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WV Book Team: New writing guide a fun book on dull subject

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About 100 years ago, I was a freshman at Bethany College, a small liberal arts school in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle. After my first English class at Bethany, I smugly concluded that surely I was one of the sharpest students in the room.

The professor, Helen Louise McGuffie, the head of Bethany’s English Department, quickly disabused me of that notion.

As her first assignment, she directed we write a theme discussing our career plans. If you’re unsure about your career choice, just go ahead and say that, she said.

In my composition, I wrote I was having difficulty deciding between becoming an engineer and maybe trying my hand at a writing career.

When our themes were graded and returned, I was shocked to see mine covered in red-ink corrections. In the margin, McGuffie wrote, “I suggest you study engineering.”

Despite McGuffie’s blunt assessment, I’ve been able to make a pretty good living as a journalist and author. And time and time over the years, I’ve found myself consulting my tattered copy of the little book that was a required textbook for her class — Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”

In 1919, William Strunk Jr., then an English professor at Cornell University, published a thin grammar guide. In 1959, famed writer E.B. White, who had been a student in Strunk’s class, edited a new edition of his old professor’s book. White’s 92-page edition has gone on to sell millions of copies, becoming the most-consulted writing guidebook ever.

Now comes a new guidebook worthy of sharing shelf space with Strunk and White’s time-honored classic.

Benjamin Dreyer is the copy chief at Random House, one of the nation’s leading publishing companies. As such, he has upheld the standards of the legendary publisher for more than two decades.

His “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style” (Random House, $25) not only offers informative lessons on punctuation and the rules of grammar, it also tackles what he calls the “non-rules,” explaining why it’s OK to begin a sentence with “And” or “But.” He offers instruction on how to confidently split an infinitive. And he urges writers to avoid what he calls “the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers,” including “very,” “rather,” “of course” and the dreaded “actually.”

He peppers his book with playful anecdotal footnotes and acerbic wit. The result is a remarkably fun book about a dastardly dull subject. Both authoritative and amusing, it’s highly recommended for anyone who cares about language.

I suspect Dr. McGuffie would love it.

James E. Casto is the retired editor of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.

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