REVIEW: Benjamin Dreyer’s ENGLISH

Dreyer's_EnglishI’ve never read a writing style guide in my life. I once tried to read Strunk and White: ho-hum. ‘Sides, I thought S&T advocated a spare style and I happen to think that, except for tires in real life and heirs in romance, spares should be avoided at all costs. Instead, what I found in Dreyer’s was a fount of delight and—pah to erudition—pragmatic advice. His lessons stick: before writing this, I made sure I knew the difference between “font” and “fount”; between “practical” and “pragmatic” (not much), and how to type an em dash on Mac. I’d never done any of this before. Dreyer’s approach is quintessentially American: he doesn’t hold to rules, but he likes to be correct in a practical, educated way. If there’s a “rule,” and there aren’t many, know it, follow, or better yet, because English doesn’t go by hard and fast (that would be what happens in a romance novel), look it up:

“I have nothing against rules. They’re indispensable when playing Monopoly or gin rummy, and their observance can go a long way toward improving a ride on the subway. The rule of law? Big fan. The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated.”

What I got from Dreyer? Educate yourself and don’t be redundant. His copyediting mantra is “Convention. Consensus. Clarity. Comprehension.” Reading him, I was chuffed: I laughed, I nodded in schoolmarmish agreement, snickered, and rolled my eyes at Dreyer’s sly contempt for the stuffily Puritanical “grammar police,” yes, but equally for the neologistically idiotic. 

I won’t remember all of Dreyer’s writing advice. (I do plan to buy a copy and dog-ear with impunity. I also plan to gift many a friend with this book when it’s affordable at non-hardback prices, my Christmas shopping is done.) What I’ll remember is what tickled me pink throughout: Dreyer’s sly stabs at grammatical, and otherwise, hypocrisy. For example, his stab at spare (there’s it goes again) prose, the territory of certain chest-thumping Hewingway wannabes. Dreyer’s thought on the sentence fragment (something I love and have avoided, but no more of that, my friends):

“You may not be Charles Dickens, but a well-wielded sentence fragment (or, as here, a passel of them) can be a delightful thing. That said, do wield your fragments with a purpose, and mindfully. I lately find them, particularly in fiction, too often used to establish a sort of hairy, sweaty, unbathed masculine narrative voice, and what they end up sounding like is asthma.”

I take this as a clear endorsement of the richer, adjectival-laden romance prose. And everyone knows that before the prose can purple, the hero and heroine, even on the run from bad-guys, must shower. Because the only sweat that’s acceptable is “clean sweated” hero-scent.

I will forever adore and be grateful to Dreyer for his defence of the Oxford comma:

“Whatever you want to call it: Use it. I don’t want to belabor the point; neither am I willing to negotiate it. Only godless savages eschew the series comma.”

I forgive Dreyer, he’s American after all, for calling it the series comma. Not an apostate, or heretic, but I’ll settle for Dreyer’s status as schismatic on this point. I do like Oxford, but will meet him across the fence on “series.”

*purse-lipped schoolmarm opinion* I despise the misuse of the apostrophe. There’s a hill I’m willing to die on. Dreyer’s stance on emphasis (exclamation marks? he’s rid me of them forever. All-caps exclamatory remarks? No longer in my writer’s dictionary) is “less is more,” but he cracked on the apostrophe and I loved him for it:

“Before we get to what you do use apostrophes for, let’s recount what you don’t use them for. Step back, I’m about to hit the caps lock key. DO NOT EVER ATTEMPT TO USE AN APOSTROPHE TO PLURALIZE A WORD. “NOT EVER” AS IN “NEVER.” You may reapproach.

Dreyer’s look-it-up, don’t-be-rigid, spirit-over-law approach is freeing and his book is peppered with wit. He urges his reader to use guide books and dictionaries (they’re our friends) instead of: “(Staring at words is always a bad idea. Stare at the word ‘the’ for more than ten seconds, and all of reality begins to recede.)”

Having started my schooling in 1968, my teachers sported sandals, strummed guitars, wore beading with panache, but didn’t teach grammar. As a result, I hold a dirty grammar secret *whispers* I don’t know any grammar words. I blush at words like “gerund” because I DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY MEAN. Dreyer freed me of shame by writing one sentence: “I’M GOING TO LET YOU IN ON A LITTLE SECRET: I hate grammar. Well, OK, not quite true. I don’t hate grammar. I hate grammar jargon.” I do too, Benjamin, I do too. I’ve always gone by the rule, “if it sounds right,” and now I can add Dreyer’s rule: when you’re not sure, find a practical, sound source, like Dreyer, and see what they have to say about it.

Lest you think there’s nothing here for the romance reader (and writer), I leave you with these two gems:

“PENDANT It’s not that ‘pendent,’ as occasionally turns up when ‘pendant’ is meant, isn’t a word; it’s that it’s usually not the word you want. ‘Pendant’ is a noun; ‘pendent’ is an adjective meaning hanging, or dangling—that is, what a pendant does. Pendulously.”

“COME/CUM Sexually speaking, there are no hard-and-fast rules about this, but I think that ‘come’ works nicely as a verb in the sense of ‘to climax.’ If one is then going to use the common term for the product of male orgasm, ‘cum’ is your man. As a staid conjunction, ‘cum’ suggests dual use, as one might speak of a desk-cum-bureau.”

I love that Dreyer isn’t above punning.

Dreyer’s English is near-perfect. Why “near,” you say? Because in this loose-and-happy grammar universe, Dreyer’s practical American approach nods to British use, but never once refers to his happy-in-the-middle Canadian cousins. We’re here, we’re neither here nor there and we’re unique. There was so much to agree with and love in Dreyer’s English, but I can’t let go of my “u” in colour, neighbour, etc. I would, however, with my reading companion, Miss Austen, urge you to read Dreyer’s English and gift it to your friends and family because it “bewitched me,” Pride and Prejudice.

Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English is published by Random House. It was released on January 29th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I am grateful to Random House for a “wish granted” e-ARC, via Netgalley.

5 thoughts on “REVIEW: Benjamin Dreyer’s ENGLISH

  1. I have Views on the Oxford comma. What I was taught is that one should use the comma if – and only if – it minimises ambiguity. The problem is that these days people seem to think that it always minimises ambiguity, which is simply not the case. For every example you can find where it minimises ambiguity there is another where it increases ambiguity. It is just not good enough to say ‘Use it’ or ‘Don’t use it’. You need to exercise judgment.

    So, the classic example where it does reduce ambiguity is “I dedicate this to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.” Using the comma clarifies that Ayn Rand and God are not the author’s parents. Great.

    But what if the dedication read, “I dedicate this to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.” The comma introduces ambiguity: is the mother Ayn Rand, or are they two different people? You should not use the comma, to remove the ambiguity: “I dedicate this to my mother, Ayn Rand and God” is clear – three people are in view, not two.

    And that, in the end, is the point of all grammar, punctuation and syntax: minimising ambiguity, especially in written language. So I will not be afraid to say, Miss Bates, that I love grammar. I do think it matters, not for its own sake, but for the sake of clear, unambiguous communication.

    Here endeth the lesson.


    1. And I loved your comment! Grammar, like romance, rouses the spirit and makes for great debate. I love the Oxford/series comma. Dreyer does too; as he says, what he doesn’t like is grammar jargon. In the end, I don’t think you’d disagree about clarity and communication. *ayn rand* *shudder*


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