By Dan Clendenin
Mary Norris, Between You and Me; Confessions of a Comma Queen (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015), 228pp.
Calling all word nerds. If you are a certified grammar geek, a lover of language, this memoir by Mary Norris is a dream come true. Norris worked a number of jobs before she found her true calling. She was a foot checker at a swimming pool, a milk truck driver, a cheese factory worker, a dish washer, and a cashier. But in 1977 she moved to New York, and in February of 1978 she was hired at The New Yorker magazine for an entry level position in the “editorial library.”
“That was more than thirty-five years ago,” she reminisces. “And it has now been more than twenty years since I became a page OKer — a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go to press. An editor once called us prose goddesses; another job description might be comma queen. I have never seriously considered doing anything else.”
In a remarkably interesting and funny chapter on pencils, she calls herself a “pencil prima donna.” Whereas you might expect a snarky book from such a grammar gatekeeper, Norris has written a winsome and whimsical book. She knows her craft. But she also has both feet on the ground as a person of uncommon common sense. She knows when it’s good and right to fight, or not, over the usage of commas, hyphens, dashes, and apostrophes. Her chapter on gender-inclusive language is a model of clarity, sensitivity to genuine concerns, practicality, and personal story (her brother transgendered).
She describes the debate on the serial comma, to which she is loyal. She clarifies common conundrums like when to use which or that, who or whom. She tracks down how, when and where someone put a hyphen in the title Moby-Dick. It’s comforting to learn that even at The New Yorker, despite its official house style, some of these matters are just personal preference. My most personally satisfying takeaway was her wisdom on a usage matter that has bugged me for a long time: the search for a gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun. I’m sure you’ll find your own favorites in this wise and witty book.
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