" and "to boldly go" and "boldly to go" mean the same zack thing, and we even draw the same line at "boldly go to" NOT being an acceptable word order.

Where we differ, however, is in the split infinitive as a marker. Old-fashioned fuddy-duddy me maintains that educated people, rightly or wrongly, trained in avoiding the split infinitive, get to strut their stuff to other educated people. The idea behind language is NOT to show off one’s mastery of grammar rules, of course, but rather it is to communicate, which unsplit infinitives play no part in doing. But (my fuddy-duddy argument goes) it’s fairly easy not to split infinitives—all that’s required, really, is just an awareness of the concept of the split infinitive, and a willingness to experiment inventively with syntax.

Take that last phrase: I might have written "…to inventively experiment," splitting the infinitive verb "to experiment" right down the middle with the adverb "inventively," couldn’t I have? No harm, no foul. But instead, because I’ve formed the habit of avoiding split infinitives wherever possible, I didn’t.

What did I accomplish? In that one sentence, probably nothing. But by avoiding S.I.s (wherever possible) throughout my writing, I send an unspoken signal to other educated people that I am a member of their club, we band of brothers, we happy few, who know that split infinitives exist and know how to avoid committing them to print. 

Politically, this makes me an elitist, I’m aware. But my goal is actually anti-elite: if I can train people NOT from the elite, NOT from highly educated parents, NOT from money, NOT from native-English-speaking families, NOT from tony prep schools (all of which describe me, btw) to write and speak indistinguishably from true elites, then I break down the barrier between elites and non-elites. If I can teach a kid from an ethnic ghetto to "code-switch" between his native lingo and standard English a little more easily, if I can show him a few tricks of my trade employed by the elite to maintain those barriers erected to keep him on the outside, then I’m doing my job, as I defined it.

The barrier between elite and non-elite, of course, is tall and thick and solid, and mastering the split infinitive will never break it down. My aim is to remove a brick or two via the split infinitive, and another brick or two via the dangling modifier, and eventually to make the barrier low enough for a really motivated, truly ambitious Puerto Rican or Guyanese or Palestinian kid to climb over it. "Code-switching" effectively is the key—I’m not seeking to eradicate their backgrounds. As if I ever could. To this day, I can speak fluently in my thick Brooklynese that is nearly incomprehensible to a standard English listener. (When I lived in France, among French-speakers who understood spoken English pretty well, I could have private conversations with my travelling companion simply by affecting the Brooklynese we had both grown up speaking. The Frenchies couldn’t make out a single word of it. Even someone from Brooklyn would have had a tough time understanding some of it—think "Ratso Rizzo," only more nasal, faster, and with more mumbling.) But I can also imitate a prep-school-educated elitist whose grammatically perfect sentences go on in subordinate clause after endless subordinate clause.

I think it’s a kind of game, and I’m just trying to show kids arriving late to the game some tricks to get caught up, a kind of cheat sheet to the rules of the game, les regles de jeux, and this aim is easily mistaken for my sincerely buying into elitism. Anti-elites, such as I take Bill to be, who oppose teaching and learning and writing and speaking in the style of elites that goes by the name of "Standard English," are, of course, themselves buying into 99% of those "Standard English" rules.  Bill, to pick on someone who can fight back, is a wonderful writer who employs "Standard English" masterfully—his verbs agree with his nouns across the board, his sentences are impeccably subordinated, his modifiers never dangle, his syntax is a model of clarity. (Even if he claims not to understand what the word "syntax" means.) He is, to employ a Seaverism, a pro’s pro, or even a pro’s pro’s pro of prose. He uses Standard English like Jackson Pollock dripped paint, skillfully, purposefully, brilliantly.

No one taught Pollock how to drip paint on a canvas. He took painting lessons, I’m sure, just as Bill took composition classes, but both of their talents shine through because of their innate intelligence, because of their careful observation of other master artists, because of their application of all the skills of composition and color and style that they taught to themselves. All artists, in a very real sense, are self-taught.

