Style (Clean and Simple) For Anyone

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style | Benjamin Dreyer | Random House

Reviewed by David Kern

The dust jacket for Benjamin Dreyer’s new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, refers to Dreyer as “one of Twitter’s leading language gurus” which feels ironic in an on-the-nose sort of way, as if whoever penned that particular bit of ad-copy isn’t sure whether they want to sell books to people who would buy them because of Twitter. It’s a bit of sardonic cheekiness that is in keeping with the tone of Dreyer’s wonderful book.

Dreyer, who is Vice President, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House, offers both rules and principles for good writing. But more than simply a grammar handbook, Dreyer’s English is an apology for style. It’s a book about the issues that every writer runs into; but, more importantly, it’s a book about the nature of writing—of all human communication. And in that, it’s a deeply contemporary book with a strangely ancient heart.

Dreyer offers solutions for the tricky business of foreign languages, fiction and characterization, and the grammar of numbers. He defends the “en” dash (as a matter of fact, he spends nine strangely entertaining pages on hyphens and dashes), supports those who begin sentences with “but” or “and" (mercifully), clarifies a slew of words many of us mix-up regularly ("confusables," he calls them), and provides history’s most enjoyable page of writing about the subjunctive mood. But above all, he's obsessed with clarity. His arguments for (or against) certain usages are neither random nor based purely on preference (although Dreyer isn't shy on making his opinions known). They are always in service of a greater cause. Clear sentences, clear phrases, clear ideas. That's this book's raison d'etre.

Oh, and, bless him, Dreyer is an ardent supporter of the Oxford comma, which he prefers to call the “series comma” since, after all, the derivation of the “Oxford” attribution “verges on urbane legendarianism.” Dreyer’s English is full of that sort of thing.

At long last we have a replacement for Strunk and White’s disappointingly mundane but widely endorsed, The Elements of Style, a book which reads like John Dewey joined an eighth grade English class. Dreyer’s book is unpretentious in its approach but hilariously, wonderfully pretentious in its very ontology. It’s great fun and slightly irreverent while also standing in awe at the wonder of language. It’s a book for nerds and scholars and students and people who like funny stories and one-liners and anyone who fancies themselves smart enough to write a thing for anyone about anything. Truth is, it’s something of a page turner, right up to the last word, at which point it becomes the most readable reference book on your shelf.


David Kern is editor-in-chief of FORMA Journal, the director of the Close Reads Podcast Network, and head of multimedia for the CiRCE Institute.

If you enjoyed this review, which first appeared in the summer print issue, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal and the latest episodes of the FORMA podcast.