Grammar books may not be exciting, but copy editor Benjamin Dreyer does a good job enlivening this one with wit and sarcasm.
You may discover how many things you didn't know about the English language. A modern classic reference manual.
If you are looking for one of the best books on fiction, On Writing is a brilliant (and hilarious) best seller. If you want timeless advice on non-fiction writing, the classic On Writing Well is a better bet.
I am a copy editor. My job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it…better. Cleaner. Clearer. More efficient. To burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be - to make it read even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it.
Copyediting also involves shaking loose and rearranging punctuation. Production editor — that’s the person in a publishing house who squires a book through the copyediting and proofreading process.
Now, proofreading, is a basic and mechanical process. Proofreading requires a good deal of attention and concentration, but it’s all very binary, very yes/no: Something is yes or something is no.
There are fewer absolutes in writing than you might think.
Copyediting is a knack. It requires a good ear for how language sounds and a good eye for how it manifests itself on the page; it demands an ability to listen to what writers are attempting to do and, hopefully and helpfully, the means to augment it.
The one thing I know is that most copy editors have in common is that they were all early readers and spent much of their childhoods with their noses pressed into books.
My favorite thing about it is still the pleasure of assisting writers and conversing with them on the page.
PART 1: The Stuff in the Front
Chapter 1: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose)
Here’s your first challenge: Go a week without writing
- in fact
And you can toss in—or, that is, toss out—“just” (in the sense of “merely”) and “so” (in the “extremely” sense).
- Oh yes: “pretty”.
- And “of course.”
- And “surely.”
- And “that said.”
- And “actually”.
Chapter 2: Rules and Nonrules
- Preeminent purpose: to communicate clearly with our readers.
- One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well-constructed is to read it aloud. A sentence that can’t be readily voiced is a sentence that likely needs to be rewritten.
- Why are they nonrules? So far as I'm concerned, because they're largely unhelpful,, pointlessly constricting, feckless and useless.
THE BIG THREE
1. Never Begin a Sentence with “And” or “But.” No, do begin a sentence with “And” and “But,” if it strikes your fancy to do so. Great writers do it all the time.
2. Never split the infinitive. “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” In the Star Trek example, then, an unsplit infinitive version would be “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” or “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” If either of those sounds better to you, be my guest. To me they sound as if they were translated from the Vulcan.
3. Never End a Sentence with a Preposition.Ending a sentence with a preposition (as, at, by, for, from, of, etc.) isn’t always such a hot idea, mostly because a sentence should, when it can, aim for a powerful finale.
- What did you do that for?
- is passable, but
- Why did you do that?
- has some snap to it.
- But to tie a sentence into a strangling knot to avoid a prepositional conclusion is unhelpful and unnatural.
THE LESSER SEVEN
1. Contractions Aren’t Allowed in Formal Writing.
- There’s not a goshdarn thing wrong with “don’t,” “can’t,” “wouldn’t,” and all the rest of them that people naturally use, and without them many a piece of writing would turn out stilted and wooden.
- Please avail yourself of “should’ve,” “could’ve” “would’ve” and so forth.
2. The Passive Voice it to Be Avoided.
- If you can append “by zombies” to the end of the sentence, you’ve indeed written a sentence in the passive voice.
All this said, there’s nothing wrong with sentences in the passive voice—you’re simply choosing where you want to put the sentence’s emphasis.
3. Sentence Fragments. They’re bad.
- A well-wielded sentence fragment can be a delightful thing. That said, do wield your fragments with a purpose, and mindfully.
4. A Person Must Be a “Who.”
- A person can be a “that.” A thing, by the bye, can also be a “who,” as in “an idea whose time has come,”
5. “None” Is Singular and, Damnit, Only Singular
6. “Whether” Must Never Be Accompanied by “Or Not.”
- That’s the whole thing: If you can delete the “or not” from a “whether or not” and your sentence continues to make sense, then go ahead and delete it. If not, not.
7. Never Introduce a List with “Like.”
- “Great writers of the twentieth century like Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and William Faulkner…”
- That said, there’s nothing wrong with the slightly more grand-sounding “such as.” But feel free to like “like.”