One of my former students is a gifted painter, another an editor at HarperCollins (Rob Neyer’s editor, in fact), and another is an executive at a lower-Manhattan brokerage house, and another runs her own investment-analysis firm. I take no credit for their success, nor do I deserve any. I just showed them (all kids from zero money, btw, all the first in their families to attend college) where the low points in the barrier were, and they pulled themselves over with their own muscles. All of us—these kids, me, you, Bill, Dreyer—agree on 99% of the "rules" of Standard English. For all of Bill’s railing against copyeditors’ rude imposition of arbitrary BS rules, he obeys 99% of them scrupulously: take the obvious example of irregular verbs, which English has by the barrelful. Were, Was, Is, Be—makes no sense, logically or even historically. It’s a hodgepodge of linguistic accidents (that I’ll spare you here) that created conjugated verb-forms, and it makes much more sense to adopt some regular system that conforms to common sense: I be here, you be here, we all be here. Why make people memorize all the irregular forms of "to be"? If the present-tense form of the verb "to do" were logical, then the past tense would be "doed" (pronounced "dude"), wouldn’t it? But Bill rightly rejects logic there, and says along with the rest of us prescriptivists, "It don’t make sense, and it don’t gotta. Just memorize it."

Unless it’s your mission in life to sound all street. That’s not my mission in life. (I have no idea what my mission in life is, just some clear ideas of what it’s not.) Since standard English consists of thousands of rules, of which 1% at most are even up for discussion, even the most prescriptive of Grandma-Nazis and the loosest of Anything-Goers actually agree on almost everything—all the squabbling is over that less-than-1% that’s up for grabs at any given moment.

The singular "they" is, at the moment, way up in the air, and it was certainly a straw, if not the one that broke the aching back of the tired old camel that was my academic career: the ultimate crisis of that career came when students insisted that I not mark their sentences as "wrong" where they used the pronoun "they" in place of the "he" or "she" I wanted to agree with singular verbs. That is, when I marked "Each student made their own federal cases over pronouns" as "wrong," they protested to my chairman, who actually spoke to me about showing more sensitivity to non-binary students and their preference for "they" to either "he" or "she," neither of which adequately encompassed their gender identities.

I told my chairman (who is actually a very nice woman) that I had no issue at all with non-binary students, and was plenty sensitive to their needs, though I thought that what they really needed was not to coopt a plural pronoun for their singular selves but rather to invent a new singular pronoun and to force society to use it, rather than using "they." I could go along with, say, "ze" or "zir" or "zis," provided they want to wage a ten-year war over pronouns—good luck to them with that, but I have no linguistic issue with the neologism.

I did, and do, have a MAJOR issue with all the non-non-binary students who preferred "they" over "he" or "she" out of unbridled laziness. I’ve had these non-non-binary types, both as students and as writers I’ve copyedited, for decades, long before anyone outside of a Virginia Woolf novel ever imagined a non-binary gender. These are folks who think they’ve lit upon a work-around, a way to avoid figuring out how to make their verbs agree with their pronouns, by using "they" as their all-purpose pronoun for everything. "Someone knows what they want," I was taught, is simply wrong. Incorrect. Bad English. BZZZZZZT! GAME OVER.  Line dem up against der vall und commence mit der shooting. Everyone does it, of course, especially in spoken English, all the time.  Hell, I do it sometimes, but it’s lazy and wrong and easily fixed.

The common fix, as Dreyer acknowledges, is simply to recast the sentence in the plural altogether: "People know what they want" is the solution to that problem, and a fairly simple habit to develop once one becomes aware that there is a problem. The historical solution had been to cast everything in the masculine third-person singular, "Someone knows what he wants," but gender-equality has nixed that option, and the gender-equal pronouns, "Someone knows what he or she wants," works only if you’re not using a lot of pronouns in the succeeding sentences. If you are, you should know that readers can take only so much repetition of "he or she," "him or her," "his or hers" etc. before they go insane. (I had first cast that sentence in the singular, btw, "…a reader can take only so much…" but caught myself before I finished typing the word "reader" in the singular.) Dreyer’s personal preference is to rewrite the sentence from scratch: "All of us want what we want," for example, or some such, which is fine but also a cop-out.

My problem with Dreyer is not that he’s incorrect, which he is sometimes, but he’s authoritatively incorrect about many, many things. He’s pretending to be God here, which is precisely Bill’s complaint about obnoxious copyeditors. (It’s such a relief to be agreeing with Bill about at least one copyeditor messing around with writers’ prose for no good reason, or at least no persuasive reason.)  Who put Dreyer in charge of the English language?

