How did a style guide end up on the bestseller lists?
How did a style guide end up on the bestseller lists? Because readers want to improve their writing? Maybe. Because its author entertains as he instructs? More likely. Because its line-item breakdown of information lends itself easily to bathroom breaks? Probably! Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief at Random House and author of Dreyer’s English, has spent his career poring over the written word and taking care that you don’t write “pouring.” Anyone who cares about writing (and reading) will gladly eat it up.
Dreyer describes his job of copy editor as, at its best, “something between thorough teeth-cleaning…and a whiz-bang magic act.” Note: the noun “copy editor” is two words while the verb “copyedit” is one word; if this were a book, a footnote might help to clarify the distinction, and Dreyer makes good use of footnotes as wry jokes, the pause between the moment your eye notices an asterisk to the eye finding its target at the bottom of a page serving as a comic beat. Don’t worry, it’s funnier when he does it.
While Dreyer is quick to point out errors, as is his wont on Twitter (one hopes he doesn’t find too much fault with this review), he also knocks down a few sacred grammatical cows. For instance, Dreyer assures us it’s okay to begin a sentence with “and” or “but,” to split an infinitive and to end a sentence with a preposition. But that doesn’t mean you should go nuts with them, and sometimes it’s best to reword. He also favors what he calls the series comma and what you might know as the Oxford comma, which in any case runs counter to this site’s style, much to this writer’s chagrin.
A plea for forgiveness from anyone who writes for this site and has been subject to this reviewer’s sometimes overzealous editing. Dreyer’s English can lead not just the writer but the editor to reflect on their sins, whether it’s letting the wrong word slide or, more likely, not allowing the writer’s voice to come through. Dreyer invokes New Yorker theater critic Wolcott Gibbs, who wrote that an editor should “try to preserve the author’s style, if he is an author and has a style.” The tongue is slightly in cheek, but grammatical transgressions may well be a defining style, as with rule-breakers like James Joyce (whom Dreyer cites admiringly) and Gertrude Stein (less so). (Note that Dreyer is perfectly okay with “like” as opposed to “such as.” You can relax now.)
Many sites don’t have the time or resources for a copy editor, and while the process can be tedious, the clarity it achieves makes communication that much easier. And after all, isn’t that why we read and write in the first place? Dreyer successfully argues for the importance of copyediting in a world that doesn’t seem to have time for it. Still, if that’s the larger narrative of the book’s purpose, its structure has no such narrative. Lists of easily-confused words/phrases comprise much of the book—yes, “comprise” is one of those very “Confusables,” as he calls the chapter, and Dreyer himself admits he has to look up its proper use every time. If you’re not convinced you need another style guide, at the very least you should follow Dreyer on Twitter @BCDreyer. His pinned tweet alone, on tidying up your writing by going a week without using such words as “very” and “rather,” will make you a better writer, and it’s free advice! Dreyer’s English will set you back a bit more, but if words matter to you, it’s worth it.