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The Comma Queen and New Yorker Style

17 September, 2015

I enjoy reading books about usage–vocabulary, punctuation, grammar. Many delve into complex arguments about why ‘X’ is ‘X’, or why ‘X’ was once ‘X’ but is now ‘Y’. Not quite the nail-biting excitement of a mystery novel.

So I’ve come to expect books about the English language to be illuminating, but not humorous or personable. That is, until I read Between You & Me: Confessions of a comma queen, by Mary Norris.

Norris has worked for over 30 years in the copy department of the The New Yorker, grappling with usage, spelling, and punctuation choices.

If you’ve ever wondered about ‘that’ vs ‘which’, the use of past or present in travel accounts, the choices for achieving gender-neutral language, this book will help. Norris gives her opinions, without getting too technical or restrictive. I even discovered a couple of new usage issues, in terms of American vs British English.

She also lets readers know a little about her life and interests. One of her early jobs was milk delivery. Milkmen dropping off a bottle of milk at a house would alert the resident by yelling ‘milkman’. As the only female doing milk delivery, she Thought about yelling milk lady or milkmaid, but settled on milkwoman. If only she had lived in Australia, where the common term milko would have covered both sexes.

Norris covers a lot in this small book—gender issues in language, the use and misuse of hyphens and other punctuation, the rise of swearing. She corresponds with some well-known authors about their language choices, and compares the New Yorker style with that of other publications. Doing so reminds readers that language isn’t set in concrete.

A deviation from correctness is that, like me, she is not a fan of the Apostrophe Protection Society, finding some cultural variations  ‘beguiling’.

She makes the case that the dash is not ‘sloppy’ informal punctuation. It provides a greater emotional force than a period or comma. (Her example is the poetry of Emily Dickinson.)

She also clarifies the copy editor’s purpose:

So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. . . .Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective.

Reading her book, I had a sense of Norris as a thoughtful, skilled editor, someone genuinely interested in the English language in its many variations.

Her last chapter, Ballad of a Pencil Junkie, was a personal essay about her love of pencils. It took me back to the time when many people found great satisfaction in owning the ‘right’ pen or pencil. She mentions attending a party to celebrate a particular pencil. And I was impressed when she mentioned a book that I kept coming across in material about Henry David Thoreau as a pencil-maker. The book is Henry Petroski’s history of the pencil, titled–what else?–The Pencil.

Her comments about different aspects of language also reminded me of a past–not so distant–when accurate language choice was considered an essential element in serious publications. Now in online material, accuracy of spelling, punctuation, and word choice often seems be optional.

(However, like me, she’s not a fan of the Apostrophe Protection Society, on the grounds that some variations–such as the green grocers’ historical variants–can be beguiling. 

Norris provides an appendix, with a number of books on language that she finds helpful. I hadn’t heard of a couple, so will be checking them out.

Mary Norris. Between You & Me:  Confessions of a comma queen. 2015. Text Publishing, Melbourne, and W.W. Norton & Co. NY.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 November, 2015 9:03 pm

    Re ‘Gender Issues’: Because I hate gender-stereotyping I pretty much always refer to myself as a ‘person’ rather than as a man or a woman, male or female.

    And – I guess this is also a ‘gender issue’ as well as a visual and euphonic one – unless this would cause ambiguity, I always always use the singular ‘they’.
    I’d rather change my sentence structure and wording than resort to the annoyingly clunksome ‘he or she’ or ‘he/she’, if this had to be used more than once in succession.

    And I use the ‘dash’ pretty often (though try not to overuse in quick succession). Visually, this can ‘speak’ more arrestingly to me than just using a fullstop or comma.

    In narrative, if I feel I’m going to need to use too many ‘dashes’ in quick succession, I resort to alternating this with bracketing.

    Re ‘apostrophes’… I’m ALL for the proper usage of these. Afraid I find the – sadly, increasingly ubiquitous – greengrocer’s one just plain irritating rather than ‘beguiling’!


    • 5 November, 2015 7:42 am

      I knew you’d comment about the greengrocers’ apostrophes as we’ve given our differing views before. I doubt that either of us will change!
      I once abhorred the dash as too casual, but the informality of blogging has mellowed my views.


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