NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY O: The Oprah Magazine • Paste • Shelf Awareness
“Essential (and delightful!)”—People
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.
Praise for Dreyer’s English
“Playful, smart, self-conscious, and personal . . . One encounters wisdom and good sense on nearly every page of Dreyer’s English.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Destined to become a classic.”—The Millions
“Dreyer can help you . . . with tips on punctuation and spelling. . . . Even better: He’ll entertain you while he’s at it.”—Newsday
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
INTRODUCTION: By Way of Introduction xi
part i The Stuff in the Front 1
chapter 1 The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose) 3
chapter 2 Rules and Nonrules 6
chapter 3 67 Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation 20
chapter 4 1, 2, 3, Go: The Treatment of Numbers 67
chapter 5 Foreign Affairs 74
chapter 6 A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing 84
chapter 7 The Realities of Fiction 102
part ii The Stuff in the Back 127
chapter 8 Notes on, Amid a List of, Frequently and/or Easily Misspelled Words 129
chapter 9 Peeves and Crotchets 147
chapter 10 The Confusables 166
chapter 11 Notes on Proper Nouns 210 x chapter 12 The Trimmables 242
chapter 13 The Miscellany 252
OUTRO: By Way of Conclusion 267
THINGS I LIKE 269
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose)
Here’s your first challenge:
Go a week without writing
• in fact
And you can toss in—or, that is, toss out—“just” (not in the sense of “righteous” but in the sense of “merely”) and “so” (in the “extremely” sense, though as conjunctions go it’s pretty disposable too).
Oh yes: “pretty.” As in “pretty tedious.” Or “pretty pedantic.” Go ahead and kill that particular darling.
And “of course.” That’s right out. And “surely.” And “that said.”
And “actually”? Feel free to go the rest of your life without another “actually.”
If you can last a week without writing any of what I’ve come to think of as the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers—I wouldn’t ask you to go a week without saying them; that would render most people, especially British people, mute—you will at the end of that week be a considerably better writer than you were at the beginning.
Clarification No. 1
Well, OK, go ahead and write them—I don’t want you tripping over your own pencil every time you compose a sentence—but, having written them, go back and dispose of them. Every single one. No, don’t leave that last one intact just because it looks cute and helpless. And if you feel that what’s left is somehow missing something, figure out a better, stronger, more effective way to make your point.
Clarification No. 2
Before you get all overwrought and but-but-but, I’m not saying never use them—go count the “very”s in this book. I’m merely asking you to skip them for a week. A single measly little week. Now, as a show of good faith, and to demonstrate that even the most self-indulgent of us can and should every now and then summon up a little fortitude, I hereby pledge that this is the last time you’ll see the word “actually” in this book.
For your own part, if you can abstain from these twelve terms for a week, and if you read not a single additional word of this book—if you don’t so much as peek at the next page—I’ll be content.
But it sounded good.
Rules and Nonrules
I have nothing against rules. They’re indispensable when playing Monopoly or gin rummy, and their observance can go a long way toward improving a ride on the subway. The rule of law? Big fan.
The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated. It developed without codification, sucking up new constructions and vocabulary every time some foreigner set foot on the British Isles—to say nothing of the mischief we Americans have wreaked on it these last few centuries—and continues to evolve anarchically. It has, to my great dismay, no enforceable laws, much less someone to enforce the laws it doesn’t have.
Certain prose rules are essentially inarguable—that a sentence’s subject and its verb should agree in number, for instance. Or that in a “not only x but y” construction, the x and the y must be parallel elements. (More on this in Chapter 6: A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing.) Why? I suppose because they’re firmly entrenched, because no one cares to argue with them, and because they aid us in using our words to their preeminent purpose: to communicate clearly with our readers. Let’s call these reasons the Four C’s, shall we? Convention. Consensus. Clarity. Comprehension.
Also simply because, I swear to you, a well-constructed sentence sounds better. Literally sounds better. One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well-constructed is to read it aloud. A sentence that can’t be readily voiced is a sentence that likely needs to be rewritten.
A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection. (If you want to puzzle your reader, that’s your own business.)
As much as I like a good rule, I’m an enthusiastic subscriber to the notion of “rules are meant to be broken”—once you’ve learned them, I hasten to add.
