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How Superficial is That Oxford Comma?

Dreyer, Benjamin. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Random House, 2019.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

Did I even know copyediting was a thing?

I did not. But I do now, thanks to this book by Benjamin Dreyer, “Copy Chief of Random House,” and also a talented author in his own right.

Reading a lot of other people’s good, and less good, writing has that effect on a person. Dreyer has clearly read a lot of other people’s writing. And he generously shares the fruits of all that reading, all that specifically motivated reading, with his own readers in this book.

cover of Dreyer's English

And what delicious fruit it is! If you are someone who likes stories (who isn’t?) or someone who cares about grammar and expression (who shouldn’t?) or someone who delights in language and its quirks (how can you not??) you will enjoy reading this book, which overflows with stories about authors and grammar and expression and language and its quirks, drawn from a deep well that taps into the water table of American letters and publishing.

So, although you might think that you wouldn’t pick up a “style book” to read all the way through for fun, you would be wrong.

Plus, reading this book will give you the illusion that you, yourself, can improve your writing. (Whether it will deliver the substance of that illusion I can’t say. My guess is, that depends on how much of Dreyer’s advice a person takes to heart, or how often a person reviews that advice to refresh her memory, or both.)

This is because the stories and the comments on the nature of language and the observations about the way language works or doesn’t work are all embedded in a set of chapters on what those of us who grew up on Strunk and White probably think of as “The Elements of Style.” That is, how to arrange what some people call “the surface features” of the writing, the grammar and punctuation and word choices and other details, to be “all proper and correct” rather than wrong, clear rather than confusing, attuned rather than off-key. Attuned to what AU (the author) wants to say and to how AU wants that to make the reader think and feel.

People who call all that “the surface features” of writing do not fully appreciate the way “surface” rises right up from the depths. I know it doesn’t always; I understand the concept of frosting, and of slipcovers. But those little bubbles on the “surface” of the water in the pot on the stove come from deeper down. Same with semi-colons. As John Dewey said, in Art as Experience,

Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations (3).

Dreyer’s English is not primarily a book about how to deck out or dress up some prose, once it has been fully formed elsewhere in some mysteriously transcendent, completely independent process, innocent of the way things like grammar and punctuation incarnate meaning. If you are building a machine, you need to know mechanics right from the beginning. This is that kind of style book.

If you are like me, then, you will come away from Dreyer’s English with a renewed sense that language is a vehicle for thought; that precise expression makes the thought exactly the same way that “clothes make the man.” But you will also come away from it with a reawakened appreciation that language is a medium for creating experience, and that the details of its use are how authors fine-tune the experience they are creating.

Authors, and their confessors – the copyeditors.


Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Capricorn Books. 1958 (1934).

A tower of books with a almond- or vaginal-shaped opening
Read any good books lately?

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