Chapter 3: 67 Assorting Things to Do (and Not do Do) with Punctuation
- If words are the flesh, muscle, and bone of prose, punctuation is the breath. In support of the words you’ve carefully selected, punctuation is your best means of conveying to the reader how you mean your writing to be read, how you mean for it to sound.
- I’ve observed that over these last few decades that writers of all sorts use increasingly less punctuation.
1. Q. Two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence, right?
2. The fashion of punctuating acronyms and initialisms with periods has, well, gone out of fashion, so one is far less likely nowadays to see F.B.I. than FBI.
5. Feel free to end a sentence shaped like a question that isn’t really a question with a period rather than a question mark. It makes a statement, doesn’t it.
The Series Comma
- The “bananas, and” comma. That’s the series comma. Use it. Only godless savages eschew the series comma. For whatever it’s worth to you, everyone I’ve ever encountered in U.S. book publishing uses it.
8. Exception to this rule: An ampersand in a series rather than an “and”—negates the necessity of a series comma.
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves
- and certainly not
- Eats, Shoots, & Leaves
9. You might well, if you’re relatively sparing with your commas, write
- On Friday she went to school.
- The longer the introductory bit, the more likely you are to want/need a comma:
- After three days home sick with a stomachache, she returned to school.
11. Sometimes a comma makes no sense at all.
- Suddenly, he ran from the room.
- Makes it all rather less sudden, doesn’t it.
12. A comma splice is the use of a comma to join two sentences when each can stand on its own.
- She did look helpless, I almost didn’t blame him for smiling at her that special way.
- As a rule, you should avoid comma splicing, though exceptions can be and frequently are made when the individual sentences are reasonably short and intimately connected: “He came, he saw, he conquered.”
13. The vocative comma is the comma separating a bit of speech from the name (or title or other identifier) of the person (or sometimes the thing) being addressed.
- I’ll meet you in the bar, Charlie.
“I live to obey, Your Majesty.”
And, Dad, here’s another thing.
14. We were all indoctrinated in grade school to precede or follow dialogue with a comma in constructions like
- “Keep your temper,” said the Caterpillar.
- This rule does not apply in constructions in which dialogue is preceded or followed by some version of the verb “to be” (“is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” that lot), as in:
- Lloyd’s last words were “That tiger looks highly pettable.”
15.Will you go to London too? Will you go to London, too?
- Q. When do I precede a sentence-ending “too” with a comma, and when not?
Whichever you choose.
Colons are not merely introductory but presentational. They say: Here comes something!
19. If what follows a colon is a full sentence, begin that full sentence with a capital letter, which signals to your reader: What’s about to commence includes a subject, a verb, the works, and should be read as such.
- Post-colon lists of things or fragmentary phrases should begin with a lowercase letter: items of a grocery list.
21. The pluralization of abbreviations, too, requires no apostrophes. More than one CD = CDs.
22. To say nothing of dos and don’ts, yeses and nos, etc.
24. Do use an apostrophe to pluralize a letter. One minds one’s p’s and q’s.
25. The boss’s office, the princess’s tiara, Charles Dickens’s novels, Socrates’s
27. Donald Trump Jr.’s perfidy
28. John and Abigail Adams = The Adamses, The Trumans’ singing daughter
32. The most basic use of semicolons is to divide the items in a list any of whose individual elements mandate a comma - in this case, Venice, Italy.
- But semicolons are unavoidable when you have to write the likes of:
- Lucy’s favorite novels are Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; Farewell, My Lovely; and One Time, One Place.
- 40. Use roman type encased in quotation marks for the titles of songs, ,poems, short stories, and episodes of TV series. Whereas the title of music albums, volumes of poetry, full-length works of fiction and non-fiction, and TV series themselves are styled in aslant italics.
- “Chuckles Bites the Dust”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
- 41. Individual works of art are generally set in italics (The Luncheon on the Grass).
43. Once upon a time, what I’d call articulated rumination was often found encased in quotation marks:
- “What is to become of me?” Estelle thought.
- What is to become of me? Estelle thought.
- The last is best.
