Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer (2019) (read in 2019)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

Dreyer is copy chief at Random House Books. He throws his hat into the ring, offering sage and drily humorous grammatical advice based on his 30 years of experience. For nitty gritty and details of grammar, he refers readers to the classic style guides. His book is for broad strokes about the various linguistic constructs and common patterns, tropes and styles he’s encountered—and that he’d like to stop encountering.

He is, at core, pragmatic:

“A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.”

But he isn’t a pedantic or precise scientist, either. While I’m willing to be convinced by his argument for serial commas—always use them, because they’re often helpful, so why not just get used to them?—he argues in the opposite manner when writing about hyphens, where he argues that “convention […] allows for exceptions in some cases in which a misreading is unlikely, as in, say: real estate agent or high school students”, to which I say, why?

Who would it harm to clean up English’s ridiculous word-concatenation rules (or is it “word concatenation” or why not wordconcatentation)? Some agglutinations take a space, others none and others a hyphen—pretty much depending on how long the compound has existed and … whimsy. I prefer throwing an extra hyphen at real-estate agents or high-school students simply because there is often so much confusion where neither the author nor the copy editor anticipated there being some.

I’m grateful for his having cleared up proper-name hyphenation for me, though, as well as the proper use of hyphens and en dashes (which I’d heretofore used almost correctly).

He throws in chapters on oft-misused vocabulary—as well as some rare, but lovely, vocabulary—as well as a couple on idioms and common constructs. Some of the chapters are just lists, but that makes this an excellent reference.


“A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection. (If you want to puzzle your reader, that’s your own business.)”
Page 7
“All this said, there’s nothing wrong with sentences constructed in the passive voice—you’re simply choosing where you want to put the sentence’s emphasis—and I see nothing objectionable in, say, The floors were swept, the beds made, the rooms aired out. Since the point of interest is the cleanness of the house and not the identity of the cleaner. But many a sentence can be improved by putting its true protagonist at the beginning, so that’s something to be considered.”
Page 14
“[…] give you one of my favorite novel openers of all time, that of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House:”
Page 15

Bleak House reads like Dostoyevsky.

“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.”
Page 24
“Q. When do I precede a sentence-ending “too” with a comma, and when not? A. Whichever you choose, the other way will look better.”
Page 32
“If you’re offering a piece of information that’s perhaps interesting amplification but might well be deleted without harm, offer it up with a comma and a “which”: Please fetch me the Bible, which is on the table. One Bible and one Bible only. The “that” vs. “which” rule is not universally observed, I must note. Some writers find it pushily constricting and choose between the two by ear. I find it helpful and, admiring consistency as I do, apply it consistently.”
Page 34
“It’s that comma after “population” I’m wanting you to keep a good eye on, because it has a tendency to go missing. It’s so frequently omitted in published British prose that for a long time I thought they had some national rule against it. They don’t. They’re just sloppy.”
Page 34
“However, convention (a.k.a. tradition, a.k.a. consensus, a.k.a. it’s simply how it’s done, so don’t argue with it) allows for exceptions in some cases in which a misreading is unlikely, as in, say: real estate agent or high school students”
Page 57

This contradicts the advice about the serial comma, in which the advice was to just consistently do it one way. Here we have to decide if it’s confusing?

“Generally—yes, exceptions apart, there are always exceptions—one wields a hyphen or hyphens in these before-the-noun (there goes another one) adjectival cases to avoid that momentary unnecessary hesitation we’re always trying to spare our readers.”
Page 58
“Now, mind you, this confusion kicked off and resolved itself in seconds. And I assure you, I’m not shamming; you may possibly have read the sentence correctly on your first attempt, but I was flummoxed. Surely, though, the confusion might have been avoided entirely had the sentence simply read: Touch-averse people who don’t want to be hugged are not rude.”
Page 58
“An en dash is used to hold words together instead of your standard hyphen, which usually does the trick just fine, when one is connecting a multiword proper noun to another multiword proper noun or to pretty much anything else. What the heck does that mean? It means this: a Meryl Streep–Robert De Niro comedy a New York–to–Chicago flight a World War II–era plane a Pulitzer Prize–winning play Basically, that which you’re connecting needs a smidgen more connecting than can be accomplished with a hyphen.”
Page 63
“Go light on the exclamation points. When overused, they’re bossy, hectoring, and, ultimately, wearying. 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.”
Page 65
“I suppose it’s an obvious point, but if a style choice follows the rules but results in something that looks awful or makes no sense on the page, rethink it.”
Page 67
“(I have an exceptionally large bone to pick with The New York Times, which persists in imposing its preference for “theater” on edifices and companies not named thus, here and abroad. The paper’s constant references to London’s “National Theater” are, on so many levels, galling. That’s not its name.)”
Page 80
“And yet: I now have a colleague whose pronoun of choice is “they,” and thus the issue is no longer culturally abstract but face-to-face personal, no longer an issue I’d persuaded myself was none of my business but one of basic human respect I chose—choose—to embrace. (I’m happy to call myself out for stubbornly avoiding the topic till it became personal. One is supposed to be better than that; one often isn’t.)”
Page 94
“And somehow I read Wolcott Gibbs’s double-edged sword of an epigram far too often as a mandate not to preserve respectfully but to fix: to take the rules I’d learned and been taught and boned up on and impose them on writers not so blessed with my knowledge and expertise. I must have been insufferable.”
Page 121
“The lesson being that notwithstanding all the commonly asserted rules of prose one has been taught in school or read about in stylebooks, authors do, as Wolcott Gibbs recognized and, now, so do I, have their preservable styles, and the role of a copy editor is, above all else, to assist and enhance and advise rather than to correct—indeed, not to try to transform a book into the copy editor’s notion of what a good book should be but, simply and with some measure of humility, to help fulfill an author’s vision and make each book into the ideal version of itself.”
Page 122
“Conversely, real-life nonnative speakers of English, I find, rarely lapse into their native tongue simply to say yes, no, or thank you.”
Page 125

