- Show Notes
REFERENCES & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS
- “Trump doesn’t seem to understand what ‘treason’ means,” NBCNews, 5/24/19
- Clip of Rep. Liz Cheney on ABC News discussing “treason”
- Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III Makes Statement on Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, Department of Justice
- “District Attorney (DA),” Legal Information Institute
- “Take Justice Off the Ballot,” New York Times, 5/22/10
- Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Random House
- “I’m not the grammar police. But writing well is an act of resistance,” Washington Post, 2/8/19
BOOKS REFERENCED IN EPISODE
- Doing Justice by Preet Bharara, Knopf
- Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Macmillan
- Crazy Rhythm: From Brooklyn and Jazz to Nixon’s White House, Watergate, and Beyond by Leonard Garment, Da Capo Press
- “Gender-neutral pronouns: When ‘they’ doesn’t identify as either male or female,” Washington Post, 10/27/14
- “She? Ze? They? What’s In a Gender Pronoun,” New York Times, 1/30/16
- “A Massacre, Erased,” Washington Post
- “’Top Secret’ maps reveal the massive Allied effort behind D-Day,” National Geographic, 6/3/19
- “Woman Suffrage Centennial,” United States Senate
Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
Benjamin Dreyer: It has occurred to me that good writing is a kind of morality, honest communication, thoughtful use of words. I think the way we talk to one another, the way we write to one another, is about how we are interacting with one another, and an attempt at basic human decency. I mean, your language is one of your prime mechanisms. We can all communicate with tone of voice and eye contact as much as we want, but it’s the very words that we’re choosing that are most important.
Preet Bharara: That’s Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, and eponymous author of the book, Dreyer’s English, and utterly correct guide to clarity and style. It is a surprise New York Time’s best selling book, but a very welcome surprise. Ben and I wade into controversial waters. Oxford commas, semicolons, and garden variety cliches, plus how particularly in these times good writing is a kind of morality, but first, let’s get to your questions. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: Hey, folks, CAFE recently launched something to help you keep on top of today’s news cycle, the CAFE Brief. It’s a newsletter that recaps news and analysis of politically charged legal matters sent twice a week. Sign up to stay informed at CAFE.com/brief, that’s CAFE.com/brief.
Ben: [inaudible 00:01:32]. This is Ben from New York. I wanted to push back against one of your conclusions and ask, “Do you really think it’s inappropriate to use the word treason, when we’re discussing the President’s actions? When intelligence officers describe what happened during the 2016, election, they used the phrase information warfare. When we think about the President kind of denying the existence of that attack, to me that would seem to be giving some sort of aid to a party that has attacked us. Forgive the noise, I’m standing near construction. Okay, thanks.
Preet Bharara: Thanks for your question, Ben. Luckily I am not standing near construction, although there is construction nearby, as there always is, everywhere in New York. Look, I take your point that people use phrases like information warfare. People use words like treachery, words like disloyal. There’s lots of different words and phrases that people use, and as I’ve said before, I think people need to take really great care when they use a specific term that has legal meaning, not just in a statute, but in the Constitution itself, and treason is a big word.
Preet Bharara: Most recently we’ve been talking about the word treason casually thrown around by people like the President, with respect to folks like Jim Comey, and Andrew McCabe, and others, who he says have potentially engaged in treason and Congresswoman Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick Cheney, who just throws that word around. I think given that treason is defined in the Constitution, it is a very, very, very serious crime that implicates all sorts of things, and is punishable by death, it should not be used lightly, whether or not some intelligence officers may sometimes casually use a phrase like information warfare. I also draw a distinction between people who are elected and people are not elected.
Preet Bharara: When you have people who are members of Congress, up to and including the President of the United States, who just throw that word around, I think it debases the term, I think it debases the act when done by actual treasonous people, and I think it debases them. It also debases the dialogue, so I choose not to use it.
Michael: Hello, Preet. My name is Michael. I’m calling from Indianapolis. In Robert Mueller’s press conference he used the term unconstitutional to describe the act of indicting a sitting president. I thought the reason for not indicting the sitting president was based on the Department of Justice policy, not law or Constitutional statute. Could you clear that up? Thank you.
Preet Bharara: Hi, Michael. A lot of people have been talking about that sentence. I’ve seen a lot of people on television talking about this sentence, in which Mueller says, “That it would be unconstitutional to charge a sitting president,” which makes it seem like that’s his own conclusion, and he’s come to that conclusion. De novo, as lawyers might say, but if you look more carefully at his remarks, he says very clearly that he is basing his determination on that office of legal counsel memorandum. He says, quote, “Under long standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office.” Then he says, “That is unconstitutional.” That to me is a clear reference to the memo.
Preet Bharara: The memo itself, as we’ve discussed I think from time to time on the show, bases its interpretation on the Constitution. It’s a Constitutional analysis, whether you agree with it or not, that’s contained in the OLC opinion, and upon which Robert Mueller is relying. That’s my understanding of why he says, “It’s unconstitutional.” It’s based on the memo, but the memo itself reports to be based on the Constitution.
Preet Bharara: Here’s an interesting question we received by email from listener Elaine. It says, “Hello, Preet. It seems like every time I enter the voting booth I realize I’m expected to vote for judges about whom I know nothing. Attorneys I know think lay people like me can’t make sound choices anyway, and a judgeship should be filled by appointment, but that seems to me like an opportunity for cronyism. What are your thoughts on the different approaches, and as long as judges do run for election, how would you recommend voters approach our responsibility? Love your shows. Elaine, from Narberth, Pennsylvania.”
Preet Bharara: That’s a really good and complicated question, and I’ve been thinking about it for some time. Now there are two different ways both the prosecutors, and judges, and other folks can come into office. It can be by election or it could be by appointment. There are arguments both ways with respect to prosecutors. District attorneys are elected, basically everywhere in the country. In some places they’re not. The equivalent of district attorneys in all the counties of New Jersey, where I grew up, are appointed by the governor. So are U.S. attorneys, as you know if you listen to the show. Are there opportunities for bad decision making to happen when there’s an appointment process? Sure. Federal judges are all appointed by the President, and have to be confirmed by the Senate, so that provides some check I think, on these issues of cronyism or lack of competence, although some would beg to differ.
Preet Bharara: They look at some of the appointments being made by President Trump. On balance, it’s been my judgment over a period of time that the election of judges is not great, and it allows for too much both pandering to the public, on issues of the rule of law and equal access to justice, and it unfortunately brings into the process that thing which I think has a corrupting force, and that’s money. Raising money, and having to run ads, and having to go door to door and convince people to vote for you, when you’re not supposed to be beholden to anyone, if you’re a judge, strikes me as problematic. Another reason why I’ve been convinced over the years on this issue, is one of the great justices, Sandra Day O’Connor, long since retired, has made it one of her chief goals to educate people on the problematic nature of the election of judges, and try to get rid of that process in various places in the country.
Preet Bharara: There’s some places, not in New York, but other places where not only certain low level judges are elected by the public, but also Supreme Court judges, who have a lot of power and a lot of authority, and there have been instances I think of campaigns that you kind of don’t want to see, when you’re talking about people who are supposed to don a robe, and speak only through their work. I know there are probably people who disagree with this, but I think overall, based on evidence, based on the work of Sandra Day O’Connor, and others, we would be better off if judges were not elected, so long as there was a good appointment process with a check and a balance.
