Skip to content

If You Are a Writer or an Editor, You Need This Book

Dreyer's EnglishIn an earlier post, I promised to review Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style “in a few days.” That was more than three weeks ago. I’ve been savoring the book, making notes on every chapter. I am now ready to tell you that–as a reader of this blog–you will want to buy a copy for yourself. For writers, editors, and proofreaders, it’s a gem and a workhorse of a book. 

A gem in that it’s splendidly and cleverly written–no dry rules and bland examples here. Note this description of the copyeditor’s job of fixing punctuation:

Copyediting also involves shaking loose and rearranging punctuation–I sometimes feel as if I spend half my life prying up commas and the other half tacking them down someplace else. 

Or this excerpt in the apostrophe section:

Step back, I’m about to hit the CAPS LOCK key. 


He wraps up that command with this offer:

For a modest monthly fee I will come to you 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. 

The book is a workhorse because it offers chapter after chapter of useful advice and instructions grounded in author Benjamin Dreyer’s many years of copyediting experience. 

In the chapter “Rules and Nonrules” Dreyer debunks these familiar nonrules: 

“Never begin a sentence with and or but.”

“Never split an infinitive.”

“Never end a sentence with a preposition.”

But he also argues against less well-known nonrules:

Nonrule: “A person must be a ‘who.'”

When Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics of the song “The Man That Got Away,” he knew precisely what he was doing. (The italics are mine.)

“‘None’ is singular and, dammit, only singular.”

If you can find fault with the sentence “None of us are going to the party,” you have an ear better attuned to the English language than mine. (Italics mine.) 

Nonrule: “Never introduce a list with ‘like'”–as in this example from Dreyer: “Great writers of the twentieth century like Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and William Faulkner . . . ” 

This particular nonrule, I eventually learned and you may be pleased to note, sprung up only as recently as the mid twentieth century, and it has little foundation in anything other than crotchet. . . . That said, there’s nothing wrong with the slightly more grand-sounding “such as.” But feel free to like “like.”

In the chapter “67 Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation” Dreyer argues strongly (and I agree) for the comma used in direct address, as in “But, Mom, you said we could go to the movies.” He writes:

Copy editors periodically run into pushback–generally accompanied by a put-out “But my rhythm!” on that comma [the first one], but they should hold firm, and writers should get over themselves. It’s just a comma, and it’s a proper and meaningful comma, and no one’s pausing in midsentence to take a walk around the block.

His explanation of how changes in hyphenation happen is one I recommend to those who fight against changes in language: 

How and why do these changes occur? I’ll let you in on a little secret: Because you make them happen. Yes, you, right there. You grow impatient with the looks of, say, “rest room” (“I mean, it’s not a room you rest in, is it?”), so you stick a hyphen in it, coexist with “rest-room” for about twenty minutes, then quickly tire of the hyphen and, boom, “restroom.” Multiply this times hundreds of compounds, and watch the language whoosh into the future before your very eyes. Then watch the dictionary keep up with you, because that’s how it works. As a lexicographer friend once confided over sushi, the dictionary takes its cues from use: If writers don’t change things, the dictionary doesn’t change things. 

The chapter “Foreign Affairs” has a section on British vs. American English, which will be helpful to you if you write for both audiences. When I was a little girl, I was corrected in school for writing that something was “grey.” It pained me to have to change that spelling to “gray.” I like Dreyer’s theory on this subject, which matches my childhood experience:

The preferred American spelling is “gray,” but try telling that to the writers who will go ballistic if, in copyediting, you attempt to impose that spelling. In all my years of correcting other people’s spelling, I don’t think I’ve ever come up against more pushback than on this point. My long-held theory–make of it what you will–is that the spelling “grey” imprints itself on some people who encounter it in beloved classic children’s books, and they form an emotional attachment to it.

One item in “Foreign Affairs” seemed too fussy and old-fashioned. Dreyer noted that if you sent him your “resume” rather than your “résumé,” he would probably not hire you. Yet resume is correct in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which Dreyer recommends as an authority. I guess he sees the traditional résumé spelling as a job requirement.

The chapter “The Confusables” covers 150 confusing word pairs and series Dreyer has spotted in his work. This chapter is worth the price of the book, $25 in hardcover. Did you know:

  • “Advanced publicity” should be “advance publicity”? 
  • The difference between prone and supine? I didn’t. It turns out that “to be supine is to be lying on one’s back,” and “to be prone is to be lying on one’s stomach.” Thank you, Benjamin Dreyer. 
  • The difference between flounder and founder? I know the difference, but I always look it up anyway. In Dreyer’s words, “To flounder is to struggle clumsily; to founder is to sink or to fail.” 

