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‘Dreyer’s English’ Review: Flossing Your Prose

25 January 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris—a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker—published the splendid “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.” Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding “Dreyer’s English.”

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying—being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.)

One encounters wisdom and good sense on nearly every page of “Dreyer’s English.” The whole chapter on fiction should be bound and issued to all MFA students. But part of the fun of the book, for me, was silently yelling at Mr. Dreyer on this point or that and writing a big “NO!” in the margin. He:

  • says that as a past-tense form, “ ‘Sprung’ rather than ‘sprang’ is perfectly correct. Look it up.” I did look it up and found that the respected arbiter Bryan Garner calls “sprung” “erroneous.” In the court of published opinion (i.e., the Google Books database), “sprang” is still used about eight times more frequently.
  • favors “farmers” market as opposed to “farmers’ ” market. NO! Mr. Dreyer fails to understand that a possessive apostrophe can indicate association and is not limited to cases of ownership or other actual possession. Otherwise we would shop at the “Children Department.”
  • believes that “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate or favorable” is “universally acceptable so long as the good fortune or favor is accidental.” I’m not sure which universe he’s in on this point, but I inhabit another one.

. . . .Mr. Dreyer once taped on his office door a remark attributed to New Yorker editor Wolcott Gibbs: “Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.” Benjamin Dreyer has a style. It is playful, smart, self-conscious and personal, highlighted by admirable lines like “To ball [rather than bawl] one’s eyes out would be some sort of sporting or teabagging mishap.”

Sometimes, however, he crosses over into the Land of Twee. He thrice says particular usages make him “wrinkle my nose,” and he uses words and phrases like “matchy-matchy,” “a skosh later” and “his own devise.” He is fond of Britishisms like “post-university,” “that lot” and, especially, “bit,” once telling us, “a sentence’s introductory bit and its main bit need to fuse correctly.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Here’s a link to Dreyer’s English

Given that it was published by Random House, PG was pleasantly surprised at the price.

Writing Advice

5 Comments to “‘Dreyer’s English’ Review: Flossing Your Prose”

  1. “The result may come off as just a trifle stilted …”

    And sounding not at all like what your readers are used to hearing out of you.

    I would suggest taking any advise on changing ‘your’ prose with a grain of salt, but this thing sounds like something Amazon doesn’t sell a large enough saltlick for …

  2. Been a long time since I heard anyone refer to a saltlick. Kudos, Anonymous. (Is that you, Allen?)

    Back on the ranch, every once in a great while I hauled a new 50-pound block out to lick tray. We used a mineral lick, so it was brown. Better for the cattle than white salt. Once I took my knife and shaved a bit off and tasted it. Better than what we had in the house.

    • The brown salt is certainly more tasty than table salt.

    • Of course it’s me, all your other Anonymous normally show more class. 😛

      And I was just showing my age yet again, Wednesday marked another loop around that bright thingy in the sky and my body spent most of the day reminding me I wasn’t twenty anymore …

      MYMV and your joints stay well lubed. 😉

  3. Well, the first bits of wisdom from the book are, honestly, things that any competent writer should know. (Although they are exactly the kind of hard to notice errors that validate the advice to have someone other than the author do the final copy editing pass.)

    I do agree with the OP re: his later disagreements with Mr. Dreyer.

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