Book of the Week 2: Dreyer’s English

13th January, 2020

Yes, a book about how to write, by a celebrated copy-editor. Benjamin Dreyer offers an enjoyable tour through all the rules of grammar and style that people break, making their prose dull or ridiculous. He also rails against the pedants who insist on rules that any good writer would happily break, such as prohibition on splitting infinitives.

It’s fun – even funny. Dreyer’s humour is on every page; one reviewer described it as ‘relentless’ but I was glad to have the jokes to keep me company. This is, after all, a book about grammar and linguistic precision. It needs jokes, and some of Dreyer’s are good enough to have me annoying my wife by reading them out to her. (Sorry.)

The book was easily good enough to keep me reading despite the fact that I wasn’t learning very much. I was aware that the book was a combination of advice I already knew and advice I would promptly forget, although one or two observations may stick.

Perhaps I am the wrong reviewer. Not only I have read similar books before, there is the small matter of having been on the receiving end of 14 copy-edits (7 books in the US, 7 in the UK). I have absorbed certain predilections of copy-editors by osmosis by now. I suspect a reader with less of this painful first-hand experience might learn more, but no matter: the point of this book is to be enjoyed, rather than to serve as a style manual. And enjoyable it is.

One thing that was missing from the book is a sense of just what it’s like to be an author on the receiving end of a copy-edit, although Dreyer does mention one author who scrawled in the margin of one edit, “WRITE YOUR OWN FUCKING BOOK”. Just so.

An alternative offering is Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which seemed much briefer to me, and is really two good books in one. The first is all about the cognitive science of why communication is hard, and it’s very good. The second is – again – that list of grammar and style rules that one should obey or ignore. Like Dreyer, Pinker has little patience with old-school pedants; like Dreyer, he’s funny.

Also consider Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Williams and Colomb, if you can find a copy. I haven’t read this book for many years but it made a big impression on me. Williams and Colomb go beyond the tired grammar advice.  They and pull sentences and paragraphs apart to show why some writing is confusing in its very structure. This book is superb, and a real eye-opener. Fewer jaunty jokes, but more likely to improve your writing.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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