English with Style and Humor: Random House’s Chief Copy Editor on Lessons Learned

Book review: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer (Amazon / Book Depository)

Never thought you were the type to stay up late reading a grammar and style guide, dissolving in laughter every few pages? I thought I wasn’t either. Allow this book to prove you wrong like it did me.

Random House chief copy editor Benjamin Dreyer is a master in his field, and in his first book he’s sharing trade secrets – hard-learned and sometimes harder-defended – from his career in copy. These are “the issues I most often run across while copyediting and how I attempt to address them.. topics where I thought I truly had something to add to the conversation, and… curiosities and arcana that interested or simply amused me.”

Dreyer copyedits a lot of fiction and draws from this work with writing and style tips that apply to any kind of writing, even as banal as emails. His experience is monumental, and although I wouldn’t classify this as memoir in any strict sense, it incorporates autobiographical storytelling elements as he relates memorable moments on the job. I loved his description of early work involving scrutinizing draft copies for differences, maybe because it reminds me of some of my own more dreadful job tasks:

It’s like endlessly working on one of those spot-the-difference picture puzzles in an especially satanic issue of Highlights for Children.

The book is structured by themes he’s going to school us on, including “Peeves and Crotchets,” those maddening points that arise too often in writers’ work, sometimes incorrect but sometimes not – just unappealing when there are better options. One burr in his saddle here is sure to be familiar to anyone who regularly works with corporate copy: “The use of ‘onboard’ as a verb in place of ‘familiarize’ or ‘integrate’ is grotesque. It’s bad enough when it’s applied to policies; applied to new employees in place of the perfectly lovely word ‘orient,’ it’s worse. And it feels like a terribly short walk from onboarding a new employee to waterboarding one.”

I mention this one because even if you’re not writing or editing professionally, there are bound to be stylistic points that have a lot of value. There wasn’t a massive amount that was new here, BUT! I’m actually a copy editor myself. Yes, I know you would never know it from my error and typo-filled reviews, and I should physician-heal-thyself but that’s how it goes. I can only fix someone else’s work. My arena is far less compelling than Dreyer’s (he writes about copyediting a newly released volume of Shirley Jackson’s), but nevertheless, many of the stickiest points I’d already learned from or researched for my own work and suspect others may have as well.

All to say, if you’ve had to do the same, academically or professionally, you might not be bowled over by what you learn, but I guarantee something will be enlightening. I learned the most about style, which is of course incredibly valuable. He made me realize that I’ve got to stop overusing “really”. Ditto “very” and “pretty”. “Actually” needs banished completely, and so does “just” unless it’s truly contributing something. I have a ways to go.

He may also surprise you in terms of words you’re using incorrectly. In “The Confusables,” he clarifies spellings, punctuation, and meanings responsible for inordinate amounts of confusion and chaos. Some surprised me, others I’ve spent endless time correcting myself. Some of these battles will be fought more successfully than others.

Like this one: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma,”adding, sensibly, “No sentence has ever been harmed by a series comma, and many a sentence has been improved by one.” Try convincing my British clients of that, please. Speaking of UK vs. US English, he addresses lots of rules, oddities, and amusing differences between styles, including giving helpful guidelines for framing UK-style quotations, which I’ve also been doing partially incorrectly. Oops! Wish he’d written this sooner.

Perhaps my favorite confusable here is a simple but menacing one: it’s/its.

“It’s” is “it is,” as in “It’s a lovely day today.”
“Its” is the possessive of “it,” as in “It rubs the lotion on its skin.”

Could I love him more?

Shall I give an embarrassing example of a word I’ve been using incorrectly? It started off well enough:

Gory crimes are grisly.
Tough meat is gristly.
Some bears are grizzly.

I’m with him and confident so far. Then:

“Grizzled” refers to hair streaked with gray – and, by extension, it makes a decent synonym for “old.” It does not mean, as many people seem to think it does, either unkempt or rugged.

