Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York, NY. Random House, 2019. 279 pp. $25.00. ISBN: 978-0-8129-9570-1
Many people, including journalism students, want firm rules on how to write and edit, but English is messy with gray areas and endless debates over commas. That’s where stylebooks and other usage manuals step in, offering clarity and guidance.
“Dreyer’s English” isn’t a stylebook that represents an organization as The Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style do. It certainly has the characteristics of one, with sections of advice on punctuation, word choice, redundancy and other matters that writers and editors care about.
What sets this book apart from others on writing and editing? As indicated by its title, “Dreyer’s English” is a style manifesto of one editor: Benjamin Dreyer.
Dreyer is copy chief at Random House, and he has edited writers such as E.L. Doctorow, Frank Rich and Shirley Jackson, author of the short story “The Lottery.” He has worked at Random House since 1993 in nonfiction and fiction.
Editing those writers (among others) makes Dreyer ideally qualified to take on the task of writing this book, which offers a look at the inner workings of a publishing house. His background, coupled with a sense of humor, makes “Dreyer’s English” feel like an AP Stylebook with wicked one-liners. In a section on word choice, for example, Dreyer takes on business jargon: “It feels like a terribly short walk from ‘onboarding’ a new employee to waterboarding one.”
Like any editor, Dreyer has strong views on many language topics. Among them:
- He still takes “literally” literally, calling it the “Intensifier from Hell.”
- He is holding on to “whom” despite talk of its decline: “Until someone can come up with a better word, we are stuck with it.”
- He is an advocate of the Oxford comma: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.”
Yet Dreyer is a flexible editor, and he cheerfully acknowledges that his preferences may not be yours. He is all right with “alright” on occasion. He suggests that “enormity” can mean more than “monstrous evil” but advises avoiding it in positive contexts such as “the enormity of her talents.” He’s getting more comfortable with the singular they.
The section on punctuation, presented in a list format, neatly describes how using a comma, semicolon or period can alter the pace and tone of writing. Dreyer also offers a helpful tip for students who struggle with appositives with a guideline he calls the “only” comma. And he illustrates the difference between an em dash an en dash.
Dreyer also provides helpful guidance on fact checking. Journalists and public relations practitioners will want to turn to his lists of frequently misspelled names, companies and organizations. Apocryphal quotes from famous people, a bane of journalistic writing, are also addressed. Be wary of words of wisdom attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker and Mark Twain, among others.
In a chapter on editing fiction, Dreyer goes in depth on the need for continuity of characters and timelines. Street names, historical references and vocabulary must match the time period. Readers will notice such errors.
As in journalistic writing, redundancy can weaken fiction. Dreyer warns against “the angry flaring of nostrils” and “the quizzical cocking of the head,” among other wordy constructions. And he once encountered this doozy: “He implied without quite saying.”
So where does all of this guidance take us? In Dreyer’s view, editing is about serving the writer. It’s a collaboration for the benefit of the reader. He writes:
An attentive copy editor should become attuned to and immersed in the writer’s voice to the point where the copy editor has so thoroughly absorbed the writer’s intentions that the process turns into a sort of conversation-on-the-page.
“Dreyer’s English” would work well in a variety of courses in journalism and English departments. For example, in a class on book publishing, “Dreyer’s English” would be perfect in tandem with Carol Fisher Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor.”
Beyond the classroom, “Dreyer’s English” will appeal to writers and editors alike. It is a worthy addition to the library of any lover of language.
This review also appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Educator.