Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

Image of Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
Release Date: 
January 28, 2019
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“Add Dreyer’s English to The Elements of Style and a select few books no writer should be without. And then change the words ‘no writer’ in that sentence to ‘no one who loves words, reading, and every glorious detail of the glorious English language.’”

The joy in reading Dreyer’s English by Random House vice president, executive managing editor, and copy chief Benjamin Dreyer begins not on the first page, but as soon as the cover is glimpsed. For on this cover, the dot above the lowercase “i” in “English” (the “tittle”) is switched with the possessive apostrophe in “Dreyer’s.”

This is a visual punchline that is a surprise and a genuine hoot. It only gets more delightful from there.

And if disagreeing with any of the tenets in a book with the subtitle An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Gershwin notwithstanding, some readers may still find it jarring when a person is referred to as “that”) feels both dangerous and delicious, that, too, can be added to the long list of reasons to savor this wonderful book.

Dreyer begins by giving the reader a sense of the role of a copy editor when working on a piece of writing that has been deemed finished by the writer and editor: “. . . to burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make it read even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it.”

Throughout Dreyer’s English, the text in the footnotes is as captivating as in the body of the book. Regarding a reference to a legendary theater and film director: “It’s not name-dropping if I don’t drop the name, right?”

Indeed, readers will not want to skim past a moment of this book. A persuasive argument in support of this contention might be to quote Dreyer’s recalling, via one of his footnotes, a message he received in the margins of a manuscript from a writer whose work he was copyediting: “. . . in response to a perfectly demure piece of editorial advice, scrawled in what was either red crayon or blood, ‘WRITE YOUR OWN FUCKING BOOK.’”

One can only hope Dreyer had as much fun writing his own fucking book as his audience has reading it. One suspects he did. There is a conversational tone throughout the book that never ceases to convey the author’s appreciation and enthusiasm for the art of writing. He writes “Psst” in one of the footnotes; this is entirely charming and, as Dreyer advises, a big part of the point of giving full respect to a writer’s voice: “One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well-constructed is to read it aloud.”

There is a wealth of information here, and it’s a lot to keep straight. And it should be a lot. Whatever a reader’s level of expertise with English, Dreyer wants you to be better. Reading his book makes you want to be better, and it gives you the tools to be better.

And if it is as intimidating as it is inspiring (it is), it should be. If this book makes reviewers want to implore Dreyer to please, please, please, please, please copyedit their review before they submit it (it does), that, too, is a noble function.

Dreyer’s English is a keeper; it can and should be referred to again and again so that the lessons, as with all good learning, become second nature.

In case there is any fear among readers that Dreyer and Random House eschew the series comma (or Oxford comma or serial comma, but Dreyer explains why he does eschew those two monikers), spoiler alert, they don’t. In Dreyer’s own words: “Whatever you want to call it: Use it. I don’t want to belabor the point; neither am I willing to negotiate it.”

Readers who feel strongly about the misuse of apostrophes will be relieved to find that Dreyer agrees, and that the vehemence of his agreement merits capital letters: “DO NOT EVER ATTEMPT TO USE AN APOSTROPHE TO PLURALIZE A WORD. ‘NOT EVER’ AS IN ‘NEVER.’”

It is equally gratifying that he goes on to add: “For a modest monthly fee I will come to wherever you are, and when, in an attempt to pluralize a word, you so much as reach for the apostrophe key, I will slap your hand.”

The greatest hits never stop coming. If a neon highlighter were to be employed while reading Dreyer’s English, it would run out of ink before the last page is reached.

Here, for example, is Dreyer’s description of the ill-advised use of “[sic] as a snide bludgeon to suggest that something you’re quoting is dopey”: “It’s the prose equivalent of an I’M WITH STUPID T-shirt and just about as charming.”

And here is his statement regarding some of the more hideous excesses of punctuation: “No one over the age of ten who is not actively engaged in the writing of a comic book should end any sentence with a double exclamation point or a double question mark.”

Readers of Dreyer’s English are in a discussion with the author, one that is consistently enlightening and entertaining. In reference to Gerber’s insistence that their childrenswear brand, “Onesies,” not be genericized: “. . . in this case I fear not only that the barn door is open but that the horse is halfway across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2.” Regarding the bedeviling word “data”: “It’s a plural, it’s a singular, it’s a breath mint, it’s a dessert topping.” And when it comes to the redundancy of “fall down”: “What are you going to do, fall up?”

Dreyer structures his book with many lists and bullet points, and this adds to the ease of reading his work. In the chapter titled “The Realities of Fiction,” he offers especially helpful advice for authors. An excellent example: “As a rule, the consumption of beverages is not as interesting as many writers seem to think it is.” And another excellent example, this one regarding coming up with a distinctive adjective: “If an idea is, say, benighted on p. 27, some other idea oughtn’t to be benighted on p. 31.”

Add Dreyer’s English to The Elements of Style and a select few books no writer should be without. And then change the words “no writer” in that sentence to “no one who loves words, reading, and every glorious detail of the glorious English language.”

This is not a book to be missed. By anyone.