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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Dreyer’s English - Getting Writing Right

Media & Culture

Barry Tomalin

Tue, 09 Jul 2019 11:18 GMT

Oh no, not another dictionary, especially, not another English dictionary! 

But no, this one is different. ‘Dreyer’s English, an Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style’ is authored by Benjamin Dreyer, vice president, executive managing editor and chief copy editor of Random House Publishing in the USA and it is not a dictionary but a wise and witty commentary on English usage.

Dreyer begins with a challenge. In a chapter entitled, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up (Your Prose)”, a nod towards Marie Kondo’s highly successful book and TV series on “The Life changing Magic of Tidying,” Dreyer suggests we go for a week without writing these words: very, rather, really, quite and in fact. “If you can last a week,” he writes, “you will be a considerably better writer than when you started.” I have been warned! 

He starts with an examination of ‘rules and non-rules’ in grammar and sentence structure. Many of us were taught at school never to begin a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’ but many authors use them as sentence starters to create a stronger effect. Dreyer’s advice? If you begin a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’, think first. What are you trying to achieve? If it’s simply a pause, don’t start a new sentence with them. 

But what about another rule we were taught at school? Sorry, Mr Dreyer! Never end a sentence with a preposition. The famous example, but apparently never written or spoken by him, is Winston Churchill’s, “Up with this I will never put.” as opposed to, “This is not something I will ever put up with.” Dreyers view? Of course you can end a sentence with a preposition unless you can find a better word to end with. 

Another traditional grammar shibboleth is the ‘split infinitive’, most famously abused in the TV series ‘Star Trek’ in “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Grammatical traditionalists might argue it should say “to go boldly…” but think how much weaker that sounds than, “to boldly go …,” which has become a catch phrase. 

Another problem is the series comma, often known as the Oxford comma, used to punctuate lists of items. American English tends to insert a comma before the final ‘and’ as in apples, pears, pomegranates, and potatoes. British English tends to leave it out and write simply ‘… pomegranates and potatoes’. By and large, Dreyer would advise using commas unless it is obviously not necessary and gives a number of examples, including the famous book on correct punctuation by Lynne Truss entitled, ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ rather than ‘Eats shoots and leaves’ (without a comma) to describe a non-carnivorous animal. The title was intentional, by the way, in order to make the point.  

Dreyer has valuable advice on the use of colons, semicolons, brackets, quotation marks, full stops and commas and when to use dashes and hyphens. He also deals with numbers and insists on the importance of accuracy. He then mischievously points out that in his chapter on punctuation, entitled ‘Sixty Six assorted things to do and not to do with punctuation’ he intentionally left out number 38. Did I notice? I’m not telling but you can probably guess. 

Dreyer is particularly interesting on the use of other varieties of English beyond the US and UK. First he explores foreign loanwords that have become part of the English language, such as karaoke, mea culpa, schadenfreude and bête noire (He is particularly insistent on preserving the diacritical marks on loanwords from foreign languages.) He notes that Indian English, spoken by 125 million people on the sub-continent, has several differences from UK and US varieties, many based on traditional culture. The use of, “May I know your good name?” for example, is based on the Bengali difference between your official name (good name) and a familiar name used perhaps by your family. In the same way Indian traditional politeness often calls older people Auntie or Uncle as a form of politeness rather than using their names. Since much of India is vegetarian you may see menus listing meat dishes as ‘Non-veg’. One of my favourite Indian English words is ‘prepone’, the opposite of ‘postpone’. But it did not originate in India. (OK with the but here?) ‘Prepone’ was first used in the New York Times in 1913 by a certain J.J.D. Trenor. 

On the back cover of the UK edition of ‘Dreyer’s English’ is a blurb which goes like this. “Written by Benjamin Dreyer... one of Twitter’s chief language gurus, your English will never be the same again.” The sentence is followed by an asterisk, which, when you consult it at the bottom of the cover reads, “* See page 94 for what’s wrong with this sentence.” So what’s wrong? Page 94 explains. The problem is the use of a ‘dangling participle’, that long introduction that precedes the important message that. “your English will never be the same again.” The ‘dangler’, as Dreyer calls it, takes the essential message out of context and you wonder what it is doing there. Avoid danglers? No. They are often useful as an introduction or contextualisation of the main message of your sentence. However, (Dreyer doesn’t like this use of However, but never mind) if you do use them, make sure they are not confusing. Dreyer quotes Groucho Marx, the famous American comedian who once said, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas, I’ll never know.” 

Dreyer has a list of proper nouns which are commonly misspelt (or misspelled in American English). Atilla the Hun should be Attila the Hun. In, Pride and Prejudice, the heroine is Elizabeth Bennet (one -t) not Elizabeth Bennett and the author is Jane Austen not Austin. Nikita Khrushchev makes it into the list. Dreyer comments, “You’d think that people would look up a tricky name like Khrushchev. You’d be wrong.” 

Dreyer’s chapter on Peeves and Crotchets aroused my curiosity. What are they when they’re at home? Well a crotchet is an unfounded belief or notion and a crotchety person is someone who appears always bad-tempered and cross. Don’t, says Dreyer, confuse it with crochet, a type of knitting technique using a small hook. A peeve is another word to describe something that annoys you. Language professionals are often particularly strong on pet peeves and crotchets. For example, how would you use ‘data’ in the singular? Is it a piece of data or a datum? Dreyer’s opinion? “The data supports the consensus that data is popularly used as a singular noun. Move on already,” he says. 

These are just some of the hundreds of examples of usage and misusage that Dreyer discusses. A pleasure just to read as well as for reference, Dreyer concludes with an admission that a book is never finished. What you do is stop writing. As he writes at the end, “There is no last word, only the next word.” Definitely a book I will want to keep by my desk and use for constant reference and warning! 

Dreyer’s English, By Benjamin Dreyer is published by Century Books 2019 and reviewed by Barry Tomalin 

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