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Random House Copy Chief: Stand Tall, Wordsmiths! (But Choose Your Battles)

Dreyer gets the final say over questions related to grammar, style and clarity at Random House. Now he's sharing his writing advice in the new book Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.


Other segments from the episode on February 5, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 5, 2019: Interview with Benjamin Dreyer; Interview with Lorna Luft.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Benjamin Dreyer was recently described in The Washington Post as the unofficial language guru on Twitter. Dreyer's work home is the book publisher Random House, where he's a vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief. He gets the final say over questions related to grammar, style and clarity at that publishing house. He's been the copy editor for books by such authors as Michael Chabon, E.L. Doctorow, Janet Evanovich, Michael Pollan, Frank Rich, Isabella Rossellini, Richard Russo and Calvin Trillin. Now he's sharing his advice in his new humbly-titled book, "Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide To Clarity And Style."

Benjamin Dreyer, welcome to FRESH AIR. First, let's start with the subtitle of your book - "An Utterly Correct Guide To Clarity And Style." Let's establish that you're trying - that you're succeeding in being funny with that. You don't mean it as being truly, utterly correct 'cause style is in some ways pretty subjective, isn't it?

BENJAMIN DREYER: Yes, and I do mean to be funny. And I like to think that there's a bit of a wink contained in the subtitle, that it's a little bit of a joke and let's just start off with the notion that we're all in on it. Style is indeed extremely subjective. I think that if there's one point I am trying to make in the book that any notions of what constitutes correctness or any notion of what constitutes right versus wrong, whatever those things might possibly be - those are all subsumed to the notion of A, clarity and B, just the joy of writing. And everything is about the clarity, and everything is about the joy. So you have to make all those notions of what's correct work for you or not work for you, as the case may be.

GROSS: So I heard you say that when you started writing this book, the writing was putting you to sleep. And you finally realized you should write in your Twitter voice, which was funny and concise and personal and chatty. I was expecting you to criticize Twitter for avoiding the rules of grammar, but that's where you found your voice.

DREYER: It is where I found my voice. And when you have to contend with only having 140 characters to move around in - and then eventually, of course, to have 280 characters to move around in - you have to make your point. You have to make it succinctly. And if you're me and you're trying to engage people, you have to sort of also try to be funny. You have to make people want to read your tweet as opposed to going and reading somebody else's tweet.

GROSS: So some advice you gave on Twitter this week, which you also give in the opening of your book, is avoid this list of words for a week - very, rather, really - as in, that was really terrific - quite, in fact, just, so. So - don't start a sentence with so - pretty, as in...

DREYER: Actually, I don't...

GROSS: Yeah.

DREYER: ...Necessarily mean that so...

GROSS: Oh, which so do you...

DREYER: ...Though we can do with...

GROSS: (Laughter) Which so do you mean?

DREYER: I mean the - it's so big, so smart.


DREYER: So this, so that.

GROSS: OK. OK. Avoid pretty - as in, that was pretty tedious - surely.


GROSS: And that said, I think maybe I shouldn't use those words. So you described these as wan intensifiers and throat clearers. So I'm pretty sure you've been listening to me on FRESH AIR making notes of the weed words (laughter) that I overuse 'cause that's my partial list of words that I use too much. But I guess I'm not alone. So maybe it's not just me you've been listening to. So tell us your objections to these words.

DREYER: First, I want to emphasize that my job is - if I'm going to be running around policing things, I'm there to police written prose. I'm happily not there to govern how people speak, and that includes me. And if you and I both become self-conscious at the extent to which either one of us is using the word very right now, we're going to grind to a complete halt.


DREYER: I'm already sort of - I can hear myself, and I'm kind of counting them. And so I've just kind of sort of let that go so that we can have a conversation. I do think that on paper, they're essentially a waste of space, and certainly the that saids and the well, actuallys (ph) are serving no purpose. So get rid of them. As to the wan intensifiers, as I also do say, feel free to write them. Just go back and get rid of them after you've written them.

