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Random House copy chief: Stand tall, wordsmiths! (But choose your battles)

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Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer is not a fan of the word "very."

"It's not a dreadful word," he allows, but "it's one of my little pet words to do without if you can possibly do without it."

"Very" and its cousins "rather" and "really" are "wan intensifiers," Dreyer explains. In their place, he advises that writers look for a strong adjective that "just sits very nicely by itself" on the page. For example, "very smart" people can be "brilliant" and "very hungry" people can be "ravenous."

Dreyer gets the final say over questions related to grammar, style and clarity at Random House. Now he's sharing his writing advice in the new book Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. 

"Words are my business, and the meaning of words is my business," he says. "To watch language twisted and distorted — that gets under my skin and makes me unhappy."


Interview Highlights

On being a stickler for grammar and punctuation

There's nobody I know who does words for a living who doesn't adhere to certain either odd or essentially irrational preferences or distastes. I think you simply need to sort of contain yourself. Like, pick six things you want to be ridiculously stubborn about, not dozens and dozens and dozens of them. You have to choose your irrational battles.

On the collaboration between copy editor and author

I think that a good rate of acceptance between copy editor and author may be 85 percent of the copy editor's suggestions would get approved. There are certain times where the author simply says, "Funny thing, I actually like it the way I wrote it myself." And you are, of course, deferential because you know who's the dog and who's the tail.

I've encountered very few examples of ... a disconnect that's so bad that the author is absolutely, adamantly opposed to everything that the copy editor has done. That just doesn't happen. Professional copy editors are sensitive to what writers are doing, and they know that their job is to get into the manuscript and to enhance it, to make it ... more of itself than it was before you got to work on it. You're not in there to take an ax to it. You're not there to sort of pound it into some sort of standardized submission.

You have to listen; copy editing is very much about listening. If the copy editor is listening to what the writer is doing and is offering suggestions accordingly, that dialogue that occurs on the page — it used to happen in pencil, now, of course, it happens in track changes — that conversation should go quite well.

I think that authors should say no every now and then. I think that if I ever copy edited something and the author said yes to everything I would think, I'd feel kind of hurt. It's like you didn't really care enough to argue with me every now and then.

On reordering the parts of a sentence to make it stronger

Often I find myself looking at a sentence — either one of my sentences or one of somebody else's sentences — and I find that I wrote it out as I would have said it. But now that I'm regarding it on the page — and I want to make sure that it's sharp, and I want to make sure that it's strong — often I find that if you reorder the elements of a sentence, you can build a stronger sentence on the page.

Often, a big chunk or the important part of a sentence is sitting in the middle and it gets sort of lost in the middle, and then the sentence kind of dribbles off to the end. And if you take the middle part and you put it at the end, you're working your way toward what would be — if you were a comedian — you're working your way toward the punchline. You want the big word to come at the end so that people are laughing at the end, not laughing in the middle of the sentence, and then nobody hears the end of the sentence.

On the passive voice

A classic example of passive voice — and it's very weaselly and you shouldn't say it — [is] "mistakes were made." ... By whom? Can somebody take some responsibility here? I made a mistake. You made a mistake. It needs a person there having made the mistake.

But every now and then, there's nothing particularly wrong with the passive voice, if you are simply, for instance, trying to establish a situation whose actor, whose performer, you don't know: The refrigerator door was left open. That is simply an observation. ... You're not necessarily trying to say who did it, you are simply observing that something occurred, and you can't say who did it because you don't know. And if you say, "Someone left the refrigerator door open," then all of a sudden we're no longer simply observing a situation, we're pointing a finger at somebody. ...

If there's no front-loaded actor at the beginning of a sentence, you may be able to append the phrase "by zombies" to the end of it, and that's how you know, more or less, that you're staring at a sentence that's written in the passive voice.

On gender-neutral pronouns This, ultimately, was the intersection of my perspective as a copy editor and my perspective simply as a human being. I remember reading a few years ago an article in The New York Times that was all about a person who did not identify as male or female. And I made my way through the article, which was extremely well-written, and toward the end of the article there was a quotation, there was a description of this person by this person's father or mother that referred to the person as "they." ...

I then went back and I read the entire article and realized that the writer of the article had managed to write the entire article about this person without ever resorting to a pronoun, and it was done seamlessly and eloquently. On the one hand, I was sort of impressed by the effort, while at the same time I was also beginning to contemplate the necessity of this avoidance.

And then what happened, subsequently, is that I gained a colleague whose pronoun of choice is "they." When I was first introduced to this colleague, I found myself for months doing anything I could in writing or even in speech to avoid applying a pronoun. I'd refer to the colleague as "the colleague." ... I would refer to the colleague by name.

And at one point even I began to realize how ridiculous I was, and the word "they" popped out of my mouth. ... [I thought,] just honor your colleague, honor this person that you work with. ... It shouldn't have to take something personal, a one-on-one encounter with another human being. It shouldn't necessarily have to take that sort of thing to make you evolve properly. Maybe you should be a better person and you should be able to do it in the abstract. But sometimes it does take a personal encounter to get you to change how you see things. ...

The last thing that I want to do is to pass myself off as some sort of ferocious gatekeeper who — in some sort of argument about the purity and the wonder of the English language, and how it must be preserved — is simply being unkind and cruel to other human beings.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.  Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.