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A Memoir from the Comma Queen

Posted on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 at 1:23 AM

Excellent advice for copy editors.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I urge you to give the copy editor part of your existence as editor a gift: Between You & Me, Confessions of a Comma Queen (W.W. Norton). It is a memoir by Mary Norris, a three-decade employee at The New Yorker and, for the last 20 years, a "page OK'er" there.

It is she who has helped determine what shape every to-be-published-in-the-magazine sentence should take, how to punctuate it, and whether, in her view, authors have chosen the right words within those sentences to express their written thoughts and narratives.

Not looking for fights, she has, nevertheless, courageously taken positions in countless arguments over the years in behalf of English, the language that she so obviously loves and has sought to protect from barbarian practitioners, the careless ones and the ruthless. She has made herself a judge and jury, committed to guard against cheapening and errors.

Sound serious? Well, yes, she's a zealot about language and has taken her job seriously. But she seems to have had fun all along the way. In her memoir, she comes off as fun and even funny. Norris sets the tone in her first paragraph:

"Let's get one thing straight from the beginning," she writes. "I didn't set out to be a comma queen. The first job I ever had, the summer I was fifteen, was checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland. I was the 'key girl' -- 'Key personnel' was the job title on my pay stub (I made seventy-five dollars a week). I never knew what that was supposed to mean. I was not in charge of any keys, and my position was by no means crucial to the operation of the pool, although I did clean the bathrooms."

Between You and Me

Norris does not always concentrate on herself. She devotes space to grammatical issues, such as the "Between You & Me" in the title, high on her list of peeves. "My fondest hope," she writes, "is that just from looking at the title you will learn to say fearlessly 'between you and me' (not 'I') whether or not you actually buy the book and penetrate to the innards of the objective case."

Those who say or write "between you and I," she reasons, may be trying to sound refined and polite by "putting another person first." Her solution: People shouldn't be "so f______ polite; if they occasionally put themselves first, they would know they had it wrong. No one would begin a confidence with 'Between I and you.'"


Gender neutrality was also on her mind while writing the book. The absence in our language of a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun as an opposite to the plural "they" leads us to singular/plural conflicts that mess up the grammar or confine us to the use of "he/she," a yucky partway solution.

High Standards

Norris reminds her readers that we all make mistakes, and that to do so is forgivable. But standards are important, she argues, meaning it is still part of a copy editor's job to distinguish between "that" and "which" and "who" and "whom." The distinctions "may be on the way out," she says, "but so is Venice, and we still like to go there."

Grammar Does Not Deserve to Be Ignored

I must admit to spacing out when Norris digs into more arcane and yet appropriate grammatical subjects such as clauses (restrictive versus nonrestrictive) and verbs (transitive versus intransitive). So, you -- like I -- may turn past some pages quickly while lingering on others. Still, the way she handles them may be different or lively enough to win your loyalty. She fights for your attention, believing that no aspect of grammar deserves to be ignored.

And that includes profanity, to which she devotes a full chapter. And it includes punctuation. From the comma to the exclamation point, she discusses the different marks and how and when they should or should not be used. Just in case you care, she tells you that the comma was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a Venetian printer, and that the year was 1490.

Love of Pencils

She preaches about sharp pencils as the proper tool for copyediting and that the Magic Rub eraser helps to keep things clean and clear. And if you love pencils the way author Norris does, you may want to know there's a Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio. More than a handful of pages in the book are devoted to the museum; Norris took the trouble to visit it so she could describe the place in depth for you.

I think you'll enjoy the trip laid out by tour director Mary Norris in Between You & Me. Along the way, you'll be reminded beneficially of the questions our dear language poses as we use it in ordinary life and, in our case, on the job. The book makes for pleasurable learning.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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