“Dreyer’s English” is a style guide with style

Benjamin Dreyer is a master copy editor. He wrote a book on correct English. You might find it amusing.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is currently at No. 12 on the Amazon bestseller list. That is absurd (and based on Dreyer’s comment’s on Twitter, he agrees with me).

Here’s what you’re getting in this book: an amusing romp though Dreyer’s “utterly correct” (and sometimes highly personal and opinionated) rules about how the English language should be rendered in print. This is dry stuff, generally. It’s less dry when run through the Dreyer. The footnotes in particular are quite fun; if you do nothing but read the footnotes, you’ll find the book wholly enjoyable.

To decide if you should buy it, you need to know what category you are in.

If you are a copy editor (note: not “copyeditor,” it’s two words), you should get a copy. Dreyer glorifies your profession. He is to you what Christopher Kimball is to home chefs or LeBron is to pickup basketball players. He can be your hero. So get a copy and read it and revel for a moment (and quibble over his opinions where you differ).

If you are a serious writer and student of the English language, there is stuff in here you should know. You’ll find it far more palatable to read it here than perusing the Chicago Manual of Style. So sure, get a copy and spend an enjoyable few hours reading through it. You’ll learn things.

If you are not into the details of English, you’ll bog down quickly and say “who gives a crap about this stuff.” You could buy a copy and put it on your shelf next to Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and other books you started but didn’t get through. Maybe take it down from time to time and sample it to learn a thing or two, or use the index to look up how not to confuse “lay” and “lie.”

Some Dreyer wit

Here are a few fun bits I enjoyed in Dreyer’s English:

From Chapter 1, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose)”:

Go a week without writing

  • very
  • rather
  • really
  • quite
  • in fact

And you can toss in — or, that is, toss out — “just” . . . and “so.” . . . Oh yes: “pretty.” As in “pretty tedious.” . . . And “of course,” . . . And “surely.”

Good advice.

On a list of rules you should break:

  1. Never Begin a Sentence with “And” or “But.”

No, do begin if a sentence with “And” or “But” if it strikes your fancy to do so. Great writers do it all the time.

Amen. I will cite this to all the pedants that are objecting to it in my books.

On commas:

Only godless savages eschew the series comma [also known as Oxford or serial comma]. . . . No sentence has ever been harmed by a series comma, and many a sentence has been improved by one. . . . For whatever it’s worth to you, everyone I’ve ever encountered in U.S. book publishing uses it.

I’m in furious agreement here (I just edited a famous newspaper columnist’s foreword to a book and added a bunch back in to match the rest of the book). However, if you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that the middle sentence in this passage is in passive voice and includes a comma splice. More on that later.

From the chapters “Notes on Easily Misspelled Words” and “Peeves and Crotchets.”

DAMMIT: It’s not “damnit,” goddammit and damn it all to hell, and I wish people would knock it off already.

DATA: . . . The data supports the consensus that “data” is popularly used as a singular noun, and it’s neither worth fussing over this nor raising the existence of the word “datum.” . . . Move on already.

LEARNINGS: Have you no sense of decency? At long last, have you no sense of decency? . . . They’re lessons.

VERY UNIQUE: “A thing is unique, or not unique;” . . . I will allow that something can be virtually unique but can’t be more than — not very, not especially, not really — unique. . . . You may as well hang a KICK ME sign on your writing.

That should give you a flavor of what you’re getting here.

Four quibbles

One of the things to savor about a book like this is the joy of disagreeing with an expert. Dreyer is about the same age as me and I would bet we have been writing or editing for about the same time. He is the Copy Chief of Random House; I am the author of 6 books including a book on business writing and a million words of blog posts. So he wins the authority race. I’m still going to disagree with him, and you can judge which of us right.

Passive voice

Ah, you knew this was coming. Much of Dreyer’s book is written — erm, let’s fix that — Dreyer has written much of his book in the passive voice. Like many other writers with this habit, this puts the whole book at a respectable distance from the perpetrators of mischief. It allows him to write about writing without spending a lot of time writing about writers. But writers are the ones who commit these crimes and errors, and any true analysis will delve into not just what they do, but why. He gets further into the why than most copyeditors, which is to say, just a little bit.

Regarding passive voice, he dedicates a page and a half to it (pp. 14-15 if you’re following along at home). His definition is elegant and clear and includes the zombies test. And then he adds this:

All this said, there’s nothing wrong with sentences constructed in the passive voice–you’re simply choosing where to put the sentence’s emphasis . . .

But many a sentence can be improved by putting its true protagonist at the beginning, so that’s something to be considered.

Dreyer is using the passive voice ironically here; I’m not a dolt, I can see that. But consider for a moment how his own prose would read without the passive voice:

All this said, there’s nothing wrong with constructing your sentences in the passive voice–you’re simply choosing where to put the sentence’s emphasis . . .

But writers can improve many a sentence by putting its true protagonist at the beginning; consider that.

Same meaning, but more direct and clear, wouldn’t you say?

Passive voice is not wrong. But we still need a lot less of it. If you write a passive voice, do it for a reason or rewrite it. Just as Dreyer suggests.

Numbers

Here’s Dreyer’s passage on the subject:

Generally, in nontechnical, nonscientific text, write out numbers from one through one hundred and all numbers beyond that are easily expressed in words — that is, two hundred but 250, eighteen hundred but 1,823. . . . Percentages should be express in numerals, but I’d urge you to use the word “percent” rather than the percentage sign — unless what you are writing about is hugely about percentages, in which case feel free to write “95 %” rather than “95 percent”

The entire chapter on numbers is made up of exceptions to these rules and exceptions to the exceptions. (And I have no idea why he included the space in “95 %” — could that be an error? Horrors!)

