Benjamin Dreyer Is Guardian of the Grammar Galaxy
Benjamin Dreyer’s professional origin story begins in a local Long Island bakery when he was just 10 years old. While purchasing dinner rolls and black and white cookies for his mom, Dreyer noticed a sign above the counter that read: “Try our Rugelach. They’re the “best!”.
“Even then, as a pre-pubescent, pre-copy editor, I thought there is something about those quotations marks that isn’t right,” Dreyer says.
He’d spend the rest of his adult life writing those wrongs.
Dreyer is Copy Chief at Random House and author of the new bestselling book, Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. If you have a question about grammar, he's your dude.
On the podcast, he drops his vast knowledge about how to “tidy up your prose.” while answering many . of the questions writers have about confusing grammar rules. Some of the topics we cover:
Words you should go a week without writing
Grammar myths you need to unlearn
The worst sentence in the world.
His take on pronouns, adverbs, which, that, the word ‘myriad’, as well as, and more!
He also recommends avoiding the exclamation point.
Jonathan: Benjamin Dreyer, welcome to Write About Now. I love this book. Tell me a little bit about your origin story. Like how did you fall into this profession? And you tell a very funny story in the book about kind of when you were a kid going into a bake shop or something. Tell us.
Benjamin: A local bakery in what we wouldn't have called a strip mall, it was in the little shopping center.
Jonathan: Right. And how old were you at this time?
Benjamin: Oh, I would have to be maybe 10 or 11 when I would be sent on my Schwinn to go pick up some things for my mom. And so it's this bakery and I’d go in to buy dinner rolls and a couple of black and whites. And there was a sign above the counter and it said, “Try our Juggalo, they are the best!” And the word best was encased in quotation marks with an exclamation point of course following. And even then, as prepubescent and pre-copy editor, I thought there's something about those quotation marks that isn't right.
Jonathan: Yes, and did it kind of wrinkle you a bit? were you just like, “Oooh, that is just-- that makes me a little crazy.”
Benjamin: I think I was mostly just intrigued and clearly I often think about the odd things that imprint themselves in the back of your head and you carry them around with you for decades before they're useful. Clearly, there was something going on at that moment that was setting the stage for what was going to happen a very long time later.
Jonathan: But you didn't set out to be a copy chief and a copywriter or did you, did you sort of know early on that you want to do that profession?
Benjamin: No, I didn't. I had always thought that when I grew up, I was going to be an actor. And that was something I had a great passion for. So, I went to Northwestern with the intention of becoming an actor and studying acting. And I found that I was in school with a lot of people who were, as far as I could tell, vastly more talented than I was. I mean, maybe if I had a little bit more gumption, I would have figured out what to do to stick with that. But essentially, I thought you may not be anything better than mediocre at this. And I couldn't settle for the notion at age 20 that I was going to grow up to be a mediocrity. So, I walked away from it and found that after I got out of college, I didn't have anything in particular that I wanted to do. So, I just sort of wandered about for a few years and then I worked in restaurants because that was an easy way to make money. And I went to double features and revival houses and time passes and eventually, I moved back to New York and I'm close to 30 years old, or I am 30 years old, and it's time to grow up. I have no idea what I want to do. But I have a friend who's a published writer, and I said to him, “Do you think there's something I might do in publishing?” And that's how little-- I mean I had no idea. And he said, “Well, you might be a good proofreader. He had on occasion, he would show me the early galleys of his books and I would read them and it was always nice to have sort of a preview of something. And I might find something, a little glitch, something, you know, not necessarily just typos but like, you know the wrong word or in any event, I would point it out to him nicely.
So, he introduced me to his production editor at his publishing house, the production editor being the person who hires, copy editors and proofreaders to get the book all the way to the finish line. And she hired me, hired me to do a job. She didn’t give me a test, she simply said, “I'm assuming that if you're a friend of your friends, because he doesn't tolerate people who are not, you know, smart.” She said, “I'm assuming that you're reasonably intelligent.” And I was like, I'm gonna-- And she hired me. I lied in part, she asked me if I knew the proofreading symbols and I didn't, but I could find them fast enough. But I started to do this work and it turned out that I had a knack for it. And she was a wonderful mentor and teacher and gave back very concrete, very specific feedback, which was invaluable. So, she's hiring me to do this work and I'm trying to learn everything that I can about all the things that I hadn't really learned in high school or in college about sentences and sentence structure. I mean, I knew the difference between a subject and a predicate, but it didn't go much further than that. So, I'm proofreading and eventually, I'm educating myself by observing copy editing in the margins of these manuscripts that I'm reading against. And I sort of taught myself to copy it.
Jonathan: So, you had no formal training, but you just had an instinct about-- were you one of these people that just always was very interested somehow in the rules of grammar, because not everybody can sit down and do that?