Preet Bharara: Finally, you may know and appreciate that I have a kind of like/hate relationship with Twitter. Sometimes I’m more active, sometimes I’m less active, and sometimes there’s toxicity that happens on Twitter, and sometimes there’s a bit of nonsense that happens on Twitter. Such an incident happened over the last couple of days. Donald Trump, Jr., who I don’t know personally, posted a harsh and negative Tweet about Jim Comey. Then on Sunday evening, he posted what appears to be a screenshot of a notification he received about his Tweet that said, “Liked by Preet Bharara.” Without my Twitter handle, just a generic liked by Preet Bharara. Donald Trump, Jr. then, without tagging me, without using my last name so I didn’t see it for a couple of days, posted another Tweet alongside this apparent notification that he got, which I will tell you is false.
Preet Bharara: Posted, “Me too, Preet. Glad we agree on something. Baby steps.” Twitter user and listener, Average Joseph, asks at Preet Bharara, “Did you like this, or is this essentially fake news?” Well, I did not like the Tweet, and as I wrote back on Twitter, “Hey, Donald Trump, Jr., I didn’t like this Tweet. Check your facts. Baby steps.” This points to an issue that will occur more and more. There are lots of folks who have accounts where they’ve named themselves Preet Bharara, but use different Twitter handles.
Preet Bharara: Some of them are parody accounts, some of them are American accounts, some of them are Turkish accounts, some of them are a little bit active, some of them are not active, but it wasn’t me, and it wouldn’t be me. I’m pretty careful with my Twitter account, and I can look back and see and know what I have liked. Some people have suggested that I somehow either intentionally or accidentally liked Donald Trump, Jr.’s Tweet, and then unliked it. That’s also not true. If someone can find the fake Preet Bharara who liked Donald Trump, Jr.’s Tweet, you get a free hoodie from us.
Preet Bharara: My guest this week is Benjamin Dreyer. If you are not already, over the next hour, I think you will become a word nerd. The Washington post calls Dreyer, “The unofficial language guru on Twitter.” Yes, we discussed the rules, guidelines, and norms of language, but we also talked about how communicating clearly is in a sense, a show of empathy. Most importantly, I got Dreyer to weigh in on an important legal word matter, what is the past tense of plead. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: Stayed Tuned is supported by SimpliSafe. Alarm, worry, anxiety, panic … Fear has many words, but there’s just one word for exceptional home security, SimpliSafe. They know it feels good to fear less. Award winning 24/7 protection for your home, through it all, blizzards, blackouts, and burglars. Two time CNET editor’s choice winner, PC Magazine’s reader’s choice, SimpliSafe has won awards from all the tech experts, called the best home security by The Verge, and it’s a Wirecutter top pick too. With no contract and no hidden fees, SimpliSafe keeps prices fair and honest. Take fear out of your home. Try a 60 day risk free trial today, with free shipping and free returns. Order now on SimpliSafe.com/Preet, and have your home protected within a week. That’s SimpliSafe.com/Preet. Be sure to go there so they know we sent you.
Preet Bharara: Looking for something to celebrate your dad, or give to your new grad? Get a one size fits all gift, like an electric toothbrush. A new oral health routine with quip. With guiding features like a built in two minute timer, that reminds you when to switch sides and sonic vibrations that are gentle on sensitive gums, quip makes sticking to good habits, simple. Sign them up for a subscription and they’ll get brush heads delivered automatically, and a dentist recommended schedule every three months, for just $5. It’s no surprise that quip is one of the first electric toothbrushes accepted by the American Dental Association. With a quip electric toothbrush you can show your thanks where it really counts. As a dad and a grad, I love my quip, and over one million happy healthy mouths love quip too. Quip starts at just $25, and if you go to getquip.com/Preet, right now, you get your first refill pack free. That’s your first refill pack free at getquip.com/Preet.
Preet Bharara: Benjamin Dreyer, thanks for being on the show.
Benjamin Dreyer: Thank you for having me.
Preet Bharara: Congratulations on this book, Dreyer’s English, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief of Random House. It’s very clever putting your own name in the title, so that you get the name very, very large. Was that your intention?
Benjamin Dreyer: When I first started working on the book it had the title, The Last Word, which my husband … Well, then simply my boyfriend, now my husband, despised. He said, “It’s bossy, and it’s hectoring, and I hate it, and you need to come up with a better title.”
Preet Bharara: Yeah, so he decided, make it more self aggrandizing.
Benjamin Dreyer: Exactly. A friend actually came up with the title. He said, “Well, the title should be English,” and I said, “Well, that’s a little spartan.” He said, “No, no, no, no, no.” He said, “Because people will refer to it as Dreyer’s English, like Strunk and White,” and I thought, “Oh, that’s very funny.” I made the joke in the office one too many times, and as we were getting closer to having to decide what the title of the book was going to be, that became the title of the book.
Preet Bharara: You’re saying other people forced it upon you.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes, I-
Preet Bharara: Oh, I see.
Benjamin Dreyer: -moaned and I carried on.
Preet Bharara: You know, I just wrote a book. I could have called it Preet’s Justice. Maybe that’ll be the next one.
Benjamin Dreyer: Exactly.
Preet Bharara: This book has been tremendously successful and I think it’s surprised some people. Not me. What is this book?
Benjamin Dreyer: This book started out as my desire simply to share the weaponry that I have built up over the years as a copy chief, and as a copy editor, and I thought it would be fun, and I thought it would be amusing. Basically it was also about scratching an itch that had gone dormant for decades, the itch to want to write something. Then I fell back on the, well, write what you know, and what I know is copy editing. I started to work on it, simply with the notion of sharing my tricks, and it just sort of kept expanding, and it picked up little bits of memoir, and little bits of just sort of meditation on the quality of prose, and it just assembled itself.
Preet Bharara: It assembled itself?
Benjamin Dreyer: It assembled itself.
Preet Bharara: That’s interesting.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yeah, passive voice.
Preet Bharara: Is that all right in this context?
Benjamin Dreyer: I wasn’t always running it.
Preet Bharara: It just sort of happened.
Benjamin Dreyer: It happened and it took me a very long time, a very consciously trying to get everything right. Of course, I’m always trying to get everything right, I’m a copy editor, but at a certain point I did, a couple of years into the process, finally relax so that I could sit down at the keyboard, rev it up, and just start typing, and not be typing looking over my own shoulder the whole time.
Preet Bharara: Explain to people what a copy editor does.
Benjamin Dreyer: Okay. A copy editor is the person who is handed a manuscript that its author and its actual editor, it’s editor, editor as I tend to call those people, they have decided after however many drafts they’ve been passing back and forth over however many years, that the manuscript is finished. That’s great, but once it’s finished, it needs to be copy edited. Copy editing is a matter of doing the rudimentary things of making sure that everything is spelled correctly, making sure the subjects and the verbs agree, applying basic grammar where it’s appropriate to apply basic grammar, doing particularly for nonfiction, but for all kinds of books because all books have real world facts in them, and so copy editors will spend some time doing their best to verify that those facts are essentially correct. It’s not a deep nuclear level of fact check, but you’re looking to make sure that things are correct. Making sure that Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, that somebody isn’t driving south on it, because Eighth Avenue runs north. You have to be careful about that sort of thing.
