Book review: Dreyer’s English

cover of Dreyer's English

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York, NY. Random House, 2019. 279 pp. $25.00. ISBN: 978-0-8129-9570-1

Many people, including journalism students, want firm rules on how to write and edit, but English is messy with gray areas and endless debates over commas. That’s where stylebooks and other usage manuals step in, offering clarity and guidance.

“Dreyer’s English” isn’t a stylebook that represents an organization as The Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style do. It certainly has the characteristics of one, with sections of advice on punctuation, word choice, redundancy and other matters that writers and editors care about.

What sets this book apart from others on writing and editing? As indicated by its title, “Dreyer’s English” is a style manifesto of one editor: Benjamin Dreyer.

Dreyer is copy chief at Random House, and he has edited writers such as E.L. Doctorow, Frank Rich and Shirley Jackson, author of the short story “The Lottery.” He has worked at Random House since 1993 in nonfiction and fiction.

Editing those writers (among others) makes Dreyer ideally qualified to take on the task of writing this book, which offers a look at the inner workings of a publishing house. His background, coupled with a sense of humor, makes “Dreyer’s English” feel like an AP Stylebook with wicked one-liners. In a section on word choice, for example, Dreyer takes on business jargon: “It feels like a terribly short walk from ‘onboarding’ a new employee to waterboarding one.”

Like any editor, Dreyer has strong views on many language topics. Among them:

  • He still takes “literally” literally, calling it the “Intensifier from Hell.”
  • He is holding on to “whom” despite talk of its decline: “Until someone can come up with a better word, we are stuck with it.”
  • He is an advocate of the Oxford comma: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.”

Yet Dreyer is a flexible editor, and he cheerfully acknowledges that his preferences may not be yours. He is all right with “alright” on occasion. He suggests that “enormity” can mean more than “monstrous evil” but advises avoiding it in positive contexts such as “the enormity of her talents.” He’s getting more comfortable with the singular they.

The section on punctuation, presented in a list format, neatly describes how using a comma, semicolon or period can alter the pace and tone of writing. Dreyer also offers a helpful tip for students who struggle with appositives with a guideline he calls the “only” comma. And he illustrates the difference between an em dash an en dash.

Dreyer also provides helpful guidance on fact checking. Journalists and public relations practitioners will want to turn to his lists of frequently misspelled names, companies and organizations. Apocryphal quotes from famous people, a bane of journalistic writing, are also addressed. Be wary of words of wisdom attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker and Mark Twain, among others.

In a chapter on editing fiction, Dreyer goes in depth on the need for continuity of characters and timelines. Street names, historical references and vocabulary must match the time period. Readers will notice such errors.

As in journalistic writing, redundancy can weaken fiction. Dreyer warns against “the angry flaring of nostrils” and “the quizzical cocking of the head,” among other wordy constructions. And he once encountered this doozy: “He implied without quite saying.”

So where does all of this guidance take us? In Dreyer’s view, editing is about serving the writer. It’s a collaboration for the benefit of the reader. He writes:

An attentive copy editor should become attuned to and immersed in the writer’s voice to the point where the copy editor has so thoroughly absorbed the writer’s intentions that the process turns into a sort of conversation-on-the-page.

“Dreyer’s English” would work well in a variety of courses in journalism and English departments. For example, in a class on book publishing, “Dreyer’s English” would be perfect in tandem with Carol Fisher Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor.”

Beyond the classroom, “Dreyer’s English” will appeal to writers and editors alike. It is a worthy addition to the library of any lover of language.

This review also appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Educator.

Student guest post: It’s time for euphemisms to kick the bucket

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 17th of those posts. Molly Sprecher is a junior double-majoring in reporting and English and Comparative Literature. She works as a digital intern for the General Alumni Association and as the publicity editor and assistant photo editor for the Yackety Yack yearbook. She also freelances as an event and landscape photographer.

If there’s one thing I know as an English and Comparative Literature major, it’s how to draw out the word count with beautiful, fluffy, meaningless chatter. You give me a phrase, and I’ll tell you one with three more adjectives and at least 25 more syllables.

