Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style: The UK Edition

by Benjamin Dreyer

Hardcover, 2019



Call number



Century (2019), 304 pages


"Authoritative as it is amusing, this book distills everything Benjamin Dreyer has learned from the hundreds of books he has copyedited, including works by Elizabeth Strout, E. L. Doctorow, and Frank Rich, into a useful guide not just for writers but for everyone who wants to put their best foot forward in writing prose. Dreyer offers lessons on the ins and outs of punctuation and grammar, including how to navigate the words he calls 'the confusables,' like tricky homophones; the myriad ways to use (and misuse) a comma; and how to recognize--though not necessarily do away with--the passive voice. (Hint: If you can plausibly add 'by zombies' to the end of a sentence, it's passive.) People are sharing their writing more than ever--on blogs, on Twitter--and this book lays out, clearly and comprehensibly, everything writers can do to keep readers focused on the real reason writers write: to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively. Chock-full of advice, insider wisdom, and fun facts on the rules (and nonrules) of the English language, this book will prove invaluable to everyone who wants to shore up their writing skills, mandatory for people who spend their time editing and shaping other people's prose, and--perhaps best of all--an utter treat for anyone who simply revels in language"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member annbury
This guide to English usage and style has many useful points, and many amusing observations. Sometimes the humor is a little strained, but the levity does lighten the message. I particularly liked his group of pet peeves, and his admission that some usage decisions are purely arbitrary. It may not
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be "The Elements of Style", but the revised "Elements" is after all sixty years old. "Dreyer's English" isn't a new "Elements", but it is a good book to have around for reference, and for amusement.
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LibraryThing member emanate28
Thoroughly enjoyable perspectives from an expert copyeditor on what makes writing stronger. He's opinionated for sure! Some of the humor gets a bit old, but overall, it keeps things entertaining.

And I may not remember much of what he says to avoid or watch out for, but hopefully some things will
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ring alarm bells when I come across it in my own work as a copyeditor and remind me to come back to this book to check.

One of my favorite chapters is the one that lists sets of words that are redundant. It's available online so I recommend that everyone read that at the very least.

Now if only there were a similar book for UK English...!
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LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Reasonably exhaustive guide to correct written American English. The author's wry commentary grows tiring after a while, but all fairness this isn't a book designed to be read cover-to-cover. It's a reference book, and a good one at that.
LibraryThing member LisCarey
English is a wonderful, expressive language, but can also be very tricky. That is both the fun and the torture of turning out good prose that will enlighten, inform, and entertain in the way intended, and in that pursuit, a good copy editor is essential.

Benjamin Dreyer has been the copy chief at
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Random House for more than twenty years. This book is, mostly, a lively chat about copyediting, the traps that await, making the book the best version of what the author intends, the importance of respecting the author's style even when some aspects of it are maybe technically wrong as long as it will be clear to the reader.

Oh, and the importance of doing so diplomatically.

I listened to the audiobook, and Dreyer is an excellent reader of his own work, as well as a very good writer. He has wit and humor and a sense of the ironic. Alison Fraser reader's quotes and excerpts used to illustrate points, and is also very good.

However, there are also a few sections that I think I would have preferred to read, no listen to. These are lists of names often misspelled, words often misspelled, expressions often misused, misspelled, or which have wrong words substituted. His commentary on this is well-done and entertaining, but they are still lists of words and phrases accompanied by that great commentary. Because of that, I recommend reading, not listening to, this book.

But very definitely recommended, in whichever format you choose.

I borrowed this audiobook from my local library.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
This is the perfect companion to Lynn Truss's Eats Shoots & Leaves - and even wittier. It's overflowing with opportunities to learn about our American written communication (with a bunch of amusing comparisons to how Brits do it) and even about obscure parts of speech (retronym, contronym,
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cacography, reduplication) and words (Brundlefly). Everyone who loves to read should cherish it and keep it close. My only quibble: footnotes on almost every page - Dreyer's too fond of them - and the asterisks designating them in the text, in most cases, are too tiny to find. Or I need new reading glasses.

Quote: "First challenge is to go a week without writing these words: very, rather, really, quite, in fact, of course, surely, that said. And "actually"? Feel free to go the rest of your life without another "actually"".
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LibraryThing member SamSattler
As copy chief of Random House, Benjamin Dreyer has pretty much seen it all – over and over again. A substantial portion of Dreyer’s new writing guide, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, even reads like a “Greatest Hits” list of the writing errors he has seen
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repeated most often during his two decades with the publisher. Anyone who writes, and with today’s technology all of us write all day long whether or not we realize it, will learn something from Dreyer’s English. That’s the good news; the bad news is that I can’t imagine a book more difficult to review than “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” If that chore doesn’t bring all your grammatical insecurities to the forefront, nothing will.