But let’s, right now, attend to a few of what I think of as the Great Nonrules of the English Language. You’ve encountered all of these; likely you were taught them in school. I’d like you to free yourself of them. They’re not helping you; all they’re doing is clogging your brain and inciting you to look self-consciously over your own shoulder as you write, which is as psychically painful as it is physically impossible. And once you’ve done that, once you’ve gotten rid of them, hopefully you can put your attention on vastly more important things.
Why are they nonrules? So far as I’m concerned, because they’re largely unhelpful, pointlessly constricting, feckless, and useless. Also because they’re generally of dubious origin: devised out of thin air, then passed on till they’ve gained respectable solidity and, ultimately, have ossified. Language experts far more expert than I have, over the years, done their best to debunk them, yet these made-up strictures refuse to go away and have proven more durable than Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Put together. Part of the problem, I must add, is that some of them were made up by ostensible and presumably well-meaning language experts in the first place, so getting rid of them can be a bit like trying to get a dog to stop chasing its own tail.
I’ll dispatch these reasonably succinctly, with the hope that you’ll trust that I’ve done my homework and will be happy to see them go. I’m mindful of Gertrude Stein’s characterization of Ezra Pound as “a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not,” and no one wants to be that guy. Also, if you persist in insisting that these nonrules are real and valid and to be hewed to, all the expert citations in the world won’t, I know through experience, change your mind one tiny little bit.
An admission: Quite a lot of what I do as a copy editor is to help writers avoid being carped at, fairly or—and this is the part that hurts—unfairly, by People Who Think They Know Better and Write Aggrieved Emails to Publishing Houses. Thus I tend to be a bit conservative about flouting rules that may be a bit dubious in their origin but, observed, ain’t hurting nobody. And though the nonrules below are particularly arrant nonsense, I warn you that, in breaking them, you’ll have a certain percentage of the reading and online-commenting populace up your fundament to tell you you’re subliterate. Go ahead and break them anyway. It’s fun, and I’ll back you up.
The Big Three
1. Never Begin a Sentence with “And” or “But.”
No, do begin a sentence with “And” or “But,” if it strikes your fancy to do so. Great writers do it all the time. As do even not necessarily great writers, like the person who has, so far in this book, done it a few times and intends to do it a lot more.
But soft, as they used to say, here comes a caveat:
An “And” or a “But” (or a “For” or an “Or” or a “However” or a “Because,” to cite four other sentence starters one is often warned against) is not always the strongest beginning for a sentence, and making a relentless habit of using any of them palls quickly. You may find that you don’t need that “And” at all. You may find that your “And” or “But” sentence might easily attach to its predecessor sentence with either a comma or a semicolon. Take a good look, and give it a good think.
Let’s test an example or two.
Francie, of course, became an outsider shunned by all because of her stench. But she had become accustomed to being lonely.
Francie, of course, became an outsider shunned by all because of her stench, but she had become accustomed to being lonely.
Which do you think Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, chose? The former, as it happens. Had I been Smith’s copy editor, I might well have suggested the second, to make one coherent, connected thought out of two unnecessarily separated ones. Perhaps she’d have agreed, or perhaps she’d have preferred the text as she’d written it, hearing it in her head as a solemn knell. Authors do often prefer their text the way they’ve written it.
Here’s another, in two flavors:
In the hospital he should be safe, for Major Callendar would protect him, but the Major had not come, and now things were worse than ever.
In the hospital he should be safe, for Major Callendar would protect him. But the Major had not come, and now things were worse than ever.
This is E. M. Forster, in A Passage to India, and I suspect you’ll not be surprised to learn that version 2 is his. For one thing, version 1’s a bit long. More important, version 2, with that definitive period, more effectively conveys, I’d say, the sense of dashed expectations, the reversal of fortune.
These are the choices that writers make, and that copy editors observe, and this is how you build a book.
One thing to add: Writers who are not so adept at linking their sentences habitually toss in a “But” or a “However” to create the illusion that a second thought contradicts a first thought when it doesn’t do any such thing. It doesn’t work, and I’m on to you.
2. Never Split an Infinitive.
To cite the most famous split infinitive of our era—and everyone cites this bit from the original Star Trek TV series, so zero points to me for originality—“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
There’s much more—much more—one could say on the subject, but I don’t want to write about the nineteenth-century textual critic Henry Alford any more than you want to read about the nineteenth-century textual critic Henry Alford, so let’s leave it at this: A split infinitive, as we generally understand the term, is a “to [verb]” construction with an adverb stuck in the middle of it. In the Star Trek example, then, an unsplit infinitive version would be “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” or “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” If either of those sounds better to you, be my guest. To me they sound as if they were translated from the Vulcan.
