Grammar as Resistance in the Trump Era
A new book on language gently promotes better citizenship through copy editing
Is it possible these days to come across any book on clarity and style in the use of English — and not think of the 45th president of the United States?
The book I’m reading is Dreyer’s English. It is written by Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House.
“Go light on the exclamation points,” advises Dreyer early in the book. He says that exclamation points are “bossy, hectoring, and ultimately wearying.” When I read that I was reminded of a BBC report that had the following observation: “According to the Trump Twitter Archive, in 2016 alone the @realDonaldTrump posted 2,251 tweets using exclamation marks.” I was tempted to add an exclamation mark while presenting that fact to you but here is Dreyer again: “Some writers recommend that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points per book; others insist that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points in a lifetime.”
I’ll confess that Trump brings out the wannabe copy editor in me. But Dreyer has a light touch. His references to Trump are infrequent and only glancing ones. A footnote points out that while in some cases the “more or less random” use of quotation marks is amusing, “in the tweets of the so-called leader of the free world, it’s not so amusing.” Dreyer brings up Trump’s infamous rebuke to the Chinese for their “unpresidented act.” (Dreyer: “In a flash I was reminded of the importance of knowing how to spell.”) While unpacking the meaning of “sic” (Latin for “thus”), which allows a writer to tell the reader that the misspelling or error in the text belongs to the person being quoted, Dreyer offers this example: “Their [sic] was no Collusion [sic] and there was no Obstruction [sic].” Having presented this model use of “sic,” Dreyer jokes that he “100 percent” made up the quote instead of finding it on Twitter.
Had I wanted more of a confrontation? I think I did. Every day (and not “everyday,” which, when used as an adverb, is “highly bothersome” to Dreyer), I want Trump’s pronouncements fact-checked and spell-checked. But then I began to tell myself that more of an engagement with Trump would have quickly dated Dreyer’s book. I found a measure…