But journalism values brevity and honesty, appealing to the shortening attention span of consumers overwhelmed with options. My professor for MEJO 358 (Opinion Writing), Angelia Herrin, gave me a reality check this semester when she told me I was such a clever writer that I seduced myself into not realizing I wasn’t writing about anything.

Journalists are often criticized for the practice of concisely, objectively reporting the news, and accused of not caring about the subjects they report on. Viewers see indifference and distance in journalists’ blunt style. In any other segment of public life, death is a four-letter word (please excuse the euphemism). But in the news, it is commonplace, and according to The Associated Press Stylebook, the only acceptable choice.

But journalists’ rejection of euphemisms and fluff phrases is a testament to their dedication to telling the public the truth. Such as, Howard Schultz is a billionaire, not a “person of means,” and “alternative facts” are just lies. Editors delete phrases that have little concrete meaning, like “passed away,” “powder your nose,” “vertically challenged” or “au natural,” not just because they are awkward, but also because they don’t serve to inform the public, which is a journalist’s primary responsibility. Changing the wording doesn’t change the facts, but can skew public perception.

The AP Stylebook recently announced that the phrases “racially charged” or “racially motivated” should be replaced with “racist.” Herein lies another instance of giving up what is comfortable in favor of what is. Downplaying the significance of what journalists’ report on would be a disservice to those reported to.

To say that someone died, was racist or is homeless is to recognize the shared humanity of the audience. The people in the news are human beings, not abstractions to decorate with pretty phrases.

This distinction is more important than ever as society takes on the challenge of practicing inclusive language in a diversifying community. Editors must be aware not only of what the stylebook says, but also of the preferences of the public. Tip-toeing around these sensitive phrases only serves to alienate or condescend to the community involved.

While increasing budget cuts and online options call for cutting word count, it is still important for journalists and editors to remain cognizant of any attempt to create a language buffer between ideas and the audience. Avoiding the issue won’t make it stop existing, it will just make the line of communication between journalists and the public that much more convoluted.

In journalism, both the public and the individual matter. No, we cannot report on every single person. But we can show that we see their humanity in word choice. Your grandmother died; she didn’t pass away. Her employee was fired, not let go or between jobs. He is a member of the LGBTQ community, not batting for the other team. They are victims, not collateral damage.

Hard facts and objective reporting, instead of eliminating emotion, can be humanizing and help end the “other” perception of marginalized groups. The AP Stylebook’s transition to “racist” as an accepted phrase is a step in the right direction.

As journalists, we have promised to pursue and report only the truth. We have not promised flowery language, only that we will not shy away from difficult issues, and that we will respect what we have the responsibility to report. Disregarding meaningless phrases only sacrifices denigrating important issues, not our journalistic integrity nor our human sympathy.

Student guest post: When words lose their power

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Lily Stephens is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design. She has interned at Chapel Hill and Durham Magazines and as a Dow Jones News Fund editing intern at Bay Area News Group (Mercury News and East Bay Times.) 

“I think the AP Stylebook says to capitalize formal titles directly before a name,” I say to my classmate. Actually, this is a lie. I know the Stylebook says this.

So why would I couch my statement with “think?” In J557, our Advanced Editing class, we spend a lot of time editing in teams. In these situations, I periodically catch myself making qualifying statements that aren’t strictly necessary. Generally, I’m considering someone’s emotions and trying not to hurt their feelings.

I know from experience that it can be pretty embarrassing when someone points out how many misspellings you haven’t caught in a one-page article. And sometimes being sensitive in those moments can keep your co-editing relationship on friendly ground. Like alerting your date to the fact that there is an entire spinach leaf wedged between his teeth, working collaboratively on a piece of writing is an art.

But it’s a thin line to walk between thoughtfulness and undermining your own credibility. Though I’m confident that my classmates feel comfortable working with me, I’m not so sure about their belief in my editing skills. The more I invite them to question me by couching statements with “I think” or “correct me if I’m wrong, but,” the less they trust me when I make a claim. And as I’ve run into this more and more, I’ve started to notice myself communicating similarly outside of the classroom, too. So why am I constantly using language that makes me sound less confident than I really am?

My research (read: several hours poring over Google search results) has been pretty enlightening. It turns out that as a female-identifying person, I’m more likely than my male counterparts to “soften” my communication.