48. If one finds the need to quote something within quotation marks, one then opts for single quotation marks. As in:
- “I was quite surprised,” Jeannine commented, “when Mabel said to me, ‘I’m leaving tomorrow for Chicago,’ then walked out the door.”
- As a lexicographer once confided to me over sushi, the dictionary takes its cues from use: If writers don’t change things, the dictionary doesn’t change things.
53. Modern style is to merge prefixes and main words seamlessly and hyphenlessly, as in: antiwar, autocorrect,
56. The age of people’s children trips up a lot of people with children.
- My daughter is six years old.
My six-year-old daughter is off to summer camp.
My daughter, a six-year-old, is off to summer camp.
66. Sentences beginning with “I wonder” are not questions and do not conclude with question marks. I wonder who’s kissing her now.
Chapter 4: 1, 2, 3, Go: The Treatment of Numbers
- Generally, in nontechnical, nonscientific text, write out numbers from one through one hundred and all numbers beyond that are easily expressed in words—that is, two hundred but 250, eighteen hundred but 1,823.
- 2. Numerals are generally avoided in dialogue. That is:
- “I bought sixteen apples, eight bottles of sparkling water, and thirty-two cans of soup,” said James, improbably.
- rather than
- “I bought 16 apples, 8 bottles of sparkling water, and 32 cans of soup,” said James, improbably.
- 11. A crucial, crucial thing about numbers, no matter how they’re styled:
- They need to be accurate.
- As soon as a writer writes the likes of “Here are twelve helpful rules for college graduates heading into the job market,” copy editors start counting. You’d be surprised at how many lists of twelve things contain only eleven things.
Chapter 5: Foreign Affairs: Standard practice is to set foreign-language words and phrases in italics.
- Avoid the Brit “ou” as in “neighbour,” “colour,” “harbour”.
CHAPTER 6: A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing
- 8. Flipping restlessly through the channels, John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was playing on TCM.
- This particular flavor of dangler is called in full a dangling participle. Danglers are, I’d say, the most common error committed in otherwise competent prose and by far the most egregious type of error that regularly makes it to print.
- Strolling through the park, the weather was beautiful.
- The weather was beautiful as we strolled through the park. Yup.
- Arriving at the garage, my car was nowhere to be found. Nah.
- When I arrived at the garage, my car was nowhere to be found. Yeah.
CHAPTER 7: The Realities of Fiction
- Keep an eye on the repetition of even garden-variety nouns, verbs, adjective, and adverbs of only moderate distinction, which you might not want to repeat in proximity—unless you’re doing this with a purpose, in which case: Do it.
- By the way, characters who nod needn’t nod their heads, as there’s really not much else to nod. And the same goes for shrugging of unnecessarily-alluded-to shoulders.
- “He began to cry” = “he cried.” Dispose of all “began to”s.
- Something, something, something, she thought to herself.
- Please dispose of that “to herself” instanter.
A FEW POINTERS ON UNFINISHED SPEECH
- If one of your characters is speaking and is cut off in midsentence by the speech or action of another character, haul out a dash:
- “I can’t possibly”—she set the jam pot down furiously—“eat such overtoasted toast.”
- Reading fiction aloud highlights strengths and exposes weaknesses. I heartily recommend it.
Part II: The Stuff in the Back
CHAPTER 8: Notes on, Amid a List of, Frequently and/or Easily Misspelled Words
- Not spelled “ad nauseum.”
- That’s indeed how you spell it.
- I was well into my twenties before I realized that this word was neither pronounced nor spelled “emnity.”
- Commonly misspelled “fuschia.”
- It is not spelled “perogative.”
- It’s not “restauranteur.”
- One wants to spell it “sacreligious.” One can’t.
CHAPTER 9: Peeves and Crotches
BASED OFF OF
- The inarguably—so don’t argue with me—correct phrase is “based on.”
FOR ALL INTENSIVE PURPOSES
- It’s “for all intents and purposes.”
- Have you no sense of decency? At long last, have you no sense of decency?
- They’re lessons.
- Yes, it’s “on purpose.” No, it’s not “on accident.” It’s “by accident.”
