Teaching older kids to write isn’t really a parent’s job. Grammar is one of those elusive skill sets that kids just kind of pick-up, and once you grow-up, most of us — even those who write for a living — have a hard time defining what good grammar actually is. Like cooking pie from scratch or doing Sean Connery impressions while drunk, you really only notice when grammar goes terribly wrong. When it’s done right, it’s invisible.
Well, not entirely invisible. If you work with words for a living, grammar is one of those things you’re just supposed to know, in the same way engineers are supposed to be good at math, right? Well, not really. In his highly approachable and hilarious book Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer writes: “I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I hate grammar. Well okay, not quite true. I don’t hate grammar. I hate grammar jargon.”
If you don’t understand what a predicate is, or you think, as Dreyer does, that the word “genitive” sounds “vaguely smutty,” then this book is for you. The Copy Chief at Random House (that’s RANDOM HOUSE) admits he doesn’t know “how to diagram a sentence.” In short, if we teach kids that grammar is a list of rules and confusing words about words, then we’re likely to hurt the chances kids have at learning to love writing and reading.
“I do think that it is important for people who are being instructed in writing to know their stuff. I mean, it’s like every, everybody wants to know how to spell,” Dreyer tells Fatherly. “I certainly remember having that drummed into my head. I also think that the basic ideas of grammar, are, are important. But. It may not be so terribly important for somebody who’s 13 or 14 years old to understand what the subjunctive is.”
For tweens and teens who have taken a serious interest in writing and reading, Dreyer’s English is peerless. While other non-fiction books about grammar take the form of snobby book-long rants (remember Eats, Shoots, and Leaves?) Dreyer’s English succeeds with an un-snobby vibe, while also being super-informative. If you have a kid in your life who is starting to develop that itch to truly understand writing and how it works, Dreyer’s English: Adapted For Young Readers might be a slightly better bet than say, The Elements of Style. And that’s because not only is Dreyer trying to help all of us out with useful grammar and style advice, he’s also trying to “knock the stuffing out of fake rules.”
The best book about writing for teens or tweens
“Sometimes I’ll say it’s perfectly fine to split an infinitive,” Dreyer explains. “And someone else will say, ‘well only in informal writing.‘ But we all understand this language needs to be given room to breathe. It needs to be given room to evolve.”
The message may sound contradictory, but, with writing, the devil is in the details, which is what makes Dreyer’s book so delightful and useful. The book’s larger message is all about teaching young writers to know what it is they are doing, even if they’re doing something “wrong.” In writing, as in life, there’s a fine line between making a mistake and making a controversial choice. “I mean, I certainly have my extremely stuffy side. But I at least try to remember to wink when I’m doing it. I think that’s the key thing for all of us in anything: It’s like, are you onto yourself or not?”
Just published from Delacorte Press, Dreyer’s English: Adapted For Young Readers is essentially the same book as Dreyer’s English, which was published back in 2019. The key difference is that while the first book was aimed at adults, this version was re-edited specifically with younger readers in mind. Spoiler alert: Some adults might prefer the Young Readers version. Either way, advice is just is as good! You can snag it here.