Benjamin Dreyer: You’re also, as a copy editor … This is where you’re sort of taking it to the next level beyond simply making it technically better, you’re keeping an eye open for an author’s overuse of pet words. All authors have pet words. They all have different pet words.
Preet Bharara: What’s yours?
Benjamin Dreyer: I found when I was recording the audio book for this, something that I hadn’t noticed, but the sixth time I heard the words, garden variety, come out of my mouth I thought, “Okay, that’s four times at least too many.”
Preet Bharara: Did you have fights with your own copy editor?
Benjamin Dreyer: No. My copy editor was excellent. My copy editor did for me, what I have always tried to do when I’m copy editing other people, which is for one thing, to make you feel protected, another thing to really make you feel read. I mean, nobody is ever going to read you as closely as your copy editor does.
Preet Bharara: Can we talk about the personality required for a copy … Are you different from other human beings? Do you need to be more rigorous, and more detail oriented than the average smart person, or do you train yourself to be that way? I’m trying to understand what makes a copy editor.
Benjamin Dreyer: I think that being a good copy editor is a kind of knack. Before I was a copy editor I was a waiter and a bartender. Being a waiter is a knack. It doesn’t necessarily take intelligence, it takes a kind of instinct, and it takes an ability to do more than one thing at a time. Copy editing is a knack too. It requires a good ear for what works in English and what doesn’t work in English. It requires a good eye. It does require an eye for detail, because you’re not in there to amuse yourself, or to read for your own amusement. You’re there to look for mistakes, so you have to have that kind of rigorous focus.
Preet Bharara: Is it hard in regular life to let that go? For example, when you’re watching television and you see a mistake in the chyron, or you’re reading the newspaper and you see a mistake, do you always see and you can never turn it … Is it like having x-ray vision that can be problematic if you’re just trying to enjoy your Sunday?
Benjamin Dreyer: I almost always do see it, and I almost aways find it funny.
Preet Bharara: Do you mark it up?
Benjamin Dreyer: No, unless it’s something that is going to be good raw material for something that I might use down the road. It’s just like, let it go.
Preet Bharara: Did you sort of intentionally collect raw material along the way?
Benjamin Dreyer: I had taken what was a departmental memo that I had inherited from my predecessors, and I had begun to expand it by putting in things that I was beginning to notice were getting past our proofreaders and copy editors. That memo began to grow and grow, and I would say that that’s really sort of the germ of the book. Once I got it into my head that I was going to write the book, everything that I saw, and everything that I looked at, became potentially part of the book. I took to walking around with a pad in my back pocket so that I would never miss [crosstalk 00:18:31].
Preet Bharara: You were that guy.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yeah, I was that guy.
Preet Bharara: There’s lots of reasons why I think people should read the book, and one, of course is that lots of people’s writing actually is terrible, thing can be improved. Mine own included, if I can say, “Mine own.” The other is, and I think you put it very well, you say, “We’re all of us writers. We write term papers, and office memos, letters to teachers, and product reviews, journals, and blog entries, appeals to politicians. Some of us write books. All of us write emails, and at least as I’ve observed it, we all want to do better.”
Benjamin Dreyer: I think that’s true and I think people do want to communicate better. I mean, I hope that people want to communicate better. I guess I found that they do, because there’s proven to be an audience for this book, but there are always ways to make your writing better. Even when I’m typing the most casual email, and of course, I’m not a common example of anything in so far as that sort of thing is concerned, but I’ll stop and before I hit send, I’ll look at it and make sure that it’s the way I want it to be. Simple little tricks like, every time I’m writing an email that’s to people that I work with and I find myself using the word, not, or don’t, or shouldn’t, I stop and I look at it, and I think, “Can you rephrase that in a way that is not about not, and don’t, and shouldn’t, and turn it into something that is positive.” It can be just as much an admonition as it was the other way, but make it a little less haranguing.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that electronic communication and social media has made everyone a poor writer?
Benjamin Dreyer: People do ask me that and I can only say that I only really have the exposure to the writing that I’m exposed to. I see the things that, for instance, that we’re publishing at Random House, and I see the things that I read online, magazines, and newspapers, and other sort of journals, and I of course obsessively read whatever [is] posting at Twitter, but I find myself of course attracted to people who do want to write well, so that my response is essentially, “I don’t know what everybody’s doing, but I certainly think there’s a lot of wonderful writing.” There’s almost more wonderful writing than I can keep up with sometimes.
Preet Bharara: I’ve always thought there’s an argument that in some ways, electronic communication has improved people’s writing, because they have to do sort of more of it, than in the old days if you wanted to get a point across to somebody, you pick up the phone and you called. Now because as you say in the book yourself, everyone has to write emails. You don’t want to look foolish, and you don’t want to look like you’re making mistakes in your emails. In some ways in certain kinds of jobs, and also in friendships too, people communicate in writing much more than they used to, and text as well. There’s a certain rhythm and style of texting that requires an economy of words. Is that a good thing?
Benjamin Dreyer: A lot of people think that editing means cutting things out. I don’t always find that to be the case when I’m working as a copy editor. Sometimes a sentence is clarified by making it longer than it was. It needs a few more words to sort of breathe, to make its point clearer. I do find that succinctness in electronic communication is helpful. Certainly nobody likes an email that goes on for eons and eons, but what I do find is that there’s a playfulness, a sort of a jubilation in electronic communication, at least as far as I’ve witnessed. People seem to be having fun writing to one another.
Preet Bharara: Why is language important?
Benjamin Dreyer: Why is language important?
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Benjamin Dreyer: I think that language is important because good writing is a kind of truth telling, and honest writing is a kind of truth telling, and I think that one has easily witnessed the way that language can be distorted and used to tell lies, and to make them persuasive. I think that you can certainly see, when you’re reading wonderful things, what it does to your spirit and what it does to your heart, but also I find myself, and I imagine that you do too, witness to this process of using words to mislead. Some people do it really well, and some people just do it sort of bluntly, and poorly, and obviously. It didn’t occur to me when I was writing the book, it was not my thought. It’s only become my thought after the fact, as people tell me about what I’ve written, which is a fascinating experience, but it has occurred to me that good writing is a kind of morality.
Preet Bharara: Okay. That’s a big statement.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes, it is.
Preet Bharara: Because I think you have said somewhere, “Is there a connection between clear prose and morality.” Is there?
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes, I think that honest communication, I think thoughtful use of words, I think that the way we talk to one another, the way we write to one another, is about how we are interacting with one another, and an attempt at basic human decency. I mean, your language is one of your prime mechanisms. We can all communicate with tone of voice, and eye contact as much as we want, but it’s the very words that we’re choosing that are most important.