In an interview about the themes of her book “Playing Big,” author and career coach Tara Mohr talks about the speech habits women in many cultures have adopted that are diminishing our words. She explains that we use words like “actually” and “just” to come across as more agreeable, but this often impedes the message we’re trying to get across. Mohr says: “I also believe that it’s because for centuries, women did not have the political and human rights to protect our safety if we spoke up and threatened or angered those around us.”

This reminded me of a saying I’ve often heard from women in my family, that “you have to let a man think he’s making the decision.” It’s always seemed like outdated advice, but that’s akin to what I’m doing when I say that I “think” the AP Stylebook says something. My classmate ends up looking it up and coming to that conclusion for themselves. It’s not something I do exclusively with male classmates, but it ends up affecting others’ perception of me and by proxy the gender group I identify with.

Tara Franks, who teaches courses on gender and communication at Arizona State University, explains: “If I’m unable to assert my opinion with the same authority that a man can and therefore, I’m not taken as seriously, and that’s repeated over time with multiple women in similar contexts, then what happens is women as a whole lose credibility in a particular space.” This, in particular, makes me think a little more seriously about whether I should change the way I communicate.

I should say that although the evidence is clear, it doesn’t mean that it’s every woman’s responsibility to police her language in order to undo centuries of socialization. Even typing that sentence was exhausting. However, I’ve found it really interesting to be a more aware of my communication style in light of this information.

Here are the steps I’ve started taking in my own life:

  • Try to be more aware of when I’m making qualifying statements.
  • When I notice that I’ve made one, I ask myself what the motive was, and whether it was good.
  • When I really know what I’m talking about, try to say it confidently. People can learn from my expertise (e.g. in Harry Potter trivia).

Of course being sensitive in our communication is useful, but I think the takeaway here is that in doing so we should strive to be intentional with our words.

Stormy Daniels, copy editor

Stormy Daniels in 2015 (Creative Commons image)
Stormy Daniels, who appears in and directs pornographic movies, is making headlines over an alleged affair with Donald Trump many years ago. She’s in the news now because it has come to light that shortly before the 2016 election, she was paid $130,000 to stay quiet about the relationship.

Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, is an active Twitter user with more than 500,000 followers. As one would expect, she uses social media to promote her line of work.

Lately, Daniels has used Twitter to take on trolls who are attacking her and defending the president. When doing so, Daniels often points out shortcomings in the wording of their tweets.

Here she is on spelling:

daniels-loser

daniels-spelling-lyingdaniels-spelling-skank

Here she is on punctuation:

daniels-punctuation

Here she is on word choice:

daniels-harlot

daniels-wordchoice

Apparently, this porn star (I prefer two words) is a lover of language. Perhaps Daniels will be able to find a career in words when a career in images is no longer an option for her.

Fake News is a real beer

fakenews-beer

While picking up a few things at the grocery store, I noticed a beer with a timely name: Fake News.

I grabbed a six pack and read the label. Fake News is made by Gizmo Brew Works, a brewery in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As a journalist, I dislike fake news. It’s disinformation designed to confuse and mislead. It’s a real problem.

As a beer drinker, I like Fake News. It’s a tasty India Pale Ale that gets good reviews. I recommend it.

I was curious about the beer’s name, so I contacted Gizmo Brew Works to learn more about how the brewery picked it and how the company selects names for beers in general. Here’s what Joe Walton, head brewer and co-owner of Gizmo Works, told me via email:

Q. How do you decide what to name a beer?

A. That’s a great question with many answers, some more logical than others. We always start with the beer first. We release 20-plus completely new beers a year, so we have to come up with a lot of names.

Sometimes, the beer names itself. Our Beekeeper Honey Wheat is an example, as well as Hop Chocolate (a chocolate IPA), Hoppy Grounds (a coffee pale), Born 2 Bee Wild (a sour version of Beekeeper with wild yeast). These are the easiest but also the least frequent.

With 4,000-plus breweries in the United States with more opening daily, obvious names are few and far between. With so many new beers, we now tend to name a new beer that’s possibly a one-off, such as Lavender Kolsch or Red IPA until they prove themselves in the market. If the demand is there to bring it back, then we brand it (in the above instances, Reunion and Hop Hydrant respectively).