And one thing I'll add - and I don't mean to pick so much on the word very, but I believe that people use it - I mean, indeed, they use it as an intensifier. They use it to strengthen and emphasize how they feel about something, and it ends up coming off on the page somewhat defensively. I think that if you say that somebody is brilliant, that's a sort of a bold, definitive statement. If you say that somebody is very brilliant, it's like, I really mean it. So let it sit by itself and do its job, and be a little bold about it.

GROSS: But if you say somebody's very smart, it might mean that they're shy of brilliant. But they're smarter than just your average smart, so you stick in the very there to show, like, the gradation. It's like a B plus. It's not a B...


GROSS: ...Or an A.

DREYER: Sure. Or we might find some other adjective on the spectrum of adjectives that might cover that middle ground a little better. But again, I don't want to be - I - you know, I don't want to be a bully about it. I don't want to be a martinet about it. And I'm sure there are a number of varies in the book, though I did make quite certain that after I discuss the word actually that any actuallys (ph) that were sitting in the rest of the book are - they're gone.

GROSS: So did you just, like, hit find on your Word document and get rid of them?

DREYER: Absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

DREYER: It feels like cheating sometimes to be able to search a document for things rather than to move through it painstakingly, word by word. But you make use of the technology as it offers itself up to you.

GROSS: So I'm glad that you acknowledge the difference between writing and speech and how there's a level of care that you can apply on the page. That's really hard to do in speech because you're thinking and speaking at the same time. And sometimes it takes a while for the brain to think its thought, and the mouth is still working (laughter), saying words.


GROSS: (Laughter) So...

DREYER: I recognize that.

GROSS: No, I appreciate that as somebody who talks on the air a lot and says all kinds of things that I wouldn't abide on the page.

DREYER: And I think that sometimes when we are writing, we do tend to write in an imitation of how we speak. And often, I find myself looking at a sentence - either one of my sentences or one of somebody else's sentences - and I find that I wrote it out as I would've said it. But now that I'm regarding it on the page and I want to make sure that it's sharp and I want to make sure that it's strong, often, I find that if you reorder the elements of a sentence, you can build a stronger sentence on the page. Often, a big chunk or the important part of a sentence is sitting in the middle, and it gets sort of lost in the middle. And then the sentence kind of dribbles off to the end. And if you take the middle part and you put it at the end, you're working your way toward what would be - if you were a comedian, you're working your way toward the punchline. You want the big word to come at the end so that people are laughing at the end, not laughing in the middle of the sentence, and then nobody hears the end of the sentence.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. All right. So you're the copy chief of Random House. What's the difference between a copy editor and, as you put it, the editor editor?

DREYER: The editor editor is the one who has brought the manuscript into the house, who championed it in the first place, who marched into an editorial meeting and said, I have this manuscript in under submission, and I think it's great. And I think we should publish it. And then over the course of time, it gets bought. And the editor editor then proceeds to work with the author author over who knows how many drafts to get the manuscript to be what it is supposed to be.

And it's a kind of - truly, it's a kind of magic. And sometimes I do listen to the editors talk about what they are doing to work on a particular manuscript. And I rather marvel over it. It's not necessarily one of my talents, I think. It's not how my brain works. They're really looking at the big picture, and they're looking at the major arcs of a book and its characterization and its pace and its speed and major points of construction. As a copy editor, you're really working at a nuclear level - sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, very hunkered down, very sort of focused.

GROSS: It's line editing.

DREYER: Yes, it's line editing. Some editor editors do line edit also at the nuclear level, but many of them, I think, are content that once they've wrestled the thing into existence and it seems to be what it ought to be, that somebody on my staff is going to get in there and do the polish job to really sort of, you know, shine it up.

GROSS: Do you get into quarrels with writers about changes you want to make?

