‘Dreyer’s English’ prefers clarity
Mike Donovan | Tuesday, March 5, 2019
This opening confession features a colon, a piece of punctuation louder than any exclamation point: Clarity scares me s—less.
Why does clarity scare me s—less? I think it has something to do with intellectual insecurity — a general, chronic fear that I have nothing good to say. This fear prevents me from writing what I mean, pushes me toward (to use an obscure French term) obsurantisme (obscurantism), a ridiculous term that describes the equally ridiculous practice of using really big words (e.g. semiological, hermeneutic, lexical) and strange syntax (e.g. semicolons by the dozens) to make my writing both aesthetically pleasing and largely incomprehensible. Obscurantisme, in addition to being edgy and cool, serves a practical purpose. If someone reads my writing and says (understandably), “I don’t think I understand,” I can respond, “Well, that’s because you’re stupid, and I’m smart.” Similarly, if someone reads my writing and says, “I disagree,” I can rebut, “Well, you’re wrong and your disagreement is invalid because you, being stupid, don’t understand my writerly writing.” In short, obscurantisme allows me to be a boneheaded blowhard without getting caught. Clarity doesn’t offer this kind of protection. If I clearly articulate something stupid, everybody will know that I said a stupid thing (which is no fun at all). Why should I write clearly — expose the stupid ideas shambling around my brain — when I can write from within obscurity’s cozy, impenetrable cocoon? I see no reason.
Well, I saw no reason until my dad sent me (1) a copy of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style” and (2) a long text message about how the book’s author — Benjamin Dreyer (Copy Chief of Random House) — frowns upon “show-offy allusions to ‘underappreciated novels, obscure foreign films, or cherished indie bands.’” At first, I took my dad’s gift-message as a thinly veiled criticism (What, exactly, are you trying to tell me … Dad?) and swiftly prepared my usual (esoteric) defense — “Jeez Dad, you don’t understand. The sign is merely an arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified … yadayada … buzzwords … jargon … I don’t need to follow this Dreyer guy’s dumb rules!” — a defense that (until now) I never delivered.
After reflecting briefly (and taking a much-needed nap), I decided that my dad — a kind, intelligent and thoughtful man — harbored no ill-will. He didn’t send me “Dreyer’s English” because he thought I’d hate it (a cynical joke). He sent it because he knew I’d like it (a compassionate gesture from a man who knows me better than I do). He knew I’d devour Dreyer’s opinions on controversial punctuation (“Only godless savages eschew the series comma” and “Think of colons as little trumpet blasts, attention-getting and ear-catching. Also loud.”), and he knew I’d smile knowingly at Dreyer’s “notes on proper nouns” (“Finnegans Wake […] A novel by James Joyce that you’ve either read or not read, not comprehended, or both, despite what you tell people. No apostrophe. I repeat: No apostrophe.”).
Above all, my dad knew that, even if I opened Dreyer’s book ready to disagree, I’d — first begrudgingly and then passionately — get behind the author’s theory of creative clarity. He knew I’d read intently when Dreyer writes, “Fiction may be fictional, but a work of fiction won’t work if it’s not logical and consistent,” and begin to reassess the extended time I’ve spent twisting my narratives into strange shapes — double helixes, Mobius strips — frustrating both myself and my readers. Dreyer gently reminds me that, because I’m not James Joyce, I shouldn’t try to twist my narratives into perplexing shapes. Doing so will only make me and my readers dizzy. I should stick, Dreyer advises, to logical narrative structures that strengthen good ideas and illuminate creative faculties. Good ideas, a scarce resource, are worthless if nobody can connect them. I can’t afford to let perfectly good ideas go to waste.
My dad was right. I quite like “Dreyer’s English.” I like how it keeps my obscurantisme in check without presenting itself as “The Last Style Manual You’ll Ever Need” — an exhaustive volume containing every rule ever written about writing. I like that it gives me permission (and sometimes encouragement) to break a few rules (English, Dreyer writes, is “not so easily ruled and regulated”) as long as I promise not to sacrifice clarity. I like “Dreyer’s English” because it forgives my shortcomings, asking only that I take a risk — write what I mean — as penance.
Thank you, Dreyer. Thank you, Dad. I think I’m ready to be scared s—less.