Dreyer’s English

Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer, superimposed on Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
Dreyer’s English,
by Benjamin Dreyer.
In this blog I’ve reviewed several books about writing (On Writing Well, Plain Words, Do I Make Myself Clear?). I do this because many readers of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will become writers of scientific articles, grant proposals, or textbooks. Today, I review the funniest of these books: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. If you believe a book about writing must be dull, read Dreyer’s English; you’ll change your mind.

At the start of his book, Benjamin Dreyer writes
Here’s your first challenge: Go a week without writing
• Very
• Rather
• Really
• Quite
• In fact
And you can toss in—or, that is, toss out—“just” (not in the sense of “righteous” but in the sense of “merely”) and “so” (in the “extremely” sense, through as conjunctions go it’s pretty disposable too).

Oh yes: “pretty.” As in “pretty tedious.” Or “pretty pedantic.” Go ahead and kill that particular darling.

And “of course.” That’s right out. And “surely.” And “that said.”

And “actually”? Feel free to go the rest of your life without another “actually.”

If you can last a week without writing any of what I’ve come to think of as the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers—I wouldn’t ask you to go a week without saying them; that would render most people, especially British people, mute—you will at the end of that week be a considerably better writer than your were at the beginning.
Let’s go through Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology and see how often Russ Hobbie and I use these empty words.


I tried to count how many times Russ and I use “very” in IPMB. I thought using the pdf file and search bar would make this simple. However, when I reached page 63 (a tenth of the way through the book) with 30 “very”s I quit counting, exhausted. Apparently “very” appears about 300 times.

Sometimes our use of “very” is unnecessary. For instance, “Biophysics is a very broad subject” would sound better as “Biophysics is a broad subject,” and “the use of a cane can be very effective” would be more succinct as “the use of a cane can be effective.” In some cases, we want to stress that something is extremely small, such as “the nuclei of atoms (Chap. 17) are very small, and their sizes are measured in femtometers (1 fm = 10−15 m).” If I were writing the book again, I would consider replacing “very small” by “tiny.” In other cases, a “very” seems justified to me, as in “the resting concentration of calcium ions, [Ca++], is about 1 mmol l−1 in the extracellular space but is very low (10−4 mmol l−1) inside muscle cells,” because inside the cell the calcium concentration is surprisingly low (maybe we should have replaced “very” by “surprisingly”). Finally, sometimes we use “very” in the sense of finding the limit of a function as a variable goes to zero or infinity, as in “for very long pulses there is a minimum current required to stimulate that is called rheobase.” To my ear, this is a legitimate “very” (if infinity isn’t very big, then nothing is). Nevertheless, I concede that we could delete most “very”s and the book would be improved.


I counted 33 “rather”s in IPMB. Usually Russ and I use “rather” in the sense of “instead” (“this rather than that”), as in “the discussion associated with Fig. 1.5 suggests that torque is taken about an axis, rather than a point.” I’m assuming Dreyer won’t object to this usage (but you know what happens when you assume...). Only occasionally do we use “rather” in its rather annoying sense: “the definition of a microstate of a system has so far been rather vague,” and “this gives a rather crude image, but we will see how to refine it.”


Russ and I do really well, with only seven “really”s. Dreyer or no Dreyer, I’m not getting rid of the first one: “Finally, thanks to our long-suffering families. We never understood what these common words really mean, nor the depth of our indebtedness, until we wrote the book.”


I quit counting “quite” part way through IPMB. The first half contains 33, so we probably have sixty to seventy in the whole book. Usually we use “quite” in the sense of “very”: “in the next few sections we will develop some quite remarkable results from statistical mechanics,” or “there is, of course, something quite unreal about a sheet of charge extending to infinity.” These could be deleted with little loss. I would keep this one: “while no perfectly selective channel is known, most channels are quite selective,” because, in fact, I’m really quite amazed how so very selective these channels are. I would also keep “the lifetime in the trapped state can be quite long—up to hundreds of years,” because hundreds of years for a trapped state! Finally, I’m certain our students would object if we deleted the “quite” in “This chapter is quite mathematical.”

In Fact

I found only 24 “in fact”s, which isn’t too bad. One’s in a quote, so it’s not our fault. All the rest could go. The worst one is “This fact is not obvious, and in fact is true only if…”. Way too much “fact.”


Russ and I use “just” a lot. I found 39 “just”s in the first half of the book, so we probably have close to eighty in all. Often we use “just” in a way that is neither “righteous” nor “merely,” but closer to “barely.” For instance, “the field just outside the cell is roughly the same as the field far away.” I don’t know what Dreyer would say, but this usage is just alright with me.


Searching the pdf for “so” was difficult; I found every “also,” “some,” “absorb,” “solute,” “solution,” “sodium,” “source,” and a dozen other words. I’m okay (and so is Dreyer) with “so” being used as a conjunction to mean “therefore,” as in “only a small number of pores are required to keep up with the rate of diffusion toward or away from the cell, so there is plenty of room on the cell surface for many different kinds of pores and receptor sites.” I also don’t mind the “so much…that” construction, such as “the distance 0.1 nm (100 pm) is used so much at atomic length scales that it has earned a nickname: the angstrom.” I doubt Russ and I every use “so” in the sense of “dude, you are so cool,” but I got tired of searching so I’m not sure.


Only one “pretty”: “It is interesting to compare the spectral efficiency function with the transmission of light through 2 cm of water (Fig. 14.36). The eye’s response is pretty well centered in this absorption window.” We did a pretty good job with this one.

Of Course

I didn’t expect to find many “of course”s in our book, but there are fourteen of them. For example, “both assumptions are wrong, of course, and later we will improve upon them.” I hope, of course, that readers are not offended by this. We could do without most or all of them.


None. Fussy Mr. Dreyer surely can’t complain.

That Said



I thought Russ and I would do okay with “actually,” but no; we have 38 of them. Dreyer says that “actually…serves no purpose I can think of except to irritate.” I’m not so sure. We sometimes use it in the sense of “you expect this, but actually get that.” For example, “the total number of different ways to arrange the particles is N! But if the particles are identical, these states cannot be distinguished, and there is actually only one microstate,” and “we will assume that there is no buildup of concentration in the dialysis fluid… (Actually, proteins cause some osmotic pressure difference, which we will ignore.)” Dreyer may not see its purpose, but I actually think this usage is justified. I admit, however, that it’s a close call, and most “actually”s could go.

Books I keep on my desk
(except for Dreyer’s English, which is a
library copy; I need to buy my own).
I was disappointed to find so many appearances of “very,” “rather,” “really,” “quite,” “in fact,” “just,” “so,” “pretty,” “of course,” “surely,” “that said,” and “actually” in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. We must do better.

Dreyer concludes
For your own part, if you can abstain from these twelve terms for a week, and if you read not a single additional word of this book—if you don’t so much as peek at the next page—I’ll be content.
 The next page says
Well, no.

But it sounded good.