Book review: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer

Dreyer’s English is not a style guide like the MLA or Chicago Manual. It’s more in the vein of the Elements of Style and Gwynne’s Grammar. Unlike those books, however, Dreyer’s English is fun to read and (for the most part) correct in its language proclamations. One of the reasons this book is good is because Dreyer knows what a style guide is and what it should be. He explains in this quote:

This book, then, is the next conversation. It’s my chance to share with you, for your own use, some of what I do, from the nuts-and-bolts stuff that even skilled writers stumble over to some of the fancy little tricks I’ve come across or devised that can make even skilled writing better.

Or perhaps you’re simply interested in what one more person has to say about the series comma.

Let’s get started.

No. Wait. Before we get started:

The reason this book is not called The Last Style Manual You’ll Ever Need, or something equally ghastly, is because it’s not. No single stylebook can ever tell you everything you want to know about writing – no two stylebooks, I might add, can ever agree on everything you want to know about writing […] (p. xvii)

Sounds good to me. This passage also gives you an idea of Dreyer’s writing style, the conversational nature of it. I’ve broken this review up into the Good, the Bad and the Other. This may seem like there are three equal parts, but really there’s much more good in this book than anything else.

The Good

The first chapter starts off by telling people to avoid words like very, rather, really, quite, in fact and just. You can imagine that this had my alarm bells ringing. But Dreyer hedges a bit and says you only need to stop writing these words for one week. The idea is that if you go without them for a week, you’ll see how unnecessary they are and not want to write them anymore after the week is up. That doesn’t explain why Dreyer uses just on the next page, but at least he wasn’t dictatorial here (as this advice usually is in other style guides).

Dreyer makes a point in the intro that his book is not about texting or tweeting, two styles of writing which have their own rules (btw, if you’re on Twitter, you should go follow Dreyer.) This sets up what has to be the central theme of a style guide – language rules. And I was pleasantly surprised to see Dreyer explain so early in his book that there are a whole buncha nonrules in English. He even titles Chapter 2 “Rules and Nonrules”. In there, he says:

The English language, though, is not so easily ruled and regulated. It developed without codification, sucking up new constructions and vocabulary every time some foreigner set foot on the British Isles – to say nothing of the mischief we Americans have wreaked on it these last few centuries – and continues to evolve anarchically. (p. 5)

Ok, technically, every language developed without codification. And although language change may seem like anarchy, it does follow rules – just not the ones people usually think of when they think about language rules. Written English, on the other hand, has people like Dreyer keeping the anarchy in check.

I don’t necessarily like to hear language change described with words like “wreaked” – especially since language change is so important to language survival – but this is a good chapter in which Dreyer explains that some rules aren’t really rules at all. Yes, you were taught them and, yes, you were told they are Rules of English, but they’re really nothing more than the whims of some long dead dude who didn’t understand the importance of bathing more than once a month. Dreyer explains: “Why are they nonrules? So far as I’m concerned, because they’re largely unhelpful, pointlessly constricting, feckless, and useless” (p. 8). Yup.

Dreyer has an interesting take on singular they (pp. 91-95). On the one hand, he understands that singular they is fine, but on the other, he avoids using it. He recognizes in a footnote that esteemed writers such as Jane Austen used it, but doesn’t say that modern writers use it too. And while he doesn’t seem to have any trouble with singular you (which came to the English language more recently than singular they), his commentary on singular they ends with a heartfelt story from his life. Later on he tries it out in a footnote: “Just thought I’d test-drive a singular ‘they’ to see how it felt. It felt . . . OK. Not great.” (p. 115). Someone should probably tell him that there’s a singular they on the back of the book:

If Oscar Wilde had wanted to be helpful as well as brilliant, if E. B. White and Noël Coward had had a wonderful little boy who grew up to cherish and model clarity, the result would be Benjamin Dreyer and his frankly perfect book. Anyone who writes anything should have a copy by their computer, and perhaps another on the nightstand, just for pleasure. – Amy Bloom

And there’s a few more on the publisher’s website for the book. Oh well, can’t win ‘em all.

Dreyer gives good advice on phonetic spellings – the kinds used by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn – by saying you shouldn’t use them because “at best, you’ll come off as classist and condescending; at worst, in some cases, you’ll trip over into racism” (p. 125). Good advice. Take it.