Even ostensibly erudite Americans have woefully little contact with the mixed-language world. This is patently false. People mix languages all the time. In fact, it’s rare to hear someone who is bilingual stick to only one language. Americans are so underexposed to bilingual people that it’s kind of shocking.

“You could certainly do worse than to follow the standard of Gore Vidal’s immortal Myra Breckinridge: “I am fortunate in having no gift at all for characterizing in prose the actual speech of others and so, for literary purposes, I prefer to make everyone sound like me.””
Page 125
“Oh, and this is crucial: The important thing to remember about peeves and crotchets is that your own peeves and crotchets reflect sensible preferences based on a refined appreciation of the music and meaning of the English language, and that everyone else’s are the products of diseased minds.”
Page 149
“As to people who object to supermarket express-lane signs reading “10 ITEMS OR LESS”? On the one hand, I hear you. On the other hand, get a hobby. Maybe flower arranging, or decoupage.”
Page 156
“In the 1906 edition of The King’s English, H. W. Fowler declared—and he was neither the first nor the last person to so declare—“A thing is unique, or not unique; there are no degrees of uniqueness; nothing is ever somewhat or rather unique, though many things are almost or in some respects unique.” I will allow that something can be virtually unique but can’t be more than—not very, not especially, not really—unique.”
Page 165
““Bated,” which you are unlikely to chance upon disattached from the word “breath,” means reduced or moderated or suspended. To await something with bated breath is to await it with thrilled tension, to be on (to use a grand old word) tenterhooks.”
Page 172
““Breech” is an outmoded term for buttocks; thus trousers were once breeches. A breech birth is one in which the baby emerges buttocks (or feet) first.”
Page 174
“Use the former [descendant] as a noun, for progeny and progeny’s progeny; use the latter [descendent] as an adjective to describe said progenies, or to describe something moving downward.”
Page 181
“New York’s legendary Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, were hoarders of just about anything they could cram into their Fifth Avenue townhouse. Their hoarding ultimately led to their grisly deaths, Langley crushed by a would-be defensive booby trap and poor blind, helpless Homer subsequently starving to death. The More You Know.[1]
Page 190
“the comedy team Abbott and (Lou) Costello, whose “Who’s on first?” routine is an acknowledged delight but whose perhaps lesser-known Bagel Street sketch (also known as the Susquehanna Hat Company sketch) is one of the funniest things in the history of Western civilization.”
Page 211
“[Rara Avis is] Latin for “rare bird,” and a remarkably pretentious way of saying that something is unusual.”
Page 241
““Retronym” is a term coined by the journalist Frank Mankiewicz in 1980 to identify a new term coined to replace a term whose meaning, once clear, has become clouded or outmoded, often by some technological advance. For instance: What was once simply a watch became, with the invention of digital watches, an analog watch. Ordinary guitars were dubbed, after the electric ones showed up, acoustic guitars. No one ever referred to a landline till mobile phones became the thing. Closer to home, one had no cause to refer to a hardcover book till paperbacks were invented, nor to refer to a mass-market paperback (those are the little ones you find in spinning drugstore racks) till those larger, svelter, more expensive editions we call trade paperbacks appeared.”
Page 251

[1] I’ve since read more about them in The Disturbing Tale Of The Collyer Brothers, History’s Worst Hoarders by Gabe Peoletti (All That's Interesting) and it’s even sadder than it sounds. In retrospect, I find Dreyer is a bit flip about the whole thing.