On page 36 of Dreyer’s English, author and Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer makes use of the fearsome CAPS LOCK key to make a point about never, EVER using an apostrophe to pluralize a word. Having been driven to contemplate felonies by the sight of signs saying, for example, “DVD’s for sale,” this was enough to win my loyalty. However, Dreyer goes on to explain that in Britain these unnecessary punctuation marks are called “greengrocer’s apostrophes,” because you’re likely to find them on signs advertising “potato’s” or “banana’s.” In the U.S., where you’d get quizzical looks for using a term like greengrocer, they are sometimes labeled the much meaner (and, therefore, much less British) “idiot’s apostrophes.” A footnote reveals that the term idiot’s apostrophe is derived from the German word Deppenapostroph, because of course the Germans have a word for that. (Timely shout-out to John Koenig to consider this inspiration for his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.)
These sidebars are what make Dreyer’s English more than a grammar guide. Dreyer lists plenty of rules, but few of them are unbending and all are designed to make people better writers. He offers solid writing advice, such as, “A sentence that can’t be readily voiced is a sentence that needs to be rewritten.” On top of that, the book had me literally laughing out loud. And yes, I do mean literally–my husband can confirm. (For more on “literally,” see page 161: “A respectable word that has been distorted into the Intensifier from Hell.”)
Dreyer begins Chapter 1 by suggesting several words/terms you should try to go one week without using: very, rather, really, quite, in fact. I doubt I’d pass the test for an entire week, but I’ve dutifully scrubbed this review of any additional instance of those terms in an attempt to make my writing tighter. He lists overused expressions that he comes across frequently in his job, saying, “With all the nodding and head shaking going on, I’m surprised that half the characters in modern fiction haven’t dislocated something.” On a personal note, I’d like to add “sighing” to that list. I nearly gave up on a novel last year because characters were sighing on every third page. [Reviewer pauses here to remove the word “sigh” from a recently posted review, because fair’s fair.]
Dreyer also lists words and expressions that are commonly misused, from imply/infer (which, honestly, I’ve never understood how or why people mix those up), to “begs the question” (apparently nobody understands that one, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used correctly), to lay/lie/laid/lain, etc. (which I tagged with a book dart, because I am guilty of mixing those up more than I’d like to admit). If this book has a weakness, it’s that it’s list heavy; however, one needn’t read it cover-to-cover as I did. Those lists will come in handy when I want to remind myself whether I mean to say “forego” or “forgo.”
Some of Dreyer’s choices as copy chief might be controversial. He’s a strong supporter of the series/serial/Oxford comma (hooray!) but he refuses to budge (yet) on “man hours,” which strikes me as inconsistent since he makes an eloquent case for the singular “they.” Then again, every editor has their own nits (or is it knits?). As Dreyer points out, “People who couldn’t care less about ‘could care less’ will, faced with the use of ‘impact’ as a verb, geschrei the house down, and that mob that sees fifty shades of red, scarlet, and carmine over the relatively newfangled use of ‘begs the question’ to mean ‘raises the question’ may well pass by a ‘comprised of’ without so much as batting an eye.” This passage struck a chord with me because the person (a top-notch editor herself) who gave me this book as much as said she wasn’t keeping it because Dreyer didn’t take a strong enough stand against “impact” as a verb. For my part, your “comprised of” will get red-lined by me every time. Editors are a funny lot.
Dreyer’s English is an excellent read with useful advice in the tradition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It’s not the last style book you’ll ever need, but it will make a wonderful addition to your reference shelf alongside your Strunk & White, your Chicago Manual of Style, and whatever other style and/or grammar guides you favor (Dreyer recommends Words into Type). And of course, language changes all the time, whether pedants want it to or not. A lexicographer friend of Dreyer’s once told him, “The dictionary takes its cues from use: If writers don’t change things, the dictionary doesn’t change things.” So go out and change things. Just don’t try to slip “comprised of” by me.