Benjamin: No, I wasn't really. I was simply always reading and I think that I had a good ear. And I think that a good ear is very important to a copy editor, but what also then becomes important is learning the names for the things that your ear is telling you. You learn grammar, if you're me, you teach yourself grammar and you don't need to sort of carry those terms around with you and throw them down in the margins as you're explaining things to writers. But it's nice to know what you're talking about.
Jonathan: So, tell us the difference between what a proofreader does and then what eventually you would end up doing?
Benjamin: All right. Well, taking it if I may, in the other direction, because it's the more logical way. Once a book has been edited by the person that I tend to refer to as the editor, editor, the person who contracted the book for the house quite possibly, and went through it draft after draft after draft with the author to work on; all the things that editors work on, characterization and story arc and pace and the very big ticket stuff. And some editors do work down to the sort of nuclear level sentence by sentence. But to some extent, they know that the copy editor will follow and let copy editors do what copy editors do. So, what to copy editors do? A copy editor will go through a manuscript, once it's been deemed to be finished, and you do the very mechanical things, you’re, of course, trying to make sure that everything is spelled correctly, you're working on the punctuation, possibly in a sort of standardizing way. But to make things clear, to make things consistent, you then get to do sort of larger things. You might for instance-- well, you're certainly keeping an eye on logistics and chronology. If it's a novel, for instance, you have to make sure that the characters are aging at the same rate, that they're not changing hair color or eye color unless that's part of the story. You're also keeping an eye on an author's pension for using certain words over and over. Every author has pet words. And once they use them, they'll keep using them. And you will point out to the author, you've used that phrase, you use that adjective, you like that color a lot. And maybe the author is doing it on purpose but it's your job to ask.
Jonathan: So, you ask because I was going to ask about that because obviously, repetition is sort of the scourge of many copy editors. And even when I'm editing something that somebody keeps repeating a word, it just bugs me, but sometimes it's stylistically they're doing it that way. And how can you tell the difference between if somebody is doing it stylistically and if it's just they're screwing up?
Benjamin: You can't always be certain. What you can do is simply query the repetition at the author to find out as the author reviews your copy editing, whether the author did do that thing on purpose. One thing that authors occasionally do is they will write something that rhymes and they strike the copy editor as either inadvertent or maybe a little sort of graceless. So, you might ask the author if the author had said something like, “The day was green, and she was feeling quite mean” did you mean to do that? And the author may say, “Oh, no, I didn't so I'm going to change that color.” Or the author may simply say, “Well, I did or didn't do it on purpose but I like the sound of it just fine.” You know, you're asking those questions. Sometimes I can tell quite simply, you didn’t mean to do that, did you?
Jonathan: Right. So, just to go back. So, you were proofreading so tell me where that comes into the process?
Benjamin: Right. So, the manuscript is in copy edit, the author has reviewed it, it's gone back, it's been cleaned up, you make sure all the questions are answered. And then the thing is typeset, you know, a set of designed pages is output that reflects all of the copy editing and is now set in a form that resembles the book as it's going to be published with typesetting. And what the proofreader is then doing is simply and I can pull out the air quotes for that, simply going through the typeset text to make sure that everything that went on in the copy editing has been properly brought over to the typeset pages which was a little bit more complicated in the days when everything was being done by hand because then you have a typesetter who's trying to read people's handwriting and that can go a little off. Now, let's do that and track changes. The proofreader is also simply on the lookout for things that may have eluded everybody else to that point and that can happen. The author did something wrong, and the copy editor didn't catch it, because maybe the copy editor was distracted by something else for a second. So, the proofreaders are really that last [crosstalk] line of defense to make sure that the book that's going to be published is as close to error-free as it can possibly be.
Jonathan: Yeah, I want to know a little bit about your process. It’s obviously probably changed over time, right? I'm sure when you first started you were doing everything by hand, right and all the stats, you know, I mean I learned that way too with the underlinings of something three times for the caps and all these kinds of marks that I also had to teach myself because nobody teaches you how to do that stuff. Do you still do that, do you still do it by hand?
Benjamin: I would say that about 90% of the copy editing that we know do departmentally is done via track changes.
Jonathan: Okay. What does that mean track changes?
Benjamin: Working in a Microsoft Word file, the bubbles.
Jonathan: Got it. Oh, like tracking a change, right. Okay.
Benjamin: So, everything is right there and of course, it makes the cleanup very simple because you're just you're accepting things and that's why there are so very few typos now in typeset pages or real typos because everything is precisely as it is. The funny thing is that the one author I do now copy edit and I haven't said her name, it's not that it’s a state secret. I copy edit Elizabeth Strout who's the author of ‘Among Other Things’, ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ and I suppose she's most famous for being the author of Olive Kitteridge which predates our relationship. She likes to be copyedited on paper so I copy edited her on paper because she asked and that's the thing you do for a writer. So, it's the copy editing relationship I have with her is rare almost to the point of being unique in that A, we're working on paper which is which is not really done very much anymore and B, we're an author copy editor team that as I said we sit in a room together and we review the copy edit. It's nice to put a pencil on a piece of paper.
