Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer / Random House / 320 pages / 9780812995701 / Jan 29, 2019
Stop the presses! Stop submitting to them, that is, until you’ve taken a look at Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, which comes out at the end of January this year. Chances are good that if you’re bothering to read this review you’ve already got a few style guides on your shelf—Strunk and White for sure, maybe Eats, Shoots & Leaves, possibly even the latest Chicago Manual. Keep them around, but do add this one if you’d like to bring yourself up to date while also being vastly entertained.
Fiction writers in particular may want to go straight to Chapter 7, where they will find “The Basics of Good Storytelling” (the rest of us can just begin at the beginning). As copy chief of Random House, Benjamin Dreyer has pored over the novels and stories of many of the household names in American letters, so it’s worth paying attention when he calls out the kinds of things he has seen a lot more often than he’d like, such as characters “staring into the middle distance” or “grimacing,” “smiling weakly,” “snorting,” and “doing anything wistfully.” He lists overused phrases and unnecessary words (do you really need to specify that your characters shrug their shoulders or nod their heads?) and shows us some dandy tricks I wish I’d known when I began writing stories, such as how to handle flashbacks without getting bogged down in “pluperfection,” where you think all your verbs should include the auxiliary “had,” lest readers forget the timeframe you’ve laid out for them. Dreyer advises that we begin a flashback that way (I had worked …) but gradually contract our “had”s to apostrophe-“d” endings (I’d hustled …), and, after a few of those, switch to simple past tense (I busted my ass).
The book covers everything the modern writer will want to know, from commonly misspelled or misused words (that noun on your skin is a “callus,” not a “callous”) to the treatment of numbers (when to spell them out or not), famous names most of us have undoubtedly bungled at one time or another (it’s E. E. Cummings, people; also, please don’t confuse actor Peter Sarsgaard with Alexander Skarsgård, the True Blood vampire), and—you will love this, I promise—an entire chapter of “Peeves and Crotchets.” What writer or editor doesn’t have a long list of those? Dreyer allows that while our own P’s and C’s (yes, he favors apostrophes there) “reflect sensible preferences,” we somehow believe that other people’s “are the products of diseased minds.” One peeve of his is the tendency of people to use “bemused” to mean “wryly, winkingly amused” when it actually means something quite different, but he’s more liberal than many an editor with respect to “different than,” “the hoi polloi,” and how to treat countable nouns (by all means, know the distinction between “less” and “fewer,” but you’re just being foolish if you lose your shit over supermarket signs reading “TEN ITEMS OR LESS”). I found this latitude refreshing—until one of his sensible preferences collided with my own diseased mind. I have long objected to “a myriad of” when “myriad” seems to me just fine on its own, especially in poetry. It’s concise and to my way of thinking more elegant—why doesn’t everyone see this?! (He’d put his red pen through one of those marks.) Dreyer is fine with either use but advises those who prefer the former to cite Milton and Thoreau when challenged by the likes of me—if a myriad of things was good enough for them, it should be good enough for anyone.
Need more evidence that you probably need to read Dreyer’s English cover to cover? Follow the author on Twitter @BCDreyer, where he regularly doles out clever bits of useful information, such as The Flannery O’Connor Flowchart, which may make you laugh out loud. Do that. Then buy the book.