Usage and style guides are like dumbbells for writers. If you don’t pick them up now and then, your writing can grow flabby.
And since everyone writes these days, if only just emails, we could all benefit from some usage workouts.
Mercifully, reading writing guides is not always painful. Sometimes, it’s delightful. Such is the experience reading one of the newest additions to the genre: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.
Dreyer? That would be the book’s charming and colorful author, Benjamin Dreyer. A former waiter who fell into copy editing and climbed the ranks at Random House to become copy chief, he has overseen books by Michael Chabon, Edmund Morris, Calvin Trillin and Michael Pollan, among others.
Unlike other style and usage books I’ve read, this one offers a glimpse into the mysterious mind of a copy editor, an act that I think, frankly, is a public service. We could all stand to be more familiar with how copy editors think and the intramural fights they have with their colleagues.
I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t always fully appreciated their work. But while a younger version of myself might have seen copy editors like dentists, I now see what they truly are: miracle workers. I can’t count how many times copy editors, including ours at Infinite Global, have saved me from embarrassment and worse. But copy editors provide more than just defense shields.
Here’s how Dreyer characterizes a copy editor’s work: “On a good day, it achieves something between a really thorough teeth cleaning—as a writer once described it to me—and a whiz-bang magic act.”
Yes, magic. But we can’t always rely on copy editors to catch our falls. Nor should we. That’s why we need style books. Dreyer’s English covers all the knotty problems that Dreyer has encountered throughout his career, like words commonly misused (eminent/imminent/immanent), words commonly misspelled (dilemma, not dilemna) and miscellaneous mistakes (you don’t tow the line, you toe it). He also argues against rules of style that have dubious origins, like never start a sentence with And or But, and never end a sentence on a preposition.
It is not meant to be an exhaustive guide—which Dreyer explicitly states—so don’t throw out your copy of Strunk & White or whichever your favorite might be. Styles guides, after all, are just that—guides—and they don’t agree on everything. Dreyer, for example, defends serial commas, split infinitives and use of the word hopefully. His copyediting is our (and AP’s) copy editing. I find most of his calls not terribly controversial, but inevitably some readers will find something to argue about.
My favorite chapter is called “The Trimmables.” Most writing can afford to slim down—especially the kind found in business writing. Certain phrases seep into our prose without critical thought. George Orwell called them a “continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow.”
Dreyer identifies a particular kind of writing fat, which he describes as coming “under the heading Two Words Where One Will Do.” Among the examples he cites:
- added bonus
- end result
- join together
- merge together
- past history
- regular routine
- sink down
- wall mural
Ultimately, what comes across in Dreyer’s English is that good writing requires empathy for the reader. By following common rules, writers can eliminate ambiguity in their prose and show respect for their readers’ time and intelligence.
That’s worth picking up some dumbbells for.