Preet Bharara: Related to that, in my own book I talked about the importance of effective communication, not necessarily writing, but all kinds of communication, in the courtroom for example. I say that effective communication is in part an exercise in empathy, which is I think either a subset of, or parallel to decency, as you say it, because to understand what it is that the other person needs to know, and how they need to hear it, means I have to put myself in the other person’s shoes, whether it’s a judge, or a jury, or for that matter, any kind of communication at all. Do you think good writing has anything to do with empathy?
Benjamin Dreyer: Absolutely. That’s a lovely thought. That’s so nice the way that you expressed that. I mean, one of the things that I have learned in my job at Random House as a copy chief, as a person who runs a department, and I have people that I work with, and wish to be an effective manager of, and colleague to, it took me a long time to learn how to properly communicate with people that I work with. It is empathy. It is hearing the words that are coming out of your own mouth, and thinking about how they’re going to hit the person that you’re talking to. I just became very self conscious of [crosstalk] hit, which is not what I mean.
Preet Bharara: At least you didn’t say, “Garden variety.”
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes.
Preet Bharara: When you see something that’s good, good writing, do you notice it? Should good writing be noticed? Because every one in a while I’ll read something and I’ll note that it’s good, and I’ll say, “Wow, this is really something.” Then you read the sentence again, and maybe you underline it, or if it’s really, really great, you write it down somewhere to use later as people who talk a lot sometimes need to quote other people. Then there’s other times I’m reading something and I’m engrossed in it, usually nonfiction, and I had not thought about the writing at all, and yet I’m turning the pages and I’m learning the information. Then I think, “Well, is that better, or do they both have a place in sort of the world of great writing?”
Benjamin Dreyer: I like writer rewriting. I always have.
Preet Bharara: I could tell that about you.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yeah. When I start to read something … For one thing, I’m easily bored. The problem in part being that I have access, and I’m exposed to so much writing all the time. I try to read a little bit of almost everything that we publish, which is hundreds of titles a year. Some things are better than others. Of course, not everything is superb, but there are times when I will pick up something and I just get grabbed in the first two paragraphs, and I just want to keep reading, and reading. It strikes me that the stuff that appeals to me most, it’s not that it’s gaudy or it’s overwritten, it just crackles. It has a lot of just sort of oomph behind it, and I find that really attractive.
Benjamin Dreyer: That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s loud, or that it’s excessively self consciously clever. I mean, some of the best writing, to use a word that has meaning or it has no meaning whatsoever, lyrical writing, I’m thinking about the first time I picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which is beautiful. It’s not fancy writing, it’s just gorgeous writing.
Preet Bharara: I like that. It’s a good phrase. I’ve wondered about this for a long time, especially as a lawyer, when much of the writing is intended to make a point or to be persuasive. There are people I think are quite smart, who don’t write clearly. I wonder, do you think a failure of good writing is in some instances, or in most instances, a failure of clear thinking?
Benjamin Dreyer: Pause, I’m thinking. I think that there are extremely smart people who are very good, clear writers. They take all the ideas that are in their head and they get them down onto the page, in a clear, direct, linear, if you like linear, writing. I tend to like it when I’m not reading Joyce. They do that very well, but I have certainly, and I remember back to the days when I was working as a freelance copy editor, I recall being given manuscripts by people who were clearly experts in their field, some of them attorneys, and professors of law, and finding myself absolutely baffled by what I was working on. Not necessarily because I wasn’t smart enough to know what was going on, on the page, but because the communication was just so muddy that I couldn’t keep up with it.
Preet Bharara: Now you mentioned it. I think you have said that the worst manuscript you ever read was drafted by an attorney.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes.
Preet Bharara: One of my people.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Do you think all attorneys are terrible writers?
Benjamin Dreyer: No, I think that some attorneys are wonderful writers, Preet. I do. How obvious was that one?
Preet Bharara: That was pretty obvious. Do you have an audience that you keep front of mind or not? Like a person in your life, or a family member, or a friend, a particular reader?
Benjamin Dreyer: I think that … Nobody’s asked me that before, and I think the answer is, “No,” I don’t. I don’t. I-
Preet Bharara: I kind of thought you were writing for me, Benjamin.
Benjamin Dreyer: Well, then maybe that’s … Seriously, maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work. If you just write honestly for yourself in the best possible way, every reader is going to pick up the book and think, “He’s talking to me.”
Preet Bharara: To some extent, there are rules of writing and some basic guides to style. Some writing is good, some writing is bad, but how much subjectivity is there about good or bad writing. In other words, is there writing that many other people think is terrific, and you think is just terrible, or vice versa?
Benjamin Dreyer: There’s a lot of subjectivity to writing. There’s even a lot of subjectivity to what constitutes what we might refer to as “good English,” and I hope you can hear the air quotes I was putting on either side of that, but I can think of many times when I’ve picked up a book that is being praised up one side and down the other, and I start to read it and I think, “This is just drivel. It’s overwritten, or it’s-”
Preet Bharara: Are you going to name one of those?
Benjamin Dreyer: I think that I won’t.
Preet Bharara: All right.
Benjamin Dreyer: I think that I won’t. I just want to say, if I can sidebar back to what we were talking about, particularly members of your profession, because a name came into my head and it just made my heart feel really nice, because one of the best experiences I have ever had working on a book, I was not his copy editor, I was the production editor, I was squiring the thing through the process, but I got to have a lot of interaction with him, and a truly excellent luncheon, [book party 00:29:50], I got to work on Leonard Garment’s memoir, Crazy Rhythm. What an incredible joy that was, and what a playful, and smart guy that was. There’s a reason why an attorney wrote a book called, Crazy Rhythm, particularly when he’s a jazz musician on top of everything else. That sort of thoughtfulness, that absolutely sharp intelligence. I mean, that’s a visceral pleasure for me, both as his production editor, but as a reader as well.
Benjamin Dreyer: I can get so … Well, the word’s about to come out of my … I can get so jazzed by good writing like that.
Preet Bharara: That was a treat, and I saw what you did there.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: I want to talk about rules.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: I had a junior high teacher. Seventh and eighth graders, they read E.E. Cummings, or they read, it’s often poets but not always poets, and they say to the teacher when they make grammatical “mistakes” or errors, and do things that are not how eighth graders are supposed to write. They say, “Well, that so and so writer does it,” and so and so writer won the Pulitzer, or won the Nobel Prize, and this teacher said something that I understand now, it’s very obvious, but I want to know how you feel about it. I think this is true also of art. He said, “Before you can break the rules, you must know what they are.” Do you agree with that?
Benjamin Dreyer: I think absolutely that’s the case.
Preet Bharara: Explain what you think that means.
Benjamin Dreyer: I think that it means that somebody who aspires to be a writer, or somebody who must write, would do well to learn the things that we by consensus really, call correct, correct grammar, correct punctuation, correct sentence structure, all those things. Once you’ve got that mastered, you can play with things as much as you like, but you’re doing it with a will. You’re doing it consciously. People who don’t bother to learn the rules, who write what they think is creatively, to me tends simply to write in a sort of muddy, unclear fashion. It’s awfully flashy, but it’s really not anything you want to spend any time with.
