Benjamin Dreyer’s forthcoming book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, is part grammar and usage reference and part how-to writing manual, from a copyeditor’s perspective.
(It’s the book I always thought I would write.)
The title of the book is telling. This is no authoritative guide to grammar and usage written by teams of editorial researchers delving into English corpora to tease out the most common errors writers make. No, the content of this book is guided by the singular editorial experiences of Benjamin Dreyer — it’s Dreyer’s English.
This is good news, though; Dreyer has been copy chief of Random House for more than twenty years, so his experience with writers and with the English language is more intensive and nuanced than it is for most of us. He has a lot of insight to offer.
Dreyer’s English is split into two main sections: “Part I: The Stuff in the Front” (including punctuation, grammar, “Rules and Nonrules,” and the treatment of numbers) and “Part II: The Stuff in the Back” (which includes frequently misspelled and confusable words, redundancies, and “Peeves and Crotchets”). This should tell you something else about the book: Despite all the stuff in the part titles, this is no stuffy, academic textbook. Dreyer’s personality and wit (and occasionally even his political leanings) permeate the text and its many footnotes,* making it a fun read for copyeditors and other lovers of the written word.
But beyond the joy of reading it, what’s more important is that it’s full of useful information. Dreyer’s English isn’t as exhaustive as Garner’s Modern English Usage, nor as authoritative as the AP Stylebook, nor as comprehensive as The Chicago Manual of Style. And it doesn’t try to be. Instead, what you’ll find is a more-or-less organized collection of editorial pitfalls that, in Dreyer’s opinion, writers need to be warned about.
And he has a lot of opinions. So many, in fact, that he runs the risk of becoming the next Lynne Truss (of Eats, Shoots & Leaves infamy) — that is, a grammaticaster of the highest order — with pronouncements like these:
- “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.”
- “In bibliographies and notes sections, … please stick to the old-fashioned and more attractive Mass., N.Y., Calif., and so on. Or just be a grown-up and write the whole thing out.”
- “The only thing worse than the ungodly incentivize is its satanic little sibling, incent.”
But Dreyer, I think, takes more care to indicate when he’s giving honest-to-god good grammar and usage advice and when he’s offering his personal editorial preferences. For example,
- “I find the very sight of gantlet fussy and prissy.”
- “I suggest reserving flier for the soaring-in-the-air thing and flyer for the sheet of paper heading imminently into the recycle bin.”
- “Some of us were taught to use U.S. only as an adjective … and to refer to the country nounwise only full-out as the United States. I persist in that distinction, because … because I do.” [latter ellipsis points are from the original]
Copyeditors will enjoy reading this book, but they are a secondary audience. The primary audience of Dreyer’s English is writers — especially fiction writers who are as interested in good writing as they are in good storytelling. The first chapter even opens with a writing challenge: to go a week without using very, rather, really, quite, or in fact. Copyeditors who are interested in working in fiction will also find this a good primer to prepare them for what’s ahead. (For both groups, the chapter “The Realities of Fiction” is worth the entire price of the book.)
Dreyer’s English would be a great Festivus gift for someone of either persuasion — writer or copyeditor. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hit shelves until
January 22 [UPDATE: January 29]. A Valentine’s Day gift, then?
* Footnotes of the David Foster Wallace type, not of the graduate dissertation type.