Is it possible these days to come across any book on clarity and style in the use of English — and not think of the 45th president of the United States?
The book I’m reading is Dreyer’s English. It is written by Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House.
“Go light on the exclamation points,” advises Dreyer early in the book. He says that exclamation points are “bossy, hectoring, and ultimately wearying.” When I read that I was reminded of a BBC report that had the following observation: “According to the Trump Twitter Archive, in 2016 alone the @realDonaldTrump posted 2,251 tweets using exclamation marks.” I was tempted to add an exclamation mark while presenting that fact to you but here is Dreyer again: “Some writers recommend that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points per book; others insist that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points in a lifetime.”
I’ll confess that Trump brings out the wannabe copy editor in me. But Dreyer has a light touch. His references to Trump are infrequent and only glancing ones. A footnote points out that while in some cases the “more or less random” use of quotation marks is amusing, “in the tweets of the so-called leader of the free world, it’s not so amusing.” Dreyer brings up Trump’s infamous rebuke to the Chinese for their “unpresidented act.” (Dreyer: “In a flash I was reminded of the importance of knowing how to spell.”) While unpacking the meaning of “sic” (Latin for “thus”), which allows a writer to tell the reader that the misspelling or error in the text belongs to the person being quoted, Dreyer offers this example: “Their [sic] was no Collusion [sic] and there was no Obstruction [sic].” Having presented this model use of “sic,” Dreyer jokes that he “100 percent” made up the quote instead of finding it on Twitter.
Had I wanted more of a confrontation? I think I did. Every day (and not “everyday,” which, when used as an adverb, is “highly bothersome” to Dreyer), I want Trump’s pronouncements fact-checked and spell-checked. But then I began to tell myself that more of an engagement with Trump would have quickly dated Dreyer’s book. I found a measure of optimism in this line of thought. After all, how long can he last in office?
The larger question that loomed was: is copy editing the route I want to take as a citizen?
Rationality, restraint, consistency — these are precisely the qualities missing from Trump’s writing and, arguably, from his administration.
At the most basic level, writes Dreyer, copy editing “entails making certain that everything on a page ends up spelled properly.” Also, it means cleaning punctuation and paying attention to grammar. But, of course, copy editors do more. Speaking as a writer, I can attest that the best copy editors help bring to the page a measure of economy and elegance. And speaking as a reader of Dreyer’s English, I was made aware that copy editors, the best of them anyway, are alert to the imaginative deployment of style, sure, but they are fundamentally guardians of rationality, a world without redundancy, and, as Dreyer demonstrates with his own practice, consistency.
The above qualities are so evident on every page of Dreyer’s book that I thought, with rising annoyance, of President Trump’s tweets. Rationality, restraint, consistency — these are precisely the qualities missing from his writing and, arguably, from this administration.
Halfway through the book, in a chapter on language peeves, Dreyer considers the misunderstanding around the term “factoid.” Many of us mistakenly think the word refers to “a bite-size nugget of authentic information.” Contrast this with what Norman Mailer, who Dreyer tells us invented that word, wrote about factoids: “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in a Silent Majority.” Dreyer doesn’t mention Trump in this context but has there been any other time in history when we have been so caught up in such a maelstrom of fictions? A blizzard of fake news? A flood of contradictions? (I’m anxious what a copy editor, Dreyer in particular, might say about these repeated phrases, but you get the point.)
Frankly, during the recent federal shutdown, aware of the everyday travails of ordinary people, I didn’t give a damn about Trump’s dangling modifiers. There is a possibility more difficult to ignore. The carelessness displayed in language use, the erratic and also arbitrary disregard for commonly-shared rules, can translate into any number of lies uttered by Trump about immigrants and crime. Do you remember when, soon after Trump took office, White House aide Kellyanne Conway brazenly defended false statements as “alternative facts”? I’m calling for a response that can only be provided by those who are attentive to language — which, in Conway’s case, came on Twitter from Merriam-Webster: “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”
How mature and sober and necessary is that assertion by Merriam-Webster… What I like about Dreyer is that he doesn’t let false sobriety muffle his speech. He is pretty cutting when it comes to confusing or ugly usages. He’s honest about our current covfefe. Late in the book, while allowing that there are occasions when idiom outweighs accuracy, he playfully inserts the following footnote: “I’d originally written here ‘idiom trumps accuracy’ but I’ve developed an aversion to that verb.” When I read that footnote, I was reminded that this engagement with correct usage is about how much language matters. Dreyer’s refusal to use the word “trump” — rather, his side-eye gesture because, after all, he does use the word in the footnote — is proof that resistance is also expressed in language.
In the end, an admission. I have been arguing here that Trump’s misspelling of “lose” as “loose” also means that he plays loose with facts. This claim requires a good copy editor’s scrutiny. Slippery slope, etc. [ED: Cliché?] [sic] But behind this admission lies my understanding that good copy editing will make us better people. Or, at this crucial point in our nation’s history, better citizens certainly.