He also says there is “near unanimity” that non-southerners should not use y’all, although we know things might be a little more complicated than that (p. 146).

In Chapter 9 (“Peeves and Crochets”) is about Dreyer’s own personal pet peeves. He cleverly seems to say the pronouncements in this chapter are simply peeves and nothing more, but in presenting them this way it dodges any criticism. We do get a very witty and very astute line from Dreyer at the start of this chapter though:

Oh, and this is crucial: The important thing to remember about peeves and crochets is that your own peeves and crochets reflect sensible preferences based on a refined appreciation of the music and meaning of the English language, and that everyone else’s are the products of diseased minds. (p. 149)

And finally, early on in the book, Dreyer admits to making mistakes (p. 18). This is good. It’s from the Copy Chief of Random House, after all.

The Bad

If I have to take issue with anything in the book, it’s Dreyer’s discussion of grammar. I know it’s a sore subject for many people – because Anglo-American society has simultaneously held Standard English on a pedestal while denigrating all other forms of speaking English – but Dreyer’s English is a book about language. The likely readers are liable to know a thing or two about grammar and to actually care about it. But here’s how Dreyer describes it in a chapter called “A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing”:

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. […] Even now, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what a nominative absolute is, I think the word “genitive” sounds vaguely smutty, and I certainly don’t know, or care to know, how to diagram a sentence. […]

So in this chapter – covering the grammar stumbles I tend to run into most frequently – I’ll do the best to keep the information as simple and applicable as possible and skip the terminology. (p. 85)

Now why you gotta go talk about grammar like this? Linguists and grammar scholars don’t talk about literature like this, saying we couldn’t tell you what a metaphor is, or that we will keep the terminology to a minimum – “bildungsroman” doesn’t sound weird to anyone else? Dreyer also says he’s “allergic” to relative clauses (p. 85). And later on, while explaining the verbs lay and lie, he writes “Loath as I am to haul out the grammatical jargon” (p. 192). Uncalled for, man.

Speaking of which, the first grammar rule that Dreyer presents is about how the verb in a relative clause should agree with the noun or pronoun which appears right before the relative pronoun. Dreyer’s example is:

Here’s one of those grammar rules that infuriate people:

That’s it. That’s the rule, or at least an example of it: The correct verb in that sentence is not “infuriates” but “infuriate.” (p. 85)

Dreyer says we should resist the urge to use the singular verb “infuriates” in this case and he bases his decision on one grammar book from the 1970s – Words into Type (a review on that book is coming). The thing is, this is only part of the story. For example, the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999) shows that what’s going on here is the proximity principle. That is, the verb following the relative pronoun tends to agree in concord with the (pro)noun which is closer to it, rather than the noun which is the head. This is how Dreyer has it and Longman gives examples (p. 189) such as:

One of the girls have got bronchitis [rather than singular “has”]

It had been a long day, and not one of the people who’d auditioned were up to par. [not “was”]

But Longman also shows that phrases with one of + a plural noun phrase are a special case in English. Longman says that plural forms are more common than singular forms, but that there is a tendency for the word one to “pull” the verb into a singular form. So it’s not as hard and fast a rule as Dreyer presents it. For example, in clauses where the focus is on the unit rather than individuals in the unit, Longman says that singular verb forms are regularly found (p. 185):

The number of instances was surprisingly large.

The second group of books is those written by botanists.

The Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English (2002) lays things out even clearer (although also less exhaustively):

Competing with the rule of grammatical concord, there is a tendency to follow notional concord, that is, to let the notion of singular/plural in the subject determine the form of the verb, rather than the grammatical form of the subject. (p. 236)

Other grammar books and style guides agree. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015, 4th ed.) says “with this phrase, and similar phrases such as one of the things that, the choice between singular and plural verb depends on whether the emphasis is on ‘one’ or on the plural noun or pronoun” (p. 32) and that “it is normal to follow this and analogous phrases with a plural verb, pronoun, etc. […] unless particular attention is being drawn to the uniqueness, individuality, etc., of the one in the opening clause, in which case a singular verb is called for (p. 575).

Similarly, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002) says that phrases with one in them present people with the option to use either a singular or plural verb:

One in a hundred students takes/take drugs.