Then there are beers themed to a series, such as our high gravity monthly Inventors Series releases. These beers are all named after an inventor of something physical or conceptual. So Bright Idea, our Imperial White Chocolate Stout, is named after Thomas Edison and Renaissance Man after Da Vinci and Biplane after the Wright brothers, etc.

The final is the catch-all “WTF do I name this beer” category. These tend to be the most difficult but can lead to some of the strongest branding.

Our summer seasonal Deep Blue Saison is a play on the movie “Deep Blue Sea.” It’s a summer beer so sharks are relevant and the label is a great white jumping up to snatch blueberries out of the sky. Instead of blood smeared over his face, it’s blueberry jam.

We also have a peanut butter brown ale named Arachibutyrophobia, which is the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of the mouth.

Q. Why did you decide to call this one Fake News?

A. Fake News was ironically a one-off, our first New England Style IPA. They tend to be more hazy and juicy with less perceived bitterness. They’re arguably the hottest trend in brewing right now outside of sours.

The name idea came to me as a play on words: Fake NewsEngland IPA. Considering that there are few words with more buzz in our country right now than “fake news,” it paired nicely with the style. It also was something we knew would get people at least talking about the beer.

Politics are normally a no-go in branding, at least for us. What’s funny for your side of the political spectrum is normally a gut punch to the other side, so why alienate half of your consumers with one beer and worst case turn them off your brand entirely and have them start trolling you?

Fake news is different. It applies to both sides, so regardless of your political views, it’s relatable and again a phrase we are hammered with daily from news, social media, etc. It’s been amazing watching how people react to the name and description (it’s almost always posted with a picture).

Fake News is now a year-round beer for us that’s a top two seller. It was also a lot of fun to come up with and write.

Student guest post: Some special relationship — we can’t even agree on words

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the second of those posts. Megan Cain is a UNC-Chapel Hill student who is studying broadcast journalism with a minor in entrepreneurship. She is also a contributing writer at College Town.

If we were going to see a movie in the United Kingdom, we would be attending the theatre. If we went to see that same movie in the United States, we would be attending the theater. Either way, you would be buying the snacks. Blimey!

No matter our location, communicating with one another would be as easy as pie, with the exception of the occasional colloquialism. Both Americans and the British have their own special sayings, but navigating these differences can be dodgy territory.

Why do these differences exist? Well, you could say Americans were on a bit of a freedom high. After separating themselves from their mother nation politically, some felt they should follow suit from a linguistic perspective.

When America took its first census in 1790, there were over four million Americans. Almost 90 percent of these Americans were descendants of British colonists. Words were created for new creatures and new surroundings, taking influence from the languages of fellow colonists.

“As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government,” Noah Webster wrote in his 1791 Dissertations on the English Language. Not everybody felt the same way. Throughout the 19th century, Webster was met with fierce competition from the more British-oriented Nathaniel Worcester. The BBC has analyzed which spellings caught on and those that didn’t.

I am writing this post because I’ve spent the past eight months with our fellow English speakers, traveling to both Australia and the U.K. I won the Carolina Blue Honors Fellowship, allowing me to work for a digital sports company called FanHub Media. Recognising my journalistic capabilities, FanHub immediately tasked me with writing and editing numerous documents.

The problem? I consistently questioned words I had been spelling correctly for the majority of my life. In an extra twist, FanHub has clients all over the world, so I had to consistently switch my brain back and forth from American to British English. I had to sharpen my editing utensils and dig further into content than I ever had, ensuring that I wasn’t over or under-correcting based on American phrasings and spellings. I never thought editing English would make me uncomfortable.

However, I believe my discomfort led to my greatest growth as an editor. I was forced to start from scratch. I questioned what I didn’t know and even what I did. I learned to pay even more attention, constantly asking myself about who my audience was, and I realised I should have been doing this all along.

How we edit depends almost solely on who the audience is and what will make the most sense to them. You wouldn’t edit a feature story on a baby panda appearing in National Geographic Kids in the same way you would edit a doctoral dissertation on the fertility and breeding cycle of a female panda. Audience should remain at the forefront of an editor’s mind.

I apologize for my nonsense, but I invite you to take a gander at British English once in a blue moon. Might make you feel like a below-average bloke, but it’s good practice.

Cheers, mates!