A New Style Guide for Word Lovers: Dreyer’s Droll Diversion

Photo by Kah Lok Leong on Unsplash

It sounds like faint praise to say that a book is diverting. We want our books to be gripping, engrossing, un-put-down-able. Or, if the tome in question is a reference book, we’d prefer that it be reliable, comprehensive, and comprehensible.

Sorry. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style meets none of those expectations. You’ll have to settle for diverting.

Benjamin Dreyer is a man of letters (and commas, adverbs, semicolons, etc.) in the New York publishing world. The executive managing editor and copy chief of Random House, Dreyer has been collecting witty observations on writing rules and errors based on his many years as a copy editor. Dreyer’s English is his chapbook committed to print.

Copy editors, as Dreyer would admit, don’t occupy the most glamorous spot in the publishing house hierarchy. It’s tempting to think of them as glorified proofreaders sniffing out dropped words and misspellings so that they don’t make it to the final edition. But Dreyer argues that the role is more intimate and important than that. Copyediting invites you into the brain of the writer. “It requires a good ear for how language sounds and a good eye for how it manifests itself on the page; it demands an ability to listen to what writers are attempting to do and hopefully, the means to augment it.” (xvi)

In other words, Dreyer is not pacing the room with a ruler ready to rap the knuckles of a wayward writer. He’s got his own tastes and predilections, but he’s not going to impose archaic or arbitrary conformity. If you are determined to boldly split an infinitive, he’ll let you. And who decided that contractions shouldn’t (or should not) be used in formal writing? Dreyer didn’t. And he won’t care if you’d like to. (Or if I end my previous sentence with a preposition.) Rather he’s going to entertain you as he discusses how he’s come to view the writing he sees.

The first half of this book, titled ‘Part I: The Stuff in the Front,’ is full of useful observations on punctuation and grammar. Early on he tackles the Oxford comma—that comma at the end of the penultimate member of a series, which has started to disappear from a lot of contemporary writing. Dreyer prefers its alternate title, the series comma, and he definitely prefers that you employ it. “Whatever you want to call it: Use it. I don’t want to belabor the point; neither am I willing to negotiate it. Only godless savages eschew the series comma.” (24)

The vitriol he reserves for the comma-less is far less evident elsewhere. He points out error and bends where bending is possible. He drops references to old movies and Broadway shows and you wonder sometimes if we’re going to take a break and go for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. But the rough momentum of the book’s structure pulls us back.

Benjamin Dreyer
Benjamin Dreyer

By the time we get to ‘Part II: The Stuff in the Back,’ however, the momentum is gone. In these chapters are lists of frequently misspelled words, “peeves and crochets,” notes on proper nouns (“Super Bowl. Two words.”), and trimmables—words that can be dropped (such as the ‘down’ in the phrase ‘fall down’—“What are you going to do, fall up?”). (Please note the proper use of the series comma in the previous sentence.)

In other words, the second half of this book is a mess. A diverting mess, but a mess nonetheless.*

Those who love words will enjoy Dreyer’s English. It will make its home on my shelf of handy reference books but not so much in my heart. That’s the thing about diversion.

*One other distressing feature of Dreyer’s book is his use of copious notes with very small asterisks. Often the reader arrives at the bottom of the page to find a very interesting note but having to scan the page to find the mark that would lead you there. Bigger asterisks. That’s what the world needs now.

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