Book Review: Dreyer's English
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
My college professor was called in as an expert witness over a contract dispute. She helped to successfully settle the issue by diagramming the questionable passage. In other words, she used grammar to show precisely what the client was entitled to.
My own relationship with grammar started off quite rocky. Somehow I managed to navigate all of public school without learning the parts of speech. Only when I was in college and had to take classes in Basic Grammar and Advanced Grammar did I learn to appreciate why grammar makes language comprehensible. There’s something beautiful about a well-crafted sentence that guides the reader smoothly to a conclusion. When a writer uses grammar properly, the reader doesn’t need to struggle to understand. It’s an act of courtesy which respects the time and effort of the reader.
One of the seminal books on grammar is Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. In concise and logical fashion, the authors lay out principles of composition. It’s also a surprisingly enjoyable read.
Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, has modeled his own work, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, off of Strunk & White's. It’s an updated examination of composition and grammar usage, as seen through the eyes of an editor. In the book, he describes commonly encountered problems with writing.
Dreyer is an enthusiastic writer, with plenty of affection for his subject. It is an easily approachable book – anything but dry and boring. As with Strunk & White, he includes lists of commonly misspelled words and misused expressions. He also provides some factoids which are often confused by writers.
The primary difference in Dreyer’s approach over Strunk & White’s is that he is willing to forgive some grammatical mistakes, so long as it is compensated by an author’s style. He identifies what he calls the Great Nonrules of the English Language: the grammatical rules drilled into our heads which really shouldn’t be such a big deal, such as, never beginning a sentence with “and” or “but,” and never splitting an infinitive.
His rationale is that the English language developed over time and is continuing to evolve. You can’t have hard-and-fast rules if usage continues to change. That being said, he is a firm believer in following rules – and understanding their purpose – before you go about breaking them.
Some of his choices of what is inviolable and what isn’t seem idiosyncratic. He has no problem with splitting infinitives (i.e., “To boldly go where no one has gone before”), yet he is adamant that the expression is “centered on” and never “centered around.” [I confess I am also adamant about “centered on.”] The point is that I could never guess which error he would let slide and which should never be made:
“Could Care Less: Use this phrase at your own peril to express utter indifference, because it inspires, from many, furious condemnation. I appreciate its indirect sarcasm, and the more people hate on it, the more apt I am to use it."
Given that this is a book about improving your writing, I confess that I often stumbled over Dreyer’s own style. His syntax struck me as bumpy. He inserts asides into the middle of sentences, which disrupts the rhythm of the language. Sometimes I had to go back to figure out his intent.
Dreyer’s English is a useful update on the state of language, and it is probably more relatable to a modern audience than Strunk & White, but I see it as a nice complement to The Elements of Style.