Book Review: Dreyer’s English


Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
By Benjamin Dreyer
291 pages
Published January 29, 2019, by Random House

Thanks to his role as copy chief of Random House, one of the largest publishers in the United States, Benjamin Dreyer has learned a thing or two about the English language and its many grammatical quirks. In Dreyer’s English, he takes a candid look at the many grammatical rules (and faux rules) that we use (or forget to use) when we write.

While most style manuals are witty, Dreyer’s history in publishing has given him a wealth of anecdotes and ‘great moments in copy editing’, some of which he includes either to make a point about the importance of something like the serial comma or simply for the laugh it will invariably cause. The humor is dry and to the point, and while it sometimes veers toward political commentary (its only detriment) and adult-ish content, it is always tasteful and a nod to the notion that the reader of a grammar book like Dreyer’s English is going to be an adult, a reader, and grown-up enough to get the joke without feeling the need to clutch their pearls.

Though Dreyer’s job is to make sure that the grammar in every piece of writing that crosses his desk is correct, he is well aware that English is both a language that has been cobbled together over the centuries without strict rules governing its usage, and that it is a fluid, living language whose usage changes from year to year. And so his primary point is this: Grammar’s job is to make a piece of writing clear, but it’s not always necessary to stick to the rules if bending (or even breaking) them improves the writing’s clarity.

“The result of a comma spile is known as– and you may well recall this term from middle school English class– a run-on sentence. One may meet a fair number of people who like to aim that term at any old sentence that happens to be long and twisty and made up of any number of unnumerable bits divided by semicolons, dashes, parentheses, and whatever else the writer may have had on hand. Nay. A long sentence is a long sentence, it’s only a run-on sentence when it’s not punctuated in the standard fashion. Like that one just now.”

But don’t imagine that Dreyer is saying that grammar doesn’t matter. It does matter. No one wants to read a passage of prose that lacks structure and sense. The point of this book is to delineate which rules must be followed (for example, if you are turning a singular noun into a plural noun, never add an apostrophe. There are seven dogs, not seven dog’s). But if one must begin a sentence with ‘but’ or absolutely has to boldly go where no split infinitive has gone before, it’s okay. As long as clarity does not suffer for the bending of certain rules, feel free to bend them.

Thanks to its wealth of wit and advice for every kind of writing from Twitter to novels, Dreyer’s English is an excellent guide to the wonderful weirdness of the modern English language. Whether readers want to polish their prose, write clever social media posts, or have a love for the oddities of English, Dreyer’s English is an invaluable guide to the wonderfully weird quirks of a language we navigate every day of our lives.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Dreyer’s English

  1. I know. If someone misplaces a comma it totally screws up the wording, meaning and readability. But you know I play fast and loose with my grammar, so, you know….

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