Jonathan: Yeah. Now, one of the lessons I got early on when I was proofreading copy was to sort of read aloud what I was reading because there's something about when you read aloud you catch things you might not normally catch when you're reading to yourself in your brain. Are your lips moving, when you're copy editing? How do you approach it when you're looking at it?
Benjamin: They often are and particularly, when I'm working on a manuscript and there's something about a sentence that's bothering me, I'll read it aloud. And when I read it aloud, I can often quickly detect, oh, this is what's not working properly. And I think that text should be very readable, readable-aloud-able. You should be able to say something and it should be very clear and if something is muddled when you say it out loud, it's quite possible that it is also muddled on the page itself. Proofreading is mostly for me when I occasionally am proofreading, somebody asked me to look over something is merely staring at the damn thing.
Jonathan: Let's talk about your book. I love your book. It's so interesting and I love this kind of book and was it weird being on the other side, you know, I was sort of like trying to think of an analogy. It's almost like if a director decided to be an actor, suddenly you're writing, you know, all these years, you've been on the other side, how different was that experience as suddenly being a writer and not copy editing?
Benjamin: It was a trip. It was a trip. It took me a long time to find my writer's voice. I mean, of course, I've been participating in the copy editorial process for years and before and of course, in college and somewhat beyond that I had dabbled in a little bit of writing. So, it wasn't as if it was an unfamiliar process, but to write this book was a grand undertaking and it took me a couple of years working away at it and writing 10s of thousands of words and throwing them out before I figured it out, because what I was writing was either stodgy, it was too close to imitating other people's books. I think that I was trying to be very definitive and I was trying to be exhaustive and it was quite dull, it was deadly and I couldn't figure it out. And eventually, I did figure out that the voice I had cultivated by hanging out on Twitter where one of my colleagues and one of our marketing geniuses once said to me in passing, she said, “Go on Twitter.” And I said, “What for?” And she said, “Just listen to me.” So, there I am on Twitter and I'm sort of playing the role of your friendly copy editor offering advice because that was what I was doing. And it took me a little while to realize that the voice I had cultivated on Twitter trying to be funny because I find being funny, engaging and of course, you have to be succinct and you have to make your points. You have to go in, you have to be quite clear. I finally realized this is your voice, just - that onto the page and then just keep typing.
Jonathan: Yeah, that's really interesting.
Benjamin: It was my Twitter voice that led to my book voice. Once that happened, I'm not gonna say it was easy sailing from there to the finish line because writing is a challenge, but least I knew what it was supposed to sound like. The nicest compliment I ever get, I think from people who know me who've read the book when they'll say, “It sounds just like you.” And it's like good because it should sound just like me.
Jonathan: You know who I feel sorry for in all this, is your copy editor like that's a lot of pressure to copy edit like a master copy chief. Did you hand select this person and how much copy editing went into the actual final manuscript?
Benjamin: I did hand select her. She was somebody who, when I was a production editor, when I was the person who was hiring copy editors and proofreaders to work on specific books; she was one of my favorite copy editors. She's so good and she's such a good listener and always found really good stuff. She was the one who when you hired her to copy edit a thriller set in a small town in Washington, the manuscript would come back with a map.
Jonathan: Okay. It's very thorough.
Benjamin: If somebody is walking this way and going that way then it works. She is also a great favorite of editors and authors. Once an author has worked with Bonnie it's like, “Can I have Bonnie again?” And so I asked the person in my department, the production that was going to be handling my book, would you see if you can get her. And she was pleased and she made little sounds of concern and I said, “Look, I said I don't need to be petted and patted, it's the last thing I want. What I would like you to do is go in and like, get your hands dirty and do stuff.
Jonathan: So, she did do stuff. Like she didn't just like, leave it almost.
Jonathan: Okay. That's interesting.
Benjamin: I mean, as I like to say, and I don't mean this to sound more flattering to me than to her, she did for me what I have always tried to do for other writers. She called out my bad habits, and she unknotted my very twisty sentences, and she pointed out my pet adjectives and my pet adverbs.
Jonathan: What were some of your pet adjectives?
Benjamin: Well, my pet adjective, which I think proved to be in the book six times before she realized it was in the book six times; garden variety this, garden variety that. Okay, once is enough. There's ordinary and quotidian if you want to reach for that, but not six instances of garden variety.
Jonathan: Garden variety. Yeah, that's funny.
