Grammar Girl's Interview with Benjamin Dreyer (Full Transcript)
Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to language and writing, rules and cool stuff. And today, I have some cool stuff. You get to hear Benjamin Dreyer, author of the brand new New York Times bestseller “Dreyer’s English,” talk about how the book came to be, what his favorite parts are of my favorite section of the book, and his most unusual pet peeves.
But before we get started, I have an AP style webinar coming up February 28th with ragan.com, and about halfway through today’s interview, you'll see why that’s funny today. It’s a basic and intermediate level session for people who need to know AP style for work. It’s live with time for questions at the end, and you can watch it alone or with your whole team, and it’s also recorded so you can watch it again later. I’ll put a link you can use to register in the show notes, and there's also a link in the pinned tweet on my Twitter account, @GrammarGirl.
And now, on to the show.
MIGNON: Hello, Benjamin Dreyer. Thank you for being here with me today.
BENJAMIN: Thank you so much for having me.
MIGNON: You bet, and congratulations. Your book has made the New York Times bestseller list, and from what I understand it's on its fifth printing or is it 6th by now?
BENJAMIN: It is on its fifth printing but of course I haven't looked at email all day, but no, we're on our fifth printing, and it's going so far beyond what I even dreamed it might possibly do. It's so gratifying, and I'm having such a good time.
MIGNON: Yeah, that's great, and you work, it is an unusual situation, because you work for your publisher, so are you the hero in the building these days?
BENJAMIN: They're pretty happy with me right now. Any book that's a success is going to be a cause for cheering, but a book that turns out to be something of a surprise success is even more fun. And the thing is the run up to publication, I mean, I realized I had contented myself a number of months ago before it went to the printer that I had written a book that was good, and we all expected that it was going to go out into the world, and it was going to make a nice impression, but I don't think that anybody in the house anticipated it was going to go boom the way it did and it's exciting.
MIGNON: That's a wonderful surprise I hope you get cookies on your desk every day I finally get back to work. And from what I understand, you've been working on this book for years, so why don't you give me and the listeners a big picture description of the book and then how it came to be.
BENJAMIN: Sure, I have been at Random House since 1993. And now I'm going to walk you through that week by week until we get up to 2019. I’ve been at Random House…
MIGNON: It’s going to be a long interview.
BENJAMIN: I've been at Random House since 1993, and I started as a production editor, and that's the person who hires the copy editor and the proofreaders and squires the book through the process, and you know, over the course of time I became the copy chief in the managing editor of Random House, or Little Random, as our division tends to be affectionately called, and somehow I had always had it in the back of my head that I might want to write something, and I had had a little bit of writing, I did a little bit of writing when I was in my twenties, but it sort of gone by the wayside. It didn’t feel to me something I was very strong at, and so I wandered into my proofreading and copyediting career and found a huge amount of satisfaction in doing that, creative satisfaction, so I was really very happy about that and, six years ago now I was out in in Los Angeles for New Year's Eve and my husband and I were sitting at a counter of a restaurant, ’cause we like to sit at counters of restaurants, and I said that my New Year's resolution was that I was going to start writing every day. I had no idea what, but I was going to start writing, and so I was just writing little bits and scraps of things, and it finally occurred to me that what I really did want to write, ’cause I was going to be able to focus my effort on something real, was that I wanted to take all the stuff that I've done is a copy editor, all the little tricks that I've had up my sleeve, and turn them into a book. So I went barging one afternoon into the office of our publisher and I started babbling at her, and the next thing I knew I was under contract to my own house to write a book. It took a little longer than anybody expected when we when we went to contract. I don't know what I was thinking. They said when do you think you'll turn it in, and I said oh, 12 months from now? Well, I guess if you let yourself take one year, you'll take two, and if you sign up for two, you'll take four, so they just figured sooner or later I was going to finish it, and then I did.
MIGNON: Well I have to point out that it's February, and you're probably one of, you know, 2% of people who have kept your New Year's resolutions. I love at the book came out of the kernel was a New Year's resolution. So for everyone who's listening: if you've given up on your New Year's resolutions, don’t. Look what could happen. You could write a New York Times bestseller. So get back on those resolutions.
