A Comment on Dreyers English

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  • Post last modified:26 November 2023

These commentaries are based on Dr Gillman’s peer reviewed scientific papers, see Publications

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Self-reliance and other essays; Emerson

As a retired medical scientist whose writing is principally Scientific papers, I have a long-standing interest in language; my library contains numerous books on the subject, most of which I enjoy, including this one; but…

Dreyer introduces himself as a ‘copy editor’: the job of the typesetter (since we are dealing with a book) is distinct. I agree with his avowal of the avoidance of Emerson’s ‘foolish consistency’ and his declaration of the eschewal of proscriptiveness.

The book is sub-titled, ‘An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style’. That, if we assume that he is not trying to be self-referentially witty, is discordant, because he claims to avoid proscriptiveness; yet he launches with a section proscriptively disavowing the double space after the punctuation mark used, inter alia, at the end of sentences. This is referred to by Americans using a term that, for an enormous number of English speakers, has entirely different and inescapable connotations (with lunar and female cycles); if you get my ‘point’, or full stop.

The British are generally supposed to be insular, but Americans seem to be coming out top in this department nowadays — so I start with the reminder that English, in its many forms, is the global lingua franca, and that the majority of people reading English texts do not have English as their first language. They have lesser familiarity with complex words (implications for hyphens there), particularly those used in specialist, or more sophisticated, texts. A related factor, that many people seem unmindful of, is that many (especially older) people do not have perfect vision (‘commas’ and ‘full stops’ may thus be hard to distinguish).

These points may remind us all, including Americans, that the world outside of the privileged sphere is large, very large. Hubris awareness is required.

That is a relevant prelude to my remark about the irrationality of the prejudice against the double space — that is ironically illustrated in the seventh line of that ‘Period’ paragraph (epitomised by the triple blank space after ‘Mrs.’); and also, compare the extended spacing in

‘… of the habit or …’ with the last line on the page,

which is comparatively compressed

I have imitated the compression in that previous phrase by cheating and inserting five-point spacing between the words.

It is hardly elegant. I remind everyone that when books are typeset, they adjust the spaces between words to adhere to that custom of making the right-hand margin justified (which is a bit pernickety — after all, you read a book, you don’t cut out pages and frame them because they look beautiful). That practice gives rise to a problem, which is to prevent rivers of white space running down the page. That is one reason for irregular spacing between words which makes (especially fast) reading less easy. My analogy to illustrate this is to suggest that you try walking fast, with deliberately uneven strides. Thankfully, many quality online sources no longer ‘right-justify’.

As someone who reads dozens of scientific papers, I find that scanning through the text is more difficult when it is less apparent where a new sentence begins. And, to throw in a little lesson from history, as explained by Prof Crystal, letter and word spacing, that also includes paragraphs, sections, and chapters, have been an integral part of punctuation from the very start; but practices have evolved. It is not logical to introduce extra space (vertically or horizontally) between text blocks, paragraphs, and sections, as (like everyone) Dreyer’s typesetter has done (with some ‘irregularities’), and then to eschew double spaces to indicate clearly where a new sentence begins.

I struggle to imagine a logical counter-argument to these points — that is deliberately hyphenated, and the em-dash spaced, to illustrate that the above arguments apply in that area also; e.g. unfamiliar long compound words are rather more difficult to assimilate (unless you are a German speaker). More irony, in that Dreyer illustrates the evolution of the way we now write ‘website’, based on the argument of familiarity, but fails to recognise the above point, about the majority of readers being English second-language speakers, and therefore ‘unfamiliar’.

And chapter 11? What got into him? A list of how to spell various names. That is strictly ‘in house’ stuff. And, the headings in capitals, so closely repeated; it is like being shouted at — but I suppose those who have ‘televisions’ are now inured to shouting. ‘Get a life’ is all I can say — how generations of illiterate people and drunken clergymen have misspelt (or ‘adjusted’) names over the years is… whatever; I am terribly sorry for him if he has nothing more erudite or interesting to write about after a lengthy career. A chapter that could have been lost.

What is the incidence of obsessional personality traits in copy editors? Quite high; I expect it ‘goes with the territory’.

I said I enjoyed the book, and I did; but like the Curate’s egg, it was ‘good in parts’. I would advise anybody who is on a tight budget to look elsewhere for something interesting.

If I authored a book, I might be happy for Mr Dreyer to copy edit it, so long as he did not suggest the word ‘charmingest’ — does he say charminger? Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice said (‘she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English’). But I would not be happy for Random House to typeset it with capitalised mis-spaced titles (see ‘Periods’ p.21). Not elegant.

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