Book review: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Norris-cover-By Laura Godfrey

Part memoir and part thoughtful guide to grammar and punctuation, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is Mary Norris’s tribute to her decades as a copy editor for The New Yorker. Her new book, which is often funny and personal but also delves deeply into common linguistic challenges (that versus which, restrictive clauses, dangling participles), would make a fine addition to any language lover’s bookshelf, right next to Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor.

Although Norris worked odd jobs in her youth—as a foot checker at a public pool, a milk truck driver, and a mozzarella packager—she has been at The New Yorker for more than 35 years and will likely remain for many more.

“One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey,” she writes. “And in turn it feeds you more experience.”

The elaborate process each New Yorker piece goes through is astonishing: from the editor to the proofreader to the fact checker to the second proofreader, and so on. Seemingly few magazines today can afford to uphold those rigorous standards. And yet, surprisingly little has changed about The New Yorker over the last several decades, including their insistence on using the diaeresis (the two dots above a letter, often mistaken for an umlaut) for words such as coöperate and reëlect. While this particular usage seems antiquated to many readers and even some staffers, the diaeresis is one of those quirky things that gives the magazine its personality. (“The New Yorker may be the only publication in America that uses it regularly,” Norris admits.)

Between You & Me is divided into 10 chapters, and the one titled “That Witch!” is dedicated to defending the reputation of copy editors, who are sometimes seen as just wanting to “have our way with a piece of prose.” In fact, Norris argues, good copy editors know that “good 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.” Instead of simply applying rules blindly, she continues, a good copy editor will find a balance between doing too much and doing too little.

One of the most contentious ongoing issues among editors is the lack of a gender-neutral, third-person-singular pronoun, and Norris provides a history of the many alternatives offered over the years. Would you ever use heesh, as A.A. Milne once suggested? Norris finds this pronoun playful, “as if it had been formed when ‘she’ backed into ‘he’ and spun around,” but alas, it never caught on. She also dislikes the use of they as a singular pronoun. Instead, she prefers what she calls “the invisible he,” though she will make an exception if a writer prefers another usage, such as “he or she.”

In between her lessons on grammar, punctuation, and etymology, Norris recalls some of the journeys her love of language has taken her on: to the cemetery in Connecticut where Noah Webster, father of the American dictionary, was buried; to the house in Massachusetts where Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick; and to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Ohio. If you thought you were a word nerd, wait until you hear about the time Norris attended a pencil party to celebrate the revival of the Blackwing pencil, hosted by a sixth-generation pencil maker, who was dressed in shades of pencil lead.

Non-editors might skip over the sections that dig deeply into the technical details of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses and the like, but this book will be an enjoyable, insightful read even for those whose job doesn’t require them to know these things. And while good copy editing is invisible to a reader, this book will certainly make its mark.

Laura Godfrey is a Toronto-based copy editor, Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly magazine, and editor-in-chief of BoldFace.

This article was copy edited by Ambrose Li.

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

  1. I loved this review. Although I am not an editor, that wonderful pronoun “heesh” has always been a favourite of mine. I agree it’s too bad it never caught the imagination of the general public.


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