DREYER: I think that a good rate of acceptance between copy editor and author - maybe 85 percent of the copy editor's suggestions would get approved. And there are certain times where the author simply says, funny thing. I actually like it the way I wrote it myself. And you are, of course, deferential because you know who's the dog and who's the tail. And I've encountered very few examples of such a complete disconnect between the copy editor and the author - and I'm speaking of myself as both a copy editor and as a person who's observing copy editing going on in my department - very few instances of a disconnect that's so bad that the author is absolutely, adamantly opposed to everything that the copy editor has done. That just doesn't happen. Copy editors - professional copy editors are sensitive to what writers are doing. And they know that their job is to get into the manuscript and to enhance it to make it - as I find myself saying frequently - to make it more of itself than it was before you got to work on it. You're not in there to take an axe to it. You're not there to sort of pound it into some sort of standardized submission. You have to listen. Copy editing is very much about listening. And if the copy editor is listening to what the writer is doing and is offering suggestions accordingly, that dialogue that occurs - well, on the page, it used to happen in pencil; now, of course, it happens in track changes - that conversation should go quite well. I think that authors should say no every now and then. I think that if I ever copy edited something and the author said yes to everything, I would think, well, I feel kind of hurt; it's like you didn't really care enough to argue with me every now and then.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Benjamin Dreyer. He's the copy chief of Random House, and the author of the new book "Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide To Clarity And Style." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House and author of the new book "Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide To Clarity And Style" - an utterly sarcastic title.


GROSS: You write, (reading) I sometimes feel as if I spend half my life prying up commas and the other half tacking them down someplace else. And you're referring here to when you edit somebody's book. So let's talk a little bit about commas, and let's start with probably the most controversial comma of all...


GROSS: ...The serial comma or, as it's also known, the Oxford comma. Explain what that is.

DREYER: The serial comma or the Oxford comma or, as I've sort of settled on calling it, the series comma is that comma that exists toward the end of a list before the final item - that final item, as a rule, being preceded by the word and or the word or, as, for instance, apples - comma - bananas - comma - and cherries. So that last comma, that second comma - that's the series comma. Just...

GROSS: The one right before the end - cherries.

DREYER: The one right before the end. Almost everybody in book publishing, I'd say, favors the series comma. Many people who work in journalism were trained not to use it, so they don't use it. And they give heavy side-eye to people who do use it. And of course we all like the things that we like, and we all like the things that we're used to. I find the series comma highly useful because, among other things, it separates those two last items on the list. It keeps them from looking as if they have some sort of special relationship - that they're sort of a pair. And you don't mean them to be a pair. They are simply the last two items on a list.

GROSS: Can I give an example? Like, if it was like, I had a meal of Brussels sprouts, french fries, ham and eggs, you don't know if you had ham and eggs, you know, like as one dish or whether there was ham and then also eggs. So is it ham and eggs, or is it ham - comma - and eggs?

DREYER: Exactly. And if we were speaking of ham and eggs in a list, I think I might, as the copy editor, suggest picking up ham and eggs and moving it into the middle of the list so that those two items could sit next to each other unpunctuated. They would appear as a unit, and there would be no confusion.

GROSS: Well, they'd still have a comma in between - right? - if there was more than...

DREYER: Well, if I...

GROSS: ...Two things. Yeah.

DREYER: If I said we sat down to breakfast and we had French toast - comma - ham and eggs - comma - and...

GROSS: Oh, I see. Yes.

DREYER: ...Oatmeal...

GROSS: Right, right.

DREYER: And then you have a very clear list. And you know what belongs to what, and what doesn't belong to what.

GROSS: OK. You have a great sentence in here that I'm going to read also displaying why the serial comma or the series comma might be very helpful. So this is the Nelson Mandela sentence.

DREYER: The famous Nelson Mandela sentence.

GROSS: It's a famous sentence?