Preet Bharara: What then is the importance of rules, of grammar, about which we have consensus? Why is that needed?
Benjamin Dreyer: I mean, it makes your writing clear, it makes your writing comprehensible.
Preet Bharara: But is that because the readers generally will have an expectation of what they should be seeing, and in what form, and with what syntax, or is there some reason?
Benjamin Dreyer: I think that good writing hits a reader’s brain. There’s that verb again. I must be in a combative mood today. I don’t know, I’m very jazzed up. Yeah. I think that good writing gets into a reader’s brain so that you can follow all of the thoughts. You may or may not be conscious of the writing that’s going on, surrounding or encompassing the communication, but good writing leads the information from the writer’s hand into the reader’s brain in a clear way. It is one of the things that I say in the book, is that if you are reading a sentence and you have to double back to the beginning because the writer used a particular piece of punctuation, or used a word that could have been read as both a noun or a verb, and you find yourself wandering down the wrong path and you get to this point and you think, “Oh, wait, let me go back and start again, and figure out what the writer … Now I understand what the writer was trying to do,” but you shouldn’t have to do that as a reader.
Benjamin Dreyer: The writer should set you up properly so that you can get from the beginning of a sentence to the end of a sentence, not matter how long the sentence is, not matter how twisty the sentence is, but if you’re paying attention and if you were there, you should be able to get to the end of the sentence without feeling as if you had been misdirected.
Preet Bharara: You said something that would be I think surprising, surprising to me, and I kind of understand your point, but I’d like you to elaborate on it. Given your job as a copy editor, and the chief copy editor, you said you hate grammar.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes.
Preet Bharara: How can you hate grammar?
Benjamin Dreyer: It means that when I started doing proofreading and copy editing work, one of the things that I brought to that work was that knack that I was talking about, that I have a good ear, that I can recognize it in my brain, and my ear, what works and what’s not working. I had an, at best, rudimentary public school education. I knew what a subject was, and a predicate, and I knew the difference between an adverb and an adjective, but I hadn’t been instructed in grammar. I didn’t know these things, but I did have to learn them, and I did learn them, and I know these things. I can’t necessarily … There’s no reason for me professionally to remember the names of all of these things. Nobody cares. Nobody wants to be instructed in the margins of their manuscript by their copy editors, fix the text, but I find that I have enough grammar to do my job properly.
Benjamin Dreyer: If there’s something that’s not working, it’s not that it’s not working because I know that it’s textbook grammatically incorrect, it’s not working because it’s not working in my ear. I may go back and look some things up so that I can know why something is bothering me. I guess that’s all underneath the surface with me somewhere, but grammar doesn’t interest me particularly.
Preet Bharara: Can we talk about some of the rules of grammar that are okay to break?
Benjamin Dreyer: Sure.
Preet Bharara: I love how you talk about these things in the book. I don’t know if this goes for everyone, or just adults who have already learned the rules presumably, and if you [got to 00:35:12] be careful with seventh and eighth graders, or sixth graders, because I have a lot of sentences in my book that begin with and or but. Is that okay?
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes. There are not a lot of very detailed ones I remember from my education in the English language, or how to write, but I certainly do remember being repeatedly told not to begin sentences with and or but. Of course, you can begin a sentence with and or but, and a lot of writers do, which doesn’t necessarily prove anything, and a lot of good writers do and that doesn’t really prove anything either. Sometimes a sentence wants to begin with an and or a but, and thus sometimes it should, but I’m always happy to say as soon as I say that, it’s not always the best way to begin a sentence. You may find that your and, beginning sentence, or your but, beginning sentence would do well to be attached to the sentence that came just before it.
Preet Bharara: How do you know that? Because we’ve been talking about rules and breaking rules, but still there’s a focus on rules. Then we also had a discussion a couple minutes ago about ear, having a good ear, and sometimes you don’t know. You do this in the book quite a bit, which I actually find fascinating, you have option A and option B, which one sounds better. If you have a good ear, I think you know which one it is, and that’s the thing that determines, for example, whether you start the sentence with an and or a but, or some other thing, not the generality of the rule.
Benjamin Dreyer: Right. I mean, it’s, is that next thought, is it a fresh thought? Is it a free standing thought? Is it a severe turn in direction? In which case, sure, that’s a new sentence. Start it with and, start it with but. If it really feels attached to the previous thought, if it has a sort of an intimate relationship with the previous thought, then maybe think about doing it any number of other ways, including of course to use my favorite piece of punctuation, why don’t you think about attaching this sentence to that sentence, with a semicolon? They might get along really well.
Preet Bharara: Oh, we’re going to get to semicolons now.
Benjamin Dreyer: Okay, good.
Preet Bharara: We jumped ahead in my outline. I kind of don’t know what to think, because I trust and respect you, and you’ve written Dreyer’s English, the definitive book on Utterly Correct Clarity and Style, and I have another favorite author who I just paid tribute to on the podcast some weeks ago, Kurt Vonnegut.
Benjamin Dreyer: Oh, yeah.
Preet Bharara: I was pleased to see that you actually acknowledge Vonnegut’s criticism of the semicolon. You, for the record, let the record reflect that you Mr. Dreyer, are in favor of semicolons.
Benjamin Dreyer: This is true.
Preet Bharara: I have been known to use semicolons, but it’s bothered me my whole life, in part, because this is what the estimable Kurt Vonnegut once said about semicolons, which is in various ways not remotely politically correct, but this is what he said, and you have this in your book at page 44, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” What do you think of Mr. Vonnegut’s statement?
Benjamin Dreyer: I mean, holy hell, what a stupid thing to say. It’s insulting on so many levels, aside from the very bad sexual politics of it, the notion that there’s something terrible about having a college education. I mean, people have purported to try to couch that remark in that, oh, he’s mostly just kidding, to which my response is, “He’s mostly not funny.” I like Vonnegut’s writing just fine. He’s not one of my favorite writers. I’m sorry.
Preet Bharara: No, that’s quite all right. I now feel greater pride in my semicolon usage. You sometimes have to use one, right?
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes.
Preet Bharara: You have a long that has subordinate clauses set off by commas, and then the next thing really should be attached to the first thing, you need semicolons. Do you not?
Benjamin Dreyer: I mean, at their most rudimentary use. If you are writing a good long sentence that has some listing going on, and any elements of the list or phrases that themselves include commas, you are probably going to want to separate the elements of the list with semicolons, so the reader knows where item A stops, item B begins, item C begins. Semicolons, they have lovely other uses and that use of just sort of holding your thoughts together. It’s like, this is not a free standing sentence. I’m not starting an entirely new thought, but I am starting an entirely new sentence, but it relates very much to the sentence I’ve just written, so I’m going to hug them together with a semicolon.
Preet Bharara: Okay, I’m done with semicolons.
Benjamin Dreyer: Okay, good.
Preet Bharara: I, in the lead up to publishing my book, for fun on Twitter, and we’re going to talk about Twitter too, would describe the process of my editing and it is a shorthand, and kind of in a joking way, I talked about how I was killing adverbs. You have a view of adverbs, and in fact it might be divine from the subtitle of your book, the second word is utterly, which I believe to be an adverb.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Too many adverbs in writing, not enough adverbs in writing. How do you feel about that?
