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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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‘Dreyer’s English’ Is for Everybody

A style guide even for those of us who no longer assign style guides.

January 27, 2019
 
 

Remember Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition handbook?

For whatever reason, it was the handbook of choice in my junior high as well as the subject of many jokes asking if it was any relation to me. (Obviously not.) When I first started teaching and was told I had to choose a style guide, I choose Warriner’s because … why did it matter, anyway?

Plus, I could joke with students about how it was no relation.

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve used a style guide in a writing class, because the truth is, I never really used a style guide in a writing class. Early on I would occasionally assign one of the lessons, and before the internet, it was a nice thing to tell students to look something up in the guide that I didn’t know.

But I never truly used the style guide. It was never integrated into my teaching, mostly because I’d never seen a style guide that reflected how I think about learning to write.

Until now.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer, vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief of Random House[1] will be the style guide I add to the mix the next time I teach a writing course. In fact, it will not just be the style guide -- an addendum to the main texts -- it will be one of the focal texts, because it is an example of exactly how I want students to think about the choices they make when they are writing.

One of my mantras is “to write is to choose,” and Dreyer’s English is a window into how someone has spent a life helping authors make the very fine choices when it comes to the language that best expresses what the author is trying to say.

For example, in the first chapter, “The Life-Changing Matter of Tidying Up (Your Prose)” Dreyer opens up with a list of words he wants us to go a week without writing: “very,” “rather,” “really,” “quite” and “in fact.”

Notice that Dreyer is not commanding us to banish these words, merely to try to go a week without them in order to notice what might be lost and gained in their absence. What is gained is an increased sensitivity to the impact of our choices, or in the case of Dreyer’s list, some of the reflexive tics that creep into everyone’s prose.[2]

Go three paragraphs up and notice that I use “very fine,” a choice made with deliberation because I decided I wanted a little zooming effect to describe the kind of choices you’re making during copyediting. I’m picturing someone looming over a manuscript, looking closer at a particular point. I think it fits. The “very” gets to stand.

I’m a fan of Dreyer’s English because I believe students are best served by focusing on making good sentences, rather than studying grammar in isolation, and Dreyer’s approach gives something for students to weigh those choices against. It doesn’t just describe the difference between active and passive constructions, advising this and prohibiting that, but walks us through ways of thinking about those differences.

Dreyer is never short of opinions, but he is no prescriptivist and is especially sensitive to the music of prose, as befits someone who has worked on books by E. L. Doctorow, Michael Chabon, Suzan-Lori Parks and Edmund Morris (among dozens of others). What good is language if it doesn’t somehow move us? When Dreyer discusses the “rules,” it is in the context of understanding the relationship those rules have to the larger goals of the writing itself.

Correctness alone is not a virtue if it comes at the expense of some more important value. At the same time, Dreyer is obviously well versed in the rules. I joked on Twitter that it’s a book for both fans and haters of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, and I still can’t think of a more accurate one-liner.

There’s many other virtues to Dreyer’s English, especially if we’re thinking about it as a classroom-ready style guide when compared to some of its alternatives.

It reads like it was written by a specific human being. Dreyer’s footnote asides are completely charming, often witty and occasionally LOL funny. Students using this book will be implicitly encouraged to remain themselves as they navigate the thicket of choices writers must make. If the style guide is written by an identifiable person, why can’t the same be true of their essays?

It also has honest-to-god helpful tips, including a chapter on “the confusables,” which collects those things that I’m constantly looking up on the internet to make sure I’m using them correctly.

The chapter “Notes on Proper Nouns” is structured like a mini-encyclopedia of proper spelling of various names of prominent people, but is also an insight into Dreyer’s unique mind, as he shows us how to deal with “the elder” in Pieter Bruegel The Elder, while also informing us that PB The Elder was the “Matthew McConaughey of his era, as no one can ever quite remember how to spell his name.”

Even if you don’t think you’re in need of a new style guide, I recommend Dreyer’s English. It’s become one of my desk-side books, not only as a potential reference, but more importantly as inspiration, a reminder of what I’m trying to do in my work.

Dreyer’s English is an enjoyable read in and of itself, but as a new addition to the world of style guides, it’s a gift I look forward to giving to students.

 

 

[1]Full disclosure, Dreyer and I share a publishing conglomerate, as my forthcoming The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing is being put out by the Penguin side of Penguin Random House. We’ve never met and have only ever interacted on Twitter. I picked up an advance copy of the book at the recent MLA convention.

[2]One of the difficulties of blogging is that the pace with which I must produce for this space doesn’t allow for as close attention as one ideally wishes for their public writing. This is one of the reasons we call these things “blogs” in which we “post,” rather than “essays,” which are “published.” The medium requires more forgiveness, though the frequency with which my readers comment on infelicities in my prose suggests not everyone grants that latitude. Such are the ways of writing.

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