By Claire Booth
I am a word geek. A well-turned phrase makes my heart sing. But so does a well-placed comma. And the two hyphens I just used, for that matter.
My husband knows this about me (and loves me anyway), so he knew the perfect thing to get me for Valentine’s Day this year. Dreyer’s English. It’s a new book by Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House Publishers. And it dives (splashingly, gleefully) into the minutiae of word choice, punctuation, abbreviations and grammar.
Right now, I’ll bet half of you are running to order it, and the other half of you are running for the hills while screaming in horror. Bear with me.
Dreyer is funny and witty throughout the book and doesn’t take grammatical rules too seriously. “. . . just because I think something is good and proper and nifty you don’t necessarily have to.”
He shrugs off time-worn gospel like never starting a sentence with “and” or “but,” never ending it with a preposition and never splitting an infinitive. Most novelists ignore these anyway, but it’s nice to have someone of Dreyer’s expertise agree with us. Those rules are nonsense, he says, even though if you violate 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 away. It’s fun, and I’ll back you up.”
The whole thing is written in this same playful voice, and has some of the most entertaining footnotes I’ve ever read. Here’s one that enlivens the entry telling you that straitjacket is one word:
“The title of the 1964 Joan Crawford axe-murderess thriller—which you really ought to see, it’s the damnedest thing—is Strait-Jacket. (The generally preferred American spelling is “ax.” But I’d much rather be an axe-murderess than an ax-murderess. You?)”
We disagree on a few things. He likes the series comma (It’s also called the Oxford comma and is the one that comes after the second-to-last item in a list. If I agreed with him, there’d be one after “abbreviations” in the sentence above. As you can see, I don’t. It’s the journalist in me; an Oxford comma is a waste of a space in a newspaper column.)
I do agree with him on many items (please, please don’t use an apostrophe when you just need to make a name into a plural). And I even learned a few things, including several new words. My favorite is “crotchet.” Like crotchety, but a noun. I’d never heard it before. Now I use it all the time.
Many of the things he covers are easily transferable from fiction to non-fiction and journalism. But since his expertise is copyediting novels, he does have a few things to say that are specific to our little corner of the writing world. Consistency is a big one. Your characters should have the same eye color all the way through the book. I know I’ve been saved by copy editors many times on this front. And I’m still grateful.
A reference of fundamental guidelines is a good thing for everyone to have. But, as Dreyer rightly points out, the English language is also always changing, and you should roll with it and have a little fun, too. This book is a great way to do that.