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-hearted” but not “lightheaded”) 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.)
Hovering over modern discussions of usage is the spectre of George Orwell, whose essay “Politics and the English Language” challenged the degeneracy of bureaucratese. Orwell criticized the writing of his time for vagueness and euphemism, claiming that official-sounding jargon was “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” But linguistic malpractice looks different in 2019 from what it did in 1946, when “Politics and the English Language” was first published: the evils of political discourse today have little to do with cliché, or with a “pretentious latinized style.” Trumpism infects our English; Trumpism flows through the country’s bloodstream, awakening a primordial coarseness. Orwell sought, by injecting immediacy and color into his language, to invigorate it. But American English needs not invigoration so much as it needs coherence, polish, grace.
In an essay published in Harper’s magazine, in 2001, the author David Foster Wallace argued on behalf of Bryan Garner’s then new “Dictionary of Modern American Usage,” contending that Garner persuaded readers to follow his guidelines despite the illegitimacy of standard English, a “baldly elitist” tongue “invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males.” Restoring the language’s full credibility was impossible, Wallace wrote, but Garner succeeded in establishing his own bona fides: his guide functioned as a character reference, projecting integrity, expertise, and trustworthiness through its prose. Readers, convinced that Garner’s interests aligned with theirs, reconciled themselves to the élite English he represented. The result, according to Wallace, was a “politically redemptive” synthesis of authority and egalitarianism.
“Dreyer’s English” attempts a similar coup-via-charisma. On the page, Dreyer shares many of the traits that Wallace saw in Garner, including devotion, accountability, experience, and reason. But where Garner opted for what Wallace described as an “Ethical Appeal . . . a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me,’ ” Dreyer ultimately selects a different approach. Call it the hedonic appeal. Dreyer beckons readers by showing that his rules make prose pleasurable.
His book is in love with the toothsomeness of language. Its sentences capture writing’s physicality. “Hyphenated vulgarities,” such as blow-job, “are comically dainty,” Dreyer says. Novels can “shimmy.” Parentheses have elbows. The author’s delight in his tool kit is palpable, as when he enthuses about ending a sentence shaped like a question with a period rather than a question mark. (“It makes a statement, doesn’t it.”) Defending the semicolon, Dreyer quotes at length the opening of “The Haunting of Hill House,” by Shirley Jackson, breathlessly celebrating the passage’s “tightly woven, almost claustrophobic ideas . . . a paragraph that grabs you by the hand.” He takes a tinkerer’s joy in breaking apart syntax and putting it back together. Restrictive clauses are like Legos to him. “There’s something bracingly attractive,” he declares, “about a sentence that brims with parallelism.” It is as if he has thrown open a window on a starry night in winter and stuck his face outside.
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? What’s the point of grammar and style if violating all of their writs might win you the Presidency?
The hedonic appeal represents an attempt to answer those questions, but it is not only that. 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. It reminds me of the Yeats poem in which the speaker, a pilot, lists all of the reasons that don’t explain why he is flying a warplane—a job that he knows will kill him. The airmen says that he is not moved by “hate,” “love,” “law,” “duty,” “cheering crowds,” politicians, thoughts of the past, or thoughts of the future. Finally, he reveals, “A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds.” That is clarity and style.