Benjamin Dreyer, 2019
If you are like me—love writing—this book is a must-read. If you are like me—non-native English speaker—this book is a must-read.
I learned a lot in a short time. It’s funny too.
Highlights & Margin Notes
A sentence that can’t be readily voiced is a sentence that likely needs to be rewritten. A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.
A thing, by the bye, can also be a “who,” as in “an idea whose time has come,” because you certainly don’t want to be writing “an idea the time of which has come,” or worse. (Though worse might not exist.)
In a tote-up of grocery items, as above, the series comma ensures that the final two items in a list aren’t seen as having a special relationship, aren’t seen after a number of singletons as somehow constituting a couple.
Do use an apostrophe to pluralize a letter. One minds one’s p’s and q’s. One dots one’s i’s and crosses one’s t’s.
The pluralization of s-ending proper nouns seems to trip up a lot of people, but John and Abigail are the Adamses, as are John Quincy and Louisa, as are Rutherford B. and Lucy the Hayeses, and that seems to be that for s-ending presidents, but you get the point.
As to the possessives, then, a relative piece of cake: the Trumans’ singing daughter the Adamses’ celebrated correspondence the Dickenses’ trainwreck of a marriage […]
A midsentence parenthetical aside (like this one) begins with a lowercase letter and concludes (unless it’s a question or even an exclamation!) without terminal punctuation. When a fragmentary parenthetical aside comes at the very end of a sentence, make sure that the period stays outside the aside (as here). (Only a freestanding parenthetical aside, like this one, begins with a capital letter and concludes with an appropriate bit of terminal punctuation inside the final parenthesis.)
Any time you find yourself interpolating a bit of your own text into quoted material (a helpfully added clarifying first name, for instance, when the original text contained only a surname) or in any other way altering a quotation, you must—and I mean must—enclose your interpolation in brackets.
Use roman (straight up and down, that is, like the font this phrase is printed in) type encased in quotation marks for the titles of songs, poems, short stories, and episodes of TV series.33 Whereas the titles of music albums,34 volumes of poetry, full-length works of fiction and nonfiction, and TV series themselves are styled in aslant italics.
Individual works of art—named paintings and sculptures—are generally set in italics (The Luncheon on the Grass), though works whose titles are unofficial (the Victory of Samothrace, for instance) are often styled in roman, without quotation marks.
An exclamation point or question mark at the end of a sentence ending with a bit of quoted matter goes outside rather than inside the quotation marks if the exclamation point or question mark belongs to the larger sentence rather than to the quoted bit,
Because, we’re told, the possibility of misreading is slim to nil, so a hyphen is unnecessary.
An en dash is used to hold words together instead of your standard hyphen, which usually does the trick just fine, when one is connecting a multiword proper noun to another multiword proper noun or to pretty much anything else. What the heck does that mean? It means this: a Meryl Streep–Robert De Niro comedy a New York–to–Chicago flight a World War II–era plane a Pulitzer Prize–winning play Basically, that which you’re connecting needs a smidgen more connecting than can be accomplished with a hyphen.
En dashes are also used for page references (pp. 3–21) sporting game scores (the Yankees clobbered the Mets, 14–2)*49 court decisions (the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling by a 7–2 vote)
If—and I’d restrict this bit of advice for more casual prose or the rendering of dialogue—a sentence is constructed like a question but isn’t intended to be one, you might consider concluding it with a period rather than a question mark. “That’s a good idea, don’t you think?” means something quite different from “That’s a horrible idea, isn’t it.”
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.
When writing of time, I favor, for example: five A.M. 4:32 P.M. using those pony-size capital letters (affectionately known as small caps*1) rather than the horsier A.M./P.M. or the desultory-looking a.m./p.m. (AM/PM and am/pm are out of the question.) By the bye, the likes of “6 A.M. in the morning” is a redundancy that turns up with great frequency, so I warn you against it.
For years, then: 53 B.C. A.D. 1654 You will note, please, that B.C. (“before Christ,” as I likely don’t have to remind you) is always set after the year and A.D. (the Latin “anno Domini,” meaning “in the year of the Lord,” as I perhaps don’t have to remind you but will anyway) before it. Perhaps you were taught somewhere along the way to use the non-Jesus-oriented B.C.E. (before the Common Era) and C.E. (of the Common Era). If so, note that both B.C.E. and C.E. are set after the year: 53 B.C.E. 1654 C.E.
I refer to the years from 1960 to 1969*4 as the sixties (or, in a pinch, as the ’60s) and the streets of Manhattan from Sixtieth through Sixty-ninth as the Sixties. Some people do it the other way around, but let’s not fight about it. Or let’s. I win.
Degrees of temperature (“a balmy 83 degrees”) and longitude/latitude (38°41’7.8351”, and note the use not only of the degree symbol but of those austere vertical prime marks, not to be confused with stylishly curly quotation marks) are best set in numerals.
So are biblical references to chapter and verse (Exodus 3:12, for instance).
[…] remember to think of “who” as the cousin of “I,” “he,” “she,” and “they” (the thing doing the thing, a.k.a. a subject) and to think of “whom” as the cousin of “me,” “him,” “her,” and “them” (the thing being done to, a.k.a. an object), you’re most of the way there.
Words into Type
Is that a grammar/style book? (Yes)
In “neither x nor y” constructions, if the x is singular and the y is plural, the verb to follow is plural. If the x is plural and the y is singular, the verb to follow is singular. That is, simply: Take your cue from the y.
Strolling through the park, the weather was beautiful. Nope. 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.
The subjunctive mood is used to convey various flavors of nonreality. For instance, it dictates the use of “were” rather than “was” in the Fiddler on the Roof song “If I Were a Rich Man” and in the frankfurter jingle that begins “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener.”
For fiction written in the past tense, here’s a technique for tackling flashbacks that I stumbled upon years ago, and writers I’ve shared it with have tended to get highly excited: Start off your flashback with, let’s say, two or three standard-issue “had”s (“Earlier that year, Jerome had visited his brother in Boston”), then clip one or two more “had”s to a discreet “ ’d” (“After an especially unpleasant dinner, he’d decided to return home right away”), then drop the past-perfecting altogether when no one’s apt to be paying attention and slip into the simple past (“He unlocked his front door, as he later recalled it, shortly after midnight”). Works like a charm.