Benjamin: But she was also, she was sort of lovely and supportive. She made me feel safe, that's something you want to do for your writer. She would, on occasion, laugh at my jokes in the margin, that's, always helpful. And one thing that she did that copy editors do try to do is to sort of participate in a kind of a ventriloquist act where she wanted to offer a piece of phrasing because I'd already used this piece of phrasing or she thought something might be clearer. She could imitate me and she would write out something; five words, six words, seven words that I would look and go, “Oh, that sounds just like me. Good. I'm taking it.”
Jonathan: Yeah, that's great.
Benjamin: [??? 21:55] the manuscript, thank you for that. But she was wonderful and she made it a better book.
Jonathan: Did they ever find any error, copy editing errors in the final manuscript that you know of?
Benjamin: Yes. Now it can be told, true confession. There were five typos in the finished book, little ones and they've all been corrected, that's what reprint corrections are for.
Jonathan: Yes, who found them like readers who are just, I'm sure wanted to-- I don’t know, people trolls.
Benjamin: It was a few of my colleagues who caught them all pretty quickly. And of course, other people have chosen to point them out. But most people tend to be very careful and respectful and even when they know full well this is not correct, they will ask in a way that's like “I just wanted to make sure you didn't do that on purpose.” And it's like that's the way to do that because we're all doing... [crosstalk]
Jonathan: We're all trying our best.
Benjamin: ...life goes on.
Jonathan: So, let's talk about some of the specifics in the book. First of all, I just love your list. I have to reference it, this list of words that you should go a week without ever using at all and see what happens is how you open up your book. And just to read these out loud so I've got very, yes, for sure, rather, really, quite and in fact. In fact’s a tough one because it always seems like you want to use in fact, but what are different words to use for in fact?
Benjamin: I think the different words to use for in fact are not to use any words for in fact.
Jonathan: So, whenever in fact, you just don't use that.
Benjamin: Make your point and you're telling the truth and that's the in fact right there. What I do want to stress and people tend sometimes to overlook that what I'm saying is go a week-- [crosstalk]
Jonathan: Not forever, yeah.
Benjamin: --without using them. Just try it. Clean your act up a little bit.
Jonathan: Yeah, they’re other words in here and I totally agree with these, just, the word so which, you know, starting a sense with so, yes. Pretty, you don't like the word pretty because pretty, what does it mean? It's sort of-- Yeah. Okay. And of course, of course, is a good one. All right. So, I thought that was really interesting. I also was really interested in some of the rules, you know, I went to a school where we had a very kind of rigid English education and we had this kind of legendary English teacher at least in high school name, Mr. Nathan. And he used to be very much a stickler. So, there were a lot of rules that weren’t sort of ingrained in my brain and some of them you kind of you say, you know, I'm not so sure. And one of them was to never begin a sentence with and or but. Talk to me about that. I mean, I know that New York Times uses, they always start with but. There's a lot of buts in the New York Times.
Benjamin: I mean, I so distinctly remember being taught not to do that and if you did that you were corrected. It was a mistake, it was not negotiable. In this instance, it's serving the thought correct [??? 22:04] like no, this is wrong. And you find when you read writers and when you read good writers that they will begin sentences with and or but because sometimes it's the best way to begin a sentence. And sometimes that and sentence or that but sentence wants to stand on its own. It doesn't wish to be connected to the previous sentence with a comma, it wishes to be its own sentence. But I'm happy to say in the next breath, it's not always the best way to begin a sentence, and you shouldn't keep doing it over and over and over. At least think about what you're doing, and that's really all I'm trying to do by rewriting certain non-rules and by stating some of my very preferred preferences is to make you think about what you're doing. And certainly, not to make you so self-conscious when you're in the process of writing that you become absolutely paralyzed, but do your writing and then go back and look at it and think about what you're doing. And if copy editing is, as it is some extent, it's a great big bag full of tricks that I've accumulated over the years. One of the things that I'm trying to do in the book is simply to share those tricks with you so that you can do them for yourself.
Jonathan: My last question about the rules, never end a sentence with a preposition. Another huge one that to this day I still when I end a sentence with a preposition, I'm like, oh, I got to fix that, I got to fix that.
Benjamin: You shouldn't be so rigid about it to the point where you're taking a sentence and you're twisting it in knots so as to make sure that it doesn't end with a preposition and you're filling it with, to which I will not. It's like okay, okay, okay. Write in English, but again, there's the flip side of everything, you often want a sentence to end with a bit of a bang, a strong noun or a strong something. And I have found that on occasion if you simply flip a couple of the elements in a sentence around, you get to a good strong finish. I equate it with something that writers of comedy know that you can't put the laugh in the middle of the line because if the laugh comes in the middle of the line, the audience isn't going to hear the rest. So, you have to save the word that's going to make the audience laugh for the end of the sentence.
Jonathan: The passive voice is something that I feel every you know, especially new writers when I'm editing people who are not very experienced it's there are a lot. I find myself using it too. I mean, I'm not above the passive voice. But you have a rule of sort of, I think of sort of identifying if you're using the passive voice and how to fix it and that's by adding by zombies.
