Skip to content

From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

The Moral Quandary of Commas

Wringing our hands over matters of style

Andrew Benjamin Bricker

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

Benjamin Dreyer

Random House

320 pages, hardcover, ebook, and audiobook

Early on in Dreyer’s English — the bossy style guide of Random House’s copy chief — Dreyer tells a gossipy story about a fancy garden party at the Upper East Side townhouse of an unnamed novelist and her famous husband, a director. There he meets the Tony Award–winning Australian actor Zoe Caldwell, who complains to Dreyer about the copy editor who bedaubed the manuscript of her memoir with “scrawls and symbols.” At first she was baffled, she tells Dreyer, but slowly she came to an epiphany. “Copy editors,” she explains, “are like priests, safeguarding their faith.” Dreyer predictably swells with pride, taking Caldwell’s observation as a “benediction,” a r­eligious blessing of his editorial craft.

Like all good anecdotes, this one is revealing, though perhaps not in the way that the author imagines. Although most decisions about writing “can be addressed only on a case-by-case basis,” as he himself concedes, Dreyer at times can be more zealot than priest in his editorial edicts, not only safeguarding his faith but also demanding the fidelity of others. Like earlier experiments in the genre, Dreyer’s English is the kind of style guide that borders on dogmatism. It is perhaps no surprise that one of the most influential grammar books of the eighteenth century was written by Robert Lowth, a bishop in the Church of England, and entailed a discussion of the “doctrine of Punctuation.” Even today, across publishing firms and newspapers and magazines, in-house style guides are frequently known as “bibles,” unbending sets of rules that dictate how each word should be spelled and where every last comma should go, no matter how silly the results. Dennis Choquette, a senior editor at the Globe and Mail (or The Globe and Mail, whose style guide would definitely capitalize that definite article), recalls “a near-­audible gasp” in the newsroom the day the word went round that “Internet” would no longer be capitalized. Dreyer’s English might be more flexible, for instance, than the style guide for the New Yorker — “There are fewer absolutes in writing than you might think,” as he confesses early on — yet this book strangely and provokingly markets itself as “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” What we’re dealing with here is not style but a kind of idiosyncratic orthodoxy, a prescription for punctuation requiring wholesale submission to a set of beliefs.

The problem with Dreyer’s English is not that he is out-and-out wrong in his individual preferences; he’s simply wrong in believing that those individual preferences are generalizable to all forms of writing. We all write in different ways for different audiences in different contexts. Informal emails to Mom probably aren’t written the same way as either tedious work reports or that first crack at an experimental novel. Where one gets into trouble is when trying to set down, once and for all, how to use something like a vocative comma. Take Dreyer’s example: “And Dad, here’s another thing.” Dreyer would have it: “And, Dad, here’s another thing.” Perhaps this makes sense. But this is so clearly a transcription of spoken English, with no pause before “Dad” and a definite pause falling after it, that to plop down an additional comma seems painfully pedantic to me, if not a misrepresentation of the rhythm of speech. That said, do I object to the vocative comma? No, of course not, but context is a better guide in this instance than a general must-always rule. “I was speaking to you, Mr. President,” certainly works for me. “I find you, Mr. Dreyer, painfully tedious” also works.

However fashionable, one’s preferred writing style has no moral value.

Sholes’ Type Writer (Scientific American, 1872) / Eric Fisher / Flickr

Rules versus preferences: what’s the difference? Take the least rulesy and, by virtue of that, most contentious of issues. If you consider yourself a person interested in writing, you must, it seems, have a position on the serial, series, or Oxford comma.* “Use it,” Dreyer urges us. “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.” I’m more like Lynne Truss, who takes a “zero tolerance approach to punctuation” in her 2003 Eats, Shoots & Leaves (but — ack! — I would probably write “zero-­tolerance approach”). “In some matters of punctuation,” she rightly observes, “there are simple rights and wrongs; in others, one must apply a good ear to good sense.” A good ear to good sense: this could be a stylist’s mantra, and one that makes for a much more judicious approach than Dreyer’s.

More to the point, most sentences are simply not affected by a serial comma. “I like bananas, apples[,] and pears.” Put it in, leave it out; in either instance we end up with a semantically identical sentence. What changes is the mise-en-page — part of what linguists like to call the sentence’s pragmatics. Some prefer the spare look of less punctuation; others like the definitive clarity of the added comma. I used to be a vicious over-­punctuator. I almost enjoyed the challenge of interlarding needless but grammatical commas, of merging two sentences into one through a colon or semicolon. It was almost a form of exercise, a way of making writing more difficult, like choosing to take the stairs instead of an escalator. Now, I take the elevator: I have grown weary (and wary) of the halting tempo of unnecessary commas that make a sentence jagged with pauses but do nothing to facilitate comprehension. Usually, though, serial commas are merely a preference. Except when they’re not. Dreyer contends that “no sentence has ever been harmed by a series comma, and many a sentence has been improved by one.” The latter proposition is dubious; the former, factually wrong. Pop quiz: Who came over for dinner? “I invited my brother, a pianist, and his wife.” Hmmm.

