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An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

30 January 2019

PG did a strange thing a couple of days ago.

He purchased a hardcover book.

From a major New York publisher.

And he’s happy he did.

The book is Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.

The author is Benjamin Dreyer, the “Copy Chief” of Random House. It turns out that he’s an engaging writer with less-than-draconian opinions about how best to express oneself in the language of Milton and Shakespeare.

A couple of excerpts:

Proofreading requires a good deal of attention and concentration, but it’s all very binary, very yes/no: Something is right or something is wrong, and if it’s wrong, you’re expected to notice it and, by way of yet more scrawling [on the manuscript], repair it. It’s like endlessly working through one of those spot-the-difference picture puzzles in an especially satanic issue of Highlights for Children.


Here’s your first challenge:

Go a week without writing

  • very
  • rather
  • really quite
  • in fact

And you can toss in–or, that is, toss out–“just” (not in the sense of “righteous” but in the sense of “merely”) and “so” (in the “extremely” sense, though as conjunctions go it’s pretty disposable too).

Oh yes: “pretty.” As in “pretty tedious.” Or “pretty pedantic.” Go ahead and kill that particular darling.

And “of course.” That’s right out. And “surely.” And “that said.”

And “actually”? Feel free to go the rest of your life without another “actually.”

If you can last a week without writing any of what I’ve come to think of as the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers–I wouldn’t ask you to go a week without saying them: that would render most people, especially British people, mute–you will at the end of that week be a considerably better writer than you were at the beginning.

In addition to being, at least for PG, entertaining, the book is an illustration of the typesetter’s art when dealing with lots of non-standard sentence and paragraph structures.

Perhaps it’s because PG is returning to some of the earliest ebooks he formatted for Mrs. PG to update the “Other Books by Mrs. PG” sections and (courtesy of Jutoh) discovering some non-observance of formatting best practices (No fixed line spacing!), and correcting those to improve their electronic appearance, he finds the punctuation, spacing, etc., of Dreyer’s English informative.

As you observe in the excerpts above, Dreyer is anything but a subject-verb-object writer and PG finds himself paying attention to how what some of PG’s elementary school teachers would have marked as run-on sentences are handled. For instance, no space between the last/first character in a word and the beginning or end of an em dash.

“you can toss in–or, that is” instead of “you can toss in — or, that is”

And, speaking of em dashes, even using them instead of colons or parentheses is a good reminder for PG.

Most readers of TPV will undoubtedly be familiar with how to create an em dash in MS Word, but for those sprouts and shavers who are just showing up, you type two hyphens and a space and, as someone in Seattle decreed a long time ago, Word will convert the two hyphens into an em dash and deport the space to another dimension.

WordPress appears to do the same thing, at least for PG, without the need for a space following the two hyphens.

So (coming full-circle) for PG, reading a printed book feels a little like driving a 1957 Chevrolet–an entertaining change and a trip down memory lane–but an ebook and a Toyota are a better way to go.

Writing Advice

18 Comments to “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style”

  1. Good grief. Suggest ProWritingAid and Vellum. Next case.

  2. I always thought ‘utterly’ could be done without in most of the cases I’ve seen it used … 😉

    • “… the book is an illustration of the typesetter’s art …”

      And less words made for less work for said typesetters. 😉

      As to the em dash, the Word from MS Office 2000 would give you one if you gave it a ‘character/word/number space dash space character/word/number’ and the next space would automatically convert it to your dash to an em dash. (Just checked it on my other system in fact. 😉 )

      • Which era? I was a typesetter in the 80s and 90s on the Atex system. The last of the hot lead shops in New York closed down while I was there and we got Harper’s Bazaar as a result.

        Desktop publishing was the true time-saver for typesetters. It utterly destroyed our careers, as one good DTP could do the work of an entire team. I hired onto the job with the expectation that I would work a minimum of two hours overtime on weekdays and a full shift on Saturday when the fall fashion issues went to press. Did that the first year. By my second year that overtime was gone.

        • “Desktop publishing was the true time-saver for typesetters. It utterly destroyed our careers, as one good DTP could do the work of an entire team.”

          Just as the internet and telephone tech support utterly destroyed the careers and businesses that used to send a tech to your home/workplace to fix many things.