I suppose the answer to that rhetorical question is "Random House did": he lists himself as "vice president, executive editor, and copy chief, of Random House," which all mean pretty much the same thing. (I could have listed my academic credentials as "full Professor, tenured faculty member, writing instructor, and Associate Chair of English Department," but why would I? Normally, my bio says just "teaches writing at Pace U.," in case someone wants to write me a nasty letter, and lists my current book if I’ve got one to plug.) Dreyer puts the word "random" in Random House—his book is very loosely organized, to the point where it’s not much more than a random collection of one man’s tics and tetches and bugaboos.  He has a lot of them, it’s true, but that’s just an occupational hazard. All copyeditors are allergic to particular issues that writers freely and falsely indulge themselves in, and all copyeditors are highly allergic to certain ones that crop up frequently in their own experience. This is a collection of Dreyer’s random bugaboos.

I’d like to discuss the more neutral word in the phrase "Random House" for a moment, though. Dreyer claims (p. 11) that "Random House…had no house style. That is, each manuscript got the attentive copyedit it uniquely needed," which is at best an idiotic practice, and is at worst wasteful beyond belief. Every publisher has a "house" style—it may be a loose house style, copyeditors may be encouraged to depart from it when they need to, but every publishing house in the world run according to the principles that apply outside of a mental institution has some sort of house style. The looser houses just instruct their fledgling copyeditors to refer to AP, or to Chicago, or to MLA, or some other standard reference. (That’s The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and the style manual of the Modern Language Association. There are others.) This is just convenient: you don’t want a fledgling making his own calls on every gray-area issue that crops up, if only because he might quit in mid-book and be replaced by another fledgling who will undo everything he did, and redo everything according to her own idiosyncratic preferences. No, much better to have both of them (or all 112 of them) following the same practices of the AP, or Chicago, or MLA, or APA, or Turabian, or Fowler’s or…I told you there were lots of them. (Even SABR has a house style: according to Meg Rowley, fangraph’s managing editor, today on Twitter, she’s working out the issue of "Flyball vs. Fly ball" just now. She writes, "it's groundball (n.) but fly ball (also n.) according to SABR's style guide and if the life of the person I love most in the world depended on me getting it right on the first try, they're toast like, 40% of the time? though I guess then I'd have more to talk about in therapy.") Everybody worth his pepper, except for Random House, has a house style—I honestly don’t even understand how Random House could NOT have a house style. Their copyediting staff would have to invent rules on the fly 1000 times per book: is it Moslem or Muslim? Fly ball or flyball? Judgement or judgment? And then reinvent those rules the next book they copyedit, because who can keep that stuff straight?

There are two main reasons for following a style guide, aside from convenience: internal consistency and external consistency. "Internal" is simply within one book itself—you don’t want "gray-area issue" to be spelled "grey-area issue" elsewhere within a book, much less have "gray" appear 50 times and "grey" the other 50.  (It’s "gray" in the U.S., if you care, and "grey" in Grey Britain.) After a few times looking it up in AP or MLA or etc., a copyeditor internalizes your house style, and his or her life is much simpler.

"External" refers to the whole range of everything you publish. "Internal" is more important (otherwise your books all look like a dog’s breakfast) but external consistency is needed from book to book, or journal to journal. Naturally, you’ll need to make exceptions to external consistency, the more exceptions the wider the number of books or journals you publish, but still it’s helpful to have default choices that your copyeditors can opt to depart from, rather than having a hodgepodge of decisions being made on every page of everything you print.  My last gig, Pace U. Press, put out a journal on Beat Poetry and a journal on Childhood and Infant Psychology, and it wouldn’t do to have them following the same exact standards slavishly, but it was convenient that both journals spelled "gray" the same way, and that all our copyeditors understood which "gray" to use.

Sometimes this got tricky, especially when our journals were publishing articles by British authors, who would override our corrections of "grey" and "labour" with angry "stets" (i.e., "leave that the fuck alone!!!!") which we would then override: can’t have "colour" mixed with "color" in the same journal, and we were a U.S. publisher. This principle also applied to books, where authors claimed (as Bill does) that a book coming out entirely under their names should be printed with respect to their preferences. My principle, however, was that American books follow standards of American English—sorry. (I’m a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, but I left my Canadian spelling at the border. Sorry again, if that isn’t too Canadian for you, to be apologizing in two consecutive sentences.) The point here is that every publisher has a house style, whether based religiously or loosely on a standard style guide, just to avoid going crazy with each copyeditor applying his own principles (or Stupid Fucking Opinions) to every page he touches.