Such stylistic zealotry can be at times hard to swallow. As the linguist David Crystal has remarked, in his much more even-­handed Making a Point, from 2015, “personal decision-­making” has been “at the very heart of punctuation” since the fourth century. This makes sense, given the history of modern English, a crooked tree grown over centuries through its entwined Celtic, Latin, Anglo-­Saxon, and Norman roots. Even word spacing, seemingly observed in all written languages, is a surprisingly late invention in English. All the way through the first century CE, unspaced words — scriptura continua, as the practice is known — were a regular feature of Western writing in both Latin and Greek. This is both surprising and obvious, for we cannot hear word spaces when we speak, something made clear by the fact that you can also order Dreyer’s English as an audiobook.

Andasitturnsoutevenifwordspacesare­usefulwecan­usuallyreadsentences­without­them. Word spacing finally emerged as a practical device for clarity and comprehension — just ask the artisans at the unfortunately named Pen Island Pens (penisland.net). But the solution we came to, of actual spaces, was not even entirely obvious. Anglo-­Saxon manuscripts contain a variety of systems for parsing words, including tiny circles, raised dots, little slashes, three-point trigons, and the giant J-shaped ­diastole.

Not until the seventh century was spacing even the norm. Then, English began to witness a proliferation of dashes and dots. Punctuation, apparently, was the original gateway drug. Soon many of these positurae, or positions, received their own names as their range grew: the punctus versus, which concluded longer statements, shaped a bit like an elongated semicolon that drunkenly droops below the line of text; the punctus elevatus, which marked a shift in a sentence, a bit like a flipped semicolon; the punctus interrogativus, which rendered a sentence a question, shaped like a tilde (~) shooting off to the upper right of a terminal letter; and the punctus admirativus or exclamativus, a right-­slanted colon-­like shape and the forerunner to the modern exclamation mark. Modern standardized punctuation — the range of marks, their names, their shapes — took centuries to develop in English, as writers, scribes, and printers slowly worked out how to use them, often with routine disagreement.

None of this confusion has been helped by how we spell. For centuries we have been scratching our heads trying to figure out what our fellow writers mean. As the maid Winifred Jenkins in Tobias Smollett’s 1771 novel, Humphry Clinker, writes in one of her letters chastising her friend, “Mind your vriting and your spilling; for, craving your pardon, Molly, it made me suet to disseyffer your last scrabble!” “Comyn englysshe,” as the first English printer, William Caxton, put it 1471, has never been as common as we want it to be. Even today, in its increasingly global form, English resists more intuitive phonetic systems of spelling (or orthography, as it is also known). Try explaining to a non-­native speaker why “Geoff the knight doubts his eighth draught” makes any sense, either orthographically or phonetically. It’s even worse for Canadian writers. “Canadian style, to the extent that such a thing exists,” as Choquette of the Globe remarks, finds itself often dizzyingly and illogically swimming in the mid-­Atlantic. Take the mongrel orthography of a word like “colourization”: British u, supposedly American z (further complicated by the fact that south of the border it’s called a zee, though we call it a zed, like other Commonwealthers). Then again, -ize endings, which are supposedly American, are preferred by the Irish, Indians, Kiwis, and Aussies, and -ise and -ize endings are almost equally popular today in British publications. Perhaps surprisingly, both endings were common in early modern English. In any case, -ise is not necessarily more British than American: that ending actually comes by way of the French.

Part of the evolutionary shift in how we punctuate is a product of the radical shift in how we came to think about the function of writing. Reading aloud used to be the norm, so the punctuation in most Old English and medieval manuscripts — all those dots and doodles — was used to mark out oral performance and the length of one’s pauses. Punctuation was a guide to pronunciation — it served, that is, an elocutionary function. This tradition of pausal-­performative marks continued into the eighteenth century. As the fussbudget Lindley Murray wrote in his English Grammar (1795), which sold millions of copies on both sides of the Atlantic, “The Comma represents the shortest pause; the Semicolon, a pause double that of the comma; the Colon, double that of the semicolon; and the Period, double that of the colon.” To some extent this elocutionist approach still exists even today, in an era when most busybody grammarians claim punctuation primarily fulfills the semantic function of facilitating understanding. As the German philosopher Theodor Adorno has argued, punctuation marks are best thought of as “traffic signals” or musical notations that mark out “oral delivery.” Think of the punctuation in play scripts intended for performance rather than silent reading as closet dramas; it tends to mark out the pace of the actors’ speech.

Once we became silent readers, however, the functions of those marks also shifted. They were no longer or at least not largely for guiding the pauses of speakers but for enabling the comprehension of readers. As a result, with our painfully meagre catalogue of points, we are in some ways more impoverished than our loosey-­goosey forebears. Earlier systems of punctuation were simply better adapted to the rhythms of oratory. Writing is a technology for the transcription of speech — an amazing technology, granted, but one imperfect for its task. Take, for example, this scene from the HBO western Deadwood, when the patricians of the town gather to pool $1,500 to acquire the smallpox vaccine. The famously foul-­mouthed Gem Saloon proprietor, Al Swearengen, goes first, followed by his lackey, the tight-­fisted hotel owner E. B. Farnum:

Al: “I’m in for five [hundred].”
E. B.: “Two.” (pause)
Al: “ — Are you fuckin’ kidding me, E. B.? — ”
E. B. “ — hundred fifty.”

