Review: April Bernard on “Dreyer‘s English”

It is impossible to imagine an English-language handbook that any writer would endorse wholeheartedly. Unless the writer never worries about grammar and spelling; or until we all agree that dialogue crimes such as “‘Come over here,’ she breathed,” can actually be prosecuted in a court of law. Some writers, I have heard, are cheerful enough about the house style at their publisher’s; some writers lie down and take it from magazine editors. I have never been one of those writers; and in my years on the other side of the desk, as an editor, I never worked with a single writer who did not whine or bargain. This complex English language can, and probably should, generate irrational possessiveness and eccentricity in the hands of serious writers and readers.

I say this as preface to what might seem a slightly persnickety view of the now-in-its-seventh-printing Dreyer’s English. Its author, Benjamin Dreyer, is vice president and copy chief of Random House. In general, then: I like this book very much; it is sound and funny and useful; I have already recommended it to many students and friends and will continue to do so.

I have two reservations: Dreyer never mentions his most obvious debt, to The Elements of Style. My other reservation is kin, perhaps, to the first, and has to do with tone.

Substantively, Dreyer has loosened the stays on a number of expository rules of the past. One may, in his world, split an infinitive; end a sentence with a preposition; use “hopefully” in place of “I hope that”; and get no more than a raised eyebrow by spelling “all right” as “alright.” Dreyer is amusing in his admission of defeat at a number of usage shifts, especially with the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

The singular “they” is not the wave of the future; it’s the wave of the present. I fear I’m too old a dog to embrace it, and faced with a wannabe genderless “he” or singular “they,” I’m still apt to pull out my tried-and-true tricks to dispose of it ....

And yet: I now have a colleague whose pronoun of choice is “they,” and thus the issue is no longer culturally abstract but face-to-face personal, no longer an issue I’d persuaded myself was none of my business but one of basic human respect …

If he yields in the face of some changes, however, he stands stalwart in his rejection of such monstrosities as the use of “reference,” “onboard,” “gift,” and “impact” as verbs. He shakes his fist at “centered around,” “based off of,” “step foot in,” “try and,” and “on accident.” All of these are from the “Peeves and Crotchets” chapter. At least as helpful are his chapters on common misspellings (of “skulduggery,” “supersede,” “chaise longe,” etc.); and what he calls “the confusables,” which include “born/borne,” “cache/cachet,” “carat/karat/caret/carrot,” “loath/loathe,” “toothy/toothsome,” and many others just as entertaining and tricky.

Though long, and a little baggy, the book is well designed for browsing. The index is thorough enough to satisfy a writer looking for clarification on, say, “which vs. that,” “loan” as a verb, or apostrophes. Dreyer’s English may well supersede your copy of The Elements of Style, that old favorite by William H. Strunk and E. B. White. (For myself, I will keep them both, along with the endlessly fascinating The King’s English, written by two brothers named Fowler.) I confess that I suspect Dreyer of being entirely deliberate in his erasure of Strunk & White, not wanting to remind his readers of the old standby. E. B. White’s introduction and emendations to his former professor’s “little book” of rules and advice has won over many a student writer with its charm:

Will Strunk loved the clear, the brief, the bold, and his book is clear, brief, bold ... He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong. I remember a day in class when he leaned far forward, in his characteristic pose—the pose of a man about to impart a secret—and croaked, “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! …” This comical piece of advice struck me as sound at the time, and I still respect it. Why compound ignorance with inaudibility? Why run and hide?

Finally, on the matter of tone. While acknowledging that White’s style may seem dated—scented as it is with the old New Yorker perfume of modest self-amusement—Dreyer sometimes slides into a pomposity that is no improvement; just look at his book’s title. His English, indeed. Among many textual examples, here is Dreyer exhorting us to use diacritical marks:

In written English, they’re occasionally omitted, and the dictionary will often give you permission to skip them, but sojourning in a chateau cannot be nearly as much fun as sojourning in a château, and if you send me your resume rather than your résumé, I’m probably not going to hire you.

And what, after all, can one make of seven dense pages of acknowledgments but to conclude that the writer has seized the microphone at his own imaginary Oscars ceremony, refusing the prompt of the travelling-music designed to get him offstage? Surely a longtime copyeditor, well acquainted with authorial vanity, should have known better.

Ah; but here Dreyer is a writer, not an editor; and folly is endemic to the writer’s state. On a final note, and in praise of Dreyer’s mission, I urge readers to return to George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.That still-urgent message about clarity, and about the political consequences of obfuscation, jargon, and dog-whistle slogans, is in keeping with the lessons Dreyer offers. Especially today, when there is also such a dangerous generational gulf in political speech, we need all the help we can get to speak plainly, precisely, and—if at all possible—kindly to one another.

April Bernard’s most recent books are Miss Fuller (a novel) and Brawl & Jag (a book of poems).

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