Back to Dreyer’s bugaboos, there are words he doesn’t like. No special reason—he just doesn’t care for them. He’s got every right not to like certain words, and to apply those dislikes to the books he copyedits, but why do we need to know about them? He’s got this tetch, too, where he prefaces a pronouncement with formal language and then undercuts it with very informal language, which is a tetch that Brian Williams also over-relies on. I suppose they find it amusing, but it gets old real fast. He writes of one usage, "….they’re, to use the technical term, icky." Droll the first ten times, I suppose, but it gets tiresome. Or, I would add, it stinks, except "stinks" is a un-favorite word of Dreyer’s—no idea why it creeps him out, and I don’t much care. (And if you’re going to object to the word "stink," then you must, as Dreyer would insist, include the filmscript to The Philadelphia Story as a reference point. Selah. I have spoken.)

He’s not great on explaining his reasons for dislikes or for that matter his likes. His entry on the word "fulsome" misses the mark, I think, because he doesn’t seem to draw sharply the useful distinction between that word and the word "full." People use both to mean the same thing—all the time lately, I’m appalled to hear people on TV saying things like "He gave a fulsome report," to mean "He gave a thorough, complete, wonderfully inclusive report," but I was educated to take "fulsome" as a pejorative, meaning "disgusting, excessive, over the top."  Dreyer does advise to use it in that manner but doesn’t really explain the point of confusion with the word "full." He does, however, get in a cutesy remark that is lost on readers who don’t speak Yiddish, which happens to be my native language: Fulsome, he says, "can also be applied to the sort of interior decorating taste that leans towards gilt and gold-plated everything, though the best word for that sort of thing remains ungapatchka." I don’t advise using "ungapatchka" unless it comes naturally to your tongue, which it does only to those of us brought up in ungapatchka homes.

Speaking of misused words that have perfectly fine distinctions, Dreyer does lay down the law on "imply" and "infer," a distinction that I’ve noticed Kamala Harris doesn’t get, or at least didn’t draw in her questioning of A.G. Barr this week—as he quibbled over whether Trump asked or suggested that he open investigations, Harris gave him the option of "Infer?" which was wrong, at least as regards diction. "Infer" is what the recipient of a hint does; "imply" is what the hinter is doing. It’s sort of like mixing up the words "pitch" and "catch." They describe the same action, but they’re very specific to different players, and not to be used interchangeably.

Of which, it annoyed me somewhat that though Dreyer doesn’t follow baseball, there are a few references to it that are gratuitous: his illustration of an n-dash (p. 64)  is "the Yankees clobbered the Mets, 14-2," which is fine, but then he goes and writes a fulsome footnote, explaining how he knows so little about baseball that he had originally written "the Mets clobbered the Yankees, 14-2," but a baseball-savvy friend saved him from committing this egregious error, etc., which is not only totally gratuitous information but also happens to be entirely wrong—it’s wrong because the Mets could very well clobber the Yankees on a given day, and it’s gratuitous because who needs another footnote that tells us nothing? I could write paragraphs about every choice I make in writing what I write, but I don’t because your attention is not an unlimited resource, a point Dreyer doesn’t seem to appreciate. He uses footnotes promiscuously throughout Dreyer’s English, about one per page—most of them are irritating, and vexing to match up with the thing they’re referencing. In other words, he babbles a lot. One of his footnotes is an offer to explain, if the reader can ever corner him in a barroom, the "admittedly crackpot" distinction he draws between the color denoted by "grey" and that denoted by "gray." May I opt, if I’m ever in that barroom, to be shot instead?

Another useless chapter here is the one about copyediting works of fiction. He doesn’t include works of poetry as well, but the same principle applies to both: other than fixing possible typos, and outright factual errors that the author doesn’t intend, back off. If a fiction writer, or a poet, wants to destroy the English language, that’s his call. That’s what we’re buying the book for, to see what methods of destruction the author favors, but Dreyer has a whole other set of bugaboos about novels and short stories. He provides example after example of fictional prose he dislikes: how foreign words are to be presented in dialogue, how some writers overuse characters pushing their eyeglasses up or down their noses, or overuse the adverb "suddenly," or overuse "staring into the middle distance." How much do you care about words or phrases Dreyer is sick of seeing? Me, I’ve got enough issues that I’m sick of seeing, myself, without worrying about his issues. (Two reflexive intensifying pronouns in one sentence--ties the record!)

