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Book Review: Confessions of a Comma Queen

There is a lot to like in Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. If you live and breathe the world of publishing, writing, or editing, you will enjoy Norris’s stories about the quirky way things are at The New Yorker, where she has copyedited and proofread for many years. And you will like the anecdotes and tales of how she has chosen apostrophes, hyphens, swear words, and pencils in her work. I liked it all.

This 240-page book isn’t a primer or a practical guide—it’s much more a memoir and a collection of essays for people who care about publishing and language. But in it, Norris makes many engaging yet useful points you can smile at and learn from. 

In Chapter 1, “Spelling Is for Weirdos,” the author shares information about dictionaries, their history, and their strengths. According to Norris, when New Yorker copyeditors need a dictionary to referee a spelling or word choice (after checking the house style guide), they begin with Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. If M-W doesn’t solve the problem, they turn to Webster’s New International Dictionary, unabridged. Random House Unabridged Dictionary stands in as backup. Norris sometimes goes to RH immediately if a word seems recent.

Although she reveres printed dictionaries, Norris doesn’t scorn the online versions. Her list of words she now pronounces correctly—some with the help of an online dictionary—includes uxorious, elegiac, chimaera, and spurious. If you aren’t sure how to pronounce those, try an online dictionary (or get Between You & Me—Norris indicates the correct pronunciation of each one). Here's one for you: Spurious has the same u sound as curious

In that rich first chapter, Norris also reminds us of some tricky homophones whose differences copyeditors need to recognize: peddle/pedal, hoard/horde, cannon/canon, roomy/roomie/ Rumi/rheumy, what ever/whatever, and overall/over all. Does that list open your eyes to a homophone you had forgotten? Norris tells an early-career New Yorker story of catching a homophone error, which prompted a note of thanks, the kind we would all like to receive:

“I thank you, the writer thanks you . . . the proofreader thanks you, the fact checker thanks you, we all thank you for doing what we in all our numbers could not do: catching the flower for flour in the Christmas list on food.”

You can guess what Norris covers in Chapter 2, “That Witch.” Among a china shop of topics, she riffs on that/which decisions, illustrating the gray areas with examples from the poet Dylan Thomas and the Lord’s Prayer. Confession: This chapter taught me that “chaise lounge” is actually “chaise longue.” Who knew? (Let me know if you did, and you will earn my admiration.) And how about the difference between terrine and tureen? You should know it if you write about serving dishes.

Norris believes that sometimes letting a participle dangle in a sentence makes more sense than forcing it into correct structure. She offers this example from the novelist Edward St. Aubyn: “Walking down the long, easily washed corridors of his grandmother’s nursing home, the squeak of the nurse’s rubber soles made his family’s silence seem more hysterical than it was.” We know the squeak wasn’t walking (as the sentence suggests), but Norris left the phrase to dangle. She explains:

Sometimes it’s easier to reconcile oneself to the dangler than it is to fix it. In this instance, maybe the queasiness created by the dangler, that sense of imbalance, whether or not one knows the reason for it, helps convey the sensation of walking down the corridor of the dreaded nursing home.

That must be a copyediting difference between fiction and business writing. When I find a dangler, I have to reel it back into a solid place in the sentence. But Norris copyedited the likes of John McPhee, Nora Ephron, and Pauline Kael, and she has learned restraint.

Norris tells of catching a misuse of garnish for garnishee in fiction by George Saunders. One of Saunders’ characters had used the wrong term. In response to a query about the mistake, Saunders kept the error, commenting, “I don’t think this guy [the fictional character] should know more than I do.” Norris rounds out the story with an homage, I believe, to Saunders’ style of writing:

Fair enough. Garnishee my wages. Anyway, spelling not point. Point is words—right words in right order, for devastating effect. Job of copy editor is to spell words right: put hyphen in, take hyphen out. Repeat. Respect other meaning of spell: spell writer weaves.

