Benjamin Dreyer: Dreyer’s English

Cover of Dreyer's English by Benjamin DreyerThis book [… is] my chance to share with you, for your own use, some of what I do, from the nuts-and-bolts stuff that even skilled writers stumble over to some of the fancy little tricks I’ve come across or devised that can make even skilled writing better.

Benjamin Dreyer was a copy editor at Random House, though he has now risen to occupy several more exalted positions in that publishing company. Copy editors are the people who police the text of an author’s work before it gets to the printers. They sort out errors of grammar and usage, and apply the “house style” of the publisher to things like hyphens and quotation marks; but they also tweak sentences to make their meaning clearer, remove redundant verbiage, and otherwise convert the author’s prose into a shinier version of itself.

I’ve been in awe of good copy editors ever since I first encountered their work, during a brief period when I wrote little columns about natural phenomena for the Scotsman newspaper. The sub-editor who copy-edited my work would often need to trim a line or two off what I felt was a pretty tightly written piece, so as to make space on the newspaper page for something else. These lines would disappear from my text, but everything I wrote was still there, and still recognizably in my style. And in fact it was usually clearer than what I’d written. Done well, copy editing is a skill that verges on magic. Done badly (and I’ve had experience of that, too) it’s at best a challenge to authorial equanimity, and at worst a way of finding your name at the bottom of a piece of text which utterly misrepresents what you originally wrote.

So this book, Dreyer’s first, is essentially about how to do copy editing well—it’s a guide to good writing. Dreyer’s English was published in the USA at the start of 2019; I’m reviewing the UK edition, which was published later the same year. There are, of course, many differences between American and British written English (I occasionally write about them in this blog), and it’s  thoughtful and thorough for Dreyer to have produced two slightly different books for two slightly different markets.

The subtitle is An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style—a tongue-in-cheek characterization that neatly skewers the pretensions of the prescriptivist school of style guides. It also encapsulates two things about Dreyer’s writing—he has a distinctly polemical approach, and he is given to gentle mockery. As here, in a discussion of Shakespeare’s writing:

Also, if you haven’t been dead for four hundred years and are planning on using the word ‘methinks’ in the spirit of roguish cleverness, please don’t.

Or here, writing about the old custom of typing a double space after a full stop:

Some older folk I’ve encountered are furiously insistent about the eternal propriety of sentence-dividing double spaces. Likely, they also advocate for the retention of the long s, and I wish them much ſucceſs. If you’re a younger person who’s only ever typed on a computer keyboard, odds are good you were not taught the double-space thing, so feel free to slide past this subject altogether with the head-shaking insouciance of your generation.

And here, writing about the differences in American and British spelling, in particular the -er and -re endings.

Some Americans dig their heels in re ‘theatre’, often insisting that plays are performed in theatres, but movies are shown in theaters […], or that a building is a theater but the theatrical art is theatre. And to them I say: You know you’re doing it because you think that the ‘-re’ spelling is fancier, and I’d like you to stop.

So he’s good fun, and he tells you a lot of good stuff.

The book covers the usual range of style-guide topics—punctuation, spelling and grammar—but adds a wealth of other material. Dreyer writes cogently about how to tighten up your writing, cutting out verbiage and constructing sentences that are unambiguous and easy to read. There’s a section on confusable words, a section on proper nouns that are often misspelled, and a section on words that are often misused (“enormity”, “fulsome”). And every now and then Dreyer launches into a pet peeve of his own—I don’t imagine many other style books deal with the misapplication of the phrase “Immaculate Conception”.*

Even when you disagree with Dreyer (and I don’t share his enthusiasm for the Oxford comma), it’s good to read what he has to say on the topic, because he has always put a lot of thought into arriving at his opinion.

And there are some jokes and funny stories.

Having read it through in a single sitting, I’d say it’s not the kind of book to read in a single sitting. One reason for this is the sheer amount of information that demands to be assimilated. Another is that, as Dreyer sweeps through a list of (for instance) words that annoy him, his pointed wit turns into something of an onslaught—I occasionally found myself wishing that he’d just shut up and let me concentrate. So I’d say the longer, slower sections on grammar and punctuation can be browsed and enjoyed for the big educational picture they provide; whereas the shorter, quick-fire sections on common errors are probably best dipped in and out of, aided by the book’s excellent index.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Dreyer. Concluding a short dissertation on the orthography of Star Wars, he winds up with an example that has annoyed me ever since I first saw it in 1977:

[…] ‘A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away….’ ends with a full stop and three ellipsis points, even though it is a fragment and not a complete sentence, because that’s how the Star Wars people like it. And if you challenge them on any of these points, they’ll cut your hand off. True story.

* Oh, well, since you ask—the Immaculate Conception is a theological doctrine that correctly applies to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and not to Jesus himself. She is said to have been conceived untainted by Original Sin, so as to provide a suitably pure vessel for Jesus.

2 thoughts on “Benjamin Dreyer: Dreyer’s English”

  1. Ok, I got two things wrong when reading this piece.

    Firstly, I saw the name Dreyer and thought – oh, he is going to explain the mathematics behind the Dreyer Fire Control Table as used in early British Dreadnoughts – oops.

    Secondly, I thought that I knew about “Immaculate Conception” to find out that I was wrong. Like a lot of people, I assume, I thought that it applied to the birth of Jesus and didn’t realise it was about Mary instead. Well, I have never been one to take much interest in the Marian beliefs.

    This book does sound interesting but it would probably have been little use to me in the only lengthy writing I did since leaving school. These were all related to my Public (Civil) Service career and were required to be written in the best bureaucratic manner. Ah, memories of ‘The Acts Interpretation Act 1901’ & ‘The Customs Act 1901.

  2. Well, I can’t even explain the non-chronological Mark numbering of the Dreyer Fire Control Tables, so that one’s not going to appear any time soon, I’m afraid.

    Bureaucratese is certainly the antithesis of everything Dreyer recommends.

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