book reviews

A review of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m kind of a stickler about language. I’m especially uptight about word usage. I get twitchy when people misspell or misuse words. Every time I see someone incorrectly use the word “phase” when they really mean “faze”, or “tow” when they actually mean “toe”, I want to break out my red pen. That’s why I was excited when I saw the new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, made available January 29, 2019. I knew I had to read it.

Benjamin Dreyer, author of this book for uptight language nerds like me, is Random House’s vice president, executive managing editor, and chief copy editor. Dreyer never set out to be a copy editor. Originally, he pursued writing and acting, then worked in a lot of bars and restaurants. He fell into copy editing and it turned into his career. In 1993, he joined Random House as a production editor and climbed the ranks to the lofty position he holds today. I kind of admire how Dreyer’s working life evolved into what it has. A combination of luck, skill, and talent have taken Dreyer from behind the bar to behind the words of thousands of authors. It’s his job to supervise the publication of hundreds of books every year.

I bought this book in February, but only now got around to reading it. I finished this morning, feeling pretty satisfied with myself. Not only was Dreyer’s book informative and useful, it was also entertaining. Dreyer has a fun writing style; he likes to play with words and seems to think of language as fun. I also think language is fun and fascinating, so Dreyer’s book really spoke to me. I think it would be a fantastic read for a lot of people, especially those who are very smart, but not quite as anal retentive about words as I am.

Seriously, folks. I think a lot of people get kind of lazy when they write. They have an idea they want to express, say with a common expression. But then they mess up the expression, and write something like “She wanted me to tow her line.”, when they really mean “She wanted me to toe her line.” You put your toes to the line; you don’t “tow” a line. This isn’t waterskiing.

Dreyer has been called the “unofficial language guru on Twitter.” I wouldn’t know about that. Although I do have a Twitter handle, I very rarely use it. My problem is that I like to use words and Twitter forces users to be brief… briefer than I’d ever want to be, anyway. On the other hand, brevity is a virtue. Time is money. All of those flowery, extra “verys”, “quites”, “reallys”, “of courses, “actuallys” and “rathers” take time to read and space on the page. Dreyer equates them to “throat clearing”. A copy editor helps to fix all of that so that books are easier and more pleasant reading. I am horribly guilty of using all of those extra words myself. Maybe thanks to Dreyer’s book, I will finally break myself of that “very” annoying habit.

Dreyer’s English is mostly a fun read, even though it’s mainly about grammar, word usage, idiom usage, capitalization, and punctuation. Dreyer loads his copy with fun facts and trivia, and helps readers understand why some rules have changed. I particularly enjoyed his list of proper nouns, along with notes on spellings that have become obsolete. For instance, when I was growing up, the Soviet Union still existed, as did the “Iron Curtain”. It wasn’t uncommon to see Romania spelled “Rumania” or “Roumania”. Dreyer writes that those spellings, unless specifically quoted from works that existed when they were still used, are obsolete.

Another rule that used to be iron clad was that writers weren’t supposed to split their infinitives. It was wrong to write something like “I’d like to quickly run to the store.” However, Dreyer writes that it’s okay to split infinitives now. And, it’s also okay to start sentences with “and” or “but”– good thing, too, because I do that all the time. You can also end your sentences with prepositions, and he lets you know when it’s all right to use “alright”.

If I have to offer criticisms of Dreyer’s book, it’s that some of the stuff he includes is elementary. But then, to people who don’t write all the time, maybe they’re not so elementary. He also uses a lot of footnotes, which might be distracting to some readers. And, although this wasn’t an issue for me, some reviewers on Amazon were evidently offended by Dreyer’s political commentary. If you identify as a political conservative, you may not enjoy this book as much as I did. Maybe Dreyer shouldn’t be including political comments in a book about grammar, although I suspect it probably made Dreyer’s English more interesting for those who aren’t enjoying our current political situation. Finally, readers should know that this is an American flavored book. Dreyer encourages writers to write in American English. That might not sit well with those who prefer the “Queen’s English”.

If you always hated grammar class, but you have to do any professional writing, you may want to give Benjamin Dreyer’s book a look. He could help you improve your writing, and that might help you improve the impression your writing makes on others. As for me, I will try to keep reminding myself that I should stop “throat clearing” in my writing. Be clear, concise, and accurate… and spell things right. And stop using ellipses so often. Sigh… obviously, I have some work to do myself.