Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A review of Dreyer’s English

Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York: Random House, 2019. xviii + 291 pages. $25.

The first two sentences of the book’s introduction made me wonder what I was in for:

I am a copy editor. After a piece of writing has been, likely through numerous drafts, developed and revised by the writer and by the person I tend to call the editor editor and deemed essentially finished and complete, my job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it . . . better.
That second sentence: shouldn’t we expect better of a copy editor? I see several problems: The break between “been” and “developed” makes the sentence difficult to navigate. “Developed and revised”: already implied in “numerous drafts.” “Essentially finished and complete”: also redundant, and “essentially” is, essentially, an empty modifier. And besides, if a writer and an editor know that the manuscript is going to a copy editor, how can it be finished? It’s ready for the next step toward publication.

I am not a copy editor, but I began rewriting, first in my head, then on paper:
I am a copy editor. After a writer and an editor have seen a piece of writing through numerous drafts, my job is to take that writing and make it better.
I am a copy editor. After a writer and an editor have seen a piece of writing through numerous drafts, I take that writing and make it better.
I think I just did.

Dreyer’s English is a disappointing and not especially useful book. Its design finally became clear to me when I hit the chapter “Notes on Proper Nouns,” devoted to the proper spelling of several dozen proper nouns — “the germ of the book,” as Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, calls it. Dreyer’s English is something of a chatty in-house style guide. Dreyer writes about non-rules (yes, you can begin a sentence with and or but); the rudiments of punctuation; the proper handling of numerals, foreign words, and titles; a few points of grammar; and a few points for fiction writers. He offers a Twitter-sourced array of pet peeves, and he lists words that are often confused and misspelled. And then there’s that list of proper nouns: Stephenie Meyer, Froot Loops, &c. There’s no vision here of what constitutes good prose, only a miscellany, made, mostly, of technicalities.

As a reference, the book fails. Imagine that you’re a true naïf who needs to know how to render a title. The details appear in passing, in a discussion of quotation marks in a chapter about punctuation. If the title is that of, say, an art exhibit or symphony, you’re out of luck. And if it’s the title of a play? Plays are in a footnote, separate from books, recordings, and television series, all of which take italics. (We’re now quite a ways from quotation marks.) A movie title? Movies, for some reason, aren’t mentioned, but the treatment of television shows suggests italics. Or imagine that you’re trying to find what Dreyer says about changing a capital letter to a lowercase letter at the start of a quotation. The index won’t help. (This answer too is in the chapter about punctuation.) Or imagine that you’re trying to recall whether it’s “Brussel sprouts” or “Brussels sprouts.” There too, the index won’t help. Nor is the answer in the chapter about words often confused or the chapter about words often misspelled. The answer is in a chapter called “The Miscellany.”

But no reasonable reader would check on the sprouts by going back to this book. That’s what a dictionary is for. And a reader who is serious about the work of writing would do far better to buy and refer to what Dreyer calls (four times) “big fat stylebooks.” (He names The Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and Words into Type.) Such books wear their authority easily and un-self-consciously. Dreyer, in contrast, plays his authority down and up, telling us at one point that he hates “grammar jargon,” at another that “hopefully” is a “disjunct adverb.” He has several moments of Lynne Truss-like indignation: “For a modest monthly fee I will come to wherever you are, and when, in an attempt to pluralize a word, you so much as reach for the apostrophe key, I will slap your hand.” And: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.” “Series comma,” by the way, is Dreyer’s name for what’s better known as the Oxford or serial comma. Why? Because Dreyer is “a patriotic American” and because “serial” makes him think of “killer.”

Dreyer would do well to consider a maxim from E.B. White’s “An Approach to Style,” a chapter in The Elements of Style (a book that, according to a blurb, Dreyer’s English is about to replace):
Place yourself in the background.

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none — that is, place yourself in the background.
In Dreyer’s English, the writer is everywhere, in the kidding/not kidding subtitle, and most insistently in 208 footnotes that digress in all directions. The first note, for instance, refuses to name a famous name from a party on the Upper East Side: “It’s not name-dropping if I don’t drop the name, right?” The second footnote names the name and recommends the name’s “svelte little memoir.” “Seek it out,” Dreyer says. A little of this stuff goes a long way. And Dreyer’s English is going right back to the library.

Here are some books that do more than this one to further the possibilities of writing. For general inspiration: Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences about Writing and Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. For revision: Claire Cook’s Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing and Bruce Ross-Larson's Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words. For authoritative and extensive guidance in usage: Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage. These are books that a writer can read and learn from again and again.

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