Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: Mary Norris, Between You & Me

Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015. 240 pages. $24.95 hardcover.

Mary Norris is a copy editor, aka query proofreader, aka page-OK’er, at The New Yorker, where she has worked for more than thirty-five years. Early in Between You & Me she writes,

One of the things I like about my job 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.
Part memoir, part free-ranging meditation on matters of usage, this book, too, draws on the entire person. Ten pages in, when Norris describes the skirt she wore to her New Yorker job interview, I worried that Between You & Me would turn out to resemble Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year. But my worry was for nothing. The catalogue of knowledge and experience that followed two pages later (quoted above) makes the difference clear: Norris is interested in everything.

Between You & Me is rich in details of The New Yorker’s people and practices. It’s all from a ground-level perspective: Pauline Kael makes a cameo appearance (“You helped me!” she says, after Norris makes a suggestion), but there’s very little of William Shawn or later editors or the magazine’s writers. The New Yorker people in the spotlight are the copy editors Lu Burke and Eleanor Gould. Burke (who left a million-dollar estate to her local library) is cranky and volatile, the creator of a Comma Shaker meant to mock the magazine’s “close” (or excessive) punctuation. Gould, long renowned for her devotion to clarity in writing, here seems a baffling mandarin, a maker of style choices that sometimes defy logic (for instance, “blue-stained glass” to describe blue stained glass). The New Yorker ’s dictionary hierarchy also defies logic: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate first (the Little Red Web in house parlance), Webster’s Second second, and Webster’s Third third. Yet the Collegiate was for many years based on Webster’s Third, the dictionary that The New Yorker regards with “an institutional distrust.” It should be no surprise that the American Heritage Dictionary has no place at the magazine, which needs no advice from a Usage Panel. The New Yorker is a Usage Panel unto itself.

As for usage, Between You and Me takes stock of a number of problems and questions in language: subject and object pronouns (thus the book’s title); gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns, from ip (1884) to ee (2014); dangling modifiers; spelling; punctuation marks; the apostrophe (which Norris rightly regards as a matter of spelling, not punctuation); that and which; who and whom. What Norris offers, though, is not how-to advice (an appendix points to helpful books) but personal commentary, wit, and delightful examples of language in action. Writing about gender and pronouns, Norris draws upon life with her transgendered sibling Baby Dee. Writing about subject and object pronouns, Norris cites hypercorrecting bowler Ralph Kramden (“We have already reserved that alley for Teddy and I”), Montgomery Burns (whose exclamation “You were he!” befits a villain), and the Astrud Gilberto rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema” (“She looks straight ahead — not at he”). What is more: Norris has a good idea about where that he came from. Writing about punctuation, she observes that the em dash “can create a sense of drama — false drama.” She likens the colon to a butler who says “Right this way.” No more than one colon to a sentence: “A butler would never tolerate another butler in the same household.” And Norris is the only writer I’ve read who mentions what must be a remarkable book, Edward N. Teall’s Meet Mr. Hyphen (And Put Him in His Place) (1937). “Good compounding is a manifestation of character,” says Mr. Teall.

If you can imagine reading a book on usage while you sit waiting to participate in the ritual movements of alternate-side parking, if you have wondered how to form the plural possessive of McDonald’s, if you