Benjamin Dreyer: I like adverbs, which should surprise nobody. What I really do like is when you can take a really good adverb and a really good adjective, that are at odds with each other, and sit them next to each other, and that makes your brain do this little sort of sparkly thing. It’s one of the reasons why I tend to like to use the adverb terribly, when I’m about to match it with an adjective that’s very positive. I just sort of like that sort of weird juxtaposition.
Preet Bharara: Right, like terribly gorgeous.
Benjamin Dreyer: Terribly gorgeous, terribly intelligent. I do think that a good adverb-
Preet Bharara: Thank you for both of those compliments, by the way.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes. I think that a good adverb adjective combo pack is a wonderful thing, but even I know every now and then, it’s like, you don’t need that one. I mean, I don’t have a vendetta against adverbs as a rule, the way I have a vendetta against certain specific modifiers.
Preet Bharara: Like very.
Benjamin Dreyer: Like very.
Preet Bharara: I mean, literally I think you have said … I love the opening of your book and also the rest of it, that if there’s one thing that people could do to improve their writing, try going without certain words. This is for all the listeners out there who all have to write sometimes, name the words that they should stop using if they can.
Benjamin Dreyer: Very, rather, of course, quite, [crosstalk 00:41:21]-
Preet Bharara: Is quite so bad? I feel like quite can be a little bit like terribly.
Benjamin Dreyer: Quite is nice, and when one suddenly envisions one’s self as Lewis Carroll, you’re going to be reaching for quite, because well, it has those nice consonant noises to it.
Preet Bharara: This next portion of the program, I think I’m going to informally note for the record that you have been qualified as an expert on English. For the purpose of asking you the very important question, to which I know the answer as all lawyers know the answers to questions they ask, for the entire population of not just the Stay Tuned listeners, but of the English speaking world, when presented with a choice between the past tense of plead being rendered as pleaded, or pled, you, Mr. Dreyer, renowned expert, written a book called Dreyer’s English: Utterly Correct Guide, what is the correct answer?
Benjamin Dreyer: They are both useful versions of the past tense. The one that leaps into my brain as sounding better when we are discussing the past tense of the verb that precedes the word guilty, is pled.
Preet Bharara: Pled.
Benjamin Dreyer: Pled.
Preet Bharara: Could you say that again for the jury, please?
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes, pled. P-L-E-D, not P-L-E-A-D, which people seem to try to sort of pass off as the past tense of, to plead. It’s just very dangerous, and it comes from confusion because of course, we have to deal with the fact that the past tense of read, is read, and they’re both spelled the same.
Preet Bharara: Not readed.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yeah, it’s not readed.
Preet Bharara: [crosstalk 00:42:57].
Benjamin Dreyer: Sometimes we would be better off it were readed. It would make for less confusion, but no. He pled guilty, but he pleaded with me not to leave. You’ve got two perfectly gorgeous variations [crosstalk 00:43:10]-
Preet Bharara: I would say, “Terribly gorgeous.”
Benjamin Dreyer: You should make good use of them, the way sometimes you want to a dreamed, and sometimes you want a dreamt.
Preet Bharara: You eluded to this earlier, this issue of language, and prose, and morality, and Trump.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes.
Preet Bharara: We made it most of this interview without talking about Donald J. Trump. You said somewhere, wrote somewhere, “Who would have expected that respect for language could become an act of resistance.”
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes.
Preet Bharara: What do you mean by that?
Benjamin Dreyer: That being victimized by somebody who has as awful an attitude toward the English language as he has toward just about everything else on earth.
Preet Bharara: Immigrants.
Benjamin Dreyer: Immigrants, decency, love of your fellow human being. I mean, all the qualities that he does not possess, he also does not possess the quality of having any respect whatsoever for the English language, and how it works, and how it’s punctuated, and how it’s spelled, and how we capitalize some words, and don’t capitalize other words, because I don’t know why I’m not his pathologist, but this being dragged into the mud by people like him, and his cohort, and people who are happy to just lie to your face … I was watching a certain former vice president’s daughter doing it just the other day, at Twitter, taking a chunk of somebody’s quote entirely out of context, and using it to make the most boldly dishonest point imaginable, and I thought, “It’s my job. This will not stand. This is not appropriate. This is not who we should be.”
Benjamin Dreyer: My part of the job is to defend the English language. You have the privilege of defending the rule of law. We each have our part to play, so I’m doing my best to do mine.
Preet Bharara: Very well put. There’s another habit of the President, with respect to punctuation, which is another pet peeve on which I also agree with you, our language ideology is very much aligned, and that’s the use of the exclamation point. Should you never use it?
Benjamin Dreyer: I use a lot of exclamation points when I’m texting. I certainly use a lot of exclamation points when I’m Tweeting. Anybody who says anything nice about my book gets an exclamation point.
Preet Bharara: Thank you!
Benjamin Dreyer: Thank you! Maybe even a couple of them, and sometimes I use the little double red one in the emoji file, because that just pleases me, no end. In so far as writing is concerned, it’s kind of like, keep it in your trousers.
Preet Bharara: I didn’t know you were going there.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yeah. A period is a very good way to end a sentence, or as my friends over in London like, a full stop.
Preet Bharara: A full stop.
Benjamin Dreyer: A full stop.
Preet Bharara: You said something else interesting that I’ve thought about in the way you phrased it, sometimes you don’t need a question mark. Sometimes if you phrase a sentence in the form of an interrogatory and you end it with a period, what do you say about that?
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes. I mean, I know I didn’t invent that little trick, but I certainly have been using it incessantly. Whenever I do write something like, well, he isn’t really terribly bright, is he. It’s like, well, I’m not asking a question, am I. I’m just making a statement. I like the way something like that looks with a period at the end of it, rather than a question mark. In fact, there are often sentences constructed in that form where a question mark is precisely what you don’t want at the end of it, because it’s actually misrendering the thought.
Preet Bharara: Right. What about at the end of that sentence? Question mark and an exclamation point?
Benjamin Dreyer: Oh, never. Make a choice.
Preet Bharara: That’s a capital crime.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yeah, make a choice.
Preet Bharara: I’m loving this by the way.
Benjamin Dreyer: Me too.
Preet Bharara: We’ve been talking about various kinds of punctuation, and one that sparks lots of very intense feelings, and sometimes controversy, and also is relevant apparently to people’s dating lives now, is the use or non use of the Oxford comma as it’s sometimes known, also known as the series comma.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Explain to everybody in your very succinct way, what the series comma is, and why it is important to democratic republics.
Benjamin Dreyer: The series comma is the comma that you use in a list of objects, or phrases, between the last two items. Simply put, if I’m going to the grocery store to buy apples, bananas, and cherries, before end cherries, if I’m an advocate of the series comma I’m going to set a comma there. If I do not believe in the series comma, if I’m one of those AP trained journalist heretics, and I’ve been trained not to use that comma, then I won’t use that comma and I will write apples, bananas and cherries. Now, my problem with the non use of the series comma is that it implies some sort of particular relationship between the final two items in a list, that those last two items in the list do not necessarily possess.