I… did not know that. I’m glad he specified “many” people seem to be incorrect here, but it was a reminder that I need to consult the dictionary more often, especially before I go marking up other people’s usage. Vocabulary nuances are seemingly small points but they impact heavily. My opinion went downhill fast on a podcast I mentioned after the host used words incorrectly and I found myself getting increasingly annoyed. How can you trust a storyteller when they can’t get the language of it right? Dreyer subtly underscores how building a polished foundation is the best way to improve writing overall.

The highlight of this book is his wondrous sense of humor. Take his caution against [sic], which he warns not to use as a “snide bludgeon to suggest that something you’re quoting is quite dopey…It’s the prose equivalent of an I’M WITH STUPID T-shirt and just about as charming.”

Through footnotes to his rules and the examples themselves, he tells delightful anecdotes of bad writing he’s encountered and how he’s learned to make it better. Hilarity often ensues. But it’s also an effective learning technique – I’m not soon to forget rules taught so memorably, even grammar-related ones, which I’ve always struggled to keep handily in mind and more often than not find myself researching when I need them.

Which is also fine, he assures. He stresses this was not meant to be a definitive grammar or style guide because such a thing doesn’t exist, nor should it. Language is an evolving animal and we change it with the stylistic choices we collectively make. I appreciated this attitude so much – I’ve always preferred a more flexible, adaptable usage and been driven crazy by those who follow rules militarily (some of which aren’t even real or right!)

In the chapter, “A Little Grammar is a Dangerous Thing,” he reveals his secret: He hates grammar.

I hope I’m not shocking you. But at a certain point I figured that if I was going to be fixing grammar for a living, I might do well to learn a little something about it, and that’s precisely what I did: I learned a little something about it. As little as I needed to.

I can’t express how happy (and not alone) that made me feel.

In “The Trimmables,” he takes on repetition and some annoying inaccuracies, one of which I ought to make a pinned post on this site: “Lately one encounters people referring to any full-length book, even a work of nonfiction, as a novel. That has to stop.” YES. I want to establish a task force of we two plus Adam Hochschild to end this. “Novel” is not a catch-all synonym when you don’t want to say “book” again! Lots of Goodreads reviewers do this and it makes me cringe. Even “nonfiction novel” is dicey and highly specific territory, and better avoided unless you’re talking about Truman Capote.

In his call-outs on redundancies in this chapter, he did break my heart a little as I’ll never be able to delight over Unsolved Mysteries in the same way: “Once it’s solved, it’s not a mystery anymore, is it.” Prepare to come to terms with such truths throughout.

Even if you don’t think you need it, you do. I’ve never read a more amusing book about language and usage, appealing far beyond the world of pedantic grammar nerds. Total delight. 4.5/5

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

by Benjamin Dreyer
published January 29, 2019 by Random House

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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53 thoughts on “English with Style and Humor: Random House’s Chief Copy Editor on Lessons Learned

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  1. This review was so much fun to read. I’m afraid to write too much today as you might red-line through my grammar mistakes 😉

    I do enjoy reading articles about spelling/grammar/formatting and don’t know what that makes me, since I’m not working anymore and I never was employed in this type of job. But as a lover of the English language, and books in particular, something about this topic attracts me. To make a long story short (and yes, I’m guilty of using many cliches) this sounds like fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I’m so glad to hear that you had fun reading it! And please, don’t worry!! I was hesitant to even admit what I do when my own writing is so error-riddled, but hey, I’m not paid for it so I can make mistakes here 🤣

      I think you said it right – this is a must-read for anyone who loves the English language. And funny you mention cliches because he even has a funny caution about them in the book! Since I’ve read it I’ve deleted several from reviews I was writing…it’s a long learning process but he does make it a lot of fun, and he knows his stuff so well that I want to try and incorporate more of it. This one sounds right up your alley, I think you’d really like it!

