On this National Grammar Day, KCRW is talking to one of our favorite grammar sticklers — Benjamin Dreyer. He’s the copy chief at Random House and author of the New York Times bestseller “Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”
What grammatical error does Dreyer run into most when editing? Hypercorrection. He explains, “People are bending over backwards so hard to do something right — that they do it wrong.”
For example, people use “I” (subject) when they actually mean “me” (object). Dreyer says, “People see the word ‘me,’ and somehow they get it into their heads that it's a low class pronoun, so they’re going to say ‘I.”
So don’t use: “Please send the email to Rosalie and I.”
Use: “Please send the email to me and Rosalie.”
People also frequently use “whom” when it’s supposed to be “who.” Dreyer says they often mess up when writing a sentence like “Give it to whomever wants it.”
People think “give it to” requires an object — and thus they use “whom.” But Dreyer says in this case, “give it to” applies to the subject that’s about to follow. The sentence should be “Give it to whoever wants it.”
Should you use adjectives and adverbs sparingly?
No, says Dreyer.
“I love adjectives. I love adverbs. What I like more than anything else is a really good, weird adjective-adverb combo pack, where there's a paradox included. I love to say that somebody is ‘awfully smart.’”
He continues, “Adjectives and adverbs are wonderful, and you should make use of them. It's like we have a whole arsenal of great things. And people who say, ‘Oh, don't use adverbs. Don't use semicolons.’ It's like, why? They're there to be used.”
How the pandemic has influenced communication
People seem to be trying to express themselves particularly clearly in this age of Zoom meetings, says Dreyer.
“We don't have casual conversation anymore. You're not walking down the hall and running into somebody and chatting for a few minutes. If you want to talk to somebody, you have to pick up the phone. … I think that maybe people are bringing sort of a little extra effort to that.”
It all boils down to clarity, rather than what’s right and what’s wrong, he says.
“When we talk about addressing somebody’s prose … it's not in the service of trying to ram somebody's words into some non-existent thing that we call ‘good English.’ The idea of good English implies that there's such a thing as bad English. And it's like, well, we're getting all sort of judgy here, aren’t we? It's clarity. It's how we want to make ourselves best understood to the people to whom we are speaking, or the people who are going to be reading what we are writing.”