So the book starts really strong, and your wonderful voice, it just shines through, and in the first 10 pages, I found myself reading passages out loud to my husband, which I am absolutely certain I have never done with a language book before. For example on proofreading, you said it's like “endlessly working on one of those spot-the-difference picture puzzles in an especially satanic issue of Highlights for Children.”
That’s read-out-loud worthy, and a lot of the quips in your book are in footnotes.
And I was wondering: did you know from the very beginning that you were going to have foot-notes, or is it something that sort of developed over time when you realized you had a little bit more to say?
BENJAMIN: When I started writing the book, I was working away at it and working away at it, and nothing was really pleasing me. What I was writing struck me as sort of stodgy and dull, and I felt that, I feared that all I was really trying to do was to replicate the entire contents of The Chicago Manual of Style except somehow reworded, and I'm sure that I wrote and threw out tens of thousands of words before it finally occurred to me that the voice, if I may, the voice that I had established for myself at Twitter, where I had I had gone because somebody in the office—somebody at Random House office in marketing said, “You really should be on Twitter.” And so I went to Twitter, and it's like well, so I'll present myself as “Hi, I'm your friendly neighborhood copy chief,” and the need to be concise, the need to express yourself, first 140 characters and then 280 characters, and to be amusing because, of course, if you're not going to be amusing somebody will happily read somebody else’s tweets. Eventually, I realized that the voice that I had cultivated at Twitter was the voice that I could use to write the book, and once I had that breakthrough moment, everything began to sort of flow, and I stopped stopping myself all the time when I was writing. I would sit down, and it just came out and what naturally occurred because my brain is peculiarly digressive, and wandering here and wandering there is that I found myself over loading the text with things in parentheses and we’ve cut back on that in the editorial process, but I had this instinct to write footnotes, and I just kept writing them, and nobody objected in particular, so eventually I realized that this is part of the package. So the book sits somewhat peculiarly perhaps on a sea of footnotes.
But indeed, that's where I think the interesting asides are, that's where the jokes tend to live, and it's just what I sound like and translated into type.
MIGNON: Yeah, well, they make a nice little break between the more educational part, I mean the whole book is entertaining, but they are especially entertaining and it's a nice, I don’t know, somehow it's a nice little mental break to jump to the bottom of the page and read something in a different type, and then when you're done laughing go back and, you know, read the main text again.
So, you know, your book is definitely entertaining, and it also definitely has some prescriptive elements which we'll talk about more in a minute, but it seems to me—like, we are Twitter friends. I love following you on Twitter and we chat sometimes—but it seems to me that you have been unfairly maligned in the last week or two and at least a couple of times in articles and on Twitter about being too uptight or maybe too prescriptive.
But in the book you talk about exceptions and respecting authors’ choices even if they diverge from the quote-unquote rules, and if you'd like to, I want to give you this opportunity to sort of address those things and set the record straight.
BENJAMIN: Well, I think, and this started with, and I must underline the lovely profile of me that was in the New York Times the other week and, of course, I find it lovely. It's entirely about me. And it had a picture of me, and it had a picture of our dog, so of course, I was utterly enamored of it. But one of the things that was the writer's job to do is to frame me and what I do in the larger notion of how people nowadays think about grammar and punctuation. And one particular bit of text that she wrote got taken, and I'm going to say taken somewhat out of context, so that people who had no idea who I was who had no intention of reading the profile were going to as people tend to do online overreact, and they did, and so I'm being accused of being a gatekeeper, and I'm accused of being a whole lot of things that I'm not, and then I'm just going to sort of say that definitively. I'm a copy editor. Yes, I have certain prescriptivist tendencies which I think are important in copyeditors. It is part of the act of protecting writers from being fairly or unfairly carped at.
And so I do have that tendency, and also you know I'm a person of a certain age, so I have all of the things that I have learned and been taught over the years, and the things that I am comfortable with, but one of the things that I do try to say in the book over and over is these are my taste. These are the things that I do. They're not necessarily the things that you want to do. But on the other hand, if you do take the time to read the book, you will see that I have a great sense of loosey-gooseyness as it suits me, and as I think that it suits writers that I work with as a copy editor. I think the overriding point of copy editing is that good copy editing exists entirely in the service of the writer, what the writer is trying to do. You're trying to enhance that. You're trying to, as I often find myself saying, you're trying to make the book into the best possible version of itself that it can be, and all of my prescriptivism and descriptivism and all the other isms that I might feel, they either work with authors or they don’t, and since I have found in experience that the copy editing I do, and I don't copy at it as much as I used to in in the old days, but if my copy editing is working for authors, then insofar as copy editing is concerned, my copy editing is working.
