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
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.