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    1. It’s my native language and I feel the same 😂 It seems like there’s always something left to learn! You should definitely read it, it’s hilarious and he makes it very easy to remember the important points. I never thought a book about writing and grammar would be fun, but here we are!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh thank you so much! I was adding a picture to a work profile and thought I really should change it here while I’m at it…the old Gravatar picture had automatically linked from my previous WordPress blog and was 7 or 8 years old, I don’t know if I even look like that anymore 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It sounds like a great book! I knew that about grizzled, but a problem I have is that you can’t really use the word. What I mean is that when most people don’t know the definition of a word and think it is akin to a similar sounding word, you run the risk of alienating your reader. Is alienating allowed, by the way? And I love Shirley Jackson!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I kind of see it as being more the reader’s responsibility if it’s a word that’s not uncommon, like “grizzled”, for example! I love a good vocabulary but it does annoy me a bit when authors use more obscure vocabulary when something simpler and clearer would suffice, that feels alienating as a reader. But I think in this case I could’ve made an effort. I don’t know how many times I read it, assumed I knew what it was, and never bothered to look it up. It’s a wonderful book, highly recommend it!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I hope you’ll get back to writing them when you’re in the mood for it…I haven’t felt much like it lately but trying to stick with it regardless. I’m hoping to get to The Gift of Fear soon, I pulled it out of my ebook archives, at least!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds wonderful! I copyedit on the side, and a style guide that’s entertaining would be amazing. So much of what’s out there feels more like a reference guide than an engaging book. I had no idea about ‘grizzled’!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know exactly what you mean, I’ve never actually read a “reference” book, just dipped in and out when absolutely necessary. But this one is different and completely engaging, just a lot of fun. If you also copyedit it’s probably not going to have much that’s new to you, although occasionally something like that will surprise you. I’m relieved you had grizzled wrong too, made me realize I need to take more time to look things up…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You convinced me that this could be a very useful book. I’ve enjoyed reading the blog Language Log for a long time, where several linguists discuss a number of important issues for proofreaders and editors. Their important distinction is between good style and nitpicking points that are just what they call “peeving,” and have no good foundation in either theory or practice.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. I used to LOVE Highlights when I was a kid! I checked for it as soon as I got to any doctor’s office waiting room 😂 How sweet that you do them with her! He was referencing having to compare copies of files to make sure there are no differences in the text, and I have to do this in my copy editing work sometimes too…it’s such an eye-crossing, maddening task compared to the happy memories of the Highlights pictures!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s good that you’re aware of it though! I get the impression many people aren’t. This book is such a helpful resource, I’ve found myself incorporating so many stylistic points since reading it.

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  5. OMG 😮 I. Want. This. Book.

    (Obviously, I’m behind in my blog touring as I’m just getting to this.)

    I should have guessed about you being a copy editor because I love the precision of your writing. It’s just so clear.

    I’m no grammar expert but had to learn to be proficient when I was put in charge of a group of policy writers at one point in my career. It morphed into corporate communications and we eventually took a stand against some of the “new” vocabulary. (Onboarding was one of them.) We challenged each other to use the existing and wonderful English language to come up with expressive ways to communicate new ideas. We actually kept a list of words we loved and those we hated.

    This got my attention:

    “He made me realize that I’ve got to stop overusing “really”. Ditto “very” and “pretty”. “Actually” needs banished completely, and so does “just” unless it’s truly contributing something. I have a ways to go.”

    I’ve noticed my own overuse of these words and it’s laziness, pure and simple. Thanks for including this as now it will be tough to continue using them going forward.

    I love your review. Getting this book. Hardcopy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you so much!! I sometimes feel like my reviews end up a bit all over the place, so I’m glad to hear they’re coming across as clear 🙂

      The approach that you took to corporate communications sounds like an excellent one, and one I wish more effort would be made in. I edit a lot of corporate communications materials and so many companies have strict guidelines for language usage and it just sounds ridiculous…so impersonal and stiff, like speaking in code using only these few words, almost! No deviations! There’s so little creativity and flexibility. But it seems like you had a great group with wonderful ideas for how to do that work without using this standardized vocabulary! Just allowing a little creativity and effort can take content so far.

