Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

Benjamin Dreyer

Random House, published January 29, 2019

ISBN-13: 978-0812995701

Hard cover, 320 pages, around USD15 from Amazon

After following Benjamin Dreyer on Twitter for six months or so, I pre-ordered his book in late 2018 and it made its eagerly-awaited arrival at my house in early February 2019.

Dreyer is a New Yorker and copy chief at Random House, the almost century-old publishing house so named by one of its founders, Bennett Cerf: “We just said we were going to publish a few books on the side at random. Let’s call it Random House.” [1] Random House first began by publishing limited edition reprints of classics drawn from the Modern Library catalogue acquired at its foundation, but kickstarted its brand when it launched the first legal edition of Joyce’s controversial novel Ulysses in the English-speaking world after a ten-year ban in the US. Random House’s lawyer (Morris Ernst, who defended the book for a percentage of trade sales and reprints) ultimately prevailed in a much-anticipated legal suit brought by the office of the Southern District of New York, in which the judge decreed that the book’s literary merit outweighed any concerns about obscenity.

Random House continued to flourish in the US publishing industry through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, until like many others, it was hit by the financial crisis in 2008, when its then owner, the global firm Bertelsmann AG, decided to restructure the publisher. [2] A merger with Penguin then followed in 2013, and the combined global giant Penguin Random House today publishes 70,000 digital and 15,000 print titles each year. [3]

So, what do we know about Random House copy editor Benjamin Dreyer? What’s a copy editor, you ask? In Dreyer’s own words:

“I am a copy editor. After a piece of writing has been, likely, through numerous drafts, developed and revised by the writer and by the person I tend to call the editor editor and deemed essentially finished and complete, my job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it . . . better. Cleaner. Clearer. More efficient. Not to rewrite it, not to bully and flatten it into some notion of Correct Prose, whatever that might be, but to burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make it read even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it. That is, if I’ve done my job correctly.”[4]

Specifically, copyediting includes the tasks of checking spelling, punctuation, and grammar, searching for omissions, repetitions, and other infelicities, and addressing style issues.

After an early career as a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and sometime hospitality industry worker, Dreyer joined Random House in 1993 as a production editor and rose through the ranks to become vice president, executive managing director, and copy chief of the publishing house. He lives in New York with his husband Rob and their adored two-year-old pup Sallie. On Twitter, he’s a seriously funny guy with a sharp wit and acerbic tongue, and I knew his writing wouldn’t disappoint.

Crack open Dreyer’s English to the contents page and you can see straightaway that this is no dry tome, and that you’re in for a rollicking ride through his love of the English language. A brief sample of chapter titles.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose)
Rules and Nonrules
67 Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation
A Little Grammar is a Dangerous Thing
Peeves and Crotchets
The Confusables
The Trimmables

Dreyer’s advice is written in a highly entertaining style and abounds with literary references. For example:

14. We were all thoroughly indoctrinated in grade school to precede or follow dialogue with a comma in constructions like

     Atticus said dryly, “Do not let this inspire you to further glory, Jeremy.”

Or

     “Keep your temper,” said the Caterpillar.

It should be noted, though, that this rule does not apply in constructions in which dialogue is preceded or followed by some version of the verb “to be”[ …] , as in:

     Lloyd’s last words were “That tiger looks highly pettable.” (67 Assorted Things. p. 31)

 

29. If Jeanette has some pencils and Nelson has some pencils and Jeanette and Nelson are not sharing their pencils, those pencils are:

     Jeanette’s and Nelson’s pencils

But if Jeanette and Nelson reject individual ownership and pursue a socialist policy of collectivization for the betterment of humankind, those pencils are now:

     Jeanette and Nelson’s pencils

Well, truly I suppose they’re then the people’s pencils, but you get the point. (67 Assorted Things. p. 41)

 

Iconic

A word whose overuse has rendered it as dull and meaningless as “famous.” Moreover, while “famous” is at least applied to people who are at least reasonably celebrated and widely recognized, “iconic” seems lately to be desperately applied to people who are barely even well known. (Peeves and Crotchets. p. 159)

 

Wookiee

Everyone gets it wrong. It’s not “Wookie.”

Also on the subject of the world of Star Wars, “lightsaber” is one word, ‘dark side” is lowercased (oddly enough), and “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. …” ends with a period and three ellipsis points, even though it is a fragment and not a complete sentence, because that is how the Star Wars people like it. And if you challenge them on any of these points, they’ll cut your hand off. True story. (Notes on Proper Nouns. p. 235)

 

The day my copy of Dreyer’s English arrived, I tweeted to the author my discovery that the White House should have checked page 229 of his book before it issued its press release that day on illegal immigration data, mis-spelling “Tuscon” for Tucson. (Chapter 11. Notes on Proper Nouns). The White House press shop would do well to place a bulk order for Dreyer’s book.

Dreyer’s English is an absolute delight to read through from cover to cover, or to dip in and out of. Readers, writers, editors, proofreaders, translators, and all lovers of the English language will enjoy this book. Do yourself a favor and buy a copy for yourself and one for a friend and follow @BCDreyer on Twitter.

Notes:

 [1] Birmingham, K. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, p. 270.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Random_House

[3] https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/about-us/our-story/

[4] Dreyer, B. Dreyer’s English. p. xi

Tony Atkinson