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"Dreyer's English": An Utterly Readable Style Guide

Dreyer's English wears a wink in its subtitle: "An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style." Pretty cocky, that "utterly correct." Unless you're utterly gullible, it can only mean that the author is teasing us, ruffling our expectations about books full of advice about how to write and which rules to follow.

Benjamin Dreyer is that author, and he knows how to tease — and also when to be forthright, frank, and even, when called for, self-deprecating. Mostly, though, he knows how to write with clarity and flair, which is what sets his style guide apart from much of the competition.

Dreyer is the longtime managing editor and copy chief at Random House, which means he's in charge of all the copy editors who work with that publishing company's authors; on his way to that perch he was a freelance proofreader, a production editor, and a copy editor. (And before that, a waiter.) His job, he writes in an introduction, is "to burnish and polish" a piece of writing, turning it into "the best possible version of itself that it can be."

Dreyer's English is several things at once: a description and dissection of the art of copyediting, a set of tips and guidelines, and a memoir of a working life spent with some of the best writers of our era (to name a few: Elizabeth Strout, Michael Chabon, E.L. Doctorow, and, posthumously, Shirley Jackson). It's the tips and guidelines that I'm guessing most readers will zoom in on, because who among us, no matter how experienced or widely published, doesn't feel just a little bit uncertain about comma placement and possessive apostrophes and the correct spelling of "leprechaun"?

Benjamin Dreyer is happy to oblige. He's firm about the series or Oxford comma (not "serial," comma, he writes, because "for me 'serial' evokes 'killer'") — the second comma in "lettuce, turnips, and peas": "Whatever you want to call it: Use it. I don't want to belabor the point; neither am I willing to negotiate it." All well and good for him, because, as he tells us, the use of the series comma is the only hard-and-fast style rule applied to all Random House books. If you're a newspaper copy editor in the United States, though, you'll follow a different standard: Associated Press style, which frowns on series commas. (In an interview, Dreyer admitted that until a few years ago he hadn't heard of AP style. Copyediting is a multifarious profession.)

Dreyer tells us it's kosher to omit the apostrophe in "farmers market," which signifies "a market made up of farmers" rather "a market belonging to farmers." As for "leprechaun," "It doesn't look much more sensible properly spelled than misspelled, but there you have it."

As a rule, though, Dreyer is skeptical about language rules. The English language "developed without codifications, sucking up new constructions and vocabulary every time some foreigner set foot on the British Isles — to say nothing of the mischief we Americans have wreaked on it these last few centuries — and continues to evolve anarchically." He's no fan of what he calls "The Big Three" non-rules that many of us were taught in what's misleadingly still called grammar school: "Never begin a sentence with 'and' or 'but,'" "Never split an infinitive," and "Never end a sentence with a preposition." Go ahead and break those non-rules, he writes, along with the non-rules about never using sentence fragments, the passive voice, or contractions — just so long as you rule-break with intention.

He's also laissez-faire about a pet peeve of many language sticklers: "nauseated" vs. "nauseous." His entry on this silly controversy is both reassuring and hilarious:

I don't think I knew till I was well beyond my college years that there was even such a word as "nauseated." On those occasions when I was about to heave, I was content to be nauseous. Eventually I learned the traditional differentiation between "nauseous" – causing nausea – and "nauseated" – preparing to heave—but it was too late for me to mind my ways, so I'm still happy, as it were, to be nauseous.

In a thoughtful passage, Dreyer explains why he's come around to the use of singular "they" for a specific person who prefers that pronoun to "he" or "she." On the other hand, you won't find him condoning "to onboard," which he condemns as "grotesque," adding: "It feels like a terribly short walk from onboarding a new employee to waterboarding one."

Some of Dreyer's most insightful advice comes in a chapter whose subject isn't covered by most other style guides: "The Realities of Fiction." Whether you edit fiction for a living (or hope to) or merely enjoy reading novels and short stories, this chapter will open your eyes to the finer points of the craft, and about the partnership between writer and editor.

"Fiction may be fictional," Dreyer writes, "but a work of fiction won't work if it isn't logical and consistent." For example, if you give a character a birth date in May 1960, that person must be 25, not 24 or 26, in May 1985. Another example: "Watch out for people going up to the attic only to shortly and directly step out onto the driveway." Dreyer's tips about the basics of good storytelling apply to nonfiction, too. Words like "blinking," "grimacing," "huffing," and "swallowing," and actions like "the thoughtful pursing of lips" and "doing anything wistfully" are "overrated," he declares. While you're at it, take a moment to reconsider all those times you've written "in a moment" and "after a moment." As for dialogue, use italics sparingly, avoid having characters "murmur," and watch out for all those fancy alternatives to "he said" and "she said." And while we're at it: "Go light on exclamation points in dialogue. No, even lighter than that. Are you down to none yet? Good."

Along the way in this stylishly written book, you'll learn piquant facts about American musical theater (a passion of Dreyer's) and about the spelling of various brand names (a passion of mine). Under "Porta-Potty," Dreyer writes: "There seem to be as many trademarked names for portable toilets as there are portable-toilet puns." There's a wonderful anecdote about the author Richard Russo's penchant for writing "Hello, he smiled" — can you really smile hello? — and so many charming footnotes that Dreyer deploys not only asterisks but also daggers (†) and double daggers (‡) to distinguish them.

Is Dreyer's English "utterly correct"? Of course not, as the author would be the first to acknowledge. But it's compulsively readable, thoroughly helpful, and delightfully funny. For anyone who cares about writing well, it's an utterly essential addition to your shelf of most-reached-for reference books.

Disclaimer: I preordered and paid for my own copy of Dreyer's English eight months before it was published, and was surprised and honored to find my name among the list of "Wordsmith Twitter" accounts in Dreyer's Acknowledgments. If you'd like to join us on Twitter, his handle is @bcdreyer. You won't be disappointed.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.