Review 1464: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

Dreyer’s English was recommended to me by a friend, and it proved to be so popular at the library that I had to wait two months for my hold to come through. As I worked as a writer for more than 30 years, not too much of what Dreyer has to say is a surprise to me, but his facetious style is refreshing.

This book is a familiarly organized writing reference, but it’s easy to simply read it, because it’s fun. Dreyer got on my good side almost immediately by citing Words into Type, a book that was my editing bible for years. I noticed in later years that young writers were rather sneery about it (“That’s out of date, isn’t it?”), or I more frequently met with a blank stare when I recommended it. Now I feel vindicated.

Most interesting to me was the expansion of the “easily confused” list from that included in Words into Type. I was surprised at the increase in the number of simple items being confused.

From its Intro to its Outro, Dreyer’s English contains useful information for even the most casual writer. I think I’m going to buy a copy.

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Day 197: The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

Cover for The Adventure of EnglishThe Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language is a history of the English language written for the general public. The author, writer and television personality Melvyn Bragg, has been responsible for some acclaimed television shows on the subject in England.

The book takes us from the introduction of English (or rather, the languages that would become English) into Britain with the invasions of the Angles and Jutes up to modern times and the versions of English spoken around the world. Bragg explains how English pushed other languages, liked Celtic, to the brink of extinction, and how numerous times the language has been threated by extinction itself, most particularly with the Norman invasion. The Normans spoke French among themselves and enforced its use at court and for all matters of legal business, a condition that lasted for centuries and posed a real threat for the survival of English. However, eventually the Norman kings began thinking of themselves more as Englishmen than Frenchmen and using English for business, starting with Henry V.

The book provides many interesting factoids, such as, that of all languages, Old English was most closely related to Frisian, still spoken by some people in the Low Countries. The explanation of how the British developed such extremely varied regional dialects (much more distinct from each other than American dialects) from the settlement and isolation of different peoples and tribes in different regions is interesting, especially the tale of how a man from rural Cumberland was able to communicate with Icelanders during World War II because of it.

However, the book contains some real irritants. One is the relentless personification of the language as a metaphor throughout the book. English is always gobbling up other languages or fighting them off. Another is the spin put on some of the information. For example, when the Catholic Church insisted on exclusive use of Latin and made translation of the Bible into other languages a heresy, it wasn’t seeking explicitly to destroy English but was rather protecting its priestly prerogatives. If priests weren’t needed to translate and interpret the Bible to their flocks, what would be their purpose? Of course, Bragg explains this, but he implies that the decision was a purposeful attempt to destroy English.

The lack of authority for some of Bragg’s statements is certainly a weakness throughout the book. There were times when I, with my little knowledge, thought he may have misrepresented or put a spin on some facts, but until I finished the book, I was assuming Bragg was a linguist, so I just thought that I was wrong. Now I’m not so sure.

Finally, although the TV series was probably very good, the book’s roots in television show too clearly in the shallowness of the approach. Some chapters, for example, are almost nothing but lists of words with a few paragraphs in between. Overall, although I learned a few interesting facts, I was disappointed.