DREYER: Everybody drags it out in conversations about the use of the series comma. I can't remember the first time I encountered it. And I was trying very hard not to use it in my book because I'd seen it so frequently. But I thought, oh, you know, let's just drag it out one more time.

GROSS: OK, I'm dragging it (laughter).

DREYER: OK, let's drag.

GROSS: OK, here it comes. (Reading) Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela - comma - an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.


GROSS: OK, so the only comma we have there is after Nelson Mandela. OK, what's confusing about that sentence?

DREYER: Well, the way the sentence is constructed with just that one comma, it suggests that you are identifying beyond with a comma after Nelson Mandela that he is the next two things you are mentioning. So Nelson Mandela is, indeed, a demigod and a dildo collector.

GROSS: OK, so if you change it to highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela - comma - an 800-year-old demigod - comma - and a dildo collector, how's that?

DREYER: It's almost better. And it's one of the reasons, I will say, this sentence is not a good defence of the series comma because adding the series comma does not entirely clarify it. Some sentences can't simply be repunctuated. They need to be reordered or reconstructed so that they can make better sense. And I think that if you, for instance, change that to highlights of his tour included encounters with an 800-year-old demigod - comma - a dildo collector - comma - and Nelson Mandela, at long last, I think we can be pretty certain we all understand that we are speaking about three different things.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Is there another - yeah.

DREYER: This is what I do all day.


GROSS: You have a chapter of rules not to take too seriously. So one of those is, like, never use the passive tense. So before you explain why it's sometimes OK to use the passive tense, explain what the passive is.

DREYER: The passive voice is to disinclude (ph) the thing that is performing the action in the sentence, as, for instance...

GROSS: Can I give you my favorite example of the passive tense that does...

DREYER: Please do.

GROSS: ...Exactly what you're saying? All of - well, at least, many of the pharmaceutical ads on TV have that tag at the end, you know, about what the side effects are. But it's in the passive tense. So it's like nausea, diarrhea, headache, broken bones, heart attack, difficult breathing and sudden death may occur. So, like, there's no person responsible for this. There's no drug being cited that's responsible for this. It's like these things may occur...

DREYER: May occur.

GROSS: ...Totally passive. And it gets the pharmaceutical company kind of off the hook. Like, we're not saying the drug causes it. We're just saying, like, hey. This might happen. Who knows why?

DREYER: I mean, I think that, you know, a classic example of passive voice - and it's very weaselly, and you shouldn't say it - mistakes were made.

GROSS: Yes (laughter).

DREYER: By whom?


DREYER: You know, can somebody take some responsibility here? I made a mistake. You made a mistake. It needs a person there having made the mistake. But every now and then, there's nothing particularly wrong with the passive voice if you are simply, for instance, trying to establish a situation whose actor, whose performer you don't know. The refrigerator door was left open. That is simply - that's an observation. The refrigerator door was left open. You're not necessarily trying to say who did it. You are simply observing that something occurred.

And you can't say who did it because you don't know. And if you say, someone left the refrigerator door open, then all of a sudden, we're no longer simply observing a situation. We're pointing a finger at somebody. So you don't want to take the agency. You don't want to take the actor out of all sentences. But every now and then, you're simply attempting to describe a situation. And the person who did it is not particularly relevant or not particularly important.

GROSS: My guest is Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House and author of the new book "Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide To Clarity And Style." We'll talk more after a break. And we'll hear from Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft, who's written a book about the history of "A Star Is Born" with the main focus on the 1954 version, which starred her mother. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at the book publishing company Random House, where he's also a vice president and executive managing editor. He gets the final say over questions related to grammar, style and clarity. He's been the copy editor for books by such authors as Michael Chabon, E.L. Doctorow, Janet Evanovich, Michael Pollan, Frank Rich, Isabella Rossellini, Richard Russo and Calvin Trillin. Now he's written his own book titled "Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide To Clarity And Style."

