The 1959 publication of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” a book “Time Magazine” called “one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923,” marked a watershed moment in American letters. For the first time a concise manual of English composition was available to the general public in a colloquial and accessible form. A recent study listed “Elements of Style” as the most frequently assigned text in the American academic syllabi.
But for all its acclaim, “Elements of Style” has had its detractors, chiefly for its stubborn loyalty to what many consider outdated rules of style and grammar, and its failure to acknowledge the evolutionary nature of the English language.
In “Dreyer’s English; An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, has produced a book that pays deference to commonly accepted rules of grammar and style, while at the same time admitting that none of these rules are set in stone. Dreyer tells writers that their first responsibility is to their readers, and that this responsibility demands that writers bring a sensitive ear to their work.
Dreyer’s book follows a format similar to others in its genre. There are chapters on basic grammar; punctuation; and the formatting of numbers, titles, and proper names. There is a chapter on easily or frequently misspelled words. There is a chapter entitled “Peeves and Crotchets,” in which the author discusses words and phrases that have incorrectly crept into everyday use, such as “firstly,” “secondly,” “thirdly,” rather than “first,” “second,” and “third.” There is a chapter called “The Confusables,” in which Dreyer clarifies the use of words with similar spellings or pronunciations, most notably the egregious and nearly universal misunderstanding of the difference between “its/it’s” and “whose/who’s.” And don’t get him started on the blasphemy of using an apostrophe to pluralize a noun.
All of these are fairly standard features for a book of this nature. What sets “Dreyer’s English” apart, however, is the agile wit of its author. This book is just plain funny. Dreyer makes copious use of footnotes to augment, usually in a droll fashion, a point he has made in the text. Dreyer peppers the narrative with anecdotes from the publishing world. And the text is replete with wry observations on the English language, its use and misuse.
“Dreyer’s English” is both an informative and entertaining piece of work. As the American version of the English language continues to evolve and grow, the book will in time become outdated and less useful as a reference work but, like Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” that date is many years in the future. For today, however, Dreyer’s work deserves a place on the reference shelf of every writer and reader who appreciates the elegant tool that is the English language, as well as on the nightstand of anyone looking for a few pages of light reading before drifting off to sleep.