A New Yorker copy veteran presents laugh-out-loud descriptions of some of the most common and vexing errors in language and usage, drawing on examples from classic literature and pop culture while sharing anecdotes from her work with celebrated writers.
Just a few days in the company of Mary Norris, a former copy editor for The New Yorker magazine, has made me more aware of grammar and punctuation. Not in a way that makes me feel superior, thank goodness, but in a way that increases my appreciation of effective use of language (and yes, I did just look up the difference between appreciation of and appreciation for -- in this case, it's "of"). Norris has a depth of knowledge that I could never hope to achieve, but in the space of 200 pages she enriched my understanding of common grammatical concepts (and errors), and shed entirely new light on certain forms of punctuation. Her writing style is breezy and fun: discussing the use of "who" vs. "whom," and whether it really matters, she wrote, "Whom may be on the way out, but so is Venice, and we still like to go there." And a few pages later, she served up a handy rule of thumb:
Here's the takeaway: "who" does not change to "whom" just because it is in the middle of a sentence. The choice of "who" or "whom" is governed not by its role as the object of the sentence or the object of a preposition but by its role in the group of words that has been plugged into that position. ... "who" and "whom" are standing in for a pronoun: "who" stands in for "he, she, they, I, we"; "whom" stands in for "him, her, them, me, us."
In other chapters, Norris discusses commas, hyphens, apostrophes and even profanity. Towards the end of the book she takes a detour into the land of stationery and office supplies, because let's face it, what language lover doesn't also like that stuff? The book is also infused with stories about her assignments and her colleagues at The New Yorker, including an epilogue that wraps things up in a satisfying way and adds a personal touch that elevates this book above a grammar and style guide.
It was interesting to see how copy editors, even those working together on the same, stringent magazine, do not always agree on what the rules should be. It was fun to watch how they would struggle to discard their rules in order to protect the voice of a talented author…and even more fun to watch them try to guide an author who thought himself talented when he was only slightly illiterate.
Only three stars, partially because it’s so short but mainly because this isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone or, perhaps, even most people. However, if you do like this type of book, it’s definitely worth a read.
This book is full of lively discussions about issues such as when a comma should appear between two adjectives that modify the same noun and whether the English language could benefit from the adoption of an epicene pronoun. I think Norris does a wonderful job of making these discussions chatty, witty, and fun, but then I'm an editor, and I take to this kind of stuff like Nabokov took to butterflies. Anyway, she also tells lots of stories about the interesting people who have worked for or written for the New Yorker. And this isn't a usage guide. It's basically shop talk from someone's who's one of the best at what she does. I concede her mastery of her subject, but I still want to argue with her sometimes, and that's part of the fun. (A book that this is sometimes compared to, "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves," isn't fun at all, because the author isn't an expert—she's just an opinionated layperson on a rant. I want to shake her instead of argue with her.)
I'm going to read this book again, slowly, using a pen to mark issues, and skipping to the back more frequently to read the endnotes. Then I'm going to write Mary Norris a letter explaining that the archaic long 's' is not an "f." I'm not sure she doesn't know that, but she writes as if she doesn't. It bugs me. That's the kind of person I am, and that's why I love this book so much.
Recommended for those with an interest in:
- the New Yorker
- feeling like you're in high school English again
- non-creative writing
- pencils (and other casualties of the technological era)
- name dropping
- tips on being a proper grammar Nazi
Okay, I'm being too snarky. Admittedly, the author made multiple comments about restraint on the part of the editor, allowing improper grammar in order to let the magic of a sentence really show, etc. I just don't like memoirs much and I'm allergic to inside-the-box thinking (rules make me itch).
For me, the book’s highlight was Norris’s discussion of authors who refused to have their grammar corrected in order to protect their voice. She shares examples from authors like James Salter and George Saunders, which makes for a fascinating look at how grammar rules can bend to create beautifully crafted sentences.
A book like this is difficult to recommend across the board, however, as each reader will be looking for something different. Experienced grammarians may find the guidelines somewhat elementary and find peeking at the life of an editor to be interesting, while others may see the opposite.
