Book Review: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

by Indu Singh

Cover of the book "Dreyer's English" by Benjamin Dreyer

In the first chapter of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, the author poses a challenge to his readers: go a week without writing any of the words out of a list of what he considers pointless adverbs, including very, rather, really, quite, just, so, surely, of course, and in fact. However, Dreyer singles out one adverb for his most extreme dare: “Feel free to go the rest of your life without another ‘actually.’”

According to Dreyer we are all writers now—we write blog entries, term papers, social media posts, emails, memos, product reviews—and he wants us to be better at it. He attempts to not only guide but also bully, cajole, amuse, and even challenge (as demonstrated above) the readers into becoming stronger and more effective communicators on paper and screen. He believes that if he can at least convince us to give up some of these ineffectual adverbs—these “Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers”—he will have automatically transformed us into better writers by the end of the week.

As a practising copy chief for Random House, Dreyer earns his living by polishing others’ work, and his feelings about his profession run the gamut from pragmatism to passion. “On a good day, [copy editing] achieves something between a really thorough teeth cleaning…and a whiz-bang magic act.”

Like most editors, he is moved by the subtle nuances of words, the flow of great sentences, and the overall visceral pleasure of good writing. One of the rewards of reading Dreyer’s English is to experience the author emote over words—to flaunt unusual words with glee (micturition, peruke, geschrei), to flag expressions he hates with a smouldering contempt (he compares onboarding with waterboarding), and to treat those he has no opinion about with oozing indifference (his advice to people who insist on the use of the singular datum: “move on already”). So keen is his antenna for the granular feel of words that his assertion that British grey and the American gray are “two different colors, the former having a glossy, almost silvery sheen to it, the latter being heavier, duller, and sodden” is almost convincing.

The author of a style guide is expected to have strong feelings about usage and composition, but what comes as a pleasant surprise is Dreyer’s reverence for punctuation: “A comma sounds different than a semicolon; parentheses make a different noise than dashes.” Sometimes this admiration is expressed in sinuous sentences that tiptoe toward poetry. “If words are the flesh, muscle, and bone of prose, punctuation is the breath.”

Dreyer understands that most people find grammar, not to mention spelling and punctuation, stultifying—at one point, he admits to hating it himself—and he uses humour to break through that resistance. For identifying the passive voice, he offers readers the “nifty trick” of copy editors to append the phrase “by zombies” to the sentence. He urges readers not to mistake “grizzly crimes” for “grisly crimes” unless the crimes are perpetrated by actual bears. About hummus and humus, he warns, “Be careful never to eat the latter.” But there are times when the verbal mugging—especially when he addresses the readers directly: “I’m on to you,” “I assure you, I’m not shamming,” and “I will slap your hand”—feels hectoring and overplayed.

Still, the book performs a sort of public service to editors by warning them against one of the profession’s most common occupational hazards: overzealousness. An editor’s duty is “not to bully and flatten [a piece of writing] into some notion of Correct Prose…but to burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself.” Practical advice for creating house styles includes keeping them uncomplicated: “Try not to have a house style visible from space.” Dreyer also points out that it’s the editor’s job to urge writers not to incur the wrath of “language piranhas.” He implores writers to pick their battles: “if you’re going to irritate readers, you might as well irritate them…over something more important than the ostensible difference between ‘eager’ and ‘anxious.’”

As with many critical thinkers, sometimes Dreyer’s playfulness gives way to crotchetiness, and even contrariness. On the subject of neologisms, the reader is quickly won over by his laissez-faire attitude: “If you’re not making up words every now and then, you’re not doing your job.” It’s puzzling that he then snubs gift as a verb but describes regift as “gorgeous coinage,” overlooking the fact that you can’t regift if you can’t gift in the first place. But nowhere is his grouchiness more apparent than in his refusal to use the singular they. Even after acknowledging that the proscription against its use is a “Victorian-era pulled-out-of-relatively-thin-air grammar [rule] we’ve been saddled with,” he declares himself “too old a dog to embrace it.”

Dreyer’s English, with its many fun facts about words and its generally relaxed prescriptions about grammar and style, makes for a solid resource for college students and newly minted editors. Approachable and conversational, it succeeds in largely demystifying editing. As a practitioner of his craft, Dreyer oscillates between prescriptivist tendencies—promoting standardized rules of language—and descriptivist tendencies—emphasizing how people actually use language. He believes that rules are meant to be broken, except when they shouldn’t be. But, as far as he’s concerned, this only marks him as a realist. As he puts it, “If the English language itself is notoriously irregular and irrational, why shouldn’t its practitioners be too?”


Indu Singh is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She is the vice-chair of Editors Toronto.

This article was copy edited by Ambrose Li.

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