20 April 2024

Dryer Is a Noun


We all know that. It's the big appliance that sits beside your washing machine. If you want to compare the moisture content of things like two climates, towels, cakes, underwear, etc., it's drier, not dryer. Drier's an adjective. 

Dreyer is also a noun (proper noun). Five years ago, a former Random House copy chief named Benjamin Dreyer published a book called Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, which lists a lot of language-related rules on things like dryer vs. drier, and it has come in handy for me more than once. In fact I wrote a column here at SleuthSayers about the book soon after I discovered it, and I think I've mentioned since then that I consider Dreyer's English second only to Stephen King's On Writing in terms of usefulness and readability. After all, it's utterly correct.

Ever since then, I've been considering doing another post about this book. So, if you have time, take a look at the examples in my previous post, appropriately titled "Dreyer's English," and then see what you think of the following additional rules and pointers that I discovered when I re-read the book not long ago. Some of this stuff I already knew (and so would you), but some of it I didn't. It's all good advice, by an expert who's studied our language from top to bottom.

Here are some of those (paraphrased) observations:

- Feel free to use contractions, even in formal writing. On this, Dreyer says, "Contractions are the reason God invented the apostrophe, so make good use of both." 

- Feel free to use sentence fragments. He mentions, as an example, the first three sentences of Charles Dickens's Bleak House: "London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather." Sometimes sentence fragments work perfectly, when writing fiction.

- It's okay to accompany "whether" with "or not." According to Dreyer, in the sentence "Whether or not you like movie musicals, you'll love Singin' in the Rain," try removing the "or not" and see what happens.

- Feel free to use "like" instead of "such as" when introducing a list. Either one works just fine.

- Don't punctuate acronyms and initialisms (abbreviations pronounced letter by letter) with periods. Examples: NASA, FBI, CIA, IBM, etc.

- Don't feel you have to use a comma before the recipient's name when beginning an email or a text: "Hi John" works every bit as well as "Hi, John."

- Use a comma in a sentence like "He traveled to Pompeii with his daughter Clara" only if he has more than one daughter. If she's the only one, say "He traveled to Pompeii with his daughter, Clara." 

- In my earlier SleuthSayers post, I mentioned never using an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation (CDs, IDs, ATMs)--but that also goes for dates (1860s, 1920s, '50s, '80s, etc.). I'm not sure if it's stated in the book or not, but I couldn't resist bringing it up.

- Use "farmers' market" instead of "farmer's market." Assuming, of course, that there's more than one farmer. I can't help thinking about the titles of two popular writing magazines I used to see on bookstore shelves: Writer's Digest and Writers' Journal. One of the mysteries of the universe.

- Sentences beginning with either "I wonder" or "Guess who" (I wonder who's kissing her now, Guess who's coming to dinner, etc.) should be ended with a period, not a question mark. They're not questions.

- Don't begin a sentence with a numeral or numerals. (1967 dawned clear and bright.) Instead, spell it out or reword it. Nineteen sixty-seven dawned clear and bright, or (better) The year 1967 dawned clear and bright. 

- Numerals are usually avoided in dialogue. Spell 'em out. I'll meet you at three-thirty.

- Set foreign language words and expressions in italics.

- Avoid "misplaced modifiers." Examples: "Strolling through the park, the weather was beautiful," or "Arriving at the garage, my car was nowhere to be found." This mistake is surprisingly easy to make. 

- As for substitutes for "said," don't write "Hello," he smiled, or "I don't care," she shrugged. You can't smile or shrug words.

--Know how to properly position dashes when indicating interrupted dialogue. Incorrect: "I can't possibly--" she set the jam pot down furiously "--eat such overtoasted toast." Correct: "I can't possibly"--she set the jam pot down furiously--"eat such overtoasted toast."

- Don't use semicolons in dialogue. Period.

- As for "Everyone should make up their own mind," etc., Dreyer says. "The singular 'they' is not the wave of the future; it's the wave of the present." In other words, he doesn't like it. But a lot has happened in the world in the five years since he published the book, and that now seems to be a sticky subject. I realize that "Everyone should make up his own mind," or even "Everyone should make up his or her own mind" is probably taboo these days, but the things we learned long ago die hard. I guess I would choose to rephrase the sentence.

One last "rule":

- Avoid the overuse of words like blinking, pausing, smiling, snorting, sighing, and swallowing in passages of dialogue. I confess that my speaking characters do these things all the time. But I'm working on it . . .

Again, these are only a few of the many writing rules I found in my recent re-reading of this fantastic book. If you don't already have it, consider picking it up. (And no, I receive no kickbacks.)

In closing, what are your opinions about the above snippets of "style" advice? Do you agree with most of them? Disagree? Please let me know, in the comments. Meanwhile . . . 

"I'll see you in two weeks," he smiled, snorting.


  1. I haven't pulled out my copy of this book, John, but if he wrote what you said here, I have a big issue with it (I suspect you got it backward). You wrote, "Use a comma in a sentence like 'He traveled to Pompeii with his daughter, Clara' only if he has more than one daughter. If she's the only one, say "He traveled to Pompeii with his daughter Clara." This absolutely bumfuzzles many writers. They seem to feel you must always use a comma there--or two commas, before and after the name. Not true."

