06 April 2019

Dreyer's English

by John M. Floyd

The other day I discovered, while piddling around on Amazon, a book called Dreyer's English--An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. At first I didn't pay it much attention--I already own a lot of books about language and style. Some are worthwhile and some are not.

Then I remembered my wife telling me about a recent NPR interview with the author, Benjamin Dreyer, who is vice president, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House. I looked up the broadcast online and listened to it, and that made up my mind. This book sounded different from most of the others. I ordered it, received it in two days, and read it in one evening. (The book is no small, stick-it-in-your-pocket volume like The Elements of Style; it's almost 300 pages.)

As it turned out, it was delightful. Or as close to it as that subject can be. Literary style--grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, paragraph structure, word choice, word usage--can be a dry (Dreyer?) topic. But this book was not only informative, it was fun.

Here are just a few of the (mostly paraphrased) pointers and observations I found interesting in Dreyer's English.

- You don't always have to precede a sentence-ending "too" with a comma. It's okay to write "Me too."

- Feel free to end a sentence shaped like a question with a period instead of a question mark. It makes a statement, doesn't it.

- Always use the series (or serial, or Oxford) comma. You know this already, but the second comma in "red, white, and blue" is the series comma. Its use can prevent the following disasters:

Dreyer's example: Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector. (Which implies that Mandela might've been older than we thought, and had an odd hobby.)

My example: Attending the party were two hookers, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. (Which implies two people instead of four.)

- Limit your use of words like very, rather, really, quite, just, pretty, and surely.

- Ignore the Big Three grammar/style "rules":
1. Never Begin a Sentence with And or But
2. Never Split an Infinitive
3. Never End a Sentence with a Preposition

(I happily break them all the time, but it's good to hear an expert say it's okay.)

- Never use an apostrophe to pluralize a word. This also holds true for abbreviations: CDs, ATMs, IDs, SASEs.

- When a possessive apostrophe is used with a word ending in "s," put another "s" after the apostrophe. (Strunk and White agree with this.) Mr. Jones's tractor, Colonel Sanders's recipe, the boss's wife.

- If the title of a work starts with "The," include it in a possessive construction:

Incorrect: Carson McCullers's Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Correct: Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

If you don't follow this rule, you could end up with something like this:

James Joyce's Dead
(Which Dreyer says sounds more like a tragic headline.)

- Cut back on exclamation points. He says, "Some writers recommend that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points per book; others insist that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points in a lifetime."

- Always use a comma if there's any question of clarity.

His example: In June Truman's secretary of state flew to Moscow.
My example: In time travel will become less frustrating.

- Hyphenate multiple-word adjectives:

first-rate movie
fifth-floor apartment
all-you-can-eat buffet

- Merge prefixes with main words hyphenlessly:


(Unless such a combination looks confusing or awkward, like recreate or coworker.)

- Don't use "hissed" if what is spoken contains no "s" sounds. "Take your hand off me, you brute," she hissed.

- A tip for recognizing passive voice vs. active voice: If you can append "by zombies" to the end of a sentence, you've written a sentence in the passive voice. The floor was swept (by zombies).

- "Blond" is an adjective: He has blond hair; she has blond hair. Both "blond" and "blonde" are nouns: A man with blond hair is a blond; a woman with blond hair is a blonde.

Examples of our evolving language:

"light bulb" became "light-bulb" and then "lightbulb"
"Web site" became "Web-site" and then "website"

- Dreyer's view on internal monologue (or what he calls "articulated rumination"):

In the old days, authors said: "What is to become of me?" Estelle thought.
This eventually became: What is to become of me? Estelle thought.
And now we're more likely to see: What is to become of me? Estelle thought.

A final piece of advice:

- Sometimes it's better to just reword a sentence than to struggle with what's right or wrong or politically correct.

His example:
Instead of saying "It is I who am late" or "It is I who is late," say "I'm late."

My example:
Instead of saying "Everyone take their seats" or "Everyone take his seat" or "Everyone take his/her seat" or Everyone take his or her seat," say "Sit down."

Some of his advice I didn't agree with. I prefer a.m. and p.m., he prefers A.M. and P.M.; he prefers "mind-racking" to "mind-wracking"; he doesn't like the word actually and I wouldn't be able to live without my actuallys, etc. (But my wife was kind enough to remind me that he works for Random House and my major was electrical engineering, so . . .)

The book also clarifies dozens of often-misused words and phrases: breach/breech, continual/continuous, discreet/discrete, everyday/every day, evoke/invoke, loath/loathe, mantel/mantle, onboard/on board, peak/peek/pique, underway/under way, workout/work out

And it lists (as a sort of bonus) many often-misspelled or mispunctuated people names, place names, and brand names. A few examples: Anjelica Huston, Katharine Hepburn, Ann-Margret, T.S. Eliot, Nicolas Cage, Bleecker Street, Caesars Palace, Fontainebleau, Savile Row, Dr Pepper, Froot Loops, JCPenney, Plexiglas, Reddi Wip

To sum all this up, I haven't enjoyed a book about language this much since Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and that was sixteen years ago.

Give Dreyer's English a try.


