Benjamin Dreyer is vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief, of Random House, and the author of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”
Spend more than a few minutes in the word business — I’ve spent going on 30 years in it, as a proofreader, copy editor, publishing-house copy chief and, recently, the author of a guide to writing style — and you’ll quickly learn that the English language, to say nothing of its practitioners, is irrational, irregular and anarchic. You can choose either to embrace that or to rail against it, but I assure you that the former is more fun and less taxing.
To be sure, there are certain standards that persist by consensus and more or less inarguably because they quietly, invisibly support clarity. Subjects and verbs should agree in number, for instance. Yet there are many more shades of gray in “good English” — I use quotation marks because after all this time I’m still not sure what the phrase means — than we’re often led to believe.
Possibly you had it drilled into your head that sentences cannot begin with “And” or “But.” But of course they can, as good writers, and others, have been demonstrating for centuries. And if you happen to know what an infinitive is, you have probably been taught not to split it, though I would urge you to boldly split the living daylights out of the next one you run into. And you’ve almost certainly been taught that you must not end a sentence with a preposition — a bit of arrant Latin-based pedantry up with which Winston Churchill, according to legend (by which I mean the story is not provably true), would not put.
But once we toss out those specious rules, what’s left?
What’s left is more important than so-called good English: effective English. English that clearly, strongly and unambiguously — unless you’ve a penchant for ambiguity — conveys from writers’ brains through their typing fingers and onward to the imaginations of their readers what it is that writers are attempting to communicate.
By which I mean, among other things, that though there’s nothing wrong per se in beginning a sentence with “And” or “But,” it may not always be the best, strongest choice to do that in four consecutive sentences, as I just did a few lines ago. Also, one might just as easily say “intrinsically,” which is a lovely word, as “per se,” which is a lovely phrase but not quite English. And perhaps don’t use the word “just” more than once per paragraph.
I might also urge you to kondo your prose of what I call the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers® — the “very”s and “quite”s and “rather”s and “actually”s in which many (most?) of us bury our writing like so many packing peanuts. Because once you’ve stripped those away, I insist, you’ll find yourself looking at sentences that are bolder in their spareness.
And perhaps be less eager to grab up the latest bit of jargony businessspeak — is it not enough to orient new employees? Must we onboard them, and is that not prohibited anyway by the Geneva Conventions?
As a copy editor I find myself frequently asked to weigh in on an array of language peeves and crotchets: “Is it okay to use ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’?” “What about ‘begs the question’?” “What do I do about supermarket signs that read ‘Ten Items or Less’?” (Respectively: If I say no, is that going to stop you? I plead the Fifth. Get a hobby.)
But that’s not why I do what I do. I’m not the grammar police. My chief interest is to help writers express themselves, to help them make their writing the best possible version of itself that it can be.
I’ve found myself lately asking: Are people less interested in good writing than they used to be? Anything but, I reply to myself. People — at least the self-selecting group who place themselves in my sight, or who read articles about copy editing — seem to me to be increasingly, acutely interested in good writing.
To engage in what is known in another venue as subtweeting: We’ve found ourselves in a world in which, to some, spelling doesn’t count, punctuation doesn’t matter, words are Capitalized at Whim and lies are passed off, in haranguing repetition, as truth.
It’s wearying. It’s maddening. I couldn’t, a few years ago, have ever imagined that respect for language, a desire to write well, could become an act of resistance. But here we are.