Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (Norton, 2015), 228 pages
Ah, now, this is the kind of book I like to read between books: short, lively, interesting…at least to those who worry that the people who say “between you and I” will take over the world and use grammar to enslave the rest of us. OK, that’s silly, but to authors and magazine editors like Mary Norris of the New Yorker magazine, grammar and punctuation are the only things that stand between them and unemployment. Of course it’s important to them, but I’m not sure the rest of us lose much sleep when someone says “Just between you and I, this stuff is not that important.”
But it sort of is. I know language evolves, and what I just wrote is a product of the evolution. Not long ago, I would have written “But, in a way, it is.” Now using “in a way” seems to me pedantic, a bit fussy, sort of old-fashioned. Using “sort of” seems to me friendly, informal, and, in a way, contemporary.
I just wrote somewhere else this week that every day we teach people how to treat us. We do this by how we dress, how we talk, and how we write. Our texts and speech reveal a lot about our economic and educational level. In the United States, where we do not have a strict class system established by birth, we get to self-declare our status, but only to the extent that we fit in well within the group.
This book shows how you can move up from the “between you and I” class to the “between you and me” class, and it’s a fun read along the way. (Take that last sentence as less than serious, okay?)
What? How can a book about grammar and punctuation be in any way fun? (Note what I did there: “be sort of fun” just did not seem to strike the right note I was going for there. This is that kind of thing that editors do for authors, except I’m on my own here in these essays.)
Norris makes it fun because, during her exploration of the rules, she works in stories about the editors at the New Yorker and the authors she worked with as she delimits her set of rules about commas, hyphens, and so on. Near the start we meet Lu Burke (page 45), a crusty old editor who brandishes a “comma shaker” (and old cheese shaker from an Italian restaurant) to add commas to sentences to enhance their clarity. (As a technical writer, where absolute clarity is paramount, commas are an essential, and indispensable, part of my job.)
The New Yorker uses the “Oxford comma” (page 95), which Norris calls the “serial comma” because she doesn’t think Oxford did enough for language to deserve to have their name attached to this comma. (She felt “alienated” on a trip to Oxford.) The New Yorker, it should be noted, in spite of the success of the Oxford dictionary, is a Merriam-Webster dictionary shop, and Norris makes many references to the “Big Red Web” as the go-to reference for the magazine.
The serial comma is part of the book’s emphasis on the magazine’s “close” punctuation usage, which tends to put commas everywhere and anywhere there is even a chance, however slight, of reading the sentence the wrong way. By now, it should be obvious that I am a “close comma” devotee. On page 101, Norris mentions the sentence “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret…” as a “close comma” example. She points out that writing “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991…” implies that Atwater has died in other years, and of something other than brain cancer.
There are others who use a more “open” style for a number of reasons. One is space: taking the serial commas and close commas out of a huge multi-volume work can save hundreds of pages. But without these commas, you can get some odd meanings. On page 93, Norris offers “We came with the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” Page 94 has “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
I don’t mean to get stuck on commas. Norris has gems in every chapter. She thinks of parentheses, rare in fiction, as “giant commas” (page 103) and commas as “tiny parentheses.” She considers rendering Atwater’s demise as “Before Atwater died (of brain cancer in 1991)…” but rejects the implied whisper over the reverent tone.
She points out how the apostrophe possessive is slowly disappearing (page 152), and how it had been legislated out (in 1906) of place names like Pikes Peak or Harpers Ferry (or Times Square). Only the blue-bloods of New England prevailed with names like Martha’s Vineyard. She has a lot of howlers in this category on page 154: “Taxi’s Only,” “Don’t Judge a Book by It’s Movie,” and the mind-boggling “Toilette’s Are for Customer’s Use.”
Norris has a nice chapter on the correct use of the em dash, the en dash, and the hyphen, which I constantly confuse and drive my editors sort of nuts (or nuts, in a way: take your pick). I like her typesetting software stories about splitting words across lines as “En-gland” (yes, the second line starts with “gland”). I learned that “Moby-Dick” with the hyphen refers to the book itself and that “Moby Dick” without refers to the whale. And that Melville did so poorly with Moby-Dick that he could no longer make a living as a writer and had to take a day job on Wall Street.
This is not to say that everything is cut and dried. Should it be “Writer’s Roundtable” or “Writers’ Roundtable” or “Writers Roundtable”? It’s nice to know that we haven’t done it entirely wrong for more than 15 years. Famous author’s (authors’?) works are filled with “solecisms,” which Norris helpfully defines as “a fancy word for mistake” (page 79). Dickens was fond of putting commas in weird places: “But what principally attracted the attention of Nicholas, was the old gentleman’s eye…” (page 96). This usage seems only to have to do with where Dickens took a breath when reading aloud.
I don’t agree with everything Norris says. She is disdainful of prose authors who mention the “rhythm” of their writing unless they write poetry (page 108), but I think rhythm essential to all prose. She has an entire chapter on curse words and how they should be handled, but got so tied up in knots that I wrote on page 166 that her issues were entering the arena of angelic pin-dancing.
There’s more in the book, a lot more. There are nice bits about pencils, pencil sharpeners (there’s a pencil sharpener museum: no electric ones allowed!), gender pronouns (she’s against the plural “their” to mean the same as the singular “he or she” but considers constructs like “heesh” no better), and the legacy of Lu Burke, the comma shaker lady. It turns out that Lu Burke saved a lot of her salary and died a millionaire, leaving her whole fortune to the Southbury Public Library in Connecticut, fittingly located at 100 Poverty Street. Norris travels to the dedication of the “Lu Burke Circulation Desk” with the comma shaker, and learns that her mentor’s real name was “Lulu.” If there is a better way to end a book—and an essay—on editing with this story, I am not aware of it.