Benjamin Dreyer punctuates the title of his book — Dreyer’s English — mischievously. Yes, mischievously, because irony, satire and pranks run through this book by Random House’s chief copy editor, who seems fed up with the kind of copy he gets to edit. Why else would he have a full stop instead of an apostrophe before the ‘s’ in Dreyer’s and why in God’s name should the ‘i’ in English have an apostrophe? His book is, as the title makes clear, “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”

The doctored title has been well-chosen, for it shows Dreyer’s contempt for what he calls the “migraine-inducing” copy he gets from authors. For that sympathy-inducing reason, Dreyer never fails to take it out on budding authors and, while talking of grammar, admits “a little grammar is a dangerous thing.”

Like ‘chiefs’ the world over who claim ‘firsts’, Dreyer shocks us when he says Random House didn’t have a stylebook before he joined. Good heavens! A publishing house not having a style-sheet? Doesn’t this egotism stink? He realises this, retraces his steps and admits that there indeed was a style-sheet, but that he did this and he did that.

The book is meant for all those who are in the editing business — a futile endeavour, since there is no such thing as a universally accepted, standard English. Yanks speak and write it the way the Brits and Aussies don’t, and Dreyer makes it clear he is a patriotic American who would never miss an opportunity to have a go at the Brits.

Yet this “utterly correct” copy editor cautions that, in spite of the differences, there is no room for carte blanche for a linguistic anarchy, and he must help the writers of all varieties of English who rack their brains over problems that torment.

Random House’s chief copy editor lets loose on how to edit and the copy that infuriates him

What do you do in this example? “Here’s one of those grammar rules which infuriate people.”

‘Infuriates’ or the other way around? Dreyer says — and rightly — it should be ‘infuriate’ even though the word “one” tempts us to use a singular verb.

Writers on whose manuscripts he scribbles his suggestion react in a variety of ways — “Really?” or from non-Americans, “Well, maybe, that is the way it is done in the United States.”

Differences apart, there are some rules that govern English writing, and that is where Dreyer’s book has utility for all, especially for a native such as me whose job is exactly what Dreyer’s is, except that a journalist is in a far greater hurry than Dreyer would often be.

Dreyer doesn’t want a party-jargon uniformity in style, but he does make useful suggestions to remove confusion about everyday problems that writers and their copy editors come across. (‘Everyday’ or ‘every day’? Dreyer tells us all.)

The author also touches upon a very sensitive issue — that of capitalising the initial letter/s of designations and honorifics. It is “President Barack Obama but the president of the United States.” This is a relatively recent departure from a tradition that had existed well after the Second World War, but fizzled out toward the end of the 20th century. Half a century ago, when this scribe joined the profession, there was a well-defined principle: a word being used in a meaning other than that in its normal sense would have the first letter capitalised. For instance, a press is a place where printing is done, but where we mean all the newspapers (and television) put together, it should be the Press. Similarly a house is a house where people live, but if it is used for a parliament, it should be House. Likewise, a bill is a piece of paper mentioning the amount to be paid, but it should be a Bill if we mean a law in making. We were also asked to make the N of Note capital if we mean not the currency note, but a protest Note from a foreign government. (The problem is that in Dreyer’s country, a currency note is called a bill.)

The book is meant for all those who are in the editing business — a futile endeavour, since there is no universally accepted, standard English.

Of his useful hints, many will come in handy to sub-editors in a hurry. “I don’t know why,” writes Dreyer, “some people insist that the past tense of ‘wreak’ is ‘wrought’— that’s a lie. […] It is indeed ‘wreaked’.” (Frankly, quite often I find myself among “some people”, but then somehow feel guilty and recheck to correct myself.)

Fascinating is chapter eight, containing what I would say is an incomplete “list of frequently and/or easily misspelled words.” Dreyer’s reason for making the list is apt and amazing, for he says no one expects you to memorise the spelling of every word of a language which he terms “notoriously irregular, unmemorialisable.” Some examples: Remember, it is always ‘glamorise’ and never ‘glamourise’ — even in American English. ‘Graffiti’ has two fs, and not two ts and it is always plural because there is no such word as ‘graffito’. ‘Inoculate’ has just one n and one c; and words with three consecutive vowels —‘liaison’ and ‘liqueur’ — call for trouble. “For this sort of thing,” Dreyer writes, blame not his bête noire, the British, but the French. And it is ‘mischievous’, not ‘mischievious’, and note that it is ‘minuscule’ and not ‘miniscule’, because the word ‘mini’ creates the problem.

Regretfully, Merriam-Webster, the dictionary Dreyer admires most, has this to say about ‘miniscule’: “The adjective minuscule is etymologically related to minus, but associations with mini- have produced the spelling variant miniscule. This variant dates to the end of the 19th century, and it now occurs commonly in published writing, but it continues to be widely regarded as an error.”

In some cases, Dreyer makes us go through school grammar, and he is right because it confuses even veterans — lay, lie, laid, lain, lying; loath and loathe; lose and loose, mantel and mantle; mucus and mucous, pedal, peddle, peddler; wrack, rack, wreak; sensual and sensuous; venal and venial and many such words. His definition of ‘venial’ is excellent: “Venial means pardonable; a venial sin will not send you to hell.”

There are also some wonderful bits of advice: ‘closed fist’ is absurd; a fist is never open. ‘A passing fad’? Isn’t it tautological? A fad in any case is of brief duration. As for words ending in o, is it buffalos or buffaloes, commandos or commandoes? Dreyer’s advice is heart-breaking: see your dictionary.

Finally the sum total of his efforts: “no single stylebook can ever tell you everything you want to know about writing.”

The reviewer is an author and Dawn’s Readers’ Editor

Dreyer.s Engl’ish: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
By Benjamin Dreyer
Random House, US
ISBN: 978-0812995701
291pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 26th, 2020