Dreyer’s English: A Book Review

Several years ago, I made a resolution: I would not buy any more books. That might seem an odd resolution for someone who has been editing books for fifty-five years. Practicality and kindness motivated me as I considered the task of our daughter, who after our deaths, would have to deal with all the possessions in our home, which, of course, includes thousands of books, over a hundred of those related to my profession.

I successfully lived up to my resolution by patronizing our public library for all my literary needs and interests—until late 2019 when Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style caught my attention. I had read glowing reviews of the book on various websites and promptly reserved it at the library, intending to read what I could get from it and return it by the due date.

I picked up the copy at the library and dove into it with curiosity—it was only 265 pages. What could I learn in this short work that I hadn’t already learned or couldn’t look up in all the books I frequently consulted on editing, grammar, punctuation, syntax, style, and usage? I hadn’t read more than nineteen pages—the first chapter (“Rules and Nonrules”)—when I knew I was about to break my own rule: I had to own this book. If that isn’t enough encouragement for you to buy this insightful, brilliant, invaluable, and laugh-out-loud work, read on.

Benjamin Dreyer, vice president, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House, is a legend in the world of publishing and editing. As a production editor, he oversaw works by Michael Chabon, Edmund Morris, Michael Pollan, and Calvin Trillin. He has copyedited works by E. L. Doctorow, Frank Rich, Elizabeth Strout, and Shirley Jackson, among others. His credentials would make any of us sit up and take notice.

The book is divided into two main sections, whimsically titled “The Stuff in the Front” and “The Stuff in the Back.” Part I, he begins by addressing writers, challenging them to go a week without using any of the following words: very, rather, really, quite, in fact, and several other “disposable words and phrases, including actually.” His advice to writers: “Feel free to go the rest of your life without another ‘actually.’ ”

In the next section, he disputes several “rules” of writing prose, including Never begin a sentence with and or but, Never split an infinitive, Never end a sentence with a preposition, and A person must be a who. Yes, he affirms, a person can be a “that.” Does that make you sit up and take notice? It certainly got my attention! It would not be the last time Dreyer got my attention. In fact, I did not put down Dreyer’s English for the rest of the weekend during which I devoured this instructive, enlightening, and hilarious work.

Other engaging chapters in the first part of the book include those titled “Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation,” “The Treatment of Numbers,” “A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing,” and “The Realities of Fiction.” I assure you that, like me, you will laugh out loud and you will insist that anyone in earshot, including those like my physicist husband, would “have to listen to this.”

Part II (“The Stuff in the Back”) begins with an invaluable fifteen-page list of misspelled words Dreyer frequently sees. He confesses to having committed some of those errors, and I join him in that confession.

He continues in this section to elaborate on “Peeves and Crochets” and “The Confusables.” In the latter section, he clarifies the differences between a host of commonly confused words—for example, a lot, allot, alotted, and alotting; affect and effect; carat, karat, caret, and carrot; climactic and climatic; and grisly, gristly, grizzly, and grizzled. This invaluable section is 143 pages long!

I could go on . . . but I would prefer to leave some of the joy of discovery and laughs to you. However, I guarantee that for $25 you too will conclude that Dreyer’s English is the best investment you may make in your career as a writer, an editor, a proofreader, and in any other profession in which language should be used with precision. I am not at all sorry I broke my resolution!

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style was published by Random House in 2019 using the ISBN 978-0-8129-9570-1. Check out the author’s website and purchasing information here.

Alice Levine

Alice Levine

In a decades-long publishing career, Boulder Editors member Alice Levine has edited trade, academic, and educational books, including The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest, a 2015 Nautilus Gold Award winner.

View all posts by Alice Levine

4 comments on “Dreyer’s English: A Book Review

  1. Lovely! I just bought a copy, it’s on sale right now, actually. 😉 Hardcover at this moment in time is $9.49 on Amazon. (PB is $17.99. Go figure!)

    I enjoyed your review, Alice. Pretty convincing, and I have made no such vow not to purchase books. Not yet anyway.

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