MIGNON: I actually…since you mentioned it…I wondered, as the copy chief, I was wondering how much copyediting you do these days. Do you just do the big important books, or do you just oversee all the other copy editors? What is, what is your role as a copy chief when it comes to copy editing?
BENJAMIN: Well, as copy chief I have a big department of production editors who, as I said, they hire the copy editors, they hire the proofreaders, and my job as copy chief is to help set the tone, not set the tone, maintain the tone, I mean, we are Random House. We have a tradition that goes back nearly a century. We are to uphold, uphold standards, make sure that books go out well, but the one thing that I was taught that the chief thing that I was taught when I joined Random House was that Random House has house style. You bring to each book the copy edit that the book needs. So there is that, and there is trying to make sure the copy editors are approaching a book in an attentive and respectful fashion, doing all the things that I just said that I try to do, and also but departmentally, we do we sit and we talk, and we have we have meetings, and we talk about how language is evolving, and are there certain things that we want to encourage copy editors to change, copy editors who might feel sort of locked down to things that they were taught or were things that they find in their style manuals, do we want to take the lead in helping the language evolve, and the answer, of course, is well, yes, we do. Insofar as copyediting myself is concerned, and we do upwards of 300 original titles a year, so I have a great big department that I need to keep an eye on, and that really does take me out of the copy editing game, but I do have I have one pleasure that I one particular pleasure that I reserved for myself, which is that for the last one two three four or five of her books, I have been Elizabeth Strout's copy editor. I started with the “Burgess Boys.” I most recently copy edited “Olive Again,” which is, I think people are going to be very excited to know that there's a novel about the continuing adventures of Olive Kitteridge.
Yeah, you mentioned how style, and I think one thing we definitely do agree on is that it's great to have a house style, but some people also get carried away, and you said something when talking about “The New Yorker” style that a house style is fine, but you shouldn't have a house style that's visible from space.
MIGNON: I think every language writer noticed how “The New Yorker” made “Donald Trump Jr.” possessive, and it will be included in usage books forevermore. It never appeared before.
BENJAMIN. The thing is, there are a number of things, let’s just say that almost everybody in the book publishing world does the same way, so that doesn't really as far as I'm concerned constitute a house style. I mean, we all set movies in italics, we set individual songs in Roman and in quotes, and we all try to fix danglers, so that's not a house style, we all try to make subjects and verbs agree, so that's not a style. That's just English. There is one thing that is Random House style, and was when I got there, and it will be long after I leave, I suspect, which is that we are great fans of the series comma, or the serial comma, or the Oxford comma, and it has always been the law of Random House that copy editors are to I will use the word “impose” the series comma in manuscripts without querying it, without bringing it up, simply noting in the style sheet after the job is done “series comma.” It's a thing we do.
But again, if you're talking about book publishing, I'd say that almost everybody I know in book publishing similarly favors that comma, as so many people who work in journalism do not because they've been trained not to use it, and we all tend to think that what we were trained to do is correct, and that's just sort of the way it goes, isn't it?
MIGNON: Yeah, and if I had one quibble with your book, it's a couple things you just brought up, is that it's heavily weighted toward the Chicago Manual of Style, which makes absolute sense because you work in the book publishing industry, and that's the main style guide in the book publishing industry, but in some places it felt like you completely ignored other styles, especially AP, you know, saying that book titles go in italics when AP uses quotation marks, saying you shouldn't start a sentence with a year, which AP allows, and then saying “only godless savages” eschew the serial comma, so we already talked about this a little bit, but can you, can you talk about the decision to come down on the side of a style instead of acknowledging that many of these rules are just styles? It's something I struggle with all the time. Or, or, in other words, Benjamin, why do you hate journalists so much?