Otherwise, let’s skip right to Raymond Chandler. Again, as with the Star Trek phrase, everyone loves to cite Chandler on this subject, but it’s for a God damn [sic] good reason. Chandler sent this note to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly in response to the copyediting of an article he’d written:
By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.
Over and out.
3. Never End a Sentence with a Preposition
This is the rule that invariably (and wearily) leads to a rehhash of the celebrated remark by Winston Churchill that Winston Churchill, in reality, neither said nor wrote:
“This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
Let me say this about this: Ending a sentence with a preposition (as, at, by, for, from, of, etc.) isn’t always such a hot idea, mostly because a sentence should, when it can, aim for a powerful finale and not simply dribble off like an old man’s unhappy micturition. A sentence that meanders its way to a prepositional finish is often, I find, weaker than it ought to or could be.
What did you do that for?
is passable, but
Why did you do that?
has some snap to it.
But to tie a sentence into a strangling knot to avoid a prepositional conclusion is unhelpful and unnatural, and it’s something no good writer should attempt and no eager reader should have to contend with.
If you follow me.
The Celebrated Ending-a-Sentence-with-a-Preposition Story
Two women are seated side by side at a posh dinner party, one a matron of the sort played in the old Marx Brothers movies by Margaret Dumont, 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?
The Lesser Seven
I’m sure there are many more secondary nonrules than these seven, but these are the ones I’m most often asked about (or challenged on), so:
1. Contractions Aren’t Allowed in Formal Writing.
This may be a fine rule to observe if you want to sound as if you learned English on your native Mars, but there’s not a goshdarn thing wrong with “don’t,” “can’t,” “wouldn’t,” and all the rest of them that people naturally use, and without them many a piece of writing would turn out stilted and wooden. The likes of “I’d’ve” and “should’ve” are perhaps a bit too loosey-goosey outside casual prose, but generally speaking: Contractions are why God invented the apostrophe, so make good use of both.
Speaking of “should’ve”:
The Flannery O’Connor Flowchart
Are you Flannery O’Connor?
The correct construction is “should have” (also “could have,” “would have,” etc.). If you are not Flannery O’Connor, or Zora Neale Hurston, or William Faulkner, and you wish to convey the particular sound of a particular character’s speech—and I warn you up front, more on it later, about the dangers of phonetic dialogue—please avail yourself of “should’ve,” “could’ve,” “would’ve,” and so forth. They sound precisely the same, no one will yell at you, and we’ll all be a lot happier.
2. The Passive Voice Is to Be Avoided.
A sentence written in the passive voice is one whose subject would, in a sentence constructed in the active voice, be its object. That is:
Active Voice: The clown terrified the children.
Passive Voice: The children were terrified by the clown.
In a sentence written in the passive voice, the thing that is acted upon is frontloaded, and the thing doing the acting comes at the end. In either case, we can easily agree that clowns are terrifying.
Often, in a sentence constructed in the passive voice, the actor is omitted entirely. Sometimes this is done in an attempt to call attention to a problem without laying blame (“The refrigerator door was left open”) and sometimes, in weasel-like fashion, to avoid taking responsibility: “Mistakes were made,” for instance, which, uttered on various occasions by various Bushes, may well be the motto of that political dynasty.
Table of Contents
Introduction: By Way of Introduction xi
Part I The Stuff in the Front 1
Chapter 1 The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose) 3
Chapter 2 Rules and Nonrules 6
Chapter 3 67 Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation 20
Chapter 4 1, 2, 3, Go: The Treatment of Numbers 67
Chapter 5 Foreign Affairs 74
Chapter 6 A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing 84
Chapter 7 The Realities of Fiction 102
Part II The Stuff in the Back 127
Chapter 8 Notes on, Amid a List of, Frequently and/or Easily Misspelled Words 129
Chapter 9 Peeves and Crotchets 147
Chapter 10 The Confusables 166
Chapter 11 Notes on Proper Nouns 210
Chapter 12 The Trimmables 242
Chapter 13 The Miscellany 252
OUTRO: By Way of Conclusion 267
Things I Like 269