AuthorTietz, Jonathan I.

DREYER'S ENGLISH: AN UTTERLY CORRECT GUIDE TO CLARITY AND STYLE. By Benjamin Dreyer. New York: Random House. 2019. Pp. xviii, 278. $25.

"I have nothing against rules" (p. 6)--a counterintuitive qualifier in an ostensibly prescriptive book on stylistic minutiae, grammar, commas, usage, and spelling. Nevertheless, Benjamin Dreyer (1) begins the second chapter of Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style this way, and, indeed, the book is less about rules for proper writing than about reducing clarity barriers. In that sense, it reflects modern notions of good writing in the law.

Dreyer's English is a conversational book that, like Mary Norris's 2015 account Between You & Me, (2) positions itself somewhere between a memoir and a writing guide. Like Norris, Dreyer frames his advice through his professional experience. Norris and Dreyer are both insightful, funny, and a little irreverent. Each make thoughtful and practical prescriptions. Each take a folksy, jargon-averse approach. And each tackle largely the same subject matter--editorial philosophy, grammar, punctuation, usage, and so on.

Yet the books contrast markedly in structure and style: Between You & Me is a collection of chapters that could have been essays from the pages of The New Yorker, each chapter centered thematically on a specific editing-related topic but still presented as its own story. Norris, conspiratorial and open, spends considerable time recounting her career and her personal history, which bolsters her credibility and encourages buy-in to her perspective and to the importance of the grammatical concepts she delves into. Her account is a series of confidences told thoughtfully over coffee.

Dreyer's English, on the other hand, is a series of insider truths confided rapid-fire over a beer. Dreyer recounts his origin story, too, but only briefly, and even indirectly. His credibility and cachet are assumed and inferred, and a reader must have already accepted his underlying premises. Dreyer jumps directly into his thoughts and advice. He doesn't rely on narrative to build his authority, and he doesn't get overly personal--he relies on humor and cheekiness, seeming to accept with a shrug that if you're not on board yet with the value of clear writing, you probably won't ever be.

Organizationally, Dreyer's book takes a march through many of the essential topics of grammar, usage, and style--matters of sentence-level form, mostly. Essentially, Part I is meant to break down the myths embedded over the years into our collective sense of schoolbook English. The first chapter is a brief challenge to the reader to forgo a handful of empty (but common) words for a week. (3) The second chapter delves into the nature of language rules--or, more accurately, language superstitions and "nonrules," which Dreyer points out and reassuringly dismisses. Then comes what is probably the truest litmus test for real believers (and a test of endurance for the nonbelievers): sixty-six points about punctuation (Chapter Three). After that, Dreyer discusses what to do with numbers (Chapter Four) and foreign-origin terms (Chapter Five). He finishes up Part I with a delightfully nonjargonistic discussion of grammar (Chapter Six) and a caveat about writing context, noting some special differences for writing and editing fiction in particular (Chapter Seven).

The basics having been established, Part II is more style guide-like and granular, and each chapter there is essentially a punchily annotated glossary. Dreyer starts with a list of frequently misspelled words (Chapter Eight), moving then to a collection of phrases or usages that run an unusually high risk of annoying readers (Chapter Nine). Chapter Ten covers frequently confused terms. The next chapter is devoted, unusually, to proper names--mostly of people, but also of places and trademarks--that are frequently misused (Chapter Eleven). Dreyer then explores redundancies and word economy, pointing out frequent places where superfluous language can be cut with no great loss to humankind (Chapter Twelve). The final chapter is a handful of hard-to-characterize miscellaneous thoughts (Chapter Thirteen).

For a reader who already appreciates clarity and welcomes the comfort of stylistic prescriptions from on high, Dreyer's English is a useful resource. Plus, it's short. At around 300 pages, it's easily read cover to cover--even...

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