- In conversation with a bereaved relative, one might, I suppose, refer to someone as having passed away or passed. In writing, people die.
CHAPTER 10: The Confusables
A LOT / ALLOT, ALLOTTED, ALLOTING
- A lot of something is a great deal of it.
- To Allot is to assign.
ADVERSE / AVERSE
- “Adverse” means to unfavorable or harmful, as in “We are enduring adverse weather.”
- “Averse” means opposed to, repulsed by, or antipathetic toward, as in “I am averse to olives and capers.”
AID / AIDE
- To aid is to help.
- An aide is an assistant.
AMUSE / BEMUSE / BEMUSED
- To amuse is to entertain, delight, divert.
- To bemuse is to perplex, befuddle, preoccupy, nonplus.
BAWL / BALL
- To bawl one’s eyes out is to week profusely.
- To ball one’s eyes out would be some sort of sporting or teabagging mishap.
BORN / BORNE
- The word you want for discussions of birth, actual or metaphorical, is “born”.
- Otherwise, things that are carried or produced are borne.
CARAT / KARAT / CARET / CARROT
- A carat is a unite of weight applied to gemstones.
- The proportion of gold in an allow is measured in karats.
- A caret is a copyediting and proofreading symbol (it looks like this: ^) showing where the new text is to be inserted into an already set line.
- Carrots are what Bugs Bunny eats.
CORONET / CORNET
- A coronet is a small crown; a cornet is a trumpetlike musical instrument.
FICTIONAL / FICTITIOUS
- “Fictional” describes the nature of works of imaginative art and their constituent parts.
- “Fictitious” describes something not in imaginative art that is made up.
FLOUNDER / FOUNDER
- To founder is to struggle clumsily; to founder is to sink or to fail.
LOATH / LOATHE
- I am loath—that is, reluctant—to make comments, snide or otherwise, about people I loathe—that is, detest.
PEAL / PEEL
- You probably don't need to be reminded that bells peal and potatoes are peeled.
RELUCTANT / RETICENT
- To be reluctant is to be resistant, unwilling.
- To be reticent is to be silent, uncommunicative.
TORTUOUS / TORTUROUS
- The former means twisty, winding, serpentine; the latter means like torture.
WORKOUT / WORK OUT
- The former is a noun; the latter is a verb.
CHAPTER 11: Notes on Proper Nouns
A Note on Initials
Random House style favors even spacing overall for names featuring two initials, that is:
- E. E. Cummings (rather than E.E. Cummings)
- T. S. Eliot (Rather than T.S. Eliot)
For names featuring three initials, go with the more compact
CHAPTER 12: The Trimmables
(The bits in italics are the bits you can dispose of.)
- absolutely certain, absolute certainty, absolutely essential
- added bonus
- blend together
- capitol building
- crisis situation
- disappear from sight
- earlier in time
- end result
- exact same
- join together
- lesbian woman
- Come on, folks. Think.
- merge together
- plan ahead
- slightly ajar
- usual custom
CHAPTER 13: The Miscellany
1. Strictly differentiating between “each other,” in reference to something occurring between two people,
- Johnny and I like each other.
- and “one another,” for three or more,
- “Everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”
8. There is a world of difference between turning into a driveway, which is a natural thing to do with one’s car, and turning into a driveway, which is a Merlyn trick.
10. If you love something passionately and vigorously, you love it no end. To love something “to no end” as one often sees it rendered, would be to love it pointlessly.
12. Title case is the convention of capitalizing, in titles of works (books, book chapters, plays, movies - you get the idea).
- Which are the important words of a title?
- the first word and the last word
- all nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs
- Which are the words that don’t make the capital cut?
- articles (“a,” “an,” “the”)
conjunctions (“and,” “but,” “if,” “or,” etc.)
- Particularly don't forget that some terribly important words are terribly short. Make sure you’ve capped that “it” (to say nothing of that “He,” that “She,” that “His,” and that “Hers”), and especially make sure you’ve capped those big leaguers “Is” and “Be,” the lowercasing of which is as close to a title-case capital crime as I can think of.
20. They’re not Brussel sprouts. They’re Brussels sprouts.
THINGS I LIKE