The word from the word rabbi

The word from the word rabbi

For the JC June 6 2019

Benjamin Dreyer for JC by Jenni Frazer June 3 2019

On a hot summer morning by the edge of the Thames, the doyen of American English, Benjamin Dreyer, leans forward and confesses that he really wanted to be a rabbi.

Instead, he agrees, he has partially achieved his ambition by becoming a word rabbi. As the copy chief of Random House in New York, one of the English-speaking world’s biggest publishers, he has seen astonishing success as his debut book, “Dreyer’s English”, raced up the best-seller charts in the US.

And now — coinciding almost beat for beat with the visit of Donald Trump to Britain — Dreyer has published a UK version of his book, subtitled “An Utterly Correct Guide To Clarity And Style”.

But for anyone who thinks Dreyer will be dry, a fusty guide to parsing and syntax, prepare to think again. Twenty-six years at the forefront of preparing some of the best fiction in the English language has given Dreyer a witty and piquant take on writing. He says that his book is not prescriptive — though there are some red lines he will not cross — but he wants it to be seen as “kind”, a “welcoming in” to the language in which he delights and celebrates. It’s full of jokes and wonderfully knowing allusions to film and theatre — and equally full of deliciously deprecating footnotes.

“Technically”, Dreyer says, immediately breaking one of his own rules, about literalism, “technically I was born in the Bronx”, though his parents lived in a different New York borough, Queens, and the family — he has a sister, three years older than him — lived there until he was six. “Then we moved to Long Island, like all the other upwardly mobile Jewish families at the time”.

As a little boy Benjamin had one surviving grandparent, his paternal grandfather. “He came from Latvia and when he first came to America he drove a milk-cart with a horse”. Just like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof.

But Grandpa Dreyer educated himself, and, by the time Benjamin was born, he owned a garage. The attraction, however, was not the garage but the hot bagel factory across the road, which Benjamin loved to visit.

Once in Long Island Stanley Dreyer, a lawyer, and his wife, Diana, looked for a synagogue to join so that Benjamin and his sister could attend Hebrew school. Mrs Dreyer did not care for the Conservative temple’s attitude to girls, so the family joined the local Reform synagogue and thus began — for Benjamin — a long and happy relationship with Judaism. It took in several years of Jewish summer camps and a rapturously remembered seven-week long visit to Israel. “I loved it”, he says, disclosing the early ambition to go into the rabbinate.

But Dreyer’s coming to terms with his sexuality led to a certain estrangement from his community. Once he realised he was gay, though he was set on going to university, his driving force was to leave New York and find out who he was on his own terms.

At 18 he thought of becoming an actor and so enrolled at the prestigious theatre school at Northwestern University in Illinois. Dreyer loved Illinois and, in fact, spent nine years after graduating living in Chicago, the state’s biggest city.

Acting, however, was out. “I had fellow students who I realised were vastly more talented”. The law was also out — though his sister had followed in their father’s footsteps and even spent time working in the same firm as him.

Dreyer, in both the American and British versions of his book, picks the ‘mot juste” to describe what he was doing then — “faffing”. He was waiting on tables in classy restaurants, and it’s easy to imagine how successful he was, handsome and charming. He had his first serious boyfriend by then, and it sounds as though there was not much incentive to do something serious, though inexorably he moved upwards, from being a waiter to front-of-house work.

But then, with a different partner, Dreyer’s life changed. They moved to New York and Dreyer applied for, and got, two jobs as a restaurant manager. One was in a wildly popular restaurant, and Dreyer says now that if he’d taken that job he could easily have stayed in the food industry.

Unfortunately he chose the “place doomed to failure”, a bad restaurant almost certain to close. It became clear that he was, aged around 30, going to have to pick another path in life; and at about the same time he began to do freelance proof-reading and was introduced to the “dark art” of copy-editing at St Martin’s Press.

“And it turned out I had the knack”, he says. He had always loved words and language and soon graduated from freelance work to a staff job at Random House as a production editor. “I had always loved reading, right out of the cradle” — but there was another layer to Dreyer’s affinity for this work. He says that during his time of devotion to “deep Judaism” and the Torah, what he particularly enjoyed was the commentary. “I liked [the fact] that everything was subject to interpretation”, he says, and so it proved with copy editing. His job was to refine and polish the intentions of the writer so that their best version was presented to the public — but crucially, while retaining their essential voice.

Just over six years ago, to mark the 20th anniversary of his time at Random House, Dreyer signed an agreement to write his book on style, but it’s taken that long to get the definitive product out there. Such was the success of the American version that his UK publisher asked him to prepare a second British-centric edition, and so there are lovely musings on “Americans eat zucchini, eggplant, and arugula; Brits eat courgettes, aubergines, and rocket”, which usefully incorporates Dreyer’s passion for the Oxford or serial comma.

But in the very opening to his British English edition we read: “After a piece of writing has been, likely through numerous drafts, developed and revised…”

And it is that word “likely” which leaps out at a British reader, who is used to reading “probably”. It is an American usage which Dreyer insisted upon, even through prolonged discussions with his British copy editor counterpart. Because in the end, he says, “it’s my book, and it’s my voice. And I speak and write American English”. The word rabbi, it seems, has had the last word.

Dreyer’s English is published in the UK by Century, £12.99

  • 21 June, 2019