Much of Benjamin Dreyer’s humor in “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style” resides in chapter five, “Foreign Affairs,” in which he addresses standard practices for writing foreign words and phrases. This chapter and subsequent ones on writing style, usage, spelling, and capitalization make the book an invaluable reference.
Dreyer maintains that foreign words and phrases need to be set in italics unless a dictionary treats them as English. Thus, these phrases can be taken as English: bête noire, château, chutzpah, façade, hausfrau, mea culpa, ménage à trois, non sequitur, schadenfreude (glee at another’s bad luck), and weltschmerz (melancholy). Dreyer acknowledges that sometimes the diacritical marks — he calls them “doodads” — may be omitted, but he warns, “if you send me your resume rather than your résumé, I’m probably not going to hire you.
Dreyer particularly makes fun of the differences in British usage and spelling contrasted with the American versions. He says, “The Brits think “gotten” is moronic, and they’re not shy about telling you so.” He asks us Americans to avoid the “ou” the British use in “neighbor,” “colour,” “harbour,” and “labour,” except for its occurrence in “glamour.” He finds “glamor” “drably unglamorous.”
Another quirky preference for Dreyer is the Brit “armour” as opposed to “armor.” “The u seems to add a bit of extra metallic clankiness,” Dreyer says. Of the British use of “manoeuvre,” Dreyer says it looks like the sound of a cat coughing up a hairball.” Dreyer says that writers who prefer the British “grey” instead of the American “gray” give him more “pushback” than any other issue when he corrects the spelling in their work. He thinks these writers encounter the spelling “grey” in books from their childhood, forming an emotional attachment to it. “Or, I don’t know, they’re just stubborn.” In a footnote, he admits (given “a cocktail or two”) that “gray” and “grey” are two different colors. He thinks that “gray” has “a glossy, almost silvery sheen to it” while “grey” suggests being “heavier, duller, and sodden.”
Humor abounds, too, in chapter six in which Dreyer admits he hates grammar, specifically grammar jargon, words like “genitive,” which he says “sounds slightly smutty.” His work as a copy editor demands “grammar fixes” for others’ writing, so he knew he had to learn enough to know what to correct. His goal in this chapter is to avoid the terminology and keep the material “simple and applicable.”
For a sentence like this one — “Here’s one of those grammar rules that infuriate people” — Dreyer says he reaches for a stylebook every time to ascertain that “infuriate,” not “infuriates,” is correct. Another error Dreyer addresses concerns who/whom. He asks that we develop a “hypercorrection alarm” to attune ourselves to accurate use of whom and whomever.
The most helpful chapter for would-be fiction writers, chapter seven, contains many tips about “the styling of prose.” Dreyer reveals that “an attentive copy editor should become attuned to and immersed in a writer’s voice ... (so that) the copy editor has so thoroughly absorbed the writer’s intentions that the process turns into a sort of conversation-on-the-page.” Dreyer advises that fiction writing be “logical and consistent,” accurate, and authentic as to the time of the action.
Dreyer notes that “many writers rely more heavily on pronouns than is useful.” He reminds us that “Writing Is Not Speaking,” meaning that when we talk, pronouns may be clear, but on the page, too many can confuse readers. He admonishes writers about repetition, clichés, overuse of “And then” and “suddenly,” use of italics (be sparing — “readers don’t relish being told how to read”), elimination of exclamation points, accuracy with speech tags, and other pitfalls. He finds these phrases excessive: “he asked helplessly,” “she cried emphatically,” “she added irrelevantly,” “he remarked decisively,” and “objected Tom crossly.” All these phrases occur in the first chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” but Dreyer finds them “hard to take.”
As any worthwhile book about language should do, Dreyer devotes back chapters to misspellings and usage. His best advice — buy a good dictionary, his choice being the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary or Web 11 — doesn’t surprise us English teachers. I took comfort from Dreyer’s admission that one of his pet peeves — the correct use of comprise — sends him to the dictionary every time because he cannot remember the rule. This sentence, “The English alphabet comprises twenty-six letters” is correct as is “Twenty-six letters compose the English alphabet.” This version is wrong: “The English alphabet is comprised of twenty-six letters.”
The chapter on usage, entitled “The Confusables,” contains the usual list of words easily misused, whether from being similarly spelled or sounded. Dreyer distinguishes between cache and cachet by reminding us that the first is pronounced like “cash” while the second is pronounced “ka-shay.” He writes: “One might cache one’s cache of cash in an underground cache,” to define cache as a place for concealing valuables; as a verb, it means to hide.
In his entry on lie/lay Dreyer explains the correct use at length, but he ends by pointing out that no one really cared about the correctness of these verbs until the end of the 18th century when some “busybodies got wrought up on the subject, a rule was born, and schoolchildren (and writers) have been tortured on the subject ever since.” One error has developed because of an invention — the Segway, the motorized two-wheeled vehicle. Nowadays it is sometimes confused with the verb segue, meaning to transition smoothly or as a noun, a seamless transition. Dreyer warns never to spell segue as segway.
The last chapter aids those whose proofreading concerns popular culture — the correct spellings of entertainers’ names, geographical places, and trademarks and brands. For Mississippi, Dreyer confesses he can never spell it correctly without singing the song. Under the entry for CAP’N CRUNCH, Dreyer reveals that when he was working on a manuscript, he would list all the brand names the writer used and verify them on a shopping trip.
For invaluable writing guidance and an entertaining read, try Dreyer’s.