  1. I see your evenings are a thrill a minute, John ;-) . Just kidding. I like reading stuff like that, too. And I've heard of his book or saw a review or something and it sounded interesting. The thing that intrigued me when I heard about it was he said it was okay to end a sentence with a preposition. I'm all for that. Anyway, it sounds good. After reading your piece I might just have to get a copy.

  2. Excellent advice. Glad you put this up.

  3. I got my copy earlier this week, John. Haven't read through the whole thing yet, only dabbled in it here and there, but it's already a joy to read--good advice and great wit in the telling of it. (...as with your post as well!)

  4. Paul, I agree--it's pretty bad when you get excited about a grammar guidebook. The thing about this one is that he makes this stuff fun to read and learn, and that's no small task. Do give it a try,

    I think you'd enjoy this one, O'Neil. Like Eats Shoots, it's full of humor. The only problem is the fact that he uses so many footnotes, but I got used to it.

    Art, it's probably not designed to be read cover-to-cover like a novel (the way I did), but it's fun to do it that way too. It can serve as a pretty good reference book. What was most interesting to me was finding out whether I agreed with him on all these points, many of which are pet peeves, and I usually did. And I learned a lot, which is a plus with any book about writing. Glad to hear you got it already.

    Thanks, guys.

  5. I was raised by English teachers - mother and grandmother - who made me parse sentences. This should have traumatized me, but other things stepped in to do that. Instead, it turned out to be a lifesaver while learning foreign languages, like German which genders nouns, adjectives, etc., depending on whether it's a direct object, an object, or a possessive.

    But back to punctuation - my favorite example is the use of the serial, or Oxford comma, especially the 2 hookers. I can see how this was a good read.

  6. Eve, I think the best argument for the serial comma is that if you don't use it, sooner or later it'll cause a misunderstanding, while there seems to be no downside to using it. If I'm not mistaken, the AP stylebooks still say avoid it--I know it's almost never seen in newspaper pieces.

    In my writing classes I never insisted on it when I critiqued manuscripts, because I suppose it truly is optional, but I also always cautioned the students about the risks.

    I suspect being raised by English teachers was a huge plus, in the long run.

  7. Thanks for the recommendation John. You gave some excellent examples, esp concerning passive voice, the series comma, and using (or refraining from) question marks, I wonder where Dreyer falls on using LA or L.A. for Los Angeles. See what I
    did there? Anyway, I just ordered it.

  8. Larry, I think you'll like the book. As for LA/L.A., I don't think he mentioned it specifically, but it seems he prefers to leave the periods our of most abbreviations of that kind. I've always said LA unless there's a chance of it being confused with Louisiana, in which case I put the periods in--some folks down here write LA meaning the state, even though that's really supposed to be a postal abbreviation only.

    And I too agree with refraining from the question mark unless it's REALLY a question. Why not.

  9. Hey John! When my daughter was in nursery school she had a classmate Ashley, whom she called "Actually" because it was a word she already knew.

    Anybody need another Oxford comma example? I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Donald Trump.

  10. Instead of saying "Everyone take their seats" or "Everyone take his seat" or "Everyone take his/her seat" or Everyone take his or her seat," say "Sit down."

    Or"Please be seated"

  11. Liz -- Great example (better than mine)! Leaving out that comma would be disastrous.

    Hi Don. Yep, anything that gets them off their feet, right? The singular "his" or "her" that goes along with the singular "everyone" or "everybody" sometimes seems to make it difficult to say certain things to a group. In the South we would probably just say "All y'all have a seat."

  12. I definitely need to check this out.
    Thanks for the heads-up.

  13. As I've said to others, Steve, I think you'll like it, This is a book written by a guy who's done copyediting for many years, so I think the information might be more accurate than that contained in some guidebooks. Again, all of us have our pet likes and dislikes on all this stuff, but this is pretty good.

  14. Just ordered it, John. Arriving Monday. So I guess I'll have a thrilling night with it like you did :-) .

  15. Ha! Let me know, Paul. Hope you'll like it.

  16. Did you and Leigh really write about Dreyer's book two days in a row without consultation? I don't need to read it, because I see I agree with almost everything. The exceptions for me are split infinitives and "blond" as the adjective. For a long time I made both noun and adjective specific to the gender of the subject. Nowadays my rule for the adjective is to maintain consistency, ie probably "blonde" throughout. Just this afternoon I took some pesky apostrophes out of IDs in some business writing I was proofing. And amen to no hissing without esses, no murmuring without ems.

  17. Great read, John. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll order it in eBook right away.

    Best, Bill

  18. I have lots of books on correct writing, but this one sounds especially good. And you sold me completely when you said it had footnotes. I love footnotes.

  19. Hey Liz! Yep, Leigh sent me a note as soon as my post went up, saying lightning had struck at the same place at the same time. I suspect he hacked into my system a day or two earlier and used my idea to write his own column. Or maybe Velma did it for him, she's sneaky that way. As for the book and its "rules," I think those "e"s on the end of blond when it's used as an adjective are as pesky as the apostrophes after abbreviations. And I hadn't thought about murmuring without ems--good point! Though I think Dreyer suggested that we never murmur at all.

    Thanks, Bill. I bet you'll like the book.

    Susan -- You're probably like me: I have TOO MANY books on correct writing. As for footnotes, I bet he used a thousand of 'em. Let me know what you think of the book.


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