Flossing Your Prose


I was pleased to review Benjamin Dreyer’s new book, Dreyer’s English, for the Wall Street Journal. And I was also pleased to note that soon after the review was published, the book shot up to the number 2 spot at Amazon.com, behind only Michelle Obama’s autobiography. No connection, I’m sure.

Here’s the review (note that I call him “Mr. Dreyer” because that’s WSJ style).

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris–a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker–published the splendid Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding Dreyer’s English.

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

And accordingly, Mr. Dreyer has a lot of useful information to impart. In the first sentence of this review, he guided me to lower-case the “c” in the word following the colon; write “editors’ ” rather than “editors” or “editors’s” (or, heaven forbid, “editor’s”); and use “cum” (Latin for “with”) to indicate a thing with two identities, without italics or fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying–being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.)

One encounters wisdom and good sense on nearly every page of “Dreyer’s English.” The whole chapter on fiction should be bound and issued to all MFA students. But part of the fun of the book, for me, was silently yelling at Mr. Dreyer on this point or that and writing a big “NO!” in the margin. He:

  • says that as a past-tense form, ” ‘Sprung’ rather than ‘sprang’ is perfectly correct. Look it up.” I did look it up and found that the respected arbiter Bryan Garner calls “sprung” “erroneous.” In the court of published opinion (i.e., the Google Books database), “sprang” is still used about eight times more frequently.
  • favors “farmers” market as opposed to “farmers’ ” market. NO! Mr. Dreyer fails to understand that a possessive apostrophe can indicate association and is not limited to cases of ownership or other actual possession. Otherwise we would shop at the “Children Department.”
  • believes that “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate or favorable” is “universally acceptable so long as the good fortune or favor is accidental.” I’m not sure which universe he’s in on this point, but I inhabit another one.

An illuminating and distinctive feature of Dreyer’s English is the portrait it provides of the copy editor’s trade. This differs from teeth-cleaning in that the subject–the author of a to-be-published book–is not directed to lie back with his or her mouth open, but rather to be part of the process.

The way it works is that the copy editor corrects spelling, punctuation, grammar and the like on the manuscript and then writes marginal suggestions or “queries” for other matters. Judging from Mr. Dreyer’s examples, these can be pointed, sometimes bordering on passive aggressive. In his section on redundancy, the author recalls editing a book containing the sentence “He implied without quite saying.” He goes on: “I was so filled with delight on encountering that, I scarcely had the heart to cross out ‘without quite saying’ and to note in the margin, politely and succinctly, “BY DEF.’ ”

Redundant or not, if the book’s author had insisted on keeping the phrase, it would have stayed. Mr. Dreyer recounts a dispute with Richard Russo, who had included in his novel Straight Man a sentence along the lines of ” ‘Hello,’ he smiled.” Mr. Dreyer wanted to revise, pointing out, with justice, that one cannot “smile” an utterance. But Mr. Russo held his ground and Mr. Dreyer ultimately gave in for a simple reason: “It’s his book.”

Mr. Dreyer once taped on his office door a remark attributed to New Yorker editor Wolcott Gibbs: “Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.” Benjamin Dreyer has a style. It is playful, smart, self-conscious and personal, highlighted by admirable lines like “To ball [rather than bawl] one’s eyes out would be some sort of sporting or teabagging mishap.”

Sometimes, however, he crosses over into the Land of Twee. He thrice says particular usages make him “wrinkle my nose,” and he uses words and phrases like “matchy-matchy,” “a skosh later” and “his own devise.” He is fond of Britishisms like “post-university,” “that lot” and, especially, “bit,” once telling us, “a sentence’s introductory bit and its main bit need to fuse correctly.”

And he loves him some footnotes. Many a page is bottom-loaded with asterisk, dagger and double dagger, and one footnote has two footnotes of its own. On the footnote matter, Mr. Dreyer might have heeded his own advice (he was talking about overuse of parentheses): “One too many coy asides and you, in the person of your writing, will seem like a dandy in a Restoration comedy stepping down to the footlights and curling his hand around his mouth to confidentially address the audience. One rather needs a beauty mark and a peruke to get away with that sort of thing.”

If I were Mr. Dreyer’s copy editor, I would suggest losing a “bit” or two, and maybe a couple of dozen footnotes. But I’d hold my fire on the rest. After all, it’s his book.