I knew I still had a lot to learn when the book’s first chapter, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose),” began with a challenge not to use for a week what turned out to be five of my favorite words: “very,” “rather,” “really,” “quite,” and “in fact.” And my apprehension only increased when Dreyer went on to add “just,” “pretty,” “surely,” “of course,” “so,” “that said,” and “actually” to the list. Dreyer is not saying never to use these words, only that they should be used sparingly if they are to have much of an impact on the reader.

Dreyer, though, is not as strict as this may make him sound because the second chapter of Dreyer’s English is an explanation of why we should ignore some of the written (and unwritten) writing rules we grew up with. (God bless him). Among other things, Dreyer gives us his blessing to:
• Begin a sentence with “And” or “But,”
• Split an Infinitive,
• End a Sentence with a Preposition (see the first sentence of this paragraph),
• Use Contractions in Formal Writing,
• Actively Use the Passive Voice, and
• Use Sentence Fragments (for effect).

Dreyer’s English is broken into two distinct parts, “The Stuff in the Front” and “The Stuff at the Back,” with the second part being largely a series of lists (with explanations and tips) of things such as easily misspelled words, the author’s pet peeves, words easily confused by the writer (or spell check) with other words, notes on confusing proper names, and words that should never be used in connection with other words. Part One focuses as much on grammar as it does on style but proves to be as much fun to read as it is instructive because Dreyer so often uses his keen sense of humor to make his points. This section includes my favorite part of the book, a chapter entitled “67 Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation.” Somehow, the chapter managed to clarify some of my longtime uncertainties about punctuation at the same time it was making me feel that my grammar might not be as hopeless as I had feared. (So, of course, it is my favorite part of the book.)

Bottom Line: Dreyer’s English is an excellent style and grammar guide, and it is written in such humorous fashion that it is fun to read – what may be a first in the history of books on English grammar. My one quibble with the book, and it is a big one, is the author’s insistence on so often using President Trump in disparaging or negative terms to illustrate poor grammar or his simple dislike of the man and his policies. It was kind of funny the first two or three times, but the first third of Dreyer’s English is so heavily littered with the remarks and examples that they soon become little more than an irritating distraction. Why turn a book on grammar and style into a personal political statement? Thankfully, there are far fewer of these little throwaways in the final two-thirds of the book.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Benjamin Dreyer is copy chief of Random House, and he wants to share with readers what he has learned over the years about good writing. Unlike a many books on usage and style, this one is not only informative but humorous. [It is killing me not to write quite humorous, but in his very first
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chapter, he lists words to eliminate in order to make your prose crisper, such as: very, rather, really, quite, in fact, inter alia.] He advises:

“If you can last a week without writing any of what I’ve come to think of as the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers - I wouldn’t ask you to go a week without saying them; that would render most people, especially British people, mute - you will at the end of that week be a considerably better writer than you were at the beginning.”

He also attacks the modifier “literally,” calling it “the Intensifier from Hell.” “No,” he states, “you did not literally die laughing.”

He explains that prose rules “aid us in using our words to their preeminent purpose: to communicate clearly with our readers.” He avers, “I swear to you, a well-constructed sentence sounds better.” Still, he is much more flexible that one would suppose. Dreyer in his witty, breezy book tells us that most of the don’ts we learned in the last century were (or are now) maybes.

He notes, somewhat dispiritedly, that the English language is “not so easily ruled and regulated . . . [it] continues to evolve anarchically.”

In many cases Dreyer has the good grace to tell us what the old rule was. He proposes that the writer may observe them or not in his (or ‘her’ or sometimes ‘their’) discretion. (He doesn’t care for the use of the singular ‘their,’ but seems ready to bow to the inevitable if the gender of a single person is unknown.)

He does stress the importance of the serial comma (sometimes called the “Oxford comma”), providing funny examples of misunderstandings from omitting it. [That is the comma that precedes the final ‘and’ in an enumeration in most American books, but is typically absent (presumably to save space) in most American newspapers.]

He also is against using the passive voice, even while allowing that sometimes one needs to emphasize something other than the subject of a sentence. But he wants you at least to know what the passive voice is, writing:

“If you can append ‘by zombies’ to the end of a sentence (or, yes, ‘by the clown’), you’ve indeed written a sentence in the passive voice.”

He is not above taking opportunities to inject veiled political jabs into his rationales for his recommendations. For example, he bemoans the tendency of the President of the United States to misspell words, and has this to say on the importance of fact-checking quotes:

“In an era redolent to the high heavens with lies passed off as truths - often by career perjurers rabidly eager to condemn as fabrications facts they find inconvenient - I beg you not to continue to perpetrate and perpetuate these fortune-cookie hoaxes, which in their often insipid vapidity are as demeaning to the spirit as in the inauthenticity they are insulting to the history of the written word.”

He includes sections on, inter alia, “Peeves and Crotchets” (such as the use of aggravate versus irritate), “The Confusables” (affect versus effect, for example), and “Notes on Proper Nouns” which includes “Miscellaneous Facty Things” and “The Trimmables,” i.e., all those redundant phrases we use, from “blend together” to “exact same.”

Dreyer peppers the text with funny footnotes, sometimes all the more amusing for being digressive.

This book, like many of its genre, can be sampled a little at a time. I enjoyed it so much I read straight through, over to cover.
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LibraryThing member magicians_nephew
Having fun with a new book that is just a picnic for word lovers.

Dreyer's English is a sort of memoir and chapbook by a man who was for years the chief copy editor over at Random House.

The first half of the book is the memoir of famous books and authors he worked with and in passing some of the
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classic "copy editor" gremlins that frequently come up. This is done with a droll and self-deprecating style that is both informative and very fun to read.

The second half of the book is more just "Do this" and "Don't do that" it's useful and the books index is first rate but it's not quite as much fun as the first half.

But a lovely book to have on your night table and dip into here and there. And learn something
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LibraryThing member jjmcgaffey
I admit I'm a word and language geek - I have been known to spend hours reading the dictionary (the OED, admittedly). I found this book a lot of fun, less for the rules Dreyer lays down and more for his nicely snarky comments about the rules and the examples he presents. There are some formatting
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problems - particularly in the list of how to properly spell and capitalize proper nouns. It's really hard to tell what's the proper way to write PATTI LUPONE (the header of the comment) when his only comment is "Not 'Lupone.' This is not a woman you want to mess with..." I presume the P is also capitalized, but that's a guess. Definitely worth reading, possibly worth rereading.
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LibraryThing member Darcia
Who knew a book about proper use of the English language could be so much fun?

Yes, I actually laughed out loud while reading this book, and I did it often. One night my husband asked what was so funny. When I told him "the proper use of commas," he stood staring at me like he wasn't quite sure what
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to do with that information. Then he walked away, because clearly I'd lost my mind.

Not only is this book highly enjoyable, but it's also a treasure trove of information. The layout is concise and easy to follow, making it ideal for quick reference. First, though, you'll want to read the entire thing from beginning to end, at least once but maybe twice, because, really, you'll learn a lot, and laughter is good for you.

This book is a must, whether you're a professional writer, a student, a blogger, or you just want your work emails and Facebook rants to look smarter.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
I was so relieved when Benjamin Dreyer confessed. "When I started out as a copy editor, I realized that most of what I knew about grammar I knew instinctively," I read with relief. I was not alone!

He won my heart by adding, "Even now I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what a nominative absolute is, I
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think that the word "genitive" sounds vaguely smutty, and I certainly don't know, or care to know, how to diagram a sentence. I hope I'm not shocking you."

We did diagram sentences in junior high....in 1965... Don't ask me how to do that now.

In school, I often got an A for content and a C for grammar and spelling. I never did learn to touch type with accuracy, and any proficiency I had gained in spelling has disappeared.

I often said that I came out of Temple University knowing how to read intelligently. I was quite unemployable and ended up in customer service and sales.

When I somehow got a job as a copywriter/copyeditor in promotion for a small publishing house (I had worked for a former employee and my new boss thought I had learned her skills through osmosis), I worked hard to correct my errors by reading grammar books. My coworker and I had many heated discussions about how to write; she was a grammar nerd.

Later in life, while schooling our son, my family all were writing and we would critique each other. I had become a member of the dreaded 'grammar police' and oversensitive to bad writing habits.

I took short-term editing jobs and people hated me. I edited a manuscript for a self-published author who appreciated my insight and gave me double our agreed on price.

Well, that was a long time ago. I had thrown out my ragged grammar books before a move. Now, I needed a refresher course. And hearing so many good things about Dreyer's English, bought an ebook.

What a treasure! So much useful information, shared in such an entertaining way! A joy to read!

I now understand why I never know if I should use gray or grey. My history of reading British writers had me totally confused.

