Thursday, December 15, 2016

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Hardcover, 228 pages Published April 6th 2015 by W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN13: 9780393240184

Mary Norris’ conversational manner first made me think that the person always behind the scenes at The New Yorker, America’s prestigious literary magazine, wanted her day in the sun. “ME!” I imagined her pointing, two thumbs to her chest, “I’m HERE!” The more I read, though, the more chummy she seemed. “I want to read what you guys are saying on the web, in reviews, articles, and blogs,” she seemed to be saying, “but don’t bug me with bad punctuation. It’s not easy, what I do, but here are a few pointers…”

I love her for that. It really isn’t easy, what she does, and when she gets into accusative, transitive, and copulative verbs, though they do sound right up my alley, my eyes watered just a little. But I am so glad she laid to rest the “you and me” bit. She gives an example of the “pratfall in dialogue form” when a TV character, known to be a bit dim, tries to elevate his diction by saying archly, “We have already reserved that bowling alley for Teddy and I.” She mentions that David Foster Wallace was “a fabulous stickler—a snoot, in his own term.” He lists “between you and I” second in a catalogue of blunders, and Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, notes this grammatical error is “committed almost exclusively by educated speakers trying a little too hard to sound refined but stumbling badly.” Well, that puts a nail in it.

My problem, I freely admit, is commas. I can actually feel readers cringing to read some of the stuff I have generated, though you probably know all about this failing of mine. I am always wishing I had a copy editor to just run through the thing with a Palomino Blackwing* and tell me what I meant to say. That’s why I got this book. I love the example in her discussion of serial commas or not: "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

What I actually learned from this book is that there is, as I’d hoped, quite a lot of flexibility in the actual putting together of a sentence. The ultimate objective, of course, is clarity. "THE PRIME NECESSITY IS TO SAFEGUARD AGAINST MISREADING." As such, "if commas are open to interpretation, hyphens are downright Delphic." Ah, she hits all the sore spots. For those of us who write quite a lot, we worry about these things. "There is a phase in the life of every copy editor when she is obsessed with hyphens." That’s a relief. Further good news is that one might be able to argue for one’s intent in case of disagreement with, say, another copy editor or writer of the dreaded ‘letter to the editor', but one should at least try to be consistent within the same essay.

As for the dash—for years my letters home were filled with dashes—with not a period in sight. Once I realized my dashes were getting longer and so populous I barely had room for a few words squeezed between them, I knew the game was up. I had to begin writing comprehensible sentences. Norris says of the dash:
"Women seem to use it a lot, especially in correspondence, as if it were a woman’s prerogative to stop short without explanation, to be a little vague, to have a sudden change of heart, to leave things open-ended."
Exactly. Leave ‘em guessing.

My favorite funny bit may be the time she changed 'terrine of foie gras' to 'tureen of foie gras,' never having seen the term terrine and being unable to find it in a dictionary. I also greatly appreciated A.A. Milne's observation that
"If the English language had been properly organized...there would be a word which meant both 'he' and 'she,' and I could write: 'If John or Mary comes, heesh will want to play tennis,' which would save a lot of trouble."
Lu Burke was a colleague of Norris, a proofreader from her arrival at The New Yorker in 1958 to her retirement in 1990. On her desk she kept a canister wrapped in brown paper and marked with hand-drawn commas. It had a perforated lid, like the red-hot pepper shakers at a pizzeria. Lu thought The New Yorker’s “close” style of punctuation used too many commas. “In almost every way Lu was the opposite of Eleanor” Gould, the magazine’s legendary grammarian, query proofreader, and a certified genius. It is probably best organizations have long-running disagreements about punctuation. It keeps everyone sharp for the next opportunity to press their point.

Norris tells great stories with illustrative examples from the works of authors you will recognize, but the stories about her own life make her accessible. Who wouldn’t be impressed and intimidated by the behind-the-scenes editors who make possible the output of a weekly literary magazine of such reputation? She had me laughing so often it made me realize that I would love to see “pratfalls in grammar” illustrated in a separate column. She is a gem.

*Palomino Blackwing: Even the name of this pencil sounds somewhat thrilling to someone who never knew there was anything worth using beyond a Dixon No. 2 Ticonderoga. Norris tells us what she learned about herself when the Dixon No. 1 Ticonderoga could no longer be found for sale. Besides pencils, she became something of an expert on pencil sharpeners and once made a pilgrimage to a pencil sharpener museum in Ohio, a tale so well told and filled with zany details that it could easily have been published to great acclaim in her own magazine.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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