(Subtitle: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style)
If you wanted to rewrite Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style — and who hasn’t wanted to do that? — what would it look like?
Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, tried his hand, and the result is a New York Times bestseller. If you write for work or for fun, you’ll love it.
Dreyer’s English is partly a style guide — there are handy, easy-to-reference chapters on, among other things, punctuation, foreign words, and proper nouns — and partly a platform for Dreyer’s witty and well-crafted prose. It’s a 21st century S&W, but with less pomposity and more snark.
Dreyer dispenses much of his wit in footnotes, which leads me to my only criticism of the book. The asterisks are tiny and, especially when placed next to quotation marks, are damned* hard to see. Many times I read a page, saw a footnote, and had to scan up and down the page to find the elusive asterisk. Hopefully they’ll fix that in the second edition.
Here’s a sample of Dreyer’s wisdom, from the “Begs the Question” section in the “Peeves and Crotchets” chapter:
People who are in the business of hating the relatively new-fashioned use of “begs the question” hate it vehemently, and they hate it loudly. Unfortunately, subbing in “raises the question” or “inspires the query” or any number of other phrasings, fools no one; one can always detect the deleted “begs the question,” a kind of prose pentimento, for those of you who were paying attention in art history class or have read Lillian Hellman’s thrilling if dubiously accurate memoir.
I didn’t pay attention in art history class. So, along with gaining insight into one of my own crotchets, I learned a new word. Pentimento turns out to be perfect for what Dreyer wanted to say.
Come for the usage tips. Stay for the waggish humor.
* Dreyer challenges us to go a week without writing very. All right then.