Benjamin: And I certainly didn't invent that. And Lord knows, I mean, I think that copy editors and other sorts of wordsmiths have been passing around that little joke for years. But essentially, if you want to know whether a sentence is written in the passive voice, it becomes whether or not you can add by zombies to the end of it. And, for instance, the door was left open, by zombies. It just means that the what would in a normal sentence be the front of the sentence, the thing that's acting, the sentence may not have an actor at all. And the thing is, there is nothing wrong per se, with the passive voice and I'll tell you a truth which was that in all the years that I had been copy editing, I had never really thought about the issue of the passive voice. It wasn't anything that like, bled into my brain. Only as I was working on this and I was reading what other editors have to say about this that I keep running into over and over and over again, the question of, oh, the passive voice, the passive voice. So, I deal within the book, not with a massive amount of passion, because it's not something that's violently important to me and it's not something that I'm on the lookout for all the time when I'm copying everything, but it's just another thing to pay attention to.
Jonathan: Yeah, no, and it's interesting that you say it's not a huge red flag for you, because I don't know if you know about some of these programs like Grammarly, which are these online programs that kind of do what you do sort of, which you can run your copy through and I don't know what you think of them. It's a whole other conversation. But one of the things they always point out in Grammarly is passive voice, passive voice. You should think about a different way of saying this, passive voice. They always flag that. What do you think of those programs, do you find them useful?
Benjamin: Well, I certainly, I'm quite a big fan of spellcheck. I always have spellcheck on when I'm typing, because I don't type any more neatly than anybody else does, and it catches me which is a good thing. I occasionally do accidentally run into grammar software's if I am working on somebody else's document or just, you know, you run into them. And to which my response is often, ‘Oh shut up. I'll do what I'm doing, thank you.” I'm not so familiar with grammar software's that I can say that they're helpful or not. If they're helpful to you, great, but I would say that in the same way that an author should be able to say thank you, no, - to a copy editor, you should certainly be able to face down a piece of software and say, “I appreciate the suggestion, but I wrote it the way I wanted to write.
Jonathan: Yeah. Okay. Some other things I just want to-- I always have questions about and I think a lot of people have questions about which versus that. I recently, I think I was reading something that which frequently follows a comma. Is that true?
Benjamin: Yes. The Brits tend to use which for a lot of things. American style not observed by everybody, but observed by me because I like things to be neat. I like things to be tidy. For instance, just to digress for half a second, the idea that one uses the phrase each other to refer to a relationship between two things or two people and one uses one another for three or more; that's not a universally observed rule, and it's not necessarily defensible in any particular way. But the way in which writers will simply often indiscriminately flip back and forth makes me a little crazy. So it's like, let's do this, this way and let's do that, that way and it's just neat and tidy, and it's not going to make any difference to anybody except you and me so let's just sort of do that. As far as the which, that thing is concerned, yes. A piece of text that is necessary to the sentence and that without which the sentence is not fully going to make sense should be attached to the body of the sentence with the word that and will not be preceded by a comma, which is to say the sentence is incomplete unless that phrase follows, If you are offering a piece of information that is helpful or colorful or illustrates the point a little bit better, but that is not necessarily crucial to the existence of the sentence; it can be introduced by the word ‘which’ and it will be preceded by a comma. I guess that's the best way I can explain it to emit air.
Jonathan: So, just to go down my list of things that have always perplexed me, as well as versus and. So, I never know when to use as well as. Like if you're doing a list and you're saying cookies, peanuts as well as, I don't know the difference like how would you define when you can use as well as?
Benjamin: I think that I would tend to use ‘as well as’ to indicate something that is not part of the list proper but is associated with it, is a slight exception to a rule. So, you've got as well as you know, not to mention. They’re slightly digressive. If it's just a string of things, all of which have equal weight, I probably just reach for an and.
Jonathan: I have to call out something that you wrote here. ‘your nightmare sentence’, which is, “And then suddenly, he began to cry.” Let's break that down, why is this so horrible?
Benjamin: ...include any number of things you probably don't mean. I think that the phrase ‘and then’, which many authors just keep using it over and over and over and over, it's a weak transition. I don't mean to use the word cheap, but if I don't mean to use the word cheap, then why am I using the word cheap? It's a cheap transition, it's an easy way to get from one action to another and it's a little dull and after the fifth time, it's quite tedious, and then it's just mindlessly repetitive. And so when you have an ‘and then’, I find that more often than not, you can trim it to a ‘then’ and you'll be better off or you can do without it altogether. Suddenly I find is also somewhat wrote way to drum up two seconds worth of excitement. Suddenly is another one that-- suddenly this, suddenly that, but particularly, suddenly attached to something that isn't sudden at all. I mean, gunshots are sudden and explosions are sudden, you know, “Suddenly, she reached for a fork.” It's like, you mean she reached for a fork. She may have done it passionately, she may have done it vigorously, but suddenly, it's just-- she began to do this, he began to do that, otherwise known as he did that thing. And then suddenly she began to cry which you could boil down to she cried or if you must, “She burst into tears” is nice. But always find a more interesting way to say the thing that you're saying. And I don't mean bedeck your prose with lots of sort of, junky, flashy stuff, but be a little judicious.
