Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


July 1, 2023

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

Book cover

I picked up Dreyer’s English because I was intrigued by the words “Copy chief of Random House” on the cover and was further intrigued when I cracked it open and found a mention of Words into Type, a venerable editing reference. I found that the book is a pleasure to read, does an amazingly complete job of covering standard copy editing knowledge, and as a bonus, conveys a lot of insight into the copy editor’s role and job in editing fiction and creative nonfiction.

Every book on how to write has to take a certain philosophical stance on how prescriptivist to be. Dreyer takes a fairly pragmatic approach. As the copy chief of Random House, he talks to authors and he hears from readers. He respects authors’ ownership of their works, but knows that authors don’t want to get floods of letters from readers about grammar and usage matters that the author hadn’t even noticed. He doesn’t try to sweep back the tide of general usage, but he also trusts his taste and judgment.

In thirteen chapters, the book covers the gamut of copy editing knowledge, including “The Stuff in the Front”:
  • Tricky grammar points
  • Treatment of numbers
  • Cleaning out needless words
  • Which non-rules to ignore
  • Punctuation
“The Stuff in the Back” includes useful notes on commonly misspelled words* and common usage errors, as well as some miscellaneous points, including a discussion of “the habit of inauthentically attributing wisecracks, purported profundities, inspirational doggerel, and other bits of refrigerator-door wisdom to famous people.” From your lips to God’s ears, Mr. Dreyer. A useful part of the book is a set of things to watch out for in fiction, such as checking sunrise and sunset times, or anachronisms with postal codes and phone numbers to watch out for.

Reviewed from a library copy.

*I consider myself to be a good speller, but some of these (“elegiac”) gave me qualms. I couldn’t resist doing a computer-wide search for the misspelling elegaic, but to my relief, it didn’t turn up in any old editing projects, only in a published magazine not edited by me.