By Janet Kobobel Grant
I’ve been editing in one capacity or another all of my adult life. Why, I just finished editing my grandson’s résumé for his first job out of college. And I’ve edited all sorts of work-related documents, from brochures to books. I’ve seen so many manuscripts and proposals that I pretty much can list the top errors committed by earnest writers. Despite being a bit of a grammar nerd, I’ve found there’s always more to learn. Hence today, how about tidying up your grammar with me?
The inspiration for tidying up my grammar
I was inspired to write this blog when Michelle Ule presented me with a gift that had no special occasion tied to it: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer. His august position is that of copy chief of Random House, which means he oversees all those editors who nitpick manuscripts. And he rose to those ranks by starting on the bottom rung of nitpickers.
Michelle assured me I could spend many a gleeful hour poring over this volume, as had tens of thousands of others who bought so many copies the book made the New York Times best-seller list. I opened the book with expectation and gusto. I couldn’t image anything more delightful than to read about grammar and guffaw while doing so.
The volume didn’t disappoint.
So much more than a grammar book
Dreyer’s book doesn’t just explain the in’s and out’s of grammar but also aspires to help the reader think about writing as a living and breathing entity that deserves respect and an eye toward what this piece of writing needs to elucidate and elevate it.
The guy had me at the first paragraph:
I am a copy editor. After a piece of writing has been, likely through numerous drafts, developed and revised by the writer and by the person I tend to call the editor editor and deemed essentially finished and complete, my job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it…better. Cleaner. Clearer. More efficient. Not to rewrite it, not to bully and flatten it into some notion of Correct Prose, whatever that might be, but to burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be–to make it read even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it. That is, if I’ve done my job correctly.”
We’ve all had our work bullied and flattened until it looks like a steamroller did a number on it. This has never been editing. It’s crushing–to the writing and to the writer.
Because of Dreyer’s belief that his job is to make the writing more like its true self, he insists that rules be obeyed when they serve the writing, not the other way around. He thus murders several grammar and style darlings in the name of common sense.
Some rules are inviolate
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have standards that must be met. He mentions that if you apply for a copy editing position by sending him your résumé barren of accent marks, he will not even deign to look at your application. If your résumé only bears the last accent mark, he construes that you live in the Dakotas or some other far distant land.
About that guffawing while reading grammar rules…
Dreyer’s dry wit (see my play on words there?) is showcased throughout the book. If you aren’t prepared to have him make fun of a piece of grammar you’ve held dear for decades, you won’t enjoy how he insists we lighten up a bit.
Take, for example, his explanation of when to use–or refrain from using–[sic] when quoting material that contains errors in it.
As, for instance and strictly speaking, you might do here, in quoting this piece of text I 100 percent made up out of thin air and didn’t find on, say, Twitter:
“Their [sic] was no Collusion [sic] and there was no Obstruction [sic].”
Dreyer suggests: “Do not–not as in never–us [sic] as a snide bludgeon to suggest that something you’re quoting is dopey. By which I mean the very meaning of the words, not merely their spelling.”
Tidying up your grammar–and punctuation
“Do as I do” Dreyer seems to say to the reader over and over, as he explains a rule of punctuation or grammar by, in that very paragraph of explanation, showcasing what he means:
Colons are not merely introductory but presentational. They say: Here comes something! Think of colons as little trumpet blasts, attention-getting and ear-catching. Also loud. So don’t use so many of them that you give your reader a headache.”
Be prepared to disagree
If you read that last quote and paused over this sentence: “Colons are not merely introductory but presentational,” please join me as I cross my arms and frown. I’m a diehard believer that when you write “not only” or “not merely” that phrase must be paired with “but also.” Not “but” by itself.
Dreyer insists the “also” is extraneous and thus to be done away with.
No! Not the sacred “but also”!
The pièce de résistance
If my praise isn’t adequate to convince you to dip your toe into the water, perhaps this bit of exuberance with do the trick:
Farewell, Strunk and White. Benjamin Dreyer’s brilliant, pithy, incandescently intelligent book is to contemporary writing what Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry was to medieval English: a gift that broadens and deepens the art and the science of literature by illustrating that convention should not stand in the way of creativity, so long as that creativity is expressed with clarity and with conviction.”—Jon Meacham“
A disclaimer about the dangers of writing about tidying up your grammar
If you found any errors–whether in grammar or punctuation–please take that as all the more reason I need to read Dreyer’s English.
P. S. Michelle tells me he’s a hoot to follow on Twitter. Going there now to follow this fellow…
What grammar rules do you hold inviolate? What grammar or punctuation rule regularly trips you up?
Grammar nerds: You must read Dreyer’s English! Here’s an introduction to the volume. Click to tweet.
Grammar and punctuation rules sometimes need to be broken. Read more about Dreyer’s English in this new blog post. Click to tweet.