What system of punctuation could properly capture the rhythm of this exchange?

What makes our modern zealotry in matters of English style even stranger is how recent a phenomenon it is. Remarkably, writers historically have often cared very little about the finer points of punctuation. Necessary, yes, to facilitate understanding, but not really the thing to get one’s knickers in a twist about. William Wordsworth called punctuation “a business at which I am ashamed to say I am no adept.” He actually had a friend of a friend, the chemist (!) Humphry Davy, correct the punctuation for the second edition of his Lyrical Ballads (without reviewing those corrections himself). Decades earlier Thomas Gray, a poet and professor of classics at Cambridge, sheepishly conceded, “I am entirely unversed in the doctrine of stops.” Lord Byron farmed out the labour to whoever was available. As he asked his publisher John Murray, “Do you know any body who can stop — I mean point — commas, and so forth? for I am, I fear, a sad hand at your punctuation.” Charlotte Brontë found “the task very puzzling.” Jane Austen’s extant manuscripts, filled with a mishmash of dashes and exclamation marks, reveal a writer quite different from her “twentieth-­century reputation as a conformant and prim stylistician,” as the literary scholar Kathryn Sutherland has put it. Exceptions can be found, of course, such as the seventeenth-­century poet John Dryden and his successor Alexander Pope. The playwright Ben Jonson believed that punctuation was part of the language that “most shewes the man.” He fussed over his printed plays and was always at odds with his publishers, who mangled his meaning by “loosing [his] points.” But Jonson is a bit of an odd man out. As the literary scholar Anne Toner notes, before the introduction of publishing-­house styles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “authors were encouraged to leave punctuation to printers.” For much of the last 500-plus years, punctuating was frequently an afterthought, a kind of expert labour to which no special cultural capital was attached. Instead, it was grunt work, done for the most part by typesetters and printers, who were like plumbers called in to sort out the waterworks in an otherwise beautifully designed house.

What’s so strange about a style guide like Dreyer’s English is that Dreyer himself is clearly a gifted copy editor. One does not rise to the top of Random House with a tin ear and a misguided pen. I have not the slightest doubt that the page you read now could have been improved by Dreyer’s attentions. Yet Dreyer’s English is a terribly misguided exercise in style, a trollish book full of reasonable advice espoused idiotically. One wonders for whom this style guide, with its tongue-in-cheek asides, chatty footnotes, and obnoxious know-it-all-isms, has been written. At first glance it is simply another book on writing — punctuation, spelling, all the bits and bobs. But this is a much less useful reference work than The Chicago Manual of Style or even Words into Type, Dreyer’s go‑to, where you can simply look up principles of standard usage. Perhaps people are buying this book and really digging into it — underlining, highlighting, and in turn sculpting their prose in a last-ditch effort to get their short-­story collection published at Random House. Or maybe this book is more like Pornhub for punctuationists: for those who get hot for grammar talk and can feel their nipples harden at the breathy whisper of the words “dangling modifier.” And for those readers, all finger waggers and tut-­tutters alike, Dreyer’s English is probably a welcome addition to their already bowed shelves.

The problem is not that Dreyer tends to treat writing style as fashion — he does so quite rightly, because punctuation has no moral value. It is, instead, a series of typographical preferences and choices in the service of comprehension and aesthetics. Where he goes wrong is in turning these aesthetic preferences and some minor errors into almost ethical choices, as if a clumsily executed sentence were a violation of the Ten Commandments rather than something closer to wearing white after Labour Day. Lots of copy editors are, for obvious professional reasons, obsessed with such questions and teeming with tendentious opinions on the matter. (Whether certain mad people are attracted to punctuation or punctuation makes people mad is up for debate.) The fetishization of “proper” style — of unerringly placed points, of eloquent locutions — might simply be a hobby horse that produces a shared narrow-mindedness. But this same propensity also, at times, has an ugly underbelly. Such a tendency is often no better than a form of classism, in which punctuation serves as a tacit signal of educational attainment or where “standard” speech becomes a marker of racial, ethnic, or native insider status. A little historical perspective on style and a willingness to see such rules as moving targets, as preferences that naturally change from generation to generation, might prevent such a punctuational pathology, helping us to avoid the priestcraft of stylists like Dreyer and their anti-­intellectual ­worship of the false god of a transitory formal ideal.

I, for one, don’t often use the serial comma — except when forced by hot-headed Oxfordians like the editor-in-chief of the LRC, who wrestled me into authorly submission in the preceding sentence. Thanks, Kyle.

Andrew Benjamin Bricker teaches literary studies at Ghent University. He wrote Libel and Lampoon: Satire in the Courts, 1670–1792.

Advertisement

Advertisement