The B&N Podcast: Benjamin Dreyer on Where to Put that Comma

Every author has a story beyond the one that they put down on paper. The Barnes & Noble Podcast goes between the lines with today’s most interesting writers, exploring what inspires them, what confounds them, and what they were thinking when they wrote the books we’re talking about.

On this episode we’re joined by Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief for Random House, on the occasion of his new book Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. If your memories of 8th-grade English class have left you with nightmares about diagramming sentences and getting your book reports marked up with gallons of red pen, the witty, approachable and entertaining voice with which Dreyer writes about English is just what you need to start recovery from that experience. Dreyer leads us through the thickets of easily confused words, myths about grammar and the controversies over how and when to use – or not use – one more comma. And as anyone who follows him on Twitter knows, there’s no more entertaining mentor for a journey through the sometimes labyrinthine twists and turns of our language. When Dreyer sat down with us in the studio, we asked him first to talk about what made him decide to change seats from editor to writer.

A witty, informative guide to writing from Random House’s longtime copy chief and one of Twitter’s leading language gurus—in the tradition of The Elements of Style.

We all write, all the time: books, blogs, emails. Lots and lots of emails. And we all want to write better. Benjamin Dreyer is here to help.

As Random House’s copy chief, Dreyer has upheld the standards of the legendary publisher for more than two decades. He is beloved by authors and editors alike—not to mention his followers on social media—for deconstructing the English language with playful erudition. Now he distills everything he has learned from the myriad books he has copyedited and overseen into a useful guide not just for writers but for everyone who wants to put their best prose foot forward.

As authoritative as it is amusing, Dreyer’s English offers lessons on punctuation, from the underloved semicolon to the enigmatic en dash; the rules and nonrules of grammar, including why it’s OK to begin a sentence with “And” or “But” and to confidently split an infinitive; and why it’s best to avoid the doldrums of the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers, including “very,” “rather,” “of course,” and the dreaded “actually.” Dreyer will let you know whether “alright” is all right (sometimes) and even help you brush up on your spelling—though, as he notes, “The problem with mnemonic devices is that I can never remember them.”

And yes: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.”

Chockful of advice, insider wisdom, and fun facts, this book will prove to be invaluable to everyone who wants to shore up their writing skills, mandatory for people who spend their time editing and shaping other people’s prose, and—perhaps best of all—an utter treat for anyone who simply revels in language.

Like this podcast? Subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher to discover intriguing new conversations every week.

Author photo of Benjamin Dreyer (c) Gabriel Dreyer.