The chapter “The Problem of Heesh” is a lovely essay on gender in language. It begins with the author’s youthful resistance to considering a table feminine when learning French (la table). It ends with Norris breaking through her resistance and lifelong habits to use a feminine pronoun to refer to her transsexual sibling. In between those stories, Norris takes on pronouns and gender issues. She firmly rejects the use of their as a singular (as in “the owner and their dog”), complaining:

An antecedent that is in the singular cannot take a plural pronoun. And yet it does, all the time—certainly in speech. It’s not fair. Why should a lowly common-gender plural pronoun trump our singular feminine and masculine pronouns, our kings and queens and jacks?

I’m on Norris’s side of that issue. I will rewrite endlessly before I will allow their to stand in for a singular noun.

The chapter “Between You and Me” covers people’s struggles and strivings with subject and object pronouns. Norris gives a satisfying account of why the song “The Girl From Ipanema” has the flawed lyric “She looks straight ahead—not at he.” (The correct pronoun would be him.) The author of the English version, Norman Gimbel (the original version is Portuguese), wrote “not at me.” But when Astrud Gilberto sang it, she substituted he to make the story fit her feminine perspective. I am glad to finally know how that irritating error came to life.

Norris does a fine job of explaining why phrases such as “between you and me” are correct. (But if you are reading her book, you probably know already.) She suggests that people who struggle with that phrase should practice like singers: “between you and mi-mi-mi-mi-mi.” If that works for you or the people you know, terrific.

Four generous chapters cover punctuation: “Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon,” “Who Put the Hyphen in Moby-Dick?” (it was a copyeditor—not Herman Melville), “A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar,” and “What’s Up with the Apostrophe?” I don’t recommend these chapters as straightforward resources for learning punctuation, but they are great fun for punctuation enthusiasts.

I like Norris’s advice on punctuating a sentence that is both a question and an exclamation. She uses “What the devil” as an example:

People are sometimes tempted to use both a question mark and an exclamation point, but this is a bad idea. Word order will take care of the interrogative, while the bold exclamation point trumps the hesitant question mark every time.

In my business writing classes, people often ask for help understanding how to use a dash. Norris illustrates ways to use it, among them:

—It can stand at the head of a line to indicate an item in a list.
—It can be deployed like a colon—it introduces an amplification of what has come before.
—It can be employed in pairs within a sentence—like the comma—and is subject to some of the same rules as the comma.
—It can create a sense of drama—false drama.
—It can be used within dialogue in place of a semicolon, and it is actually more realistic—most people don’t think in semicolons.

Here are other punctuation quips and anecdotes you may appreciate:

“There is no mark of punctuation so upper-crust as the semicolon.”

“A colon is a very controlling gesture. It says, ‘Right this way,’ like a proper butler." 

To show the plural possessive of McDonald’s (the fast-food restaurant), The New Yorker pushed to the epitome of conservative correctness: They used McDonald’ses’.

The company Lands’ End took its name from Land’s End, the tip of Cornwall. The name changed to Lands’ End because of a typo on the first catalog, which the company could not afford to reprint.

The chapter “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie” shows Mary Norris to be my soul sister. She loves all things pencils, as long as they are the softer, darker No. 1s. That love carried her to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio. And her chapter introduced me to Blackwing pencils, whose praises Norris sings.

The not-so-naughty chapter “F*ck This Sh*t” (those are Norris’s asterisks) takes a measured look at profanity in print. Norris sums up her current view:

. . . no one wants to be pummeled constantly by four-letter words. If we are going to use them, let’s use them right. Profanity ought to be fun. I love the title of this chapter and thought I should spell out those words. . . . But I like it even better with the blessed euphemism: the asterisks standing in for the vowels are interior punctuation, little fireworks inside the words.

W.W. Norton & Company published Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen this month. It retails for $24.95 and includes an excellent index and a list of recommended books. I recommend this one to you if you care about writing, editing, and language. Does it sound like a book you would enjoy? 

Become a comma queen. Take my online self-study course Punctuation for Professionals

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

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