Dreyer promises to reveal “some of the fancy little tricks I’ve come across or devised that can make even skilled writing better”, and does so with accuracy, style, and a humour that is slightly relentless... On grammar, Dreyer has clearly expressed opinions, even if they run against the modern grain... The book peters out in the kinds of padding common to this genre: advice on what to do with numbers and foreign phrases, how to spell the names of celebrities, and that mysterious old standby, the list of commonly confused words. (Does anyone really write “baklava” when they mean “balaclava”, or “tenet” for “tenant”?) But even these are worth reading for the friendly and entertaining commentary. Much as you might disagree with some of Dreyer’s preferences, you can’t help warming to a writer who has – perhaps through a process of déformation professionnelle if nothing else – become this attuned to nuances of meaning, and even spelling.
Many people feel a need for guidance in their native language. They don’t like to come across as ignorant or self-important; they want to use words in a way that communicates clearly without inviting scorn from others. Benjamin Dreyer’s book has answered this need in America, where it has been a New York Times bestseller; and despite its larky title, it offers help in a practical way... Dreyer is sound (people have given up saying “right” or “wrong” in this context) on most things; and even where he is less sound, he is congenial and tolerant. Unfortunately, he finds it hard to leave a sentence without qualifying several times, within commas, and often in nattily signalled footnotes, his main point, adding homely, even prissy, asides, pirouettes, parentheses, postscripts and other esprit d’escalier folderol (see what I did there) until, hopefully (sic, see you on page 95) nuff, as they say, (and he really does say this) said. This means his book is impossible to read straight through unless you want to grind your teeth to powder. But if you use it as a reference book, dip in here and there, its strengths become clear.