          I was in Dell server support ’96-’03, walking on/offsite techs, administrators and customers of all skill-sets through troubleshooting and/or repair of their Dell equipment. This included helping two ladies that were afraid to touch much less open their system get it back up (they hadn’t paid for a contract that would allow me to send them a tech before their payroll ‘had’ to be printed.) In many of the onsite/admin cases they were amazed that I could point them to the Dell web pages that had the very data/pictures/steps I was walking them through. (That was my first years at Dell, around 2000 the website became less friendly and Dell was hiring those of lesser skills to read scripts at callers – which hurt when it was obvious to all but the script monkeys and their supervisors that the scripts didn’t cover all issues – which was one of the reasons for Dell’s decline …)

          Current desktop publishing is the bane of publishers; not because of what it can do, but because anyone can now do it. Add being able to get paid when self publishing and trad-pub is starting to see it as a real and growing problem as their wares now fight for notice beside those they would have rejected.

          The world is still and always changing; we will each adapt, die, or find a new way to live in it (which is another way of adapting.)

          • I’m not complaining. I adapted. Many times. I recently counted how many times I’ve been laid off during my working lifetime. It’s an average of every four years. And yet I own my own home and have a decent job that (I think) is finally secure. Plus I write. And hope. 🙂

            Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to get jobs in publishing.

            Current DTP isn’t the bane of publishers because anyone can do it. It’s the bane of publishers because ALL OF THE PROGRAMS ARE TERRIBLE.

            They should have stuck with Atex/XyWrite and its progeny.

  3. For instance, no space between the last/first character in a word and the beginning or end of an em dash.

    “you can toss in–or, that is” instead of “you can toss in — or, that is”

    There is a problem with that arbitrary rule. It makes a mess of line spacing in my Kindle.

    With the old, no-space em dash, I often find a short line followed by a line with “word-em dash-word” as its whole content. This breaks the flow of the paragraph and the page on the screen.

    Typesetters knew to break the “word-em dash-word” after the em dash to keep the flow. The Kindle does not do that.

    Thus, I choose to format “word-space-em dash-space-word” and keep the flow. When the reason for the rule changes, the rule must change, too.


    • Good point, A. I hadn’t thought about that.

    • There is also the issue that, for anyone with even a mild visual impairment, the em dash or en dash are virtually indistinguishable from a hyphen on electronic devices.

      This is not a problem for the en dash, when it is properly used (to separate the two endpoints of a range), but is for the em-dash.

      The matter is not helped by the fact that, with most text anti-aliasing algorithms, the em dash that has spaces on either side is actually two pixels wider than one without that spacing.

    • Which Kindle do you have? I have a Paperwhite purchased in 2013 and the em dashes with no spaces break perfectly at any font size. It’s something I checked before I went to the em dashes with no spaces formatting.

  4. I just searched my WIP at 30,000 words and found six ‘pretty’ words and none were describing a person as pretty. Whoops! They’re now deleted. I might have to get the audio version of that book to stop creating darlings I’ll have to kill.

    • That’s pretty bad …

      That’s bad …

      Hmm, one of those seems more bad than the other, perhaps pretty needs to be taken case by not-so-pretty case? 😉

      • “Pretty” (for most people) seems to occupy a superlative niche between “none” and “very.” So I don’t have a problem with it being used where that is the intention of the writer.

        I reserve my limited capacity to irately rant for other things. Such as the “more smoother” I ran across earlier today. (NOT in my writing!)

    • Clicked submit too fast …

      Just checked one of my older book files, found 28 ‘pretty’s out of 251,398 words, so one for every 8k+ words or so. (and even at your one every 5k I don’t think you’re overdoing them. 😉 )

  5. PG concludes:

    So (coming full-circle) for PG, reading a printed book feels a little like driving a 1957 Chevrolet–an entertaining change and a trip down memory lane–but an ebook and a Toyota are a better way to go.

    How/why’d you get EN dashes in there?

    FYI: on Mac, EM dash is: shift+option+hyphen

    … and I also sometimes add the extra space on EMs for better line justification in .epub.

    • In Autocorrect in Word, you can set hyphen-hyphen to be automatically replaced with an em dash.

      • Thanks, antares, but I don’t write in Word, and shift+option+hyphen is automatic with my fingers’ muscle memory.

        • Another keyboard warrior! We need to stick together. I do use Word myself, but the ctrl+number pad minus is in my muscle memory. (Which admittedly is a pain when I forget that I’m in a browser, where that combo means “zoom out.”)

          I’ll never change that, as I am dead set against anything “automatically correcting” when I am writing.

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