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The Hedonic Appeal of “Dreyer’s English”

30 January 2019

From The New Yorker:

Books about language usage, including “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” by Lynne Truss, and “Woe Is I,” by Patricia T. O’Conner, constitute a metaliterature, in which the writing must prove the writer’s qualifications to teach writing. The magician makes a magic show out of explaining his tricks. Sometimes, as with William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White’s “The Elements of Style,” the music of the prose is what recommends the volume long after many of its prescriptions have been discarded.

A new entrant in this genre, “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” seems happily aware of its own planned obsolescence. The author is Benjamin Dreyer, the longtime copy chief at Random House. He grants that his rules are sometimes arbitrary (e.g., hyphenate “light-headed” but not “lighthearted”) and often fluid (although most sentences don’t benefit from the passive voice, he points out, some do). But he’s a true believer, full of passionate opinions about “actually” (never say it), house style (try not to have one “visible from space,” he advises this publication), and italics (unfortunately straining to the eye, and redolent of the sorts of interior monologues and dream sequences that readers are likely to skip). Dreyer himself is a charming, chatty narrator with a soft spot for both digressive footnotes and name-dropping. He dislikes scare quotes and lauds parentheses for their “conveyance of elbow-nudging joshingness.” He is just persnickety enough.Dreyer’s through line is that most rules have exceptions: “There are fewer absolutes in writing than you might think,” he finds. His book, which apotheosizes the case-by-case basis, compares the copy-editing process to “a really thorough teeth cleaning,” at the end of which the text reads “even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it.” This is nice, but it is also a theremin-spooky late-capitalist metaphor. The copy editor performs service work for the writer by fine-tuning the writer’s personal voice or brand. The emphasis on grammar as a tool for self-expression, not just communication, feels evocative of an era in which online dogmatists periodically go scorched earth on punctuation marks or parts of speech that offend their sensibilities. (“The semicolon is pointless, and it’s ruining your writing,” one such piece asserted, setting off plumes of semicolons all over Twitter.)

. . . .

Wallace’s 2001 essay was premised on the notion that, after standard English was disgraced as a “shibboleth of the Establishment,” language snoots needed to come up with an entirely new reason for people to follow their rules. (It didn’t help, Wallace observed, that the old ways could be “archaic and incommodious and an all-around pain in the ass.”) A similar crisis of motivation might be said to haunt the language snobs of 2019. Perhaps we insist on usage norms to reclaim a lost sense of agency: These sentence fragments I have shored up against my ruin. But why insist on good manners when you can travel so far without them?

. . . .

Dreyer’s attention to gusto in language use is magical in a way that resists full explication. Like life, writing is an accumulation of choices, some deliberate but most only hazily understood. The language we handle moves under our touch. We feel around in it until a mysterious clicking starts, and then we wrestle the stuff into what we hope is proper grammar and wait for it to set. For Dreyer to wade into this process with news of pleasure is lovely.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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3 Comments to “The Hedonic Appeal of “Dreyer’s English””

  1. “Sometimes, as with William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White’s “The Elements of Style,” the music of the prose is what recommends the volume long after many of its prescriptions have been discarded.”


    (Not dissing Dreyer’s book, just this vapid, fatuous New Yorker review of the book.)

    • Huh?


      I have noted a tendency in writers in The New Yorker to mistake glibness for intelligence. I have noted that same tendency in The New York Times. Is there something in the water in Manhattan?

      • They do seem to have a mindset all their own.

        Thankfully no one buys/sells bottled water from NY (to my knowledge anyway. 😉 )

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