Benjamin Dreyer: You should just set the comma. There are writers who say, “Well, I use the series comma when it’s helpful, and I don’t use it when it’s not necessary,” and I find that most of them do precisely the opposite. They will put it in there when it’s like, yeah, even I could have figured that one out. Then there’s some 85 word sentence between the last two items, there’s no comma, and I think, “I would have so loved a comma there, so I would have known what it was you were about to do.”
Preet Bharara: Why do we sometimes call it the Oxford comma?
Benjamin Dreyer: We call it the Oxford comma because it was, if I’m recalling this correctly, favored by the editors of the University of Oxford Press. What’s amusing now is that most Brits, at least most Brits in my experience, don’t use that comma. I don’t call it the Oxford comma because I think that as a patriotic American I should call it something else, so I call it the series comma. It’s also allegedly know as the Harvard comma, or at least you will only-
Preet Bharara: No, it’s not.
Benjamin Dreyer: -read that in discussions of the comma. They’ll say, “It’s also called the Harvard comma.” I’m like, “No, it’s not.”
Preet Bharara: As a patriotic American, do you also eat freedom fries?
Benjamin Dreyer: No, I like a good French fry, but I’m going to lower case the f.
Preet Bharara: At McDonald’s.
Benjamin Dreyer: McDonald’s.
Preet Bharara: I guess it’s all caps.
Benjamin Dreyer: Oh, it’s all caps.
Preet Bharara: In the menu,-
Benjamin Dreyer: It’s all caps, [crosstalk 00:49:14].
Preet Bharara: -so you can’t really tell.
Benjamin Dreyer: Lowercase the v in venetian blinds.
Preet Bharara: I see. No, unless they’re in Venice. It has become sort of a bragging right for people, I’m told, even on their dating profiles, to boast that they are advocates of the series comma. What is that about?
Benjamin Dreyer: I don’t know.
Preet Bharara: Okay.
Benjamin Dreyer: I think it’s a nice thing to do, but I wouldn’t necessarily use it as part of my marriage proposal. I’m going to love, honor,-
Preet Bharara: And obey.
Benjamin Dreyer: -and obey. Who’s obeying these? [crosstalk 00:49:47].
Preet Bharara: Nobody’s obeying.
Benjamin Dreyer: Nobody’s obeying.
Preet Bharara: Oh believe me, there’s no obeying.
Benjamin Dreyer: Can’t even get the dog to obey anymore.
Preet Bharara: My early schooling, I went to a fairly conservative small private school in Central New Jersey, where there was a huge emphasis on English. We had a headmaster of the school, Russell [inaudible 00:50:02], kind of conspicuous character, had curled up mustache, wore a top hat in fact. This was in the ’70s.
Benjamin Dreyer: No, really?
Preet Bharara: Oh yeah, and the early ’80s. He had started years earlier, if my memory is correct, with a fellow, I think former member of the military, an instruction school in writing, I think for veterans. Then this developed into an actual school for young people, and they boasted that they had extra hours, more hours than the local public schools did, I mean, than the Catholic school did, in writing instruction, in English instruction. One of the things we did, that I was in the small minority of people who enjoyed, we’ll show you how weird I am, we actually did that old fashioned thing that I don’t think my kids have learned to do, diagramming sentences. You build a little tree, and you know what every part of speech is, and you know what modifies what, and there’s a dissection of the sentence that in time I guess, under that theory of learning, would make you conscious about how you put words together so you don’t screw it up.
Preet Bharara: I’m not sure if that was good or bad. Do you have a view on people who get a little sort of overly into those kinds of mechanics of writing?
Benjamin Dreyer: I wish in retrospect that I had had that kind of education, because I might have learned any number of things from it. I mean, I also wish in retrospect that I’d been Latin or Greek, so there are things that I have missed. I had to learn in a hurry once I started doing this sort of thing for a living. It might have been nice if I had been bringing something other than my innate ear to this, if I had actually had that kind of rigorous instruction. I think I probably … Oh, gosh, help me. I would have found it fun.
Preet Bharara: I kind of did, I can say with some embarrassment. I want to ask you about pronouns.
Benjamin Dreyer: Sure.
Preet Bharara: Going back to the very particular English, you know, meaning UK English style grammar instruction that we got, from among other people, the headmaster of the school, Russell [inaudible 00:51:50]. In the 1970s, early 1980s, he said, and was very insistent on this, that a pronoun should always agree in number with its antecedent. Meaning, if the antecedent is singular, then you must use he, she, or it. In particular, he was of the view, and famous orations reflect this, and lots of people in the [style] books I think all were of the view, that when you have a non gendered noun, and then you use a pronoun to refer to it, you default to he, which seems not great for a lot of reasons, but it should not be, and it no longer is. It has been a very hard habit to unlearn, but lots and lots of folks now are using they, even when you have a … Then given all that, how should we think about gendered and non gendered pronouns?
Benjamin Dreyer: It’s a great big question with a lot of great big answer attached to it. The champions of the use of the word they, as a pronoun that can easily be applied after a noun whose gender is … either it doesn’t have one, or it’s not particularly interesting, or important in the context … For instance, a student should be able to study whatever-
Preet Bharara: They want.
Benjamin Dreyer: Whatever they want.
Preet Bharara: Is that okay?
Benjamin Dreyer: It’s not the way I was trained, and the way we’re trained does an awful lot about influencing what we think is correct, or what we think is incorrect. I had to wrestle with this when I was working on the book. I knew that I had to wrestle with it, and I wasn’t looking forward to it, because it’s so [inaudible 00:53:23]. It’s such a fire starter, but the thing is when you go back, and read much of the writing that was published in the United States, and in England, throughout the 20th century, you will find that use of the pronoun he, because sure, a default human being is a he. Normal people are he, and so you will see that, and you will see, a student should be able to study whatever he wants.
Benjamin Dreyer: I remember it’s the one example that it just tickled me, because it seemed so sort of odd, which was that I was looking through a passage of Anna Freud, and I found that when she’s talking about a child, a child, a child, unless she is specifically talking about an issue with a girl, she defaults to that pronoun he, over and over again. That’s the way many of us, of a certain age, were taught to write.
Preet Bharara: Do we need to unlearn that?
Benjamin Dreyer: We need to unlearn it.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. What about the rendering, a student should be able to study whatever he or she wants?
Benjamin Dreyer: Which is awkward, and if you’re going to do it once, it’s kind of tedious. I have always made a game, as a copy editor, out of trying to solve what you might call a problem, if you think that sort of thing is a problem, by copy editing the sentence. As to either pluralize the noun in question, so that I can use the pronoun they, or to recast the sentence in some way so that you don’t need a pronoun at all. Many of my fellow copy editors who will say, “Well, that’s a really interesting game for you to play. It’s a complete waste of time. Why don’t you do something more interesting?”
Preet Bharara: But it’s an important issue.
Benjamin Dreyer: It is an important issue. It is certainly important, not ever, anymore to default to he, as a pronoun for just some person, and at no point in my book do I ever use the pronoun he, unless I’m talking about an actual he. There is the other point of the pronoun they, which is not simply a student should be able to study whatever they want, or whatever he wants, or whatever she wants. The use of the pronoun they, as the pronoun for people who are non binary. That’s a thing that I had to wrap my mind around. I say this, I slap myself on the hand lightly about it, that it shouldn’t necessarily take a relationship with an actual human being that you are looking spang in the eye, to make you realize that there are some things that are more important than grammar, and there are some things that are more important than good pronoun hygiene.
Benjamin Dreyer: I have a colleague … I was introduced to a new colleague, whose pronoun is they. I always stop myself, I’m always about to say, pronoun of choice, and it’s like, no, their pronoun is they. It took me a while to be able to get that word out of my mouth. I would do everything I could to avoid it. I would refer to my colleague as my colleague. I would refer to my colleague by my colleague’s name. I would do all these convoluted things that I’m doing right now, to avoid having to use that pronoun and finally one day it just slipped out of my mouth, and I thought, “Oh, thank God that’s over.”
Preet Bharara: These are interesting language choices.
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes.
Preet Bharara: That people who have not had their eyes so open, [crosstalk 00:56:36]-
Benjamin Dreyer: Yes, because they change the way you write the world, the way you read the world, the way you see the world, the way you are in the world. I mean, to you, something that’s going to sound even more egregious than the use of he, as a sort of a non gender default pronoun, I remember still working on manuscripts and you’ll still see this in books published in decades previous where a default human being is white, so the only time the writer feels the need to identify a person as something other than white, is when the person is something other than white. It’s like, Annette, a black woman in her 20s, walked into the room. Well, I’ve already met 50 people in the book and you haven’t said anything about them. Well, of course you didn’t. They’re all white.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Benjamin Dreyer: They’re normal. It’s terrible.
Preet Bharara: Some of these things, and they’re not done in bad faith necessarily, people just have these terrible habits.
Benjamin Dreyer: Right. It’s a wonderful thing about reading, and I’m telling you, it’s a wonderful thing about writing a book too. It makes you see things differently. I’m a different fellow than the one who started writing that book, because it was important to me to do all of that, expressing myself clearly, all of that moral writing, all of that trying to instruct in a way that was lifting rather than haranguing. I mean, it changed me. Really it sort of changed my chemistry.
Preet Bharara: For the better.
Benjamin Dreyer: I’d like to think so.
Preet Bharara: I think that’s so. Throughout the interview we’ve been talking about things that are good in writing, and things that make writing bad. Since everyone is listening to this has some duty to write, even if it’s just emails to colleagues and to friends, any other very quick advice that you want to impart to them?
Benjamin Dreyer: Just be as succinct as you possibly can be in business writing, where what you are attempting to do is to communicate facts, and policies, and things like that, and a little less fanciness, a little less carrying on, a little less reaching for whatever the sort of the buzz words and jargon of the day are. Just write clearly and attempt a certain level of simplicity. When it’s time for you to write your novel, or your Dreyer’s English, or whatever it is that you’re doing, then go crazy, and have a really good time, but in your day to day communication, make your point, and then walk away.
Preet Bharara: Move on, move on, please.
Preet Bharara: Benjamin Dreyer, thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Benjamin Dreyer: Thank you.
Preet Bharara: That was a real delight.
Benjamin Dreyer: Thank you.
Preet Bharara: If you enjoyed this session on semicolons and series commas, the conversation with Benjamin Dreyer continues, for members of the CAFE Insider community. To hear that and to get the weekly Insider podcast, join today at CAFE.com/insider. Folks, as I tape the end of the show on Wednesday, June 5th, it occurs to me that there are a number of incredibly important history changing things to celebrate and honor. Three anniversaries in particular, all falling in the same week. There is of course the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6th, 1944, which essentially was the beginning of the end of World War II, and allowed us to fight back against Nazi domination of the world. Not a small thing. One of the most important moments in world history.
Preet Bharara: It’s also the 30th anniversary this week of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when the People’s Liberation army fired into a crowd of civilian protestors, mostly students, in Beijing. I was in college when that happened, and still remember the images, and we’ve seen the images broadcast on television and on the internet over the last number of days. Unfortunately, not a lot has changed in China. The popular rebellion was squashed and the death toll was actually never released. Just as sadly, according to reports, China and its government has done such a good job of wiping from the history books, and on the internet, any evidence of the Tiananmen Square protest that most young Chinese, I understand, have no idea that it happened. From time to time when someone from China travels to the West, and is told about it, they’re not sure whether they should believe it or not. That’s all the more reason everyone in the United States and around the world should remember the Tiananmen Square protest and massacre.
Preet Bharara: Then third, this week also marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment passing in the U.S. Senate. The 19th amendment of course is the change to the Constitution that said, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or by any state, on account of sex.” Essentially, very late in our country’s history gave the right to vote to women. Many people have pointed out correctly, that it didn’t end all barriers to voting, especially for women of color, but it was something important, and something important to celebrate.
Preet Bharara: Just to end on a personal note, a few days ago I was home and my daughter called me over to the computer and said, “Daddy, will you come take a look at this?,” and I didn’t know if it was an article or a story, or some homework she wanted me to look at. That’s very rare. She doesn’t need my help on her homework anymore. I looked at the screen and she wanted me to proofread her voter registration form online, so she could print it out, and send it in, because she has just recently turned 18, and is very, very, very enthusiastically looking forward to voting in her first election.
Preet Bharara: It reminded me further of a time back in 2008, when she and her brothers were much younger, she was about seven years old, it will come as no surprise to folks that I voted for Barack Obama, in 2008, and the whole family came. As we walked out of the voting booth in the school, in Bethesda, Maryland, that’s where we were living at the time, I turned to my daughter who was the oldest of the three and I said, “Look, it’s really important that you vote. Promise me you’ll vote when you’re old enough.” She looks at me and she says, “Do I have to vote Democrat?” I said, “No, you don’t have to vote any particular way at all,” because she then said, “I can’t promise who I’m going to vote for, what party I’m going to vote for.” She’s seven when she says this.
Preet Bharara: I said, “No, just as long as you vote, because it’s important.” She said, “Yes, I will,” and here we are. She’s old enough to vote. There is no more important time in recent history than now, for as many people as possible including people who have just passed the threshold voting age like my daughter and so many others, to make sure they educate themselves, get to the voting booth, and vote. Same for you old people. For all of you who still have not done so, register to vote and Vote.gov.
Preet Bharara: Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Benjamin Dreyer. Tweet your questions at Preet Bharara with a hashtag AskPreet, or you can call 669-247-7338 and leave me a message. That’s 669-24-PREET, or you can send an email to [email protected] If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. Your reviews help new listeners find the show. Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Aaron Dalton, and the CAFE team is Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, Vinay Basti, and Jeff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara. Stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: SimpliSafe knows how important it is to feel safe at home. That’s why they developed a security system that keeps working when the power goes out, when the Wifi goes down, and even if a burglar smashes your keypad. SimpliSafe has some of the fastest response times in the industry. If there’s an emergency, they’re ready to send help, 24/7. Go to SimpliSafe.com/Preet to check it out. That’s SimpliSafe.com/Preet.