“Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” by Mary Norris

“Spelling is the clothing of words, their outward visible sign, and even those who favor sweatpants in everyday life like to make a bella figura, as the Italians say – a good impression – in their prose.”

I love a good grammar book. Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” has been a sort of Bible for me since I was first bludgeoned by it in high school. “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” by Lynne Truss left me snorting and snickering in dorkish glee. So when I heard Mary Norris interviewed by her colleague/boss David Remnick on The New Yorker Radio Hour, I felt compelled to read her book.

IMG_0366Norris worked in The New Yorker‘s copy department for more than three decades. That department and, more broadly, that magazine, serve as a paragon of modern American grammar and usage, an erudite institution to end erudition. Her book is a charming combination – part memoir, part usage guide. In it, we learn how Norris came to her job at The New Yorker, how she thrived in that perfectionist environment, and some of Norris’s and her colleagues’ grammatical peccadillos and pet-peeves.

Mary Norris pokes gleefully at the reputation of copy editors and at writers’ perceptions about the editorial process.

“I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me. Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of the New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas.”

“[G]ood writers have a reason for doing things the way they do them, and if you tinker with their work, taking it upon yourself to neutralize a slightly eccentric usage or zap a comma or sharpen the emphasis of something that the writer was deliberately keeping obscure, you are not helping. In my experience, the really great writers enjoy the editorial process. They weigh queries, and they accept or reject them for good reasons. They are not defensive. The whole point of having things read before publication is to test their effect on a general reader. You want to make sure when you go out there that the tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up – unless, of course, you are deliberately wearing your clothes inside out.”

“Between You & Me” is full of bon mots, charming anecdotes, and joyful profanity. Norris has, perhaps, tapped into that trope many of us find so deeply pleasing – the profane librarian, the foul-mouthed school marm. I admit I, as one with a fairly foul mouth myself, get an extra charge when I come across profanity in the mouths of those with great poise and a buttoned-up persona. My funny bone was deeply tickled, then, by Norris’s discussion of the role of the hyphen using the example ‘star fucker’:

“In ‘star fucker,’ without a hyphen, each word has equal weight: a fucker who is a star. But in ‘star-fucker’ the hyphen tips the weight of the first element, the object (star) of the activity embodied in the noun (fucking).”

Perhaps more of us would be grammar snobs were usage and composition classes presented in this manner.

Though her topic and writing are certainly niche, Mary Norris’s book was a delightful trip for a self-identified grammar dork. My love affairs with the English language and with that cultural beacon that is The New Yorker were pleasantly stoked by this charming little book. If either of those topics are in your wheelhouse, I submit that you, too, would enjoy giving “Between You & Me” a read.

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3 thoughts on ““Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” by Mary Norris

  1. Can I just say, ‘gotta’ get a copy of this book?! As Secretary of multiple historic [one would think high brow] commissions, I totally identify with Norris’ quote: “I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me.” I must make this book my shield in the next word-joust. Thanks for the friendly review and introduction.

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