READING WITH A PENCIL: Review of BETWEEN YOU & ME: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMA QUEEN

In Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, copy editor Mary Norris investigates grammar—its usage and history—and frequently digresses. These tangents are the heart and soul of this quirky book. Many of them relate to her investigation of the English language, some are deeply personal, and others concern her work at the influential weekly magazine, The New Yorker. “One of the things I like about my job,” Norris writes, “is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.”

Norris touches on some of her own early experiences: her first job as a foot checker at a Cleveland public pool (to make sure patrons didn’t have athlete’s foot); her first job after attending New Jersey’s Douglas College, working in a costume shop; a job delivering milk; and –“once the academic life had worn me down”—the night shift at a Vermont cheese factory.

Norris moves to New York City after graduate school. After a few stints as a dishwasher, a cashier, and a temp, she lands an entry-level job in the editorial library at The New Yorker. It’s in this hallowed institution that another education begins (and where the reader’s education does, too) for here is where Norris begins diving into language, to discover why things mean what they do, why we write the way we do. She dedicates this book “[f]or you and you and you” (and might have specific people in mind), but later mentions writing it “for all of you who want to feel better about your grammar.”

Norris first wants to dispel with a stereotype. “The image of a copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers.” Norris admits to being “all of these” and has certainly worked for other people who might have been these things, too: the “legendary New Yorker grammarian and query proofreader” Eleanor Gould, and Norris’ boss Lu Burke, who “thought that elements of New Yorker style were ridiculous…Yet there was no more zealous enforcer.” Both of these women loom large in Norris’ working life and in this book; Norris recalls a time in her editing work when she “once made ‘hairstyle’ one word, having found it in Webster’s, and Lu appeared in my doorway instantaneously, like a fire engine screaming around the corner two seconds after you’ve pulled a false alarm.”

“I always wanted to write a book,” Norris writes,” but it looked really hard: how did you get all the lines to come out even on the right-hand side of the page?” Nowhere is Norris’s sense of humor more evident than in her silly titles (Chapter 5. “Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon”; Chapter 7. “A Dash, A Semicolon, and a Colon Walk Into a Bar”). “Chances are that if you use the Oxford comma you brush the crumbs off your shirtfront before going out,” she writes. In giving an example of one of the types of writers whose work she copy-edits, she notes they “weren’t very good and yet were impossible to improve, like figure skaters who hit all the technical marks but have a limited artistic appeal and sport unflattering costumes.”

Despite her horsing around, we know we’re dealing with a professional. Norris ably demonstrates her expertise, her deep love of writing, and her humility about doing her own work well: “You had to be willing to admit that you were capable of missing something or you would not catch what you’d missed.”

Norris writes about spelling, and The New Yorker’s “deeply invested” relationship in Webster’s dictionary; about when to use “that” and when to use “which” (“I am bending over backwards not to use the term ‘restrictive,’ because the associations with the word ‘restrictive’ are so discouraging”). For an example of a dangling participle, Norris points to a familiar one on American highways: the sign that reads “’Trucks Enter When Flashing.’’’ As she point out, while it’s at the times “when the light is flashing the trucks must enter, grammatically, it’s the trucks that are flashing.”

Chapter 3.“The Problem of Heesh” addresses genders of nouns in foreign languages, and the “secret burden of gender” that English carries. “We traditionally refer to a ship as a ‘she’” is one example Norris gives. Pronouns are “deeply embedded in the language, and all these imposed schemes [to introduce gender-neutral alternatives to “he” and “she”] are doomed: the more logical they are, the more absurd the idea of putting them into practice. Rather than solve anything by blending in, the invented pronouns stand up and wave their arms around just when they should be disappearing.”

Much has been written lately about non-binary persons and their habit of selecting their own preferred pronouns. For Norris, the issue hits close to home when her younger brother comes out as a transsexual woman. Out at a restaurant together, Norris slips and tells the waiter the cheeseburger is “his”, and tears well up in her sibling’s eyes. “I had thought we were getting along, and a mere pronoun had landed like a cannonball between us.”

In talking about language, Norris points to some well-known writers and their unusual habits: Charles Dickens, punctuating by ear; Herman Melville, punctuating for emphasis; Henry James, with his long sentences and semicolons; and perhaps most idiosyncratic of all, Emily Dickinson and her dashes. “I don’t hate ambiguity,” Norris writes, “but I can’t be trusted to punctuate it, either.” Norris advocates for editing for readability—she writes of using commas as “showing what’s important in the sentence in a subtle way”—rather than blindly following rules: “follow some rules, sure, but in the end what you’re after is clarity of meaning.” She puts each writer she discusses in his or her proper historical context. “Once you fall under the spell of the writer, you look past those tics because you are more interested in what the writer says than in judging how well he grasped the editorial conventions of his time.”

Norris takes the reader on a few field trips: to a town in Pittsfield, MA and the house where Melville wrote Moby-Dick; and to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, OH, where Norris is thrilled to contribute her own sharpener to the collection. Norris writes at length of her love for the No.1 pencil, and describes her special technique for sharpening pencils noting that “I have had people, even fellow pencil fanciers, back away from me when I describe this, although they might be tempted to do it themselves, in private.”

Norris is generous in her knowledge, and in her resources. In addition to an index, her book includes notes on all of her sources, and an appendix (“Some Books I Have Found Particularly Helpful”) which does not include Meet Mr. Hyphen (And Put Him in His Place) by Edward N. Teall, which Norris elsewhere mentions and calls “[t]he best thing written about hyphens” and which for some reason I want to nudge to the top of my reading list. This kooky little book of Norris’ has whet my appetite for another like it. Will I be disappointed? As Norris writes, “Nobody knows everything—one of the pleasures of language is that there is always something new to learn—and everybody makes mistakes.”

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris, W.N. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015, 228 pp.