Jonathan: Yeah. When you said she burst into tears, I thought to myself, is that a cliche? We sort of think in cliches, we talk and cliches without even really knowing it, and when you write, you become very aware of all the cliches. A writing teacher once told me to sort of do a cliche pass on your copy, how do you think about cliches? I mean, I always say I avoid cliches like the plague. But what is your thought about cliches are you aware of cliches when your copy editing?
Benjamin: You know, she burst into tears is perhaps not the most original piece of phrasing that anybody could ever come up with, but it describes an action and it doesn't [??? 36:55] off the page at me. It is really the more sort of, you know, avoid cliches like the plague. It's that sort of thing, those very much to sort of trite pulled up from the well of cliche, phrase that if I can perhaps suggest that you might find another way to say something to freshen up that thought a little-- [crosstalk]
Jonathan: Right, they're just overused cliches. Okay.
Benjamin: I mean, I am highly aware, particularly when I'm reading fiction I'm highly aware of the number of times that characters you know, stare off into the middle distance, and there's a lot of nodding and shrugging and contemplating with your hand on your chin and those sorts of things I will call out because they’re dull.
Jonathan: Yeah, and sometimes it's hard to figure out different ways of saying things, especially if you're writing like a romance novel. How many ways can you say certain things? I've talked to romance writers, how much way can you say, kiss passionately or you know. Speaking about kissing passionately, let's talk about adverbs for a minute because I think Stephen King is sort of famous in his book for saying how much he has a distaste for adverbs and they should be shot, but you don't necessarily feel that way. In fact, the subtitle of your book is ‘Utterly Right’, which is probably intentional. So, tell me about your feeling about adverbs.
Benjamin: I love adverbs and I use a lot of them and I think that an interesting adverb-adjective combo pack is just the thing that like will fill me full of joy, particularly if there's something sort of paradoxical about the combination; delightfully painful, mesmerizingly retched. If you can get two things like that to sit together and make a sort of a little bang, more power to you. I mean, I think that to have a grudge against adverbs is awfully close to having a grudge against adjectives. It's like am I to write with one hand tied behind my back? And if so, why?
Jonathan: Yeah, it doesn't really make sense.
Benjamin: I love you a good adverb.
Jonathan: You have a whole chapter where you call out words that are frequently misspelled, which is sort of insane because if you do have spellcheck, you should probably be able to spell words. But then I thought of the words that I always misspell and always have to look up and there was one word that was not on your list, and I'm sure you tried to put every word you could possibly think of, but the word ‘jeopardy’ just kills me every time. I don't know why. It's a strange word that spelled and it's like, why is there an O there and I don't know if it's je-po-ardy, I don't know. Maybe I just have a mental block on jeopardy, just so you know for your--
Benjamin: Well, that's a good one. I mean it's like the section on frequently misspelled words, [crosstalk] it was there to amuse me.
Jonathan: I loved it.
Benjamin: And I hope it amuses everybody else.
Jonathan: So, the em dash is something that is very used, as I mentioned I edit a lot for magazines and the em dash is like sort of default. I don't know why, but magazines sort of hate commas, hate setting off clauses with a comma so they end up using a lot of em dashes. What's your feeling about the rule of the em dash, why would you use an em dash?
Benjamin: I mean, an em dash or more often than not, a pair of em dashes, it's a wonderful way to to make an interruption, something that is is truly not part of the sentence proper, it is an interruption. It's something in fact, in the middle of a sentence, and it's very different to set something between two em dashes as it is to set something in parentheses. I mean, there's a difference between interruption and an aside. A journalist friend of mine pointed out to me once that he had weaned himself from the habit of using parentheses, because whenever he would include something in parentheses, his editor, working in a magazine where things were actually going to end up on the page, if the editor was looking to cut because there was only so much space, he’s like, “Well, whatever it is that's between those parentheses probably isn't necessary so out it goes. But I mean, commas are wonderful and I mean, they're all wonderful, just use them with a purpose. I'm as fond of em dashes, as anybody.
Jonathan: You warned about the overuse of pronouns, talk about that.