In sentences like these, the CGEL says “the optional singular override is clearly motivated by the presence of one” (p. 504).

Now, is this such a big deal? Not really. If you follow Dreyer’s advice and never use a singular verb in relative clauses where one is the head, then no one is really going to notice. If you use singular verbs in these phrases, some people might notice. Some of those people won’t like it, but those who know what’s up, will not mind at all. So you decide.

Still, I think Dreyer needs to update his grammar books.

Two minor points: Dreyer blames ask as a noun (“a big ask”, p. 150) on the worlds of business and academia, as other sources often do. But this modern use of ask comes from Australian sports writers, according to the OED. (The other senses of noun ask go back to Old English)

Second, Dreyer says that using “very unique” is like hanging a KICK ME sign on your writing (p. 165). Yeah, technically unique is an absolute and cannot be modified with words like very or somewhat or quite. But this is language we’re talking about – ain’t nothing absolute. Even the American Heritage Dictionary says in its usage note that the resistance to modifying unique may be waning. They also cite Martin Luther King Jr. using “rather unique” – aka someone who knew a thing or two about how to use language.

If you don’t believe that there are no absolutes in language, consider the term pregnant. Technically, either you are pregnant or you are not pregnant. However, some people are more pregnant than others, as the Onion knows:

Remember: if you call a woman “pregnant as hell” to her face, you accept any and all consequences. It’s the law.

Finally, on one page, we are told to not use the words “began to”:

“He began to cry” = “He cried.” Dispose of all “began to”s. (p. 116)

But then later on, both Dreyer and his copy editor use this phrase on the same page:

Back in the 1990s, it seemed as if I couldn’t turn a manuscript page without running into the words “inchoate” and “limn,” and I began to shudder at their every appearance. […]

* Copy editor’s addendum: “For me, it was candles ‘guttering’ and ‘tang’ used for smell; both were used so often in literary fiction, I’d begun to think they were handed out with the MFA. (p. 254)

What’s going on here? This is like cops driving home from the bar after a few drinks.

For what it’s worth, the OED has citations for tang relating to “a pungent odor, a penetrating scent” going back to 1858. So if Dreyer’s copy editor remembers the time when the kids started using tang for smells, then maybe Dreyer’s copy editor is… Dracula? I bet the Count has a great page rate. I mean, it’s not like the Ol’ Vlad needs the money, right?

The Other

There’s not really an “ugly” of Dryer’s book to go with my other sections. The book is entertaining and is a breeze to read – even if you’re not supposed to read style books cover to cover, this one makes doing so easy. I know I posted a lot about the dismissal of grammar in the book, but I really enjoyed Dreyer’s English.

Here are some odds and ends that didn’t fit into either section above.

Page 14 has an accurate definition of the passive! Well, I’ll be…

But Dreyer does include a way of identifying the passive in English that doesn’t really work:

Here’s a nifty trick that copy editors like to pass among themselves that comes in handy when you’re assessing your own writing:

If you can append “by zombies” to the end of the sentence (or, yes, “by the clown”), you’ve indeed written a sentence in the passive voice.

I did, however, hear Terry Gross misidentify a passive when she was interviewing Dreyer about his book. He didn’t point this out on air because he has more tact than me. Have a listen to the whole interview – Dreyer is as charming on the mic as he is on the page – and consider Gross’s slipup a little Easter egg.

**

I may have, skipped the chapter on punctuation. Im sure its fine.

**

A couple of funny passages:

In a footnote on page 132, Dreyer writes: “My problem with mnemonic devices is that I can’t remember them.” Hehe. And in the entry for flaccid (p. 135), a word that some people say you should pronounce as “flak-sid”, Dreyer notes “Pronunciation is not my fiefdom – I don’t have to say ‘em, I just have to spell ‘em”.

**

Dreyer busts out the Caps Lock key in his advice on the apostrophe:

DO NOT EVER ATTEMPT TO USE AN APOSTROPHE TO PLURALIZE A WORD.

“NOT EVER” AS IN “NEVER.” (p. 36)

Ok, but you better write the Go-Go’s with an apostrophe.

**

And finally, for a review that doesn’t really talk about the contents of Dreyer’s book, but does tie its metaliterary bonafides in with its hedonic appeal (whatever the heck that mumbo jumbo means), you can go check out – where else? – the New Yorker.

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