Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Mary Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker’s copy department, maintaining its celebrated high standards. Now she brings her vast experience, good cheer, and finely sharpened pencils to help the rest of us in a boisterous language book as full of life as it is of practical advice. Between You & Me features Norris’s laugh-out-loud descriptions of some of the most common and vexing problems in spelling, punctuation, and usage-comma faults, danglers, “who” vs. “whom,” “that” vs. “which,” compound words, gender-neutral language-and her clear explanations of how to handle them. Down-to-earth and always open-minded, she draws on examples from Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and the Lord’s Prayer, as well as from The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace, and Gillian Flynn. She takes us to see a copy of Noah Webster’s groundbreaking Blue-Back Speller, on a quest to find out who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick, on a pilgrimage to the world’s only pencil-sharpener museum, and inside the hallowed halls of The New Yorker and her work with such celebrated writers as Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders. Readers-and writers-will find in Norris neither a scold nor a softie but a wise and witty new friend in love with language and alive to the glories of its use in America, even in the age of autocorrect and spell-check. As Norris writes, “The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can’t let it push you around.”

An Amazon Best Book of April 2015: Once upon a time, a couple or few decades ago, most American boys and girls in grade school were taught grammar and punctuation; we learned, for example, that “i” came before “e,” except after “c” (except sometimes, but never mind) and that the verb “to be” was “like an equal sign,” which meant that you used the nominative case (have I lost you yet?) on both sides of it. (“It is I,” in other words, is the correct, if dowdy, response to “Who’s there?”) Some of us were even taught to diagram sentences; some had parents who corrected us at the family dinner table. (I can still hear my father pressing the subjunctive upon me. “If I WERE,” he’d bellow, when I allowed as how there’d be later curfews if I “was” in charge.) Whether they retained the lessons or not, most people probably don’t wax romantic about the grammar lessons or teachers of yore.

Which is why even those of you who don’t have the soul of a second-grade grammar teacher will love Between You and Me, the hilarious and delightful “memoir” by the longtime New Yorker copy editor, Mary Norris, who confides in the subtitle that she is a “comma queen.” (The above is not a full sentence, I know — but I think I can get away with it by calling it “my style.” Also, I put quotation marks around the word “memoir,” Mary – I know you’re wondering — because I was trying to make the point that your book is an unusual take on the form, dealing as it does with thats and whiches as well as with your Ohio adolescence as a foot-checker at the local pool.) Who knew grammar could be so much fun — that silly marks of punctuation could be so wickedly anthropomorphized (a question mark is like a lazy person), that dashes grow in families (there are big dashes and little dashes and they can all live peaceably within one sentence), that there was once a serious movement to solve the he-or-she problem with the catchall “heesh”? Clearly, Norris knows: her book is plenty smart, but it’s its (one’s a contraction, one’s a possessive) joyful, generous style that makes it so winning. This is a celebration of language that won’t make anyone feel dumb – but it’s also the perfect gift for the coworker you haven’t been able to tell that “between” is a preposition that never, ever, takes an object that includes the pronoun “I.” – Sara Nelson

Nanci Arvizu, Writing and Reviews Editor

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3 Comments

  1. Good writing and bad… Mary Norris, a copy editor for The New Yorker has written a book, “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” which is a lot about grammar and a bit about her life and her job. I really can’t believe that I am writing a review and tempting Ms Norris to judge my woebegone grammar! 

  2. The unsung talent behind the magazine This book, a combination of reminiscence and some gentle guidance to grammar, has been written by one of the long-time, anonymous toilers behind the scenes at The New Yorker. It was excerpted in that magazine, which is what brought it to my attention, and is remarkable for exposing the complex machinery that produces what was once America’s “premiere literary” publication. It manages to touch on varied topics dear to the author’s heart (and mine as well) such as…

  3. Delightful Strongest for its tone and good humor, this fine book demonstrates its content through the content of its text. It’s a stylistic gem: read and be delighted.

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