Effective punctuation helps a reader navigate your prose to arrive at the meaning you intend.
Dreyer offers many simple, clear explanations. Among them: punctuation is the reader’s guide to how you mean for your prose to be read.
Ending a sentence that looks like a question with a period rather than a question mark can work if it’s more a statement than a question. Don’t use a question mark for sentences beginning with “I wonder” or “Guess who.”
The author wades bravely into the comma argument. The comma before the last item in a list is called a series or serial comma – also known as the Oxford comma. Dreyer’s position is simple: use it. The addition of a series comma has never made a sentence more confusing, but leaving one out can blur your meaning.
Semicolons go between items in a list when any of them contains a comma. Avoid comma splicing – that is, using a comma to connect two sentences that would be fine on their own. Use a comma before the “too” at the end of a sentence when the pause that it suggests sounds right.
Colons are like “little trumpet blasts.” They announce forthcoming, attention-worthy information. They sound loud, so don’t overuse them.
Dreyer insists that you should never use an apostrophe to pluralize anything except a letter – as in “p’s and q’s.” If you’re making a possessive out of a word with an s on the end, go ahead and add ’s, no matter what you may have heard about exceptions. If you’re pluralizing a family name, simply add an s – or “es” if it ends in an s – with no apostrophe.
Using square brackets indicates you are adding your own material into quoted text or altering the source material in some way. Use “[sic]” to show that you are quoting verbatim and retaining an error in the source, perhaps because the original is somehow unusual or unclear. Don’t use “[sic]” to sneer at the stupidity of quoted material.
For emphasis, use italics, not quotation marks. British and American English punctuate quoted material differently. British rules favor logic: Does the punctuation belong with the quoted words or with the overall sentence? In the United States, the practice is to put commas and periods inside the terminal quotation mark and semicolons outside the quotation marks.
Many standard hyphenations are rapidly disappearing. Dreyer urges you to contribute to that trend.
Use a longer em dash (—) to interrupt dialog, either from within as a digression or from without to cut off dialogue. Use shorter en dashes (–) to connect multiword phrases more firmly than a hyphen and for page references, sports scores and court decision votes.
Use exclamation points sparingly. Dreyer understands that peppering your text with too many exclamations make reading exhausting. Never use double exclamation points, double question marks or any combinations of the two. Only one space follows a period at the end of a sentence, no matter what you learned in typing class.
Follow certain conventions when using numbers in your prose.
In most nonscientific prose, write out numbers up to one hundred, as well as any numbers that are easy to express in words – like “twelve hundred.” If your text is number-heavy, use numerals for readability.
Dreyer does not neglect the less fascinating aspects of worthy grammar. Don’t, the author says, use numerals in dialogue, unless writing out the numbers makes your text cumbersome. Don’t start a sentence with numerals. For historical dates, B.C. goes after the date and A.D. goes before. If you use B.C.E. and C.E., the date always comes first. Degrees of temperature and of latitude are always set in numerals, as are scores, court votes, and biblical citations of chapter and verse. The most important thing about your use of numbers is to make sure they are accurate.
When using words from a foreign language or noting the differences between British and American English, observe the niceties.
“Loath as I am to shrug and concede, “When in doubt, do what your eyes tell you to do,”” the author writes, “that’s nevertheless what I’m saying.” Italicize foreign language words or phrases unless they appear in the main section of your English dictionary. Italicizing a foreign word emphasizes its foreignness, so if it’s a term that your fictional characters are familiar with, consider leaving it in roman. Never use “tortured phonetic spellings” in an attempt to write dialogue that contains slang or nonstandard English dialects.
If you’re American, beware of writing like a Brit. American and British English have numerous vocabulary and orthographic differences. In the United States, don’t call a z a “zed,” and default to “theater,” not “theatre.”
Grammar annoys everybody eventually, either when they’re struggling to get it right or when they believe someone else got it wrong.
Dreyer proves that this is true by detailing how to use “who” or “whom.” Knowing when to use “who” or “whom” can be unnerving, he writes. If you can use him/her/them in the sentence, then using “whom” in their stead is correct.
Use the subjunctive mood to convey alternatives to fact. When writing about a state of things that isn’t merely counterfactual but also unlikely or even impossible, use the subjunctive verb “were.”
Prepare to give up writing “he or she” when you need a pronoun for an unspecified person. It’s time for “they.”
Dreyer does not fear the ever-changing aspect of English usage. In speech, most people use a singular “they” without thinking about it – for example, “Once you’ve hired a copy editor, please remind them not to allow…” In writing, the notion of using “he” to serve as a generic, all-encompassing pronoun for any person regardless of gender, the author notes, has gone out of favor. Various workarounds – for example, using “he or she,” using alternating pronouns, or even using “s/he” – are unsatisfying. Thus, Dreyer advocates the singular they, as much as it may make you wince.
Instead of reverting to that cure, editors often rewrite sentences to use a plural noun and eliminate the singular pronoun. However, Dreyer points out that reputable authors have used the singular “they” for a long time. Rules against it are of Victorian vintage and not well-founded. “They” is what’s working now, he says. Since nonbinary people – that is, those who don’t identify as either male or female – are now more able to be themselves in public, using “they/them” is the clearest way to refer to them individually and in the third person. Referring to people as they prefer, Dreyer reminds you, is a simple courtesy and shows respect.
