Book Review: Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer
Nonfiction: Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer
This is a delightful, funny, and soon-to-become indispensable guide to writing in American English. Benjamin Dreyer has been a copy editor for Random House for more than 20 years. He has worked with numerous authors during that time, authors who appreciate both his attention to detail and his care for their voices being heard through their prose. Dreyer’s English finds that precarious balance as well: it advocates boldly for correct usage and grammar, while also recognizing that style and voice can occasionally transcend the “rules” of English.
Dreyer has a delightful sense of humor. I have long suspected that “only godless savages eschew the series comma;” he proudly calls out this travesty of omission. Many of the funnier statements are found in the footnotes which festoon almost every page, and which are required reading to fully appreciate the wonders of this book.
Dreyer’s English is divided into two sections. “The Stuff in the Front” includes “Rules and Nonrules,” “67 Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation,” and “A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing.” This is where the meat and potatoes of improving writing can be found. Not all of his rules and suggestions will be universally acclaimed, a fact which he sometimes gleefully admits himself. He also looks at the numerous differences between British and American styles of writing and punctuation. A British author might write, ‘the book says, “quotes work thusly”’. In America we would argue, “the book says, ‘quotes work thusly.’” (The tendentious word “thusly,” punctuated in true American style, is my own example) Dreyer is not arguing that one is better than the other. He is simply acknowledging they are different, and those of us who occasionally read books from the other side of the pond may sometimes find ourselves mixing our styles capriciously. These and many other warnings can help the careful writer avoid simple mistakes that would distract a reader from the heart of the text.
“The Stuff in the Back” includes lengthy lists of misspelled words, “Peeves and Crotchets,” and other things that occasionally catch even the best writers off guard (and occasionally pass by even the most circumspect of copy editors). This section can be read through, but might also be seen as more of a reference companion. It continues with his delightfully unabashed approach to language as something that is fun and should be enjoyed, and not at all as a list of reasons that show you really should have stopped writing after Remedial English 001. (Though randomly popping in the word “really” is one of the no-nos he warns against, so maybe I need to revisit that class myself.)
In fact, nothing in this book is meant to brow-beat the aspiring author. Dreyer enjoys English. And he wants you to enjoy it, too. He rails against rules that choke creative writing, such as the rule against starting a sentence with the word “and” as I did the one before this. Dreyer cautions against usages that confuse or belabor; he encourages tight and taut sentences that communicate well. He supports the use of semicolons. Nowhere, though, does he belittle or demean authors who struggle with the applications of these rules. They are the reason copy-editors are necessary, right?
Dreyer’s English is a book every aspiring author should buy. It has a place on your desk and will find a place in your heart. You will use it, you will refer back to it again and again, and you will wish that Benjamin Dreyer could be your copy editor when that day comes for you to publish your own work. My hope is that I will find someone who has a copy of this book on her desk.
Also see the book review:
The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English, Lynne Murphy