You added fiction and non-fiction. So in fiction, there's usually a lot of dialogue. And people get tired of saying, he said, she said. So they try to elaborate on that. And examples you use are, she cried ecstatically. He remarked decisively. He asked helplessly. You don't really like those adverbs.

DREYER: I don't mind them. I mean - and I like adverbs very much. I know that many people think that adverbs are dreadful. And I use them all the time. In fact, there's that great, big, honking utterly in the subtitle of my book. I think that authors frequently are reaching for alternatives to he said and she said because they fear that the reader is going to become bored with the he saids and the she saids.

And I view those sorts of things as kind of invisible skeleton. Readers don't particularly notice them. They're there to support the dialogue. They're there to support what it is that you're doing. So just let them do that. There's nothing wrong with the occasional, he cried ecstatically. But you don't want to keep doing that over and over and over again. You know, it's like - I don't really maybe have anything nice to say about she remonstrated decisively.

GROSS: (Laughter) So you describe yourself as pretty conservative when it comes to language. So I'm wondering if you're keeping up with changes in gender that are being originated by people who don't identify as male or female and who want to be called they or are coming up with other ways to describe themselves that aren't he or she. And I'm wondering, as this new sense of identity enters the world and a - you know, a new language to correspond to it, what you as a copy editor are making of that.

DREYER: This ultimately was the intersection of my perspective as a copy editor and my perspective as a - simply as a human being. I remember reading a few years ago an article in The New York Times that was all about a person who did not identify as male or female. And I made my way through the article, which was extremely well-written, and toward the end of the article, there was a quotation.

There was a description of this person by this person's father or mother that referred to the person as they and then added - was added parenthetically using a pronoun that The Times does not use. And I then went back, and I read the entire article and realized that the writer of the article had managed to write the entire article about this person without ever resorting to a pronoun. And it was done seamlessly and eloquently.

And I was sort of - I mean, on the one hand, I was sort of impressed by the effort, while, at the same time, I was also beginning to contemplate the necessity of this avoidance. And then, what happened subsequently is that I gained a colleague whose pronoun of choice is they. And when I was first introduced to this colleague, I found myself for months doing anything I could in writing or even in speech to avoid applying a pronoun. I'd refer to the colleague as the colleague. I mean, can you hear how dreadfully stilted I'm becoming?

GROSS: (Laughter) Yes.

DREYER: And I would refer to the colleague by name. And at one point, even I began to realize how ridiculous I was. And the word they popped out of my mouth, and I thought, oh, be done with it already (laughter). You know, like, just honor your colleague, honor this person that you work with, honor this person you actually like a lot and and honor the pronoun choice.

And it shouldn't have to take something personal, you know, a one-on-one encounter with another human being. It shouldn't necessarily have to take that sort of thing to make you evolve properly. You should - you know, maybe you should be a better person, and you should be able to do it in the abstract. But sometimes it does take a personal encounter to get you to change how you see things.

GROSS: Well, I - you know, I think, like, if you're gender queer, if there's a lot of, like, rights that you're going to have trouble getting because of discrimination in our society, one of the things you should not be deprived of is, like, the right to have a pronoun (laughter).

DREYER: Right.

GROSS: Like, that shouldn't be something that you have to go to the Supreme Court for, to have a pronoun to use to describe yourself.

DREYER: Yeah. And the last thing that I want to do is to pass myself off as some sort of ferocious gatekeeper who, in some sort of argument about the purity and the wonder of the English language and how it must be preserved, is simply being unkind and cruel to other human beings. You know, if I've learned anything in my increasing years, it's that just being kind, you know, being respectful is more important than how I feel about pronouns.

GROSS: Benjamin Dreyer, thank you so much.

DREYER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Benjamin Dreyer is the copy chief at Random House and author of the new book "Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide To Clarity And Style." After we take a short break, we'll hear from Lorna Luft. Her mother, Judy Garland, starred in the 1954 version of "A Star Is Born." Luft's father produced it. And Luft has written a new book about it. This is FRESH AIR.

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