Benjamin: I do have a penchant as a copy editor to pull writers back from what I often think of as an overuse of pronouns, and I will often suggest putting a character's name back unless the narration is very tight and you can say he 50 times because we know who he is. Say the name, say the name, and readers don't notice that as much as you might think. I think they unconsciously welcome the clarity of not having to figure out who a particular he or who a particular she is. And I do have a rule as a copywriter, which is that in any given paragraph, you should try to avoid applying the same pronoun to more than one person because it can readily become confusing.
Jonathan: That also makes me think of the whole argument about bringing they back, the universal they instead of he or she because that just drives us crazy, and you have a really interesting portion of your book where you're talking about how, back in the old days, people could just say he, the pronoun [??? 42:55] universal pronoun was he, which was obviously very sexist and then it kind of there was a movement to then it was he-she with it with a hyphen. And then people just started saying they, which I use sometimes in my writing. What is your feeling about using they to refer to a single person?
Benjamin: Yeah, I mean, I think it's a generational thing and as you go back and you read published writing from the 30s, the 40s, the 50s the 60s, you will rarely or never see the use of this singular they, you know, in a sentence like when raising a child, you should always be mindful of what they're doing. It's like you just don't see that. You'll see a he or you'll a she or you will see what writers have often done which is to make sure that the subject of the sentence is plural so that the pronoun that easily follow is they. And I will still Just because it's the way I have been trained, I will try to edit around that. I will try to figure out how to pluralize a noun if that works, or sometimes do a revision on a sentence, so that there's no proud pronoun at all, and I tell myself, I'm helping create a tighter sentence. There are people who will happily say, “You're completely wasting your time.” This is the thing and it's the thing that I do say in the book and I start with noting that the defense of the singular they is easy, because you can point out that it's been used in written English for centuries. I will say yes, but and the yes but is the decades of the 20th century in which it was not used, and in which we were taught not to use it. But now, the singular they as I say, it's not the wave of the future it's the wave of the present, and we've had this conversation in my department. If we get a manuscript in which the author has quite clearly used the singular they, the copy editor knows not to do something about that. That's the way the book is written and we respect that. It's not there to be corrected, it's the writers choice, which of course, all of this is a completely different subject than the subject of people whose personal pronoun is they, people who do not use the pronoun he, do not use the pronoun she; that's a different subject altogether and the only thing I have to say about that is that one respects the choices of people as to how they choose to dub themselves.
Jonathan: And it's interesting how you came to that partly is because you start to work with somebody who didn't identify as either he or she and so it was really a real thing for you rather than just theory.
Benjamin: Yeah, and as I said it shouldn't have to take a personal interaction to get you to change your mind or it shouldn't take a personal interaction to get you to think about something, but very often, that's just the way it goes. We are affected by things that happened very close to us and people who are close to us, and it makes you think I have to look at the world in a new way because I have a person standing in front of me and I want to treat that person with respect and affection and love. And am I going to like tie myself in knots about a pronoun or am I going to find a way to be human?
Jonathan: All right. Two last things that always bothered me, myriad, myriad of or myriad. I mean, do you use it both ways, because most people will say, “For a myriad of reasons”, but wouldn't it be for myriad reasons, isn't it?
Benjamin: You can use myriad as a noun and you can use so a myriad of blah, blah, blah or you can use myriad as an adjective; “I have myriad troubles.” Both are correct. I'm always very happy because people will occasionally, you know, violently demand that myriad be used only as an adjective because that's correct and I'm always very happy to be able to point out that before myriad was ever used as an adjective it was used as a noun.
Jonathan: Yes, thank you for freeing me from that because I've said myriad of my whole life so it's very, very hard for me. Another one is, all right, the word all right. The proper spelling of all right, is A-L-L, new word, R-I-G-H-T.
Benjamin: I used to be very strict about that and again, you reflect what you're taught, you do what you're taught. And if you're a copy editor, your brain probably leans a little bit on the conservative side anyway, because your job is theoretically correction and improvement. So, you might be a little on the on the conservative side of thinking I always found the construction, alright, A-L-R-I-G-H-T, particularly when it was used in terms of whether something is correct or isn't correct. It just had a really sort of sloppy look.
Jonathan: It's like a lot, it reminds me of the word a lot when people put the A when they don't make the two different words, a lot.
Benjamin: Which I swear which I was taught in the fifth grade that if you have a lot of something the teacher said, “It's spelled A-L-O-T and it’s one word.” And even then I was thinking, “I don't think that’s right.” But as far as all right is concerned, if you're going to say that the kids are all right, because you like the kids, even if the who decided that that was spelled A-L-R-I-G-H-T, I prefer to see it as the A-L-L, new word, R-I-G-H-T version, which is the title of the movie with Annette Bening, two words ‘All Right’. But if you are going to peevishly say all right already, I'm coming, that has nothing to do with correctness and I can certainly see-- [crosstalk]
Jonathan: That just has to be with being from Long Island.
