For the Times of Israel posted July 26 2019
With the air of a triumphant conjurer, Benjamin Dreyer, the copy editors’ copy editor — he is the veteran copy chief of Random House publishers — says that in his new book, “Dreyer’s English”, there are two important Yiddish words.
“There’s a ‘geshrei’ and there’s an ‘ongepatchke’” (a shriek, and overdone or tacky, respectively) says Dreyer, proudly. There are also a “kibitz” and a “kibbutz”, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Dreyer’s book, subtitled “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style”, is one of the wittiest and most authoritative takes on the English language in recent publishing history. Released in the US in early January this year, Dreyer’s English raced up the New York Times best-seller charts.
And now he’s taken his life in his hands — metaphorically speaking — by bringing out a version of his book in British English. In London to promote the UK edition, Dreyer chewed the fat with the Times of Israel to discuss word differences, love of language, where not to put an apostrophe — and, perhaps surprisingly, his Long Island childhood, replete with Jewish summer camps and a ground-breaking seven-week long visit to Israel as a teenager.
Anyone who uses Twitter is likely to have encountered Dreyer, where he presides, like a slightly owlish Buddha, over appropriate use of the Oxford, or serial, comma, and other arcane avenues of grammar.
His followers also get an entertaining crash course in obscure films, Broadway musicals, and long-forgotten cabaret stars, as well as being treated to many pictures of his much-loved dog, Sallie.
Reading Dreyer is an education, while talking to him is like the best and funniest college tutorial you ever had. And yet, as he recalls, his decision to go into publishing and make his way up to the elite of Random House could all have been so different. He could easily, he says, have ended up in the restaurant trade, rather than the man who has supervised hundreds of books now familiar to English-language readers, from writers such as Elizabeth Strout, to EL Doctorow and Michael Chabon.
Dreyer was born in the Bronx but his family moved to Long Island when he was six and his elder sister was ten. Their father, Stanley, was a lawyer; Dreyer’s sister followed in his footsteps. Their paternal grandfather came from Latvia and ran a horse-drawn milk cart when he first came to America.
“He wasn’t one for making jokes”, recalls Dreyer of his heavily-accented grandfather. “But the one joke he would make was about where he came from. He’d say ‘near Riga’; and then pause, and offer ‘everything in Latvia is near Riga’”.
His grandfather’s other wry story was about his brother, “Uncle Sandor”, who allegedly owned a diamond mine in South Africa. Dreyer mutters that Uncle Sandor almost certainly only ran a dry-goods store, but the family story was that on the point of death Sandor had sent a box of diamonds to Dreyer’s grandfather in America. “But there was no-one to sign for them, so they were sent back!”
His grandfather soon abandoned the Tevye-style horse and cart, went into the army and got himself an education. By the time Dreyer was born his grandfather owned a garage in the Bronx, which Dreyer used to visit. He admits, though, that the attraction was not the garage but the “industrial bagel place right across the street”, a constant source of fascination for the little boy, who regularly watched the bagel-making process and usually succeeded in winning “a bagel that was too hot to eat, it was so fresh”.
His mother’s father owned a lumber yard on Long Island. This side of the family was from Poland, though en route to America the grandparents stopped off in London for 10 years, perhaps laying the Anglophile foundations for Dreyer himself — for he is a passionate Anglophile.
Dreyer’s father, he says, “was not particularly Orthodox, but if he was going to identify Jewishly it was going to be on the Orthodox side of things”. In fact, he says, Stanley Dreyer used to walk to the Reform synagogue they eventually joined. And they joined because they lived half way between a Conservative and a Reform synagogue, and Diana Dreyer went to inspect both.
“I must have been about six or seven and my sister would have been 10 or 11,” says Dreyer. “My mother was trying to enrol us at religion school and the person in charge of the intake at the Conservative synagogue said, ‘The boy, fine; the girl, too late!’” At which point Mrs Dreyer turned on her heel and marched down the street to Temple Sinai of Roslyn, the largest Reform congregation on Long Island.
Brother and sister were bar- and bat mitzvah at Temple Sinai, and Dreyer himself became an enthusiastic attender at a Jewish summer camp in Massachusetts from the age of 10, all the way up to becoming a camp counsellor. “It was lovely: I enjoyed it, I was enamoured of my Judaism. I was — and am — a nice Jewish boy”.
