It’s not every day that my coworkers ask what I’m chortling about while reading a book on grammar and editing, but the effervescent Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Random House Copy Chief and Managing Editor Benjamin Dreyer is a heady combination of sound editing advice combined with humor worthy of Noël Coward. It’s like switching out the Castor oil of your traditional style guide for French champagne.

For those of us who scratch away as editors, Benjamin Dreyer is something of a rock star—albeit an approachable one. Every time he graciously answered one of my editing questions on social media, often with a humorous wink, I confess to swooning just a bit.

I was thrilled when he announced his book at long last—and I have to say that it exceeded my expectations. It reads like you went out for drinks after work to talk shop and look at pictures of his family (for the record, his dog Sally is quite adorable) and left with a better understanding of your craft.

Dreyer claimed a place in my heart right from the beginning with his challenge to go a week without writing:

  • Very
  • Rather
  • Really
  • Quite
  • In fact
  • Just
  • So
  • Pretty
  • Of course
  • Surely
  • Actually

Can you do it? I edit these words out on a regular basis, and I’d love to see writers lean less on what he calls Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers. It would make a great office challenge.

His solid advice on Rules and Nonrules gave me the warm fuzzies. To see the nonsense stuffed into writers’ heads by fifth-grade English teachers and freshman composition class laid bare, and then discarded, is a service to the English language. (Extra points for working in a mind-bending bit of Bleak House.)

No discussion of Dreyer’s English would be complete without praise for his chapter on punctuation in general and what he quite rightly calls the series comma (known to the more, umm, experienced as the Oxford or serial comma) in particular. As someone who cut her teeth on journalism and its complete dismissal of said comma, he may have gained a convert—at least in my book editing. But this usually maddening subject may be one of the best sections in the book.  I won’t spoil it here, but put down your coffee cup before you read it. You’ll never think of the revered Nelson Mandela the same way again.

There’s a lot to love in Dreyer’s English, from his advice on numbers and names to the menagerie of wry editorial observations in The Miscellany, but his list of The Trimmables made me smile from ear to ear. No, dear friends, you don’t need such redundant redundancies as added bonus, closed fist, direct confrontation or end result. You will make your editors happy indeed if you commit this list to memory—or at least consult it.

Finally, do yourself a favor and be sure to read the footnotes. All the fun and flavor lives here. Although you might want to warn your coworkers or significant other before you start. Guffaws are a distinct possibility, but they won’t believe you until they read Dreyer’s English for themselves. Trust me, they’ll thank you.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is now available for purchase.


Photo: © Gabriel Dreyer

Benjamin Dreyer is vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief, of Random House. He began his publishing career as a freelance proofreader and copy editor. In 1993, he became a production editor at Random House, overseeing books by writers including Michael Chabon, Edmund Morris, Suzan-Lori Parks, Michael Pollan, Peter Straub, and Calvin Trillin. He has copyedited books by authors including E. L. Doctorow, David Ebershoff, Frank Rich, and Elizabeth Strout, as well as Let Me Tell You, a volume of previously uncollected work by Shirley Jackson. A graduate of Northwestern University, he lives in New York City.

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