Works of fiction come with a specific set of style and usage challenges.
To be persuasive, a work of fiction needs a scaffolding of logic and continuity. The niceties of time – characters’ ages, calendar dates and seasonal details – must track with reality. The internal geography of place and movement must be correct for recognizable locations and believable for imagined ones. Sweat the details of period settings in social, cultural and technological descriptions.
Dreyer warns fiction writers to avoid using the same pronoun twice in a paragraph to describe two different people. If you don’t want to keep mentioning character names, give them a distinguishing feature to which you can refer.
Use your favorite “writerly” words or turns of phrase only once each per manuscript. Don’t repeat ordinary vocabulary excessively unless you’re doing it on purpose. Avoid using unintentional rhymes or words that sound similar – like “time” and “pastime” – in proximity.
The author notes the pitfalls of dialog – for example, overuse of names in direct address, too much “murmuring” and “whispering,” and excessive italicization for emphasis. If you want an angry character to hiss a statement, make sure it has sibilants in it. You can describe the audible quality of dialog in any way you like, but Dreyer advises moderation in adverbs.
English spelling isn’t rational. Get a good dictionary, and use it.
Dreyer offers a simple solution if you’re not sure how to spell or pronounce a word: use the most current edition of a good dictionary – such as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary – or consult an online resource like TheFreeDictionary.com.
The author provides an abridged inventory of words that people frequently misspell and often mispronounce, including: “ad nauseam, barbiturate, consensus, dachshund, ecstasy, flaccid, genealogy, mischievous, ophthalmologist, paraphernalia, restaurateur, skullduggery, tendinitis, unwieldy, vinaigrette, whoa” and “y’all.”
Write in a way that doesn’t bring undesirable attention to your language usage.
Dreyer knows that the English language offers myriad ways to get under the skin of people who love it. Consider the now common proliferation of “literally” used metaphorically as an intensifier. You’re either fine with it, or you hate it. Be aware of such linguistic hotspots, the author counsels, and avoid them in your writing – unless you seek to annoy your readers. Most people believe their personal usage preferences are self-evident and correct but that others’ preferences are demonically misguided.
Dreyer offers a comprehensive list of ways you can irritate your readers. You could start, he notes, by making nouns out of verbs – for example, “ask” – and verbs out of nouns – for example, “impact.” You will irk some readers if you ignore the distinction between “fewer than” and “less than.” Use the former for things you can count and the latter mostly for collective nouns. Words that have changed their meaning or been misused so often that people can’t agree how to define them – such as “fulsome, bemused, noisome” and “nonplused” – are also annoying. Move on to the next option.
Errors created when auto correct generates a correctly-spelled but wrong word can be maddening. English has many words that look or sound alike but which have different spellings or mean different things – for example, “altar/alter, bawl/ball, canvas/canvass,” and the like.
There are some conflicts in which Dreyer refuses to engage. If the difference between “lie” and “lay” baffles you, he writes, you’re not alone. You’re suffering under a rule needlessly created by some “word busybodies” in the late 18th century.
Misspelling the proper name of a famous person is all too easy, so look it up. If you have to choose among alternatives, spell it as the person in question prefers – for example, “k.d. lang” or “e e cummings.”
Most writing is full of redundancy, often in the form of familiar or clichéd snippets. Trim these phrases and others like them to one word: “cameo role, earlier in time, few in number” and “lift up,” are better rendered as cameo, earlier, few and lift.
If following the rules of title capitalization results in an ugly-looking title, Dreyer wants you just to make it look right – even if you ignore conventions. Use a reliable source such as Wikiquote or QuoteInvestigator to double-check the wording and the source of that nifty quotation you found online before you repeat an error.
The goal of copyediting is readable prose that hews closely to the author’s style and intent.
A copy editor, however well-intentioned, who can’t hear what a writer is doing, or at least attempting to do, is apt to wreak havoc,” the author warns. As Dreyer understands, a worthwhile copy editor works to make a piece of writing the best it can be while preserving the author’s style, content and intent. Don’t expect that any writing guide, including this one, will capture everything you should know about the craft or will provide all the so-called correct answers. There are few hard and fast rules.
Writers sometimes push back when copy editors do their jobs, and that’s as it should be. In service to an author’s unique style, copyediting should render a flow of text that calls attention to itself only when and how the author wishes. The best test of the readability of prose, especially for fiction, is to read it aloud. Dreyer also most wants you to remember that, “Artistry…can outrank and outweigh notions of what might conventionally be deemed ‘correct’…Voice –eccentric, particular, peculiar as it may be –is paramount.”
Wit and Unchallenged Expertise
Without ever making the argument explicit, Benjamin Dreyer, Random House’s expert copy wrangler, implicitly convinces even discerning grammarians that the most elegant writers are the most witty. With singular grace and bottomless, hard-earned wisdom, Dreyer details how to write more effectively without a hint of pretension, pomposity or tedious wordplay. He dances gracefully among topics that might be deadlly dry if addressed by a lesser stylist. He also provides a much-needed, thoroughly up-to-date guide that encompasses numerous aspects of today’s tricky usage. Dreyer has written a classic that anyone who writes, from a freshman composition student to a best-selling author, should keep within handy reach.