I have a different rule. I write about numbers all the time. I follow the style I learned at Forrester Research, where we often talked about numbers — I suppose you’d call that “technical” but that’s a stretch. My rule is that, except for numbers twelve or less, use numerals:

  • A survey of 1,256 writing professionals.
  • An increase of an average of 4.6% each year for the last ten years.
  • A loss to the economy of 396 billion dollars.

These make the numbers far easier to pick out of text, which is often what readers are looking for. I fight my copy editors on this point, and I win. Deal with it.

The singular “they”

Dreyer speaks of coming to grips with this question when he started to interact with a colleague who used “they” as their preferred pronoun. In the end, he grudgingly accepts it:

The singular “they” is not the wave of the future; it’s the wave of the present. I fear I’m too old a dog to embrace it, and faced with a wannabe genderless “he” or singular “they,” I’m still apt to pull out my tried-and-true tricks to dispose of it. 

It’s very nice, Mr. Dreyer, that you’re willing to accept “they” as if it were the only woman on the management team, in charge of HR, while all the rest of the executives are men. But I want more than tolerance. I want embrace. I will use the singular “they” any time I need to refer to a generic person whose gender is not relevant, and I don’t feel any need to resort to workarounds.

Everyone else will get here eventually. And if someone wants to object, they can go jump off a dangling participle.

Title case

Which words do you capitalize in a title? Not “the,” but how about “to?” Well, according to Dreyer (and all copy experts), you capitalize “to” when it’s a preposition, but not when it’s part of an infinitive (“Born To Run”) or a “phrasal verb” (“Finally Coming To”).

At Forrester, they Capitalized Every Word In Titles, which avoids the problem but reads like every report and subhead is soaked in regal authority.

I have a simpler solution. I only capitalize the first word. Easier on the eyes, easier to read, and easier to write.

That’s wrong, from a copyediting standpoint. But it’s better.

Not a single blog reader has ever commented on it in 2.5 million views. What does that tell you?

This is great fun

I enjoy these arguments and I love my copy editors, even when we’re arguing. (I did, after all, say in my book to reward them with chocolate because they are so valuable.)

This is the second-best book on copy editing you can buy (after Mary Norris’s Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen).

Go ahead. Get a copy. You’ll be smarter. And even broccoli tastes good when it has a nice snarky cream sauce.

17 responses to ““Dreyer’s English” is a style guide with style

  1. “This is great fun” –as was reading this post, brimming with infectious enthusiasm, thank you! (yes I am worried about the commas, but maybe I can get leniency for an online comment?)

  2. All good fun for writing nerds (myself included)–and on that note, I want to point out that there is no comma splice where you point it out. The rule is that a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction is not a comma splice. You said you were going to provide more on that later, but did not. So, I’m just throwing in my own snarky cream sauce here.

  3. When I worked as an agency copywriter, the new account executive unwary enough to complain about beginning sentences with “And” would be queried if they thought the King James Version Bible was a worthy example of the “King’s English,” and when they invariably answered in the affirmative, I would ceremonially present them with a photocopy of Genesis, Chapter 1 — 28 consecutive sentences all sonorously beginning with “And.”

      1. What really knocked me out was when they would try to explain their objection by saying, “Don’t you see? ‘And’ is a *conjunction.* It can only *join* two clauses, not begin one!” I knew then that I was dealing with a survivor of Fifth-Grade-English-Teacher-Latinism — the same kind that would patiently explain that the reason a sentence can’t be ended with a preposition is precisely because it’s a *pre*position, which must, as the name clearly indicates, *pre*cede its object (even though Germanic languages, such as English, are replete with perfectly grammatic postpositions).

  4. It’s been nice to have a late morning cup of coffee, sit here and- line by line, laugh my ass off over what was written by both parties. This has to be your most hilarious posting yet, Josh. Keep this up, and please add to your youtube uploads- videos of your spoken humor during presentations, where you take the nervous edge off the audience and make participants think and learn by laughing first.

  5. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book! A few years ago another grammar book was a surprise hit in Britain. It was called “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. This one sounds as if it has the same quirky humour. Thanks for talking about it, Josh.

  6. “Data” as a plural noun is a hill I’m happy to die on. “Datum” is a stupid word, I will use “data point” or “outcome” instead.

  7. Regarding “d*mn!t,” I suspect the author who writes it with correct vowels is offering a more genteel version of the word, and said wordsmith is giving enough data for the reader to fill in the blanks with a stronger-proof version, if warranted.

    I battled with high school and college-level English teachers regarding the singular “they.” I view it as more inclusive and less cumbersome than some combination of he, she, s/he, or he/she. Every time I use it in my blog or social media, I think, “Take that!” I guess it’s the rebel in me.

    I’m also a fan of the Oxford Comma and feel it clarifies the sentence’s meaning. My husband and I differ on this last point, but my response is, “We can afford the extra ink.”

    I am learning German, and the rules for commas are different. I cringe every time I use “und” (meaning, “and”) connecting two independent clauses, because correct German demands no comma in that situation. Nor does Der Duden (the official German grammar and spelling rules) allow a final comma in a series. I sigh silently every time.

    I read recently the “don’t end with a preposition” rule came from proper use of Latin. Germans gleefully do the opposite when using many verbs with an attached preposition (“I invited Sally in”), so that makes me happy.

    Does this portend becoming a multilingual grammar snob?

    Perhaps.

    I’m simply glad there is an author brave enough to write concise rules of grammar in an enjoyable way. Future generations of high school students will be thankful.

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