BENJAMIN: I think that ultimately as I was working on the book, and I set out really to write about things where I thought I had something to bring to the table, to not simply replicate other people's opinions, other books’ opinions. And to be perfectly honest it wasn't my intention to write a book that was especially fair or even handed. I wanted to write the book that I wanted to write about the things that I think work. I will make a confession to you, and I'm probably not the only book person who might say that, but I can only speak for myself, up until a few years ago, I didn't know that there was such a thing as AP style. It was something that I learned by being on Twitter. When I would say something and somebody would say to me “but AP style,” and then I thought what you're going to have to find out what this AP style thing is, and I did, but as I was writing the book, and setting my thoughts down on paper, or setting my thoughts in a Word file, at a certain point, I couldn't cover the globe. I couldn't say, yes this but that, this but that, this but that. There’s plenty of opportunity for people to look at what I have to say, it neither embrace it or not embrace it. One thing I do have to say, as far as the Chicago Manual is concerned, which of course is a great and respectable institution, my style manual, and it was the one that, you know, that Random House always used as the book of first resort, is the book “Words into Type,” which has long since been out of print. But which is still the book that I keep on my desk when I can't figure something out and need to reach for a style manual. It has a central section, a couple hundred pages on style grammar and punctuation, that I find absolutely invaluable and, and I always will.
MIGNON: Excellent. Well, we have to take a quick break for our sponsors, but when we come back we'll talk about what I love about your book so much. So we'll be right back.
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MIGNON: Okay, welcome back, and I think that after that middle section, I really started loving your book again because I think where it absolutely shines and what makes it different from so many other books like this is the section for fiction writers and editors. Your insights were so valuable, and so I just want to hear what were some of your favorite bits from that part of the book.
BENJAMIN: Thank you, and I'm truly fond of that section because I think that that's the one part of the book where what I do as a copy editor, how I look at manuscript and how my work is different from what you read in style manuals that tell you this or that.
This was my chance to, sort of, you’ll pardon me, spill my brain onto the page. So I love to copy edit fiction, and so I am, of course, highly aware of the things that I look for book after book, and fiction writers, even the best fiction writers, seem to me to have habits.
All fiction writers have their own habits, some of them better than others, but you do see things over and over, so I do warn, for instance, against writers tend, will tend to have pet words, words that they delight in, so they will tend to use them over and over again. I remember working on a number of books with one author who I detected on the first book that he and I did together that he was very fond of having characters murmur. There would be dozens of murmurings over the course of the book, and I would dutifully mark them, and he would vary them, and he confessed to me a couple of books into our relationship that since he knew I was going to call them out at him, he was just going to keep writing them, and then he could fix them later. So there's a tendency for murmuring. There's a tendency for certain, you know, rote gestures that are made to illustrate what people are doing in a room at any given time, so there's a lot of shrugging, and there's a lot of nodding of heads, and there's a lot of as I like to point there’s a lot of staring into the middle distance, and those are the things it's like fine write them, but then rethink them, come up with something that's a little fresher than that.
There's also a great tendency among novelists to endlessly string together actions with the words
“and then,” “and then,” “and then,” which I'll at least suggest can more often than not be cut down to a simple “then,” and many times can simply be disposed of entirely.
MIGNON: You also a good advice for how to avoid using italics for emphasis in dialogue.
BENJAMIN: Yes, I think a little bit of italic type goes an extremely long way. In working, in, in fact, with working with the aforementioned Elizabeth Stroud, I learned I would on occasion working on her manuscript suggested that perhaps this word might be better set in italics, it'll hit the rhythm a little bit better or to put the emphasis where it needs to go, and she would over and over and over decline. She thought that her dialogue was doing the job it was supposed to be doing all by itself, and guess what, she was right. Sometimes, sometimes writers are…they’re right about their own books, but it does make me think that no, readers don't like to be told how to read something.
So when you are, when you're using italics repeatedly in dialogue, or anywhere else for that matter, you're telling the reader what to do and how something is supposed to sound, and I would suggest that if you think that's a terribly important thing, perhaps the construction of your dialogue might better be tweaked so that its emphases are apparent without the use of italics. And as far as italics generally are concerned, use them highly sparingly. To pick up a book and to see a long section that’s set in italics to me that's always a cue to the reader to jump ahead to the next section that's not set in italics.
