Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris
Updated: Jan 29
Should it be “short, balding man” or “short balding man”? “Bad hair day” or “bad-hair day”? Mary Norris, a copy editor at The New Yorker for over thirty years, relishes these sorts of editorial decisions.
“If commas are open to interpretation,” she writes in her literary memoir Between You & Me, “hyphens are downright Delphic.” As an editor, I’m naturally interested in grammar, punctuation, and usage. But Norris’s book is not a
practical guide with easy-to-locate advice. What drew me in and kept me reading was her voice: smart, straight-shooting, brassy and irreverent. “Let’s get one thing straight,” she begins. “I didn’t set out to be a comma queen.” But she has risen, over her 30 years at The New Yorker, to the august role of “page OK’er.” She is the one who gives the final “okay” to stories before they go to press.
The book consists of ten chapters with funny titles like “Spelling Is for Weirdos,” “That Witch!” and “Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon” (remember that song?). From the get go, readers know they are in for a wild ride. Each chapter focuses on a specific editorial problem: spelling (chapter 1), “that” versus “which” (chapter 2), gendered pronouns (chapter 3), pronoun case (chapter 4), commas (chapter 5), hyphens (chapter 6), dashes, semicolons and colons (chapter 7), the apostrophe (chapter 8), and profanity (chapter 9). Chapter 10 takes readers on a road trip in search of the perfect pencil (No. 1 lead) with a detour to the Pencil Sharpener Museum at a crossroads in Ohio. Norris excels at laugh-out-loud one-liners: “Who doesn’t know the word ‘bumper’ breaks after the bump?” she asks in the chapter on hyphens. Turning to Merriam-Webster’s, she discovers that some meanings of “bumper” do in fact break after “bum.” A few pages later, she’s on a quest to find out “who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick.” Norris visits Melville’s study in Pittsfield, Maine, reads a thick biography of the author, researches the publishing history of Moby-Dick (a financial failure), and studies nineteenth-century punctuation conventions. She finally finds the answer buried in an endnote: a copy editor did it!
Between You & Me takes us inside Norris’s curious, nimble mind as she ruminates over editorial decisions. She's a stickler for rules, but she’s thoughtful about imposing them and will refrain for the sake of the author’s voice.
Copy editing is not just “mechanical,” a mere application of rules that any moron with a manual can execute. Being a copy editor “draws on the entire person.”
For Norris, a hyphen or a comma can take on almost mystical meaning. Once she edited a story about a boy who poked fun at a girl for going to church. He asked, “How was it? … Delicious God-bread?” A proofreader took the hyphen out. But Norris, after a lunch break spent “brooding over a sandwich,” put it back in. “God bread” was not like raisin bread, she reasoned. It was God in bread – “transubstantiation in a hyphen.” Spelling, too, is like a sacrament, “the clothing of words, their outward visible sign.” Not that Norris is religious in the traditional sense. She dealt with her demons in psychoanalysis, emerging free of prudery like “a fucking monarch butterfly.” Norris admits to being “deeply invested” in the quirky style of The New Yorker. The magazine follows a “close” style of punctuation that employs commas aplenty. Norris argues that all three commas are justified in the following: “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret …” These commas, she claims, “mark off segments of the sentence that are not germane to the meaning” – to the fact that Atwater expressed regret. What he died of and when he died of it are extra details, she says. I understand Norris’s reasoning, but to me the extra commas make the sentence choppy and interfere with seamless comprehension.
Lu Burke's "comma shaker"
One of Norris’s colleagues, Lu Burke, in protest against this generous sprinkling of commas, took a canister with a perforated lid, wrapped it in brown paper, and drew on it a bunch of commas and the words “comma shaker.” Lu, a proofreader “with snappy blue eyes,” thought that aspects of The New Yorker style were “ridiculous.” It’s touching that in the epilogue Norris pays tribute to Lu, whom she never liked, by bringing the comma shaker to a celebration of Lu’s mysterious bequest of a fortune to Southbury Public Library, Connecticut. Like the chameleon commas, some of Norris’s grammar advice is questionable. To my surprise, she rejects “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, preferring either the outmoded “he” or makeshift solutions like “heesh.” Personal pronouns became a personal problem for Norris when her younger brother, Dee, announced that “he” was transsexual. Norris’s struggles in accepting her brother as her sister explain her preoccupation with pronouns, but even the American Dialect Society has endorsed “they.” What makes this chapter meaningful is not the grammar advice but the personal story. Mary Norris got a job at The New Yorker in 1978. She had graduated with a master’s in English from the University of Vermont and had accumulated credentials as a “milkman,” dishwasher, cheese packager, and “foot checker” at a public swimming pool. Her job was to cut and paste the magazine onto index cards. After three years of this kindergarten work, she moved to the collating department, where she copied the changes marked by the editor, author, proofreader, and fact checker onto a clean proof for the printer. She characterizes her colleagues with humorous sketches. Dave Jackson, the head of the “foundry” department, where the final proofreading was done, “was tall and thin with a hectic red complexion and teeth that he could employ in a vicious grille.” Hilarious to read, but perhaps not so funny to the subject himself! This is not a go-to book for answers on grammar and style, but it’s not a tell-all memoir, either. It’s a literary memoir about Norris’s work life and her wide-ranging interests in language and literature. I will return to the Comma Queen again for her smart, down-to-earth and joyous company. For more from Mary Norris, visit her fabulous Comma Queen series on Youtube.