Or these confusable pairs may be ones you’d like to know better: canvas/canvass, continual/continuous, flak/flack, forbear/forebear, hardy/hearty, luxurious/luxuriant, ordinance/ordnance, reluctant/reticent, stanch/staunch, tortuous/torturous, and work out/workout. 

The chapter “The Miscellany” offers advice on a range of notable gaffes–those that didn’t fit in earlier chapters. These are errors like the incorrect placement of only (“If you only see one movie this year”), “tow the line,” “deep-seeded,” and “Brussel sprouts.” If you’re not sure what’s wrong with those phrases, I recommend Dreyer’s English

This book belongs in the copyeditor’s toolbox. It includes valuable reminders of things that can go wrong in a manuscript. The chapter “Notes on Proper Nouns” reminded me that it’s essential to check spellings of proper names, places, and entities. Think of puzzlers like Dan Aykroyd, Cruella De Vil and the 101 dalmatians (a breed I was misspelling, at least in my mind), Scarlett Johansson, Antarctica, Romania, Froot Loops, Reddi-Wip, and XBOX

For writers, the chapter “The Trimmables” offers a list of more than 90 words and phrases to trim. Below are some with the trimmable parts italicized. Might you have used the untrimmed versions? 

  • capitol building
  • direct confrontation
  • exact same
  • fall down
  • future plans 
  • hollow tube
  • kneel down 
  • knots per hour 
  • Mount Fujiyama (Dreyer explains that yama means “mountain.” Mount Fuji and Fujiyama are correct.) 
  • slightly ajar
  • unexpected surprise
  • wall mural 

And I can’t leave out Dreyer’s challenge to writers, which he throws down in the first chapter, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose)”:

Go a week without writing

  • very
  • rather
  • really 
  • quite
  • in fact 

After listing a few more unnecessary words and phrases, Dreyer writes:

If you can last a week without writing any of what I’ve come to think of as the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers . . . you will at the end of that week be a considerably better writer than you were at the beginning.

I don’t normally enjoy style guides, but I delighted in Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. I learned a couple of rules and many fun facts. For example, do you know why letters are referred to as upper and lower case? According to Dreyer (and I believe him, having read about his dedication to fact-checking), it has to do with where the letters were kept in the days of manual typesetting. He can tell you more about that. 

When I read a book about clarity and style, I always watch for an error. It’s an enjoyable challenge that helps me pay close attention. I thought I had not found one until I noticed the perplexing punctuation in the author bio: 

Benjamin Dreyer is vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief, of Random House.

Huh? Dreyer glorified the serial comma (“tangerines, tangelos, bananas, and cherries”) in his punctuation chapter, writing:

Whatever you want to call it: Use it. I don’t want to belabor the point; neither am I willing to negotiate it. Only godless savages eschew the series comma. 

He added:

For whatever it’s worth to you, everyone I’ve ever encountered in U.S. book publishing uses it. 

Then what is happening in the author bio? Do you understand the punctuation? Following Dreyer’s advice, I’m going to fix the sentence this way: 

Benjamin Dreyer is vice president, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House.

If this is a test, I hope I passed. 

Does Dreyer’s English sound like something you want on your bookshelf? 


Posted by Avatar photo
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “If You Are a Writer or an Editor, You Need This Book”

  • Thanks for the review. Seems a great book. Will consider purchasing.
    My standard go-to book – though not strictly comparable – as of now is – ‘On Writing Well’ by William Zinsser.

  • Hi Kumar,

    Yes, “On Writing Well” is an important book. This book is different, as you said. I think you would like it.

    As always, thanks for stopping by and commenting.


  • Hi Annemarie,

    Wow! I admire your enthusiasm and action. Please let me know if you like the book as much as I do.


  • One of my best friends has promised to buy this book as a gift for my birthday! Can’t wait! Thanks, Lynn, for your thorough book review. That makes me even more excited to read it!

  • Wonderfully informative review, Lynn! I’ve heard great things about this book, and I plan on reading it for the Northwest Editors Guild book club meeting.

    It will be a challenge agreeing with some of his rules. This editor will always be a “who,” not a “that”!

    Casey Decker
    The Meticulous Type

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *