In writing about writers’ and editors’ crotchets, Benjamin Dreyer praises “the bracingly peeve-dismantling Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage." If bracing writing about language appeals to you, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Random House, 291 pages, $25) is the book for you.
And if you do not care for bracing writing about language, what in God’s name is the matter with you?
Mr. Dreyer’s book has already attracted a number of reviews and articles that appear enthusiastic.* Someone was carried away enough to suggest that he will supplant Fowler. This is unlikely, since there is a perfectly satisfactory fourth edition of Fowler by Jeremy Butterfield. And it is dangerous to ascribe too much authority to any one writer, as Mr. Dreyer would be the first to tell you (p. 6): English has “no enforceable laws, much less someone to enforce the laws it doesn’t have.”
But his book does display a kinship with the original Fowler’s, because of its personality. “Bracing” comes to mind again. The reason Fowler’s Modern English Usage is the only usage manual people have ever read for pleasure (Oh the nerdity) is that it is suffused with the personality of Henry Watson Fowler, firm, assured, and occasionally a little cranky.
As the executive managing editor and copy chief at Random House, Mr. Dreyer is someone who can speak with authority and experience, though his book is hugely generous in its acknowledgements of people from whom he has learned much about the craft.**
I’ve mentioned the section on people’s crotchets, in which, though knowing that many of them stand on shaky ground, he advises to be generally conservative about observing to avoid causing some readers needless irritation and distraction: “If you’re going to irritate readers, you might as well irritate them (a) on purpose and (b) over something more important than the ostensible difference between ‘eager’ and ‘anxious.’ ”
He concedes, though, that he has so little sense of the proper use of comprise that he has to look it up, but he is aware that there are people who will come at you if you use comprised of. Those people, he might have mentioned, are all copy editors, to whom comprise/compose is our Masonic handshake.
But there is more, much more: a necessary caution against the bogus rules, some basics of grammar to keep in mind to avoid pratfalls, clear advice on punctuation and numbers, tips on editing fiction, extensive entries on frequently misspelled and frequently confused words, and still more.
All is expressed forcibly, with sound judgment and quick wit. There is nothing inherently ungrammatical in ending a sentence with a preposition, he says, but “a sentence should, when it can, aim for a powerful finale and not simply dribble off like an old man’s unhappy micturation.”
Or, in dealing with language change, “one can be on the bus or under the bus.” (I am trying to resist the reviewer’s spoiler impulse to use up all the good lines in the review; I’ve left many for you to discover.)
At the end, as he points out, the editor’s task is to take a text and “make it read even more like itself.” You will not find a book on language that reads more like itself than this one.
*I haven’t read any of them, wishing the views in this post, however feeble or feebly expressed, to be my own.
**In the interest of disclosure, this blog is one source he commends, and I am mentioned by name—favorably—in a footnote for my coinage of the word peeververein, thus depositing me as high up on the slopes of Parnassus as I am ever likely to get.