If he could explain his thinking in a way that shows me something that I hadn’t known before, that would be fine, but he doesn’t and it’s not.

He has some chapters on words that people tend to misuse, organized into "words that get misspelled," "words that get confused with each other," "words that are redundant," "words that Dreyer doesn’t like, for some reason or other," plus a chapter on punctuation, one on numbers, and a few miscellaneous chapters to cover subjects he couldn’t shoehorn into any of these. They’re mostly okay, though some are unnecessary (do we need his lecture about the difference between "gravely" and "gravelly" or between "exercise" and "exorcise"?), and some are just more of his personal tetches—I mean, we get it, he’s a cranky, persnickety kind of guy by profession, but you could poke any copyeditor I’ve ever met and elicit most of this stuff by asking him or her to free-associate for fifteen minutes. His chapter on "personal nouns" is particularly irritating—he selects various celebrities and works of art whose names and titles are spelled idiosyncratically and for thirty-two pages rattles on about each one, and the proper spelling thereof. My six-word summary of this chapter: look up how names are spelled. My complaint about each of these chapters isn’t so much that they’re wrong (I have a few I’d argue with) but that they’re not exhaustive, definitive, authoritative, or complete—they’re just lists of things Dreyer does or does not want to see in a book he’s copyediting. I’d rather read a tailor’s list of things he doesn’t want to see in a pair of pants he’s hemming, or a chef’s list of things he never wants to find floating in the soup.

Let me leave you with the most persistent of the quirks that I found most particular to Dreyer’s sensibilities and among the most annoying: he announces, very early on in the book, that we should eschew question marks at the ends of rhetorical questions. "Feel free," he advises us on p. 23, "to end a sentence shaped like a question that isn’t really a question with a period rather than a question mark. It makes a statement, doesn’t it."

This would be bad enough if he’d let it go at that. I’d mentally mark his advice as "wrong" or "unhelpful" or "pointless" or "dumb" but it’s his book and he can give wrong, unhelpful, pointless, dumb advice if he wants to. The reason I find it all those things is that the question mark really doesn’t harm anybody, or mislead anybody, does it? If you want to write a declarative sentence, you can simply do that by writing a declarative sentence. (Can’t you?) And if you want to ask a question, whether rhetorical or genuine, then can’t you simply use an interrogative form? Why muck it up by making certain questions look like non-questions?

Dreyer persists in using this arch device through his text: in his footnotes alone, he ends one question by "asking" "….isn’t it." on p. 108, and "why not." on p. 133 and innumerable elsewheres throughout his book, repeating a point better left unmade in the first place. He also repeats his original point made on p. 23 when he writes on pp. 64-5 that if "a sentence is constructed like a question but isn’t intended to be one, you might consider concluding it with a period rather than a question mark." A good copyeditor should have caught that repetition, but why do I suspect that Dreyer was copyedited with great deference throughout Dreyer’s English?

Sorry: that should be "why do I suspect that Dreyer was copyedited with great deference throughout Dreyer’s English," shouldn’t it. See what I mean by "annoying." You do, don’t you.



COMMENTS (21 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
Steven - I agree with all of that; I was trying to keep it short and simple. Individual presses can have their own style sheets. Heck, I spent a decade writing computer systems documentation. The style sheet for that is "programmerese." My point was that, if you use AP, MLA and Chicago for their staked-out territories, you will never be "wrong." They are the three safe ones.
6:42 AM May 10th
Steven Goldleaf
My previous comment was in response to danjeffers, obviously. To Brock, it's a little more complicated than that. For example, at Pace U. Press, an academic press, we used Chicago as our go-to guide for books and some journals, but used APA for our two psych journals and MLA for our journals on Middle English studies, Beat Poetry and graphic novels. Many newspapers and magazines have their own house guides, backed up by Chicago or AP when no clear answer or precedent is supplied. Smaller places may use Fowler's for some things (punctuation) but mainly rely on Chicago--my point being that everyplace relies on some style guide, but adds their own idiosyncrasies--copyeditors must apply that standard and not one of their own choosing.
7:49 AM May 9th
Steven Goldleaf
Pace was late to the game, as a private liberal arts college (founded in the early 20th century as a business college by the Pace brothers, two accountants basically, but started serious work on its liberal arts and non-accounting cohort in the mid-20th century) in recruiting typical college students. The typical college student has family members, sometimes many generations of family members, who went there, which is an important recruiting tool for long-established colleges and universities. Pace began with pretty much nothing, so decided to make this severe weakness into a strength, recruiting students with the assurance that we understand what it means to be the first in your family to attend college, we gear our instruction to that expectation, we know what it means to be an outsider looking for an in, etc. It's a real disadvantage (our endowment is very small compared to other private colleges) but Pace has always (since I've been there) boasted about this as a distinction that separates us from the other private colleges.
7:40 AM May 9th
Brock Hanke
I agree with most of your argument here, but I'd like to list a few points of mine, which are short.