Benjamin: Exactly, [??? 49:11] say that sort of thing a lot. I recognized that A-L-L R-I-G-H-T is in fact, it's the way to go so see, I can bend, I can--
Jonathan: You are, you're flexible. I like that, you aren't that rigid.
Benjamin: I am when I am and when it amuses me to be so and then when it amuses me not, then--
Jonathan: Well, there are some words that you just can't make an exception for, and speaking of Long Island, the word that they use a lot back in those days was “I'm so nauseous” right? But that's incorrect, you can't say, “I'm so nauseous.” It's I'm nauseated, I'm so nauseated. I think people should know this because it's--
Benjamin: I hope you and I are not about to have our first fight because we’re getting along so fine. Yeah, so I was one of those kids who if I was going to-- if like throwing up was imminent, “Boy, do I feel nauseous.” And I don't think that I knew the word nauseated existed until I was in my like late teens.
Jonathan: No, I didn’t either.
Benjamin: I, of course, have had to do some research on that particular subject and there is certainly a school of thought that says that the word nauseous should be applied to the things that cause or inspire nausea; horrible smells and things like that, and that nauseated is reserved for the act or the state of being about to hurl. And this is the thing about that slightly conservative mindset of doing things by the rules, if you observe that difference, nobody's going to yell at you. If you use the word nauseous to me, I'm about to hurl, somebody eyebrow is going to go up a little bit. All I can say about that is I can defend the use of the word nauseous to describe I'm about to throw up through many good uses over the centuries predating the very rigid notion that this word meant this and that word meant that. You have to decide whether or not that's worth it to you to make use of a usage that is going to raise an eyebrow, that is going to earn you some pushback. And sometimes it's just not worth the trouble. I mean, the one that I like to cite again, here we are on the east coast in all of our sort of Jewish phraseologies, I'm a big fan of, “Yeah, I could care less.”
Jonathan: Yeah, I could care less, that's a good one.
Benjamin: [??? 51:55] some people absolutely round the bat. Doesn’t make any sense, it means the exact opposite of what you think it means. It's kind of sarcastic. You know what sarcasm is and it's kind of Jewish and it's like do we have a problem with that? And the more people dig their heels in about it, the more I want to use.
Jonathan: Yeah, I could care less is a good one. [crosstalk] I didn't even thought of that. Some of those words you don't think about, phrases you don’t think about.
Benjamin: Everything drives somebody crazy.
Jonathan: That's very, very funny. I love your rules. I just want to end with one rule. So, you have these you know, like you have the by zombies is great. I never had heard that. Not rules, I mean kind of tricks. I'm sorry. I love your tricks. Another trick that you had mentioned that I never thought about was for affect versus effect, right? So, effect is a--
Benjamin: In most uses, affect with an A is the verb and effect with two E’s is the noun. And as I always say, I'm sure there's a mnemonic device about that, but the problem I have a mnemonic device is I can't remember them. There's some things you just have to learn. And so affect with an A, that's the verb and effect with the E that's the noun, however, you effect change. If you are causing change to happen, you are effecting change and that has an E [??? 53:32] And there's the noun version of it, not pronounced effect, but pronounced affect, which is the psychiatrist's term for the way in which a person presents an emotional mental state. And by the way, note that I said the way a person presents their because whatever we think about writing and using they as a singular noun or their as a singular pronoun, Lord knows we all say it over and over. [crosstalk]
Jonathan: Yeah that's the thing, right? That's a perfect example.
Benjamin: ...you to talk but no, a patient has an effect, a traumatized patient has a different affect from a stable person. So affect is usually A for the verb, E for the noun, except when it's not.
Jonathan: Are there any other tricks, hidden tricks that you have used over the years to help you understand whether one way is the right way to do it and one way is another.
Benjamin: I just want to say the only thing that's popped into my head right now is not the trick to make something work but then I say, uncle because people will say, is there an easy way to remember the difference between lie and lay and lain and laid? And the answer to that is no.
Jonathan: It turns out you just have to know what--
Benjamin: You just have to learn it and it's like you can find it in the book and you can put a sticky on it because you're going to have to learn the grammar of it if you want to conquer it. There’s no easy way out, you just have to memorize it. And and you know what? It's like we learn to spell in this highly irregular language that we speak and that we write and as many people have said to me, “Thank God I didn't have to learn English as a second language because it's impossible to learn as a first language.” It's very tricky, and it's weird and it's complicated and it's this mess. Some things just have to be memorized. Sorry.
Jonathan: Sorry. Well, this has been so interesting Benjamin. Thank you so much for doing the interview with me.
Benjamin: Well, thank you and it was lovely to talk to you.
Thank you for listening to Write About Now posted by my dad, Jonathan Small. If you like what you heard, please subscribe to his podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you may find podcasts. Or you can go to his website, writeaboutnowmedia.com and listen there. This is Ella reminding you to, do the write thing!