PRINT April 2019



Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer. New York: Random House, 2019. 278 pages

I DIDN’T TAKE ENGLISH IN COLLEGE. I tested out of it. And I was stoked. Filling out financial-aid forms, backing into a cop car, and getting ringworm all seemed infinitely preferable to reading about how to parse a sentence, and thus I did all of the former and none of the latter. Eventually I landed a series of jobs that required me to at least be able to explain what a dangling participle was; still, every time I look at a style book, I do so through wrath-narrowed eyes. That shit is so boring.

So I’m surprised to admit that I enjoyed Dreyer’s English. As the proper use of language takes a back seat to the ability to churn out a sixteen-second video of two frogs fucking on molly (or simply placed one atop the other on a card table and appropriately hashtagged), and dollars and sense (no, I don’t mean “cents”) drain away from the bastions of journalism to which we all once looked for balanced reportage and decent spelling, Benjamin Dreyer’s volume emerges as an entertaining guide to the correct use of English, and thus one that actually might find its way onto the Kindles and shelves of the masses.

Dreyer is here to lay down the law, and his confidence is comforting.

Note the importance of “entertaining.” Intertwining unconditional rules with breezily tossed-off opinions and amusing anecdotes, Dreyer’s English is a more appealing text than The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style for the sole reason that it is enjoyable. And if it’s enjoyable, then people will read it, and if they read it, they’ll apply its rules, and then none of us will have to cringe at the description of a building as a “ten-story orifice” or a narrative in which police disperse protesters with the aid of a “water canon” ever again.

The book covers—with wit, clarity, and way too many footnotes—subjects ranging from the crucial (the usage of “lie” versus “lay”) to the arcane (the correct spelling of Dr Pepper: no period). Dreyer is fearless in taking a stand:

For your own safety, I’m telling you, just say “set foot in.” You’ll live longer.

No explanation, no history of the phrase’s origins, no reference to the fact that Merriam-Webster—which should be pilloried for its reprehensible use of “example sentences” pulled from the internet that often contain incorrect grammar—blithely approves the use of “step foot.” Dreyer is here to lay down the law, and his confidence is comforting.

Believe me, I didn’t want to say this after seeing his indefensible defense of the phrase “could care less” cited in the February 1, 2019, edition of the New York Times. Dreyer adduces the phrase’s “indirect sarcasm” as its saving grace, thereby assigning not only motive but erudition to its user—that is, he assumes that anyone employing this expression is aware that it is incorrect but simply COULD NOT CARE LESS about that fact because irony, ha ha. This is akin to saying that any twelve-year-old drawing a dick in the snow could really be CAD mapping the Burj Khalifa but, you know, a penis is just funnier.

But it’s Dreyer’s attention to his own sense regarding such matters that makes the book a fresh read. It’s like those lists of the fifty best albums of all time: You might not agree with his take on a certain topic, but you will think about it long enough to perhaps mentally type an enraged Reddit entry on the subject. Speaking of Reddit, it’s interesting to note that though Dreyer frequently turns to Twitter for material, he does not mine, for example, Instagram or YouTube comments, or gaming-community threads. Whether this speaks to his age or to his interests I couldn’t say, but it is in such forums that English is currently being both made and broken, so their omission here smacks—intentionally or not—of class distinction.

Still, it is clear that Dreyer has respect for the English language and for those trying to use it. This is best embodied by his advice in a chapter devoted to the finessing of fiction, in which he describes the styling of prose as being “very much about listening”; Dreyer suggests “taking nothing for granted, asking lots of questions.” This is excellent advice—no matter in what field it is applied. 

Polly Watson is the Copy Chief of Artforum.