REVIEW CORNER: A New Grammar Guide That Entertains as it Teaches

By Kathryn Keil on Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Looking to brush up on your style or improve your prose? Maybe you’re just a grammar nerd who enjoys arguing the merits (or lack thereof) of the Oxford comma. Either way, you will definitely enjoy this book on writing style (now in paperback) by Benjamin Dreyer.

This delightful new reference title, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, takes a fresh look at age-old style conventions, and offers guidance for writing and editing in the 21st Century. As the back cover copy indicates, we all write, even things as mundane as emails. Dreyer’s goal with this playful look at writing well is to help us remember why the English language works best when the rules are followed.

In his role as executive managing editor and copy chief of Random House, Dreyer personally worked on manuscripts by authors as varied as Calvin Trillin, Michael Chabon, and E.L. Doctorow, so he has seen it all when it comes to writing and editing. His own writing style is saucy, conversational, and perhaps a bit jaded as he reflects on grammar mistakes and spelling errors that he has obviously grown weary of correcting. He is a fan of tidy writing, perhaps not to the Strunk & White level, but as an editor, he certainly prefers a well-constructed sentence that uses as few words as possible.

The book runs quickly through grammar rules (and non-rules), treatment of numbers in text, keeping track of reality as you write and edit fiction, and much more. The best chapters cover Dreyer’s punctuation pet peeves, easily confused words and how to choose the correct option, and proper nouns that are misspelled more often than not. My favorite was Chapter 8, a hilarious collection of egregious spelling situations (“Notes on, Amid a List of, Frequently and/or Easily Misspelled Words”).

I am a collector of books on writing and grammar, and this volume will earn its place on a shelf alongside my Fowler’s, my Karen Elizabeth Gordon books, my Zinsser and my E.B. White. I was thoroughly entertained while also feeling like I had just been though a refresher course on sophisticated and somewhat archaic style rules. This book would make a great gift for anyone who works with words or is looking to improve their own writing.

Dreyer’s English is available wherever books are sold, but I encourage you to seek out your local independent bookstore for a copy. Most Chicago-area bookstores stores are open to the public or doing curbside pick-up. Just give your favorite store a call; the friendly and knowledgeable booksellers will be glad to let you know the best way that you can add to your TBR pile while also staying healthy and safe.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is published by Random House.

Hardcover: ISBN 978-0812995701, $25, 2019.

Paperback: ISBN 978-0-8129-8571-9, $18, 2020.

One caveat: Dreyer’s joking style may not be everyone’s cup of tea; he does lean into political “humor.” I was not personally offended, but there were a few bits that I might have edited out had I been copyediting this manuscript!

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