Playing with Language

Book Review

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer

I love language and the games we play with it. Remembering grammatical rules (and noticing when they’re broken) have long come easily to me. My mom, knowing this, sent me a book review a month or two ago for Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. I laughed and noted it was something I’d probably like. Then I came across the book while bored in an airport bookstore, riffled through a few pages, laughed some more, and bought it.

The author of Dreyer’s English is Benjamin Dreyer, who is vice president, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House. The book is witty and reflective, and I gained from it an understanding not only of English but of Dreyer himself. Throughout the chapters, Dreyer interjects his own musings and stories, and he thus composes a reference guide that is nearly as lively as one can be.

I have never, as far as I can remember, laughed so hard at a book about when to use em dashes versus en dashes. Perhaps the funniest bit was one bullet point in the section on words to use amid dialogue other than “said”:

If your seething, exasperated characters must hiss something—and, really, must they?—make sure they're hissing something hissable.

"Take your hands off me, you brute!" she hissed.
—Charles Garvice, Better Than Life (1891)

Umn, no, she didn't. You try it.

(p. 118)

How could one not laugh? I love passages like this. Though the sarcastic tone gets tiresome at points, it keeps things entertaining. Another moment I particularly enjoy is when Dreyer advises how to tell if a sentence is composed in passive voice (like this one). Simply add “by zombies” to its end. Does the sentence still make sense? It was composed in passive voice. By zombies.

I find myself now noticing even more quirks of my own and others’ writing, and Dreyer’s English has already proved useful. While composing the first paragraph of this review, for example, I looked up whether the subject of the second sentence is plural, despite half being offset in parentheses. I also checked the book’s pages to see if “riffle” (versus “rifle”) is the correct word for flipping through those very pages. And I also noticed that the sentence in the book’s colophon, from which I got the author’s biographical information, violates the rules about commas he himself prescribes. (Furthermore, with Dreyer’s blessing, I feel confident beginning a sentence with “and.”)

There were some aspects of Dreyer’s English that I didn’t like. Dreyer’s jokes are often political and often about the current president or the 2016 election. There have been enough of these jokes already, and I don’t laugh at them anymore. Then there are the latter sections of the book, in which Dreyer lists commonly confused or misspelled words and names, and reading these chapters felt more like reading a literal dictionary than reading an entertaining take on grammar. Perhaps those lists will be useful for reference, but I slogged through them top to bottom.

In the end, I’m glad Dreyer’s English will have a place on my bookshelf. Returning to it as a reference book will certainly be more enjoyable than consulting the average style guide. I’m also glad that it prompted me to consider my own language usage. I’m known around the office as the guy who will edit your grammar and punctuation, and Dreyer’s English reminds me both that such a task has its place and that such a task is a game. Most of the time we communicate well enough without constructing our sentences with perfect precision. But the kookiest of us will always take pleasure when words are most scrupulously strung together…by zombies.

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