Random House copy chief and managing editor Benjamin Dreyer is a fixture in the publishing industry and on Twitter for his authoritative yet approachable take on style and grammar. Now he is a Random House author himself, an officially sanctioned language guru in the genre (but not the prescriptive mold) of Elements of Style legends Strunk & White. Dreyer’s English, a helpful, funny style guide replete with supporting references from literature and popular culture, is a surprise best seller, debuting at No. 9 on the New York Times’ Advice, How-To, and Misc. list. I stopped by Dreyer’s office at Penguin Random House to see just how close he sits to the people who’ve worked on his book, and to talk about emoji, Twitter grammar, the awfulness of the verb onboard, and why he’ll never go without the serial comma.
What’s it like to be the copy chief and an author at the same imprint?
It’s good to be published by Random House. They take good care of you. And they’re all here. If they want me, they know where to find me. As managing editor and copy chief, if I want to talk to an editor, I just present myself at the doorway. But if the neurotic, crying author wants his editor, he makes an appointment.
Those are good boundaries.
There did come a time when I was really struggling with writing. I asked my editor, “If I can’t get this right, can we just get me out of the contract?” And he looks at me and laughs and says, “Honey, you’re great. It’s gonna be wonderful. Don’t think you’re the first author who’s tried to get out of a contract.”
How did you go about writing the book?
It started as an expansion as a proofreader/copy editor guideline memo that I had inherited. I would add to it things that otherwise really first-rate people were getting wrong. So I kept working on the memo until it topped out at about 20 pages. There came this point when I thought I might like to write a book and everyone in-house was very receptive.
Who was your copy editor?
Her name is Bonnie Thompson. She’s so good. She’s attentive, listens to writers, is very careful. Bonnie did for me what I have always tried to do for writers — making changes she thought appropriate and then asking me if it was okay, rather than asking open-ended questions. She laughed at my jokes in the margins and never made me feel bad.
Tell me about Twitter grammar. Shouldn’t it have an edit button?
Yes, with a five-minute window of opportunity, and then it slams shut.
When can you let things go on Twitter that wouldn’t pass muster in print?
Twitter has its own language. I like to try to write into it. I like to think that I’m making fun of myself when I adopt Twitter Voice or Twitterisms that are perhaps more appropriate for someone half my age.
The ALL CAPS alarmed or funny tweet. Or every time I say “Am I right.” It’s part of what ends up in the book — writing something that’s shaped like a question but isn’t a question and ending it with a period instead of a question mark. Now I sort of support this as a copy editor. It comes from the Twitter habit of writing questions and not putting a question mark at the end. It makes me laugh, but there’s a point to it. It’s useful.
Would you ever forgo any other punctuation?
Sure, I’m happy to skip a comma and let the whole thing race out all at once. But I will never skip a series comma. When I was hired full-time at Random House I got the manual, and the very important thing it said up front is that Random House has no house style. Which is for all intents and purposes true, except for all of the things that we all do the same. The house style is to use series commas. Everybody in book publishing uses a series comma and so many people in journalism don’t.
How often do you use emoji?
A lot. On Twitter I use them all the time. Here, every now and then. I’ve spent most of my professional life trying to see how I can get people to do the things that I need them to do by amusing them into doing it. Anything for a laugh. The fact that it is undignified to use emoji in work emails is why every now and then I will use one.
What are some words that are “hot” right now?
The word I love to hate is the verb onboard, which you hear a lot in HR speak. Orient is just fine. Onboard sounds like you’re waterboarding.
What was one of the most difficult books you’ve worked on?
I was the production editor for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. I hired a freelance copy editor on that one. It’s a great big sprawling novel, and I had two very good proofreaders working on it, who were asking hundreds of questions. I would spend a couple of hours a day for the better part of a couple of weeks on the phone with Michael, page to page, line by line, talking about this comma, that comma. Never wearied him. That sparked some real joy.
Can you tell when specific people are being very particular in the way they interact with you? Like, can you tell I’m worried about my grammar right now?
I don’t notice per se, but I would never publicly call out anyone because that would be just so dreadful. Every now and then someone will say to me, “I get very anxious when I’m tweeting at you,” to which I tend to respond, “I am dangerous only to my enemies.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, and to maintain impeccable grammar.