    The actual rule is you use a comma to set off unnecessary words, not necessary words. If your traveling man has only one daughter, then you don't need to say her name in the sentence for the reader to figure out who she is (with, perhaps, a little research). Even without saying the name Clara in the sentence, the reader would know who you're referring to. But if your traveling man has more than one daughter, then you need the name in the sentence for the reader to know which daughter he is traveling with. The name, therefore, is necessary for clarity, and therefore you DON'T use a comma: "He traveled to Pompeii with his daughter Clara."

    1. You are exactly right, Barb! I just typed it wrong. I sit corrected, and embarrassed. The rule does bumfuzzle most writers. Proofreading is what bumfuzzles me.

      THANKS! (The book remains accurate and helful--even if my example wasn't.)

  2. I agree with just about everything except “with his daughter Clara.” If he has just one, then Clara is in apposition with daughter and needs a comma. His daughter Clara clara-fies that the writer means her, not Sara.
    Edward Lodi

    1. Yep, you're right, Edward. See my reply to Barb, above. My mistake! And thanks!

      I should have let both him and Clara stay home.

    2. To both Barb and Edward: That error is now corrected. And thank you again!

  3. Sounds like an interesting book.

  4. I'll check this out. Great suggestions. But I'll be adding a comma after "Hi" until I'm dead and buried.

    1. Hi Bob (sorry, couldn't resist that). Seriously, you'd like the book. Every single page has a lot of examples of things you might or might not be aware of, in the area of language and style--and tons of footnotes. I think I mentioned in a previous post that I did disagree with a few pieces of advice, but they're just personal preferences. He prefers AM/PM and I sort of like a.m./p.m., etc.

      By the way, think of how many commas I'm saving, in email greetings--I have a whole jarful now.

      Thanks as always, for the thoughts.

  5. Most of them, John, not all. I'm fine with "the farmer's market," because I see "the farmer" as a class or category, even an archetype, rather than an individual. For example, "The farmer tilling the fields of a small family farm is becoming a rare sight in the American Midwest. Likewise, "The writer making a living by the pen is a vanishing breed." Note my avoidance of pronouns above. However, if you read a lot of British fiction, you may notice that the British have been using "Everyone should make up their own minds" for ages, long before the current gender controversy. I've come to think of it as a handy shorthand, and I use it when I want to. The greatest strength of the English language is its adaptability and openness to change. That's one reason the global lingua franca has become a "lingua anglica."

    1. Liz, I agree that the language is evolving. I can remember when we said "on line," then "on-line" and then "online." I also remember thinking "Everyone/their" sounded odd long before the gender discussions, but that's just me. Maybe these kinds of changes are a good thing, for writers: we can use what we feel works best and not worry too much about it. The task for editors, though, is something else. I wonder if their job might be harder than ever!

      As for Dreyer, yes, we'll probably agree with him on some things but not all. Much of it comes down to what we feel comfortable reading and writing. I STILL don't like using impact as a verb (unlike every newscaster on the planet), but I do understand that it's acceptable. To each his own . . .

  6. A great list! I don't know that particular book (I use The Elements of Style and Princeton Grammarsmart) but appreciated the discussion on daughter Clara. Thanks! Melodie

    1. Thanks, Melodie. You'd like the book.

      As for Elements of Style, I have several copies of that, and still refer to it often. And yes, once I got my stupid comma error fixed, I think the Clara discussion is helpful--that one is often misused.

      What upsets me most, I think, are the errors one hears in the spoken word, in newscasts and weather reports. It's as if many of our announcers (and this is their BUSINESS) never paid any attention in their English classes. Whattayagonnado?

    2. John, you have just listed one of my pet peeves! How many times, I've lectured my classes: "Words are your Business!! You MUST know grammar, punctuation and spelling. Would a carpenter not know how to use his tools?" sigh...Melodie

    3. Part of it, I think, is that they're so young. And it's not just grammar. One of our local reporters was talking on TV awhile back about a long-ago ballgame between the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Olivers. (Did I mention that they also can't read the words on the Teleprompters?)

      Then again, they do seem to be up to date on the latest episode of The Bachelor.

  7. Great list, John, and I especially identify with your last rule. When I'm editing my stories, I constantly find myself weeding out things my characters are doing during dialogue scenes--mine mostly sigh or shrug. I can't seem to stop myself from adding these while I'm drafting, but I end up taking them out 90% of the time. I think my brain just needs time to tune into the rhythm of the prose.

    1. Joe, sigh and shrug are two of my favorite words, and yes, I wind up searching for them afterward and doing some weeding out. (Some of them do stay in, though.) I think all of us have pet words and phrases that just feel right to us, during the writing. Way too many of my characters roll their eyes, and I suspect editors do too, when they encounter that little phrase. I can't seem to resist it.

  8. I used The Elements of Style for years teaching English (I first encountered it in my own high school English class), but it's better for exposition than for narration. For style, I recommend Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale, which really makes language come alive and is a lot of fun, too.

    And don't get me started on TV reporters and tortured language!

    1. Good thought, Steve!--You're right, though I'd never heard it put that way: Strunk & White are better for exposition than for narration. And I wish I had mentioned Sin and Syntax--one of the very best books about style. Thanks!

    2. Thanks to you, too, John. I should have mentioned that I also read Dreyer's English and lean on it heavily.

    3. Glad to hear that. He covers a lot in that book, doesn't he? I found that he answers a few questions I've had for a long time, and--as you said--he makes it fun.


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