My book club has been focusing on short books lately because we’ve all felt so busy and overwhelmed. A friend of mine chose Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (2019) for our next book. This book is exactly what you’d think from the title. It might be odd to read a style book for a book club, but we’re a bunch of lawyers who regularly argue about this kind of thing. It was really kind of perfect for us. (Dreyer told me not to use “really” in my writing.)
Benjamin Dreyer is the Copy Chief of Random House. He has copyedited many famous people’s manuscripts, and he has a lot of opinions on how people should write. I thought his book was sometimes funny, sometimes annoying, and sometimes informative. It did help me one day with the NYT’s Spelling Bee game after I learned that you can also spell glamour without a ‘u’ as glamor.
Dreyer copyedited a posthumous book by Shirley Jackson. He is a huge fan and used her writing as examples (as well as many authors) throughout the book. This was a nice connection for my book club because we’d just recently read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
I began this book on audiobook and had to switch to hardcover. Although Dreyer did a good job reading, it is extremely tedious to listen to variations of spelling and punctuation instead of just looking at the text. The most frustrating parts of this book were the constant asterisks and footnotes. These were sometimes funny, but because of the small font I almost always missed them while reading the page. I would get to the end of the page and see a bunch of footnotes and try to figure out where they’d come from. Since they were often quippy little nothings, they didn’t make any sense unless you could see what he was referring to. It became a real bother.
On the other hand, Dreyer was really (sorry, kind of) funny. He brought up a little politics, mentioning Hillary Clinton and Trump. He also made a joke about teabagging that I don’t exactly remember, except that I recall being impressed that he worked it into a grammar/style book.
Besides being opinionated and occasionally funny, much of this book did not really sink in. I’m not going to remember the spelling of all those words Dreyer listed out, so reading through them felt like an exercise in futility. I also wish he’d been a little more reader friendly when he described grammar rules, instead of copying the rules in their most academic form. I’ve read other books that made me understand and remember these grammar and style rules much better.
What I found most memorable and useful about this book were Dreyer’s general tips on writing. Specifically, you want to make your writing clear and understandable. Your sentences might be confusing even if they technically adhere to all the grammar rules, so change them to make them more readable. Feel free to break the rules, but break them intentionally and for a purpose. I also enjoyed the parts where Dreyer discussed his job. It was interesting to get a glimpse into a copyeditor’s life.
This book is a good choice for those of you who like reading grammar and style books. You know who you are.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.