Grammar Gremlins: Dreyer’s English

Not many people are dorky enough to pick up a grammar book and read it straight through. Not even me. But then a friend mentioned a book she’d heard about, Dreyer’s English. “Sounds like something you’d love,” she said. So I looked it up on Amazon, read the reviews (being particularly impressed by those who hated it because of Dreyer’s obviously left-leaning politics), and ordered it.

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And read it cover to cover, chortling frequently along the way.

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Benjamin Dreyer has been copy chief at Random House for many years and has copyedited pretty much every type of book you could imagine. And he still doesn’t claim to have all the answers. (Nor does he insist that one must not start a sentence with “and.”) He’s quick to say that no two style books agree on everything. (Scrivener and Word don’t even agree on spelling.)

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Dreyer debunks many of the “rules” of English (starting with that one about “and” or “but” starting a sentence) while explaining why observing them may be a good idea—most of the time. Other rules are not negotiable: “Only godless savages,” he says, “eschew the series comma.”

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The book covers punctuation, numbers, foreign usages (“How Not to Write Like a Brit”), grammar, easily misspelled and/or confusable words, proper nouns (“If it starts with a capital letter, look it up”), and “trimmables.”

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All of this is wonderful stuff for any writer, as well as entertaining (don’t miss the footnotes, for which I highly recommend the paper version rather than the electronic). But the most valuable chapter for genre writers may be “The Realities of Fiction.”

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Dreyer emphasizes the importance of a writer’s voice, especially in fiction; for a good copy editor, voice may sometimes outweigh the merely correct. Even a good copy editor may now and then run into trouble; Dreyer mentions a copy editor who “didn’t get [the author’s] jokes, which she proceeded to flatten as if with a steamroller.”

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“The Realities of Fiction” covers several areas where an attentive and aware author can clean up her own mistakes. Get the timelines right: character ages, days of the week past or present (there’s more info than you can imagine at timeanddate.com), historical events. Make sure your characters’ traits are consistent, as well as their actions (if he goes up into the attic, make sure he comes down again). (Footnote on page 104: As a rule, the consumption of beverages is not as interesting as many writers seem to think it is.)

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Also included: things to look up, particularly if your setting is not contemporary, things to avoid in dialog (hissing, smiling, dialect, speech impediments, foreign words), and much more.

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Here’s a footnote from page 119: Copy editor to me: “You said that before.” Me to copy editor: “I say it often.” And another from page 140: Though “moist” often tops lists of the most viscerally unpleasant words in the English language, I turn up my nose at “stinky” and “smelly.” And on page 132: My problem with mnemonic devices is that I can’t remember them.

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In short, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is not only the most entertaining grammar book I’ve ever come across, it’s packed full of truly useful ideas and advice for writers and well worth its list price of $25 (currently $16.49 at Amazon).

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