Dreyer's English

By Benjamin Dreyer

Benjamin Dreyer is vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief, of Random House. Or, as he puts it:

I am a copy editor. After a piece of writing has been, likely through numerous drafts, developed and revised by the writer and by the person I tend to call the editor editor and deemed essentially finished and complete, my job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it...better. Cleaner. Clearer. More efficient. Not to rewrite it, not to bully and flatten it into some notion of Correct Prose, whatever that might be, but to burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be — to make it read even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it. That is, if I've done my job correctly.

Dreyer's English is a book of writing advice, pet peeves, observations, spelling corrections, and word usage geekery from someone who has spent nearly thirty years copy editing books. More than half of the book is lists of things with commentary: words that can be deleted, words that are frequently confused for each other, notes on proper nouns, and much more. The rest of it is grammatical disputes, positions on punctuation, and fascinating commentary on people's reactions to copy editing.

The preferred U.K. spelling of the color that describes ashes and the eyes of the goddess Athena is "grey." The preferred American spelling is "gray," but try telling that to the writers who will go ballistic if, in copyediting, you attempt to impose that spelling. In all my years of correcting other people's spelling, I don't think I've ever come up against more pushback than on this point. My long-held theory — make of it what you will — is that the spelling "grey" imprints itself on some people who encounter it in beloved classic children's books, and they form an emotional attachment to it.

Or, I don't know, they're just stubborn.

Speaking as an American "grey" person, I feel seen.

This is the sort of book whose audience will self-select. If you read the description above and thought "wow, that sounds boring, why would someone read a reference book like that cover to cover?" then this is not the book for you. If you thought "that sounds awesome, tell me more!" then you've probably heard of this book already (it's made the rounds), and this review is somewhat redundant. But in case you haven't, I can assure you that it is indeed awesome, and you should read it.

True confession time. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Strunk & White, the writing book that everyone is now supposed to hate. Let me reassure you that I am not one of those people who tries to get everyone to read it or who treats it as the canonical text on how to write in English, thus contributing to the backlash. I rarely think of it when writing. I loved it because it was fun to read, because it was opinionated and snarky and was full of entertaining (if occasionally unfair) examples, and because it advocated for a particular style of prose in a memorable and approachable way.

I'm doing Benjamin Dreyer no favors by comparing his book to this bogeyman of prescriptivism, but I enjoyed Dreyer's English for a similar reason. Dreyer's writing is not dry and does not read like a reference manual, despite the lists. It's full of side observations and personal stories, is tempered by the conversations a copy editor has with authors, and is absurdly quotable. You'll notice that I'm failing to resist littering this review with excerpts.

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.

For those reading it as an ebook, it also puts the (delightful) footnotes at the end of each chapter. A minor point, but greatly appreciated.

I don't primarily read books like this to improve my own writing. If I did, I should probably have paused on page one to implement Dreyer's first advice, which is so on-point that it stings:

Here's your first challenge:

Go a week without writing

  • very
  • rather
  • really
  • quite
  • in fact

Rather (*cough*), I read books like this primarily for entertainment, secondarily out of intellectual curiosity about the opinions of someone who has read a lot of prose and is professionally obligated to make judgments about it, and tertiarily because I adore language trivia. Dreyer delivers on all three points. If you are looking for advice to help improve your writing, I suspect he delivers on that point as well, but the entertainment value alone was worth it to me. The insight into the role of copy editor, the markup and on-page conversations with authors, and some of the less-obvious motives of the work are a delightful bonus.

An admission: Quite a lot of what I do as a copy editor is to help writers avoid being carped at, fairly or — and this is the part that hurts — unfairly, by People Who Think They Know Better and Write Aggrieved Emails to Publishing Houses.

Come for the demolition of non-rules of grammar that you were taught in school but should ignore completely, stay for the fascinating discussion of the "only" comma, and be rewarded with knowing that even the copy chief of one of the largest publishing houses on earth cannot spell Mississippi without singing the song.

If you are the sort of person who likes this kind of thing, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-12-30