I am very grateful.
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LibraryThing member ThomasPluck
This is a wonderful book, essential for those who write in English, and entertaining and illuminating for those who read it. On my writer shelf beside Strunk & White, Annie Dillard, Lawrence Block, Bartlet's, and so on.
LibraryThing member dmturner
This is an excellent dipping book (one you read for a page or two) or a reference (to be kept on hand, with certain pages dog eared and some exclamation points in the margins). The author has clearly been keeping lists of the most persistent errors writers make, and almost every entry has a
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humorous comment. It’s not a grammar rant; the author admits to preferences but only sometimes lays down the law, and then only when the offenses are egregious.
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LibraryThing member JenniferElizabeth2
Middle section occasionally skimmable, but resist, dear reader! There are still snort-worthy bits!!
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5725. Dreyer's English An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer (read 28 Dec 2020) I know one does not read a dictionary cover-to-cover and this book is sort of like a dictionary, But I set out to read it and I found it so engaging that I simply decided o read the whole
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thing--and I never was bored, as each thing talked about was of interest. Most of what he says about style I found worth reading and usually agreed with and the things I did not know I felt he was right about. Sometimes I did not know what he told, as, e.g., that "callus" is the way one spells a thickening of the skin as distinguished from "callous", being hard-hearted. But ordinarily I thought I knew what he said was right. He is a copy editor and discusses with wit rules, punctuation, numbers, foreign words, misspelled words, proper nouns, etc. What amazed me was that each thing discussed was of value and I never thought his comments were other than of interest. No doubt I do not always write as he says one should--as a copy editor he claims he often looks things up and always looks up how to spell, e.g., Zbigniew Brzezinski--as surely everyone must --and no doubt no one can blame him for that
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LibraryThing member kapheine
This book was a lot of fun. Probably about as much fun as one can possibly have while reading about grammar rules. The first half was particularly good. The second half is a little tougher to read straight through, as it consists primarily of long lists of common spelling and grammar mistakes. But
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even that was decently fun to read through.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
I want to be a copy editor when I grow up.

This book is as funny as grammar gets.
LibraryThing member JulieStielstra
A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post by Copy Chief for Random House Benjamin Dreyer sent me in search of this book, and I was not disappointed. If you're someone who cringes at "comprised of," "I'm going to lay down," idiot apostrophes (see the footnote - and there are a lot of footnotes -
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on p. 36), "learnings" or "onboarding," you will find a kindred spirit in these pages. If you're a writer who needs any more cautions about what to resolutely avoid (but you have his permission to split an infinitive if you really want to) or watch out for in your own writing, Dreyer is your guy, because he has seen it all and then some. He is also funny, snarky, and cheerfully violates his own dicta (after inveighing against "Throat Clearers" like "That said...", you will find him saying exactly that quite a few times throughout).

The first chapters are the best, as he reviews general principles of correct and strong writing: rules of grammar, punctuation (be warned: he takes the Oxford comma seriously), conventions of spacing, foreign words, parenthetical statements, and so on. I'm going to scan the section on hyphens (includes em and en dashes for extra credit) and put it on my bulletin board. The section on editing fiction writing is illuminating, and is clearly a special professional niche, since it may involve authorial replies to your edits along the lines of "WRITE YOUR OWN F***ING BOOK!" The later chapters are more or less compendia of random tips, trick, preferences, and what I think must be extracts from his daily notebooks: "Peeves and Crotchets," "Assorted Things," "Confusables," words people just use wrong all the time, celebrity names to be sure to spell right, words he can never spell right.... The main takeaway would be - and he says it repeatedly: Look it up. Keep a dictionary, consult any of a number of recommended grammar / writing websites, or google it (when referring to the website, it's Google; if it's a verb, it's google).

Not necessarily a book to be read cover to cover, though I did, with enjoyment. But I will definitely stick this on the shelf next to my own "big fat style manuals" to refer to. A breezy, drily funny (thought sometimes he tries a little bit too hard) companion for those of us who really truly want to know where the word "only" properly should go in a sentence (answer: it depends).
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LibraryThing member steve02476
Sort of a book about copy editing and partly a style reference work. Opinionated in a funny way. Skimmed some of it.
LibraryThing member adzebill
Recommeded by Elisabeth Knox, this is a charming and funny usage guide that is nowhere near as constipated as Fowler's, the usual workshorse. Also Dreyer's love for Shirley Jackson made me go and read The Lottery again.
LibraryThing member dschwabe
My go-to style book
LibraryThing member yarmando
Brilliant, life-changing book. A bit tedious to listen to in the list sections, but it's great to hear Dreyer's thoughts in his own voice and cadence.


Original language


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Physical description

8.74 inches


1529124271 / 9781529124279

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