1) Any attempt to do what Dreyer does amounts to trying to kill a living language. You can do what Dreyer does with Latin, because Latin is dead. English is not.

2) Your point about style sheets is right on, but more simple than it sounds. I've proofread for money (and edited and copy-edited), and, basically, it's AP for newspapers, MLA for academic papers, and Chicago for everything else.

3) Your title points to what I think is the most important consideration of all: euphony ("sounds good", derived from Greek). Essentially, euphony means ignore the formal grammar and syntax if it would sound bad and you have a better-sounding option. To use your example, "to boldly go" is two iambs in a row, which is very natural and easy to speak. "To go boldly" would be an iamb followed by a trochee, which sounds much worse. Spanish has this principle and it works great. The Spanish word for "and", for example, is just the letter "i", which is pronounced like the "ee" in "feed." However, if the preceding word ends in an i, then the i that means "and" is changed to an e, which sounds like the "a" in "hate." This is because "ee-ee" sounds horrible, while "ee-ay" sounds just fine. We really should adopt euphony as a formal rule, as the Spanish do.

I think that it's very important for people like Dreyer to realize that they are dealing with a living spoken language, not a dead one.

If you want to see (and hear) this subject discussed in some detail, and hilariously, try George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion", which is openly about phonetics, with a plot driven by a phoneticist teaching a flower girl to speak like a duchess. Great play. Bears almost NO resemblance to the musical adaptation "My Fair Lady", which Shaw actually tried to sue to prevent its performance.
7:39 AM May 9th
What was perverse about the pride your school took in educating first-generation college students?

4:39 PM May 8th
Steven Goldleaf

2:55 PM May 8th
Steven Goldleaf
I just caught Senator Elizabeth Warren using the singular “they” in a way I thought was unproductive for her on several different grounds. She said on the Senate floor yesterday, “If any other human being in this country had done what's documented in the Mueller report, they would be arrested and put in jail,” where the plural pronoun “they” obviously didn’t agree with the singular “any other human being.” Maybe this was more of her attempt to sound like reg’lar folks instead of a Harvard professor, which she doesn’t do all that well to begin with, but I think she’s been exposed to enough formal writing to know the difference. More important, though, was that using the correct “he or she” form (or the politically correct “she or he” form) would have emphasized, in a subtle way, the point that if Hillary Clinton had done what Trump is accused of, she would have been locked up by now. This is one the rare contexts in which a pronoun, “she,” immediately evokes a specific individual’s’ name, in that Clinton is the only “she” ever to run for President of the United States and we were all girding our loins through November 7, 2016 for changing the pronouns we use to designate the President. It would have made her point stronger to use the correct pronouns in that instance, but she passed it by.
5:58 AM May 8th
Steven Goldleaf
I've thought about it, Mr. Baker, and the only association I can draw with "higher than P" is the time I smoked so much pot I thought it would be funny if I P'ed between the two yellow lines on the highway I lived near. I'm sure you can put it in a way that makes sense to people not versed in information theory and coding. I'm also pretty sure that this note confirms some of what you're saying about language.
12:09 PM May 7th
When I was studying information theory and coding, a principal that we were taught early on that is obvious but not realized until you hear it said out loud is no signal can have an error rate higher than P. Think about it, if the error rate was higher than P you just inverse the signal to get a lower rate.