MIGNON: You’re so right. I always skip those sections.
BENJAMIN: Well, they tend to be dream sequences.
MIGNON: I hate dream sequences. Hate them.
You and I did an interview last week along with Peter Sokolowski from Merriam-Webster, and it was really just a lot of fun, and one of the things I learned is that you have a lot of interesting and unusual pet peeves. They were far more delightful than mine. Can you tell me about martinis and more?
BENJAMIN: Oh, yeah. So that there is, there is a section in the book called "Peeves and Crotchets,” in which I tried to assemble everything that I can think of that drives certain people around the bend insofar as language is concerned, and they're not all mine though some of them are certainly, I know a number of people who when they are using the phrase “hoi polloi”—and we might have a larger discussion about why you're using the phrase “hoi polloi”; it's 2019 already—that they objected violently to anybody saying “the hoi polloi” because, of course, if you know your Greek, you know that “hoi” means “the,” so “the hoi polloi” is horribly redundant. So that's a peeve. That’s somebody else’s peeve; it's not my peeve.
My peeves tend to be much more peculiar things, like the aforementioned martini. I will not stand for the appearance of the words “gin martini.” Martinis are made with gin, so to refer to something as a “gin martini” is redundant, and if you would like to enjoy a vodka martini, then you can add the two extra syllables and thus define your cocktail properly. But a martini is a martini, and the other thing that I do tend to rail against, and I seem to have forgotten to put it into the book, so if there is ever a second edition it's going to get tucked in there somewhere, I'm a big musical theatre aficionado, which is to say obsessive about it, and it’s, it's important to note that shows have cast albums and movies have soundtracks, and you should never refer to a cast album as a soundtrack because it's not a soundtrack.
MIGNON: Oh, I didn't know that. I learned something today. That’s great.
So to finish up I have a couple of questions more about sort of book production questions just because I ended up being interested, so I noticed the book, it photographs beautifully, it it's just so easy to get a good picture of your book, and it's partly because of the design. But I think also because it's printed on matte paper. It's not glossy, and so you don't get reflections when you're trying to photograph it, and I've been noticing that more and more books that I'm receiving are printed that way, with the start of the matte finish, and since you work at your publisher I was wondering if you know if that's an intentional trend because Instagram and other social media are becoming such an important places to market books these days.
BENJAMIN: It is important, it is important to note something that is true which is that jackets are now designed in part not simply to be beautiful on the book itself, but so that they can be displayed in a smaller version at Amazon or elsewhere and can be readable. So a jacket is definitely designed with an eye toward what it's going to look like when the image is put up online, and so that the, you know, the lettering is going to be readable in that in that rather small picture, and the illustration will read you know this so that you can you can see it and if it doesn't have to be 6 inches by 9 inches to be visible and to be readable. As far as finishes of jackets are concerned, there are still jackets that are done, you know, with glossier finish and, of course, with the full array of foil and embossing that that people like to see on certain jackets. And I suppose really you just would have to photograph carefully if you're going to photograph them. I was very happy with the decision the house made to do my jacket with the matte finish that it has. It has a name the particular finish on, on my book you, will know that if you run your hand over it has a certain almost sandpapery quality to it.
MIGNON: Yes, I did notice.
BENJAMIN: It's called “gritty Capote.”
MIGNON: Oh, that’s great.
BENJAMIN: It’s called, well, it's called “gritty” because it's gritty, and it's called “Capote” because, as often happens a thing in the house will take on the name of some book that it's been used on, so the first time, it was used the people particularly noticed it was when we published a long-lost novel of Truman Capote's called “Summer Crossing.” So it was going forward that finish was referred to as “gritty Capote,” so that that's what that's what my book has, but the side effect is that it photographs really easily.
MIGNON: Yeah, it's great, and I have to ask about the title because when I saw the book for the first time, my immediate thought was that I would never in a million years have the guts or the nerve to put “utterly correct” on the title of my book, but the full title is “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style: Dreyer’s English.” So make note of that listener, so when you go buy it, and frankly that she takes a lot of confidence especially when given that so many things are style choices instead of being hard-and-fast rules, so was that your idea or your publishers’? I absolutely have to know the story behind “utterly correct.”