      I think you’re right, it’s laziness. If you want to emphasize something, there are other ways to do it, otherwise ask yourself if you need the “very” or the “really” – what are they adding? This is the point he makes in the book, much better than I can, but it resonated. And since then I’ve noticed it in other published writing and he’s totally right. In the book about UK/US cultural and political differences I reviewed a couple weeks ago the author overused “just” and it was driving me crazy once I started noticing and reworking the sentences without it and thinking how much better and clearer they sounded. This book is an absolute gem, I loved that he was able to make his points so memorable with his use of humor. I had a review copy but I’m buying it in hard copy too. It’s a fantastic reference. Can’t wait to hear what you think of it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am so mad at myself right now! I wandered all around Barnes and Noble yesterday holding this and thinking about buying it and I put it BACK. Darn it. I have a grammar book here already I decided I should read first. This sounds amazing though! What a wonderful review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no!! It’s so, SO good. I’m going to buy a copy myself since I read the advance. I’m a big library advocate but this is one to own for sure. It’s a helpful resource but it’s also way more fun than any grammar and style guide could reasonably be expected to be. I was laughing so much reading it before bed I was getting on my husband’s nerves…a scenario I never imagined possible with a book on these topics! 😂 What’s the other one you have to read? This made me think I should give chances to other readable grammar guides since I do need them for work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought Lynne Truss’ book “Eat, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” was good but I honestly enjoyed her manners book, “Talk to the Hand” so much more – hilarious as an audiobook. I also have, “Let’s Eat Grandma!” on my shelf of TBR. I want to be a grammar goddess, obviously! I cannot wait to read this one though – you make it sound like so much fun!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. As a former copy editor, I couldn’t help being amused by your review of what sounds like an amusing and useful book. It’s a chore sometimes to read or hear words being overused or simply mangled — three current examples are “concerning,” “impactful,” and “empowering” — but it’s much more fun to laugh than to scold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, we all have those bothersome words that we seem to encounter too much! He calls them “peeves and crotchets” here. It’s incredibly useful and more amusing by far than I was expecting! I think you’d like it, especially having a similar background.

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  8. I loved reading this review and I am now thoroughly convinced to read the book. As a PR account manager, my job often involves copy editing, and I can sympathise with the frustrations encountered by Benjamin Dreyer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! If you do any kind of work where you have to think carefully about your words and language style, this is a must-read. I found myself sympathizing with so many of his frustrations too, it’s reassuring in that!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Came here from your Murder podcast book review, this book sounds the business! Cannot believe “onboard” is used as a verb, yuck, but then I have been out of the corporate world for a long time. Wrong use of “its” and “it’s” is one of my personal bêtes noires. I might buy this book, my husband would enjoy it too, as he used to be a parliamentary draftsman – writing English Acts of Parliament – laws – so his use of language had to be clear as always possible it would be litigated on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This one really is the business, I can’t recommend it enough! I couldn’t believe how funny it was, and I keep bits of it in mind when I’m writing and editing all the time. Incredibly useful, and he makes it so memorable that you always have important bits in mind when you need them. I loved it for that!

      What interesting work your husband did! I edit a lot of legal documents in translation and even just editing something that’s already written in another language and has to stay the same is so tricky, sometimes an adjustment of one word or even some punctuation could change meaning. I think he’d like this one too with his background. I found it endlessly interesting, and it’s never dry, which some other cutesy-funny similar grammar books I’ve browsed in the past have been. Usually I’m a big library advocate but it’s one to own!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh interesting! I wonder why it was universally panned? I might’ve had an affinity for Dreyer’s since it’s primarily focused on US English style and rules, but because I work so often in British English for clients I’m constantly having to research and learn the right things.

      The Oxford comma is surprisingly divisive! I like it because it leaves less room for ambiguity or confusion, in most cases at least. But I’m constantly having to refrain when editing for UK clients as they always get annoyed about it. It must’ve been pretty strictly forbidden in school.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It wasn’t you, in the link he has some grammar/punctuation rules! I like that the call-out immediately flags it as “trite, tedious and muddle-headed” — lolol! I quite like The Guardian’s book reviews, they’re not shy about criticizing where something needs it and they do it pretty smartly. I’m bookmarking it for a read, thanks for sharing!

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