Writing is a form of communication, the purpose is to convey information. To me the purpose of books such as this and teachers would be to teach how to convey information in the most understandable way. Being concise and eliminating unnecessary words increases information flow rate and reduces error rate. It also eliminates poetry, which is an art from.

Cleaning up errors that are common helps everyone, but beyond that you are correct, its personal preference.
9:42 AM May 7th
I enjoyed this article very much (while disagreeing with much of it) until about the 17th use of "tetch," at which point I set fire to my computer. :-)
8:56 AM May 7th
This discussion, which I have enjoyed almost as much as I did the article, leads me to two conclusions (for now):

1) Those of us who care about language inevitably have strong opinions about it. It follows that those who presume to tell us what is proper English are expressing opinions, not laws of nature, whether they realize it or not. It follows further that we should be tolerant of and receptive to contrary opinions, which is not nearly as easy as it sounds.

2) As more than one example here demonstrates, splitting the infinitive sometimes produces the most forceful expression of an idea. Attempting to legislate against it, therefore, is not only folly but actively anti-communicative. (Aside: "to boldly go" may not be a useful case-in-point, as it is spoken. It is the most effective form because it is iambic: Shakespeare knew what he was doing. But I suspect that written language is more tolerant of different styles of expression than is spoken language.)
6:36 AM May 7th
"English as she is spoke" is of course the funniest book ever. It brought me to convulsive tears of joy. Your review of Dreyer is is pretty good too. I have had his book on my desk for weeks but haven't yet mustered the strength to actually open it. (See what I did there.)
8:09 AM May 6th
I enjoyed this for the most part, but one quibble, if I may.

Shouldn’t a book review be shorter than the book itself? I kid, I kid. I generally assume that most people writing on the web would “write a shorter post if they had more time.” But I think that you fall into the trap of too often telling us twice (or more) when once would do. For example, you give us six paragraphs on your time as a composition instructor – I think one or two sentences would have got the point across. But that’s just my SFO. (Everybody’s a critic!)

7:17 AM May 6th
This article was a nice break from grading student papers.
William Strunk died in 1946. I feel compelled to note that his first teaching job was as a mathematics instructor at Rose Polytechnic Institute(Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology), where I now teach.
1:37 AM May 6th
I disagree with very little (perhaps none!) of what you've written here, sir. Oddly, I also happened to enjoy the book. Perhaps because I agree with nearly all Dreyer's prescriptions.
12:45 AM May 6th
Steven Goldleaf
BobGill—Thank you
Bucky—you mean “to use an apostrophe correctly,” don’t you?
steve161—sometimes I get “her’s” and more rarely “hi’s”
Gfletch—Puhfect, lovey, simply puhfect
bearbyz--thank you, too
3:00 PM May 5th
Excellent article. I agree with you more than Bill about Strunk and White. I am not a very good writer and I had a copy on my desk. Whenever I was stuck in writing I would research the book to at least tell me how to write my problem sentence correctly. I didn't always follow the advise, but the book always gave me ideas.
2:38 PM May 5th
Connecticut lockjaw? I looked this up and saw this comment on the subject:

"Think Thurston Howell from Gilligan's Island."

Is that about right?


I agree that it is the dictatorial tone that rankles when it comes to instruction (of any kind). I enjoyed Strunk and White (which I occasionally pick up, open at random and consider, then decide if I should accept this lesson on how to write good or trust my inner taste).

2:30 PM May 5th
Very persuasive. I'm convinced that, in the highly unlikely event I were to read this book, I would dislike it. This might be unfair to Dreyer, but I'm not a professional writer and life is too short to spend hours on a style manual that I could spend on trashy science fiction.

In passing: 'its' is perfectly logical. It follows from 'his' and 'hers'.
1:53 PM May 5th
I teach writing, mostly to active-duty service members. I agree that much of our job is just to help them avoid being tossed into the "circular file" for grades, promotions, etc.

I find if I can teach them how to correctly use an apostrophe, I've eliminated a good chunk of the most common mistakes. It also seems important to be able to tell them what is an actual rule in college writing, what is a guideline, and what is up for grabs. When there is a logic to any of this, I try to explain it. But sometimes, I tell them, the reason is "just because."

For example, if fun followed the norms, we would have fun, funner, and funnest. We don't. Why? "Just because."

1:15 PM May 5th
I enjoyed this.
7:35 AM May 5th
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