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A Style Guide for the 1 Percent

 


The rules that govern English usage have never been particularly democratic. Why do we take “cues” but stand in “queues”? Why do we wake up “every day” but tolerate “everyday” annoyances? In the introduction to Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Benjamin Dreyer, the longtime copy chief at Random House, quotes an acquaintance’s comparison of copy editors to “priests, safeguarding their faith.” Copy editors can articulate the language rules that most aspiring writers have only unconsciously internalized; their pronouncements are accepted on faith by anyone used to relying on spell-check. But even though the type-first, think-later writing associated with social media has rarefied the copy editor’s status ever more, that rise in stature has coincided with the profession’s decline. The publishing world resounded with dismay and opprobrium when The New York Times laid off its copy desk in 2017. A year and a half later, the Gray Lady remains the paper of record, its reputation undimmed by the now routine correction of dates, spellings, and misstatements that appear at the foot of its articles online.

Yet, even with new-wave outfits like Vox Media also starting to shed their comma-minders, Dreyer’s profile as Twitter’s premier grammarian has managed to keep rising. He’s the type of Twitter user who specifies the difference between acronyms and initialisms; corrects Donald Trump’s most mind-bending missives; and half-jokingly laments, “He died as he lived, wearily pointing out that ‘myriad’ was a noun before it was an adjective.” In Dreyer’s English, he brings his shtick to the printed page in a purported attempt to diffuse the dreamy haze surrounding his profession and make his readers’ work “Better. Cleaner. Clearer. More efficient.”

However generous that sounds, Dreyer’s adherents will be delighted to find that the pedantic, wisecracking voice he cultivates online remains in full effect in the book’s early going. “The proscription against the singular ‘they,’” he writes, “is yet another of those Victorian-era pulled-out-of-relatively-thin-air grammar rules we’ve been saddled with,” and he advises that although one can indeed end a sentence with a preposition, writers should nevertheless “aim for a powerful finale and not simply dribble off like an old man’s unhappy micturition.” Once one makes it through the first few chapters of rules, writing advice, and bathroom humor, though, Dreyer’s English degenerates into a perfunctory series of lists on commonly misspelled and misapplied words. The pivot to reference material (woe betide any reader who attempts to plow through these chapters as written) marks a turn in Dreyer’s voice from mirthful to dull. “There is no x in ‘espresso,’” he instructs, “but you knew that already.”

That so much of Dreyer’s English is consumed with back matter is enough to make the reader question the author’s assertion that his book is intended for her benefit. “I would not attempt to replicate the guidance of the exhaustive books that sit and always will sit, and be constantly referred to, on my own desk,” he promises, and indeed, when the grammatical vines get particularly impenetrable, Dreyer deploys quotes from the usage guide Words Into Type as a machete, unsheathing the venerable resource (beloved by publishing types, albeit basically unheard of among civilians) to clear the way. The necessity of harking back to such a staid authority points to the elemental problem with books like Dreyer’s: They split the difference between accessibility and utility, leaving themselves little chance of reaching either hardcore word nerds or your uncle who spends way too much time on Facebook.





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