BENJAMIN: All right, well, starting, starting with started with the title itself, when we went to contract, and the book needed to have some title attached to it. The title of the book was “The Last Word,” which, you know, was fine. It's also the name of somebody else’s show, so there was that. I never really particularly cared for it, and I found it a little on the bossy side a little on the hectoring side, and we all sort of understood that sooner or later we were going to need to find a better suitable title for the book. Now one of my Twitter friends one day came into my came into my, came into my DMs, came into my private communication, and said I have an idea for the title and the subtitle of your book, and I said let me have it. And he said the title of the book is “English” and I thought that's interesting, and the subtitle is, I think I'm going to remember this correctly, “Some Notes on Clarity, Correctness and Style.”
Well, I like the subtitle just fine. I particularly liked the “some notes” part because I never intended for the book to be exhaustive, so that was sort of letting me off the hook.
But insofar as the title was concerned, I thought well that's a little, that's a little bold, and maybe it's a little spare to which his response was “Oh, but people are going to refer to it as ‘Dreyer's English,’” and I thought you mad genius you.
Well, we put that, we changed the title of the book to “English,” and I fear that what happened is I made the joke one too many times in public that the book was going to be known as “Dreyer's English,” and eventually the combined wisdom of the house and the people who are going to be marketing it and selling it basically they came at me and said, “Oh, you've made the joke one too many times. It’s the title of your book. Are you cool with that?” and I thought well, this isn't the time for me to be coy. So I said sure, and as far as the subtitle was concerned that was concocted and presented to me, and I thought, well, if the title is as daring as it is, the subtitles also particularly daring, and I embraced it. I thought, you know, in for a penny in for a pound. What I found hilarious is that the “utterly,” which was somebody else’s contribution entirely, has long been one of my pet adverbs, and I think that since the book has come to its existence, I use it relentlessly now, and I really need to be more conscious and cut back on it a little bit, and that's the story of the title and subtitle of the book.
MIGNON: Well, you can embrace it for at least a few weeks.
MIGNON: And obviously it works because people are people are buying it and loving it, so it works. To wrap up, I'm going to share what is maybe my favorite tidbit from the book because we have American spellings without the U like “honor” and “neighbor” because Noah Webster took them out, which I knew, but “glamour,” which is related to the word “grammar,” keeps its U in American English and you revealed that it's because the word just simply didn't appear at all in Noah Webster's Dictionary, so it never got that U-removal treatment from him, and I have always wondered about that: why “glamour” has it’s U, and it seems like you found the answer. Do you remember where you learned that?
BENJAMIN: I wouldn't be at all surprised to find, to find if I went back and reviewed my research, that I learned it from the Merriam-Webster site because those people are so good with etymology, and I learned so much, and our, our beloved friend Peter is so good about these things, but I'm sure that I checked it from place to place to place, and I also remember learning I think that that one of the reasons it's a little bit different than any other word is that because it comes from the Scots. It’s a particularly Scots term or Scottish, I can never remember which one I'm supposed to use, but at the one thing that I do remember is reading that it wasn't even in Noah Webster's initial dictionary, and you do on very rare occasion, you will run into the word “glamour” spelled “glamor” in English text, but as I, as I like to quip, and I think there's a Tom Stoppard play called “The Real Thing” about a playwright and his romantic misadventures, and his first wife says of him, if I can remember this correctly , “Henry doesn't have a sense of humor. Henry has a joke reflex.” I do like, I do like my jokes, and so yes, so “glamorous” spelled with an O is rather unglamorous isn't it?
MIGNON: Well, thank you. So the full title is “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style: Dreyer’s English." I recommended it. You will laugh, if you're an AP style writer you may cry, but either way you’ll definitely learn something and be entertained. So thank you so much Benjamin for being here with me today. I really appreciate it.
BENJAMIN: Thank you so much. I had such a great time, and we’ll be talking again soon.
MIGNON: I’ll have familect stories again next week, so if you have one—those are stories about words that your family and only your family use—leave a voicemail at 833-214-GIRL and you might hear your story on the show.
I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl, and you can find me at QuickAndDirtyTips.com. That's all. Thanks for listening.