At 14, with the National Federation of Temple Youth, Dreyer made a seven-week-long trip to Israel, which he loved — and led to a short-lived ambition to become a rabbi.
By his late teens, however, Dreyer was struggling with his sexuality and began to feel more isolated from his community. He didn’t really know what he wanted to do in life, other than go to university. A fleeting idea that he might become an actor led him to Illinois’ Northwestern University, which had a prestigious dramatic faculty.
His one aim, at this point, was to get out of New York and discover who he was. Two things became clear: he was, indeed, gay, and he was also never going to become a top-notch actor.
Instead, he enjoyed living in the mid-West so much that he stayed in Chicago for almost a decade after he graduated. He moved in with his first serious boyfriend and rather than get a proper job, supported himself by first waiting on tables and working in a variety of restaurants, gradually rising to managerial posts.
He describes this time — in both the American and British version of his book — as “faffing around”. He was enjoying himself in the restaurants, not over-exerting himself, and spending a lot of time going to theatre and cinema in Chicago, or hanging out with friends.
It was a more relaxing way to live after years of pushing hard at school and university. But, inevitably, things changed.
A new boyfriend, a medic, chose to do his residency in New York, and so after so many years away, Dreyer returned to New York, too. “I applied for, and got, jobs in two fancy restaurants near where we lived. The one I didn’t choose became one of the great New York restaurants, fashionable and famous, and had I taken that job I might well have stayed in the restaurant industry. I liked it and I was very good at it”.
Instead, with some mordant glee, Dreyer recounts that he picked the other restaurant — “doomed to failure”. And as it was indeed failing he began looking for other jobs. He found one, only to be told he was expected to work from 8 pm to 4am. “I thought, I am too old for this, something else has to happen”.
By this time he had already begun a bit of freelance proofreading work. “I knew I wasn’t going to be an actor or go to rabbinical school, I had to find something to do. I had a friend who was a published writer and I asked him if there were something in the publishing industry I could do. He’d let me see the bound galleys of his books and I’d made suggestions about what he meant. He said he thought I could be a good proofreader, and the great moment came when he introduced me to his production editor at St Martin’s Press”.
It turned out, says Dreyer, that he had a knack for this work, and so he wrapped up his restaurant career — and moved, by degrees, into full-time proof-reading and then copy-editing for Random House.
He’d always been fond, he says, of the way Torah was open to interpretation, and has perhaps brought a little of that meticulous fascination to his copy-editing work. As well, he acknowledges that there may be some sort of affinity between Jews and words, not least because of the disposition to move around and collect languages.
Dreyer’s English, in both its American and British editions, is the culmination of now nearly three decades of experience in supervising the output of hundreds of books. It is both affectionate and warmly prescriptive. Example — Dreyer on apostrophes. “Step back”, he writes, “I’m about to hit the CAPS LOCK KEY. DO NOT EVER ATTEMPT TO USE AN APOSTROPHE TO PLURALIZE A WORD. “NOT EVER” AS IN “NEVER.” You may reapproach.”
Apostrophes, ordains Dreyer, are not to be used “for bananas, potatoes, bagels, princesses, Trumans, Adamses, Obamas, or whatever else you’ve got more than one of.”
It took him six years to write the American edition of the book but the British version was completed within an almost indecent five months. So I wonder about what seems — to this writer of British English — two glaring Americanisms in the British version.
One is the use of “likely”, where Brits would more usually use “probably”; the other is the capping up of a word after an open colon: Thus — rather than the British preference for a colon followed by a lower-case, like this: a lower-case.
In a book in which Dreyer shows how the British “s” is used for the American “z”, or words such as “colour”, “honour”, “vigour”, are spelled with a British “u”, Dreyer’s choice of “likely” and the upper-case after a colon seems a little arbitrary.
But Dreyer, he reminds me, is a copy editor. And he has had years of dealing with authors who insist on saying things the way they want to say them. Now it’s his turn. “I am an American, I speak and write American English, and at the end of the day, it’s my voice, and my book.”
And that is his final “geshrei”.