A Review of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
April 12, 2019 § 16 Comments
By Nancy Kay Brown
I am reading this morning and find myself delighted with this dear book. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer.
Yes, I called it dear. A language usage book? I thought I’d read and mark and set it aside, but it’s not that kind of grammar, usage, style book. Its a book of stories from a copy editor, a job that I would never, could never, do, but today appreciate with new eyes and ears. Listen to this, “As one of my colleagues once described it: You’re attempting to burrow into the brains of your writers and do for, to, and with their prose what they themselves might have done to, for and with it had they not already looked at each damn sentence 657 times.” So true. We need those fresh eyes, with smart minds like his attached.
We do need to expose what we write, whether it be a blog, a letter, oh my, or email, report, or story, to others’ eyes and minds. A proofreader locates errors in punctuation, spelling, word usage, grammar, and format. My mother has always been mine, whether invited or not. She can’t help herself. Yet, a copy editor seems to do it all. The copy editor has to know the piece, listen to the tone and voice, and select better ways to say something, different words and phrases, using the writer’s style and tone. The copy editor can be a change maker, a deal breaker and a heart breaker too. Mr. Dreyer tells stories of arguments on the page between writers and copy editors, including one writers response, scrawled in the margin next to a copy editor’s suggestion: “write your own fking book.” I would never do that, or would I?
The thing I want to tell you, before I get back to my Dreyer, is that in Chapter 1, he presents us a challenge. Go one week without using, he clarifies, not while talking, but writing, these 12 words or phrases:
pretty, as in, “pretty tedious”
He calls them Wan intensifiers and Throat clearers. I’m going to try it for a week. See any in that list that you overuse or hold precious or maybe want to dump? I am guilty of a few; especially troublesome is “ just.”
I heard an interview with Dreyer on NPR and he suggested that we surely must figure out a better way to make a point. Shall I try? Instead of “just” I will use only, solely, merely, be more clever, clearer. My week starts now.
Benjamin (I became a first-name friend after merely two chapters!) is fine with a reader closing his book after his challenge, once accepted. I continue reading, though. I am enjoying his conversational tone, shared delight with language, and the assurance I get from him. He’s on my side, our side, to assist us in being the best we can be by sharing his insights, magic, and not so magic tricks.
I have so much more to tell you, but let Benjamin do it. I can hardly wait for Chapter 12, The Trimmables. He wrote that for me.
Thank you, Benjamin Dreyer. Random House found a gem in you, sir. Thank you for caring enough to have this conversation with us.
Nancy Kay Brown recently completed Fallen From the Nest for the third time: a memoir about a grandmother raising the children of her son, from whom she’s fallen out of love. Her stories and essays appear in Brain, Child, Full Grown People and an anthology for rural youth, Fishing for Chickens, edited by Jim Heynen. Her blog, Letters to Montana, is available at NancyKayBrown.com