Norris is a copy editor at The New Yorker. She's been there for more than three decades, copyediting amazing authors, meeting famous literati, and being surrounded by some of the best and brightest in the publishing and magazine industries. As she addresses some of the most common grammatical problems normal people encounter, she weaves in her experiences at work on the same subject. She tackles all sorts of punctuation (commas, hyphens, dashes, parentheses, etc.), spelling, word order, profanity in print, pronouns, and more. Each self-contained essay is fairly short and her stance on the topic is easily understood. Her examples from her years at the magazine are not only real world examples, they are completely engaging. Norris explains prescriptive grammarians versus descriptive grammarians, where she falls on the spectrum, and why. Her writing is accessible and the anecdotes are fun. Those looking for a handbook of grammar will not find it here, even though most readers will still learn several things from these highly entertaining and intelligent essays.
Particularly entertaining are the early sections that include a review of her checkered, pre-New Yorker work experience. (You can’t really call a stint as a milk-truck driver and costume shop clerk a career for a person who did graduate work in English.)
Norris took her title from the common grammar mistake people make in using “I” when “me” is required. I yell at the radio when I hear the awful “between you and I” or “He invited Tom and I . . .” I suspect Norris does too.Several chapters cover the ongoing punctuation wars. No surprise, as the subtitle of the book is Confessions of a Comma Queen. In the comma skirmish, I find I fight on the side of “playing by ear,” dropping in a comma where I sense a pause. And in hyphen disputes, her emphasis on clarity of meaning seems a useful approach. Thus the comma in milk-truck driver above.
Some of the text on verbs got away from me and her suggestion for how to tell whether a sentence needs “who” or “whom” (for the straggling soldiers in that lost battle), her system was overly complex or not explained clearly. I’ll stick with mine.
The very best chapter was devoted to Norris’s love of pencils. Extra-soft No.1 pencils, in fact. The kind of pencil that has also kindled a love of pencil sharpeners. (I’ve served time in innumerable meeting rooms over the years and can tell you that The Ford Foundation’s black pencils, embossed with its name, and the round ones of the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., which come in easter egg pastels, are the best. Whenever I attended meetings there, I stocked up.)
Reading anyone’s description of something they are both passionate and deeply knowledgeable about—making wine, say, or 1950s automobiles—is always interesting, and you learn as much about the person as about their particular interest. I don’t ever have to read about pencils again, but I’m glad I did.
I’m still not sure how best to categorize this book. I’m sure it will be compared to Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but its tone isn’t nearly as scolding. I don’t get the sense that Ms. Norris is judging those of us who make improper use of punctuation; instead I think she is genuinely interested in helping people better understand punctuation so that they can communicate better.
The book provides some insight into work at The New Yorker, including some quirks of its style guide. For example, magazine staff makes use of the diaphoresis, that double-dot bit you see over words such as naïve, in words like cooperate. Staff members also use a double consonant when adding a suffix (travelling instead of traveling, for example). Fascinating. And really appealing to someone like me. This book isn’t for everyone, however. I think there are some folks (I’m thinking of Mary Roach) who can take a topic and make it interesting to literally everyone. I think that to enjoy this book, you need to have at least some passing interest in language. But it can be the slightest of interests. If you ever wonder whether to put a comma in a sentence, for example, you probably have sufficient interest to find this book enjoyable.
One chapter that initially gave me a slight bit of pause was the one on gender. She tackles the idea of gender in nouns in other languages, as well as the attempts to create gendered nouns (e.g. dominatrix) in English. She also talks about the frustrating fact that there is no agreed-upon third person generic; you have to say him or her, there is no singular ‘they’ that is gender neutral. She also dives into the topic of using the appropriate pronouns for someone, as she has experience with this directly: her sister was assigned the gender of male at birth, and later shared with the family that she was in fact a woman. Ms. Norris talks about the early challenges she had with using the correct pronoun. Other than a word choice that I wouldn’t make (she refers to her sister as transsexual instead of transgender; although perhaps that’s the word her sister requested she use), the section is thoughtful and I think really drives home the importance of using the correct pronouns.
I was hovering between a three-star and four-star rating when I turned to find this chapter title: “F*ck This Sh*t.” Come on. That’s unexpected. The book isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but you can tell that Ms. Norris has a sense of humor and is quite self-aware.
I especially appreciated the chapter in which the author wrestles with the problem of gender in the English language, specifically the lack of a good, widely accepted non-gendered third-person pronoun. She fumbled with pronoun changes when her brother announced his->her new identity as a woman. I don't have anyone that close to me going through gender-ambiguous territory, but I do know some more casually, and I've found it a bit disorienting, linguistically.
There's a lot of gossipy literary New York name-dropping here, which I rather enjoyed, but again, probably not for everyone.
Between You & Me was a Christmas gift, and I was expecting, from promotional blurbs, a book with a similar tone to Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss. It's not; the humour here is...negligible. Or maybe just different. As much as this book is about grammar and usage, it's also a memoir of sorts of Norris' time at The New Yorker.
I was thrilled to learn that I can let go of the guilt I feel for using hyphens instead of proper em/en dashes, because it's an acceptable substitution, given a hyphen is easier to reach on the keyboard. I was also happy to learn I wasn't abusing my dash usage - they're so useful!
But it turns out that using semi-colons is considered pretentious (in America anyway). Bummer; I guess that means I'm pretentious? They just seem to be the natural punctuation for how I write. I try to keep them to a minimum, but I do like stringing together a couple of independent clauses.
Generally, a well-written (I can't imagine the OCD proof-reading process for this book), interesting read about grammar - and the fact that I can use 'grammar' and 'interesting' in the same sentence should say something about Norris' ability to make a dry subject worth reading about.
In Between You & Me, Mary Norris—aka the Comma Queen—has written a thoroughly enjoyable tale of her adventures working for the pre-eminent magazine published today. In a chapter titled “Spelling is for Weirdos,” she writes, “The English language is full of words that are just waiting to be misspelled, and the world is full of sticklers, ready to pounce. Ours is not a phonetic language, like Italian and Spanish and Modern Greek, where certain letters and combinations of letter can be relied on to produce consistent sounds. English has many silent letters. And its motley origins make it fiendishly difficult to untangle. Besides the Germanic roots of our Anglo-Saxon tongue and the influence of Latin (Emperor Hadrian) and French (the Norman Invasion), and borrowings from Greek and Italian and Portuguese and even a soupçon of Basque, American English has a lot of Dutch from early settlers in the East; plenty of Spanish, from the conquistadors and missionaries who explored the West; and a huge vocabulary of place-names from Native American languages, often blended with French, for added confusion” (17). We native speakers of English treat our language as though it was a simple matter, but even good students can get tangled in is many webs vines.
But my favorite chapter is “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie.” I love writing with pencils much more than pens. Every room has a discarded mug filled with pencils, which outnumber pens by at least 4-to-1. Norris writes, “In the old days, at The New Yorker, when your pencil point got dull, you just tossed it aside and picked up a new one. There was an office boy who came around in the morning with a tray of freshly sharpened wooden pencils. And they were nice long ones—no stubs. The boy held out his tray of pencils, and you scooped up a quiver of them. It sounds like something out of a dream! Even then I think I knew that the office boy and his tray would go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker” (171). Oh how warm and fuzzy it is to know there are others who share this innocuous obsession.
Norris has a preference for No. 1 pencils. I have never used one—I prefer a sturdy German mechanical pencil for my pocket. No. 2s are for all other tasks. Norris writes, “Writing with a No. 2 pencil made me feel as if I had a hangover. It created a distance between my hand and my brain, put me at a remove from the surface of the paper I was writing on. I would throw it into a drawer” (172).
Mary also made an excursion to The Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Ohio. The museum boasts 3,441 pencil sharpeners. The rules for admission to this august temple of pencildom were set down by the founder. “each pencil sharpener had to be unique—no duplicates” however, “it could mean a sharpener was the same shape but a different color, or highly polished instead of dull” (180). After completing her visit, Mary “went back to my car, found the pencil sharpener just where I had packed it, in a pocket of the zippered compartment on my backpack, and photographed it on the back of my car before shaking out all the shavings in the parking lot. I did not want the fact that my sharpener was not a virgin to make it ineligible for display in the museum” (191).
Mary Norris’s delightful story, Between You Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, is an antidote to all the other dark things we read, hear on the news, or read in the papers, I am not a serious punctuation freak—outside of an English Composition class—but I do enjoy catching an errant apostrophe here and there. 5 No. 2 Pencils!
I think I've probably read enough humorous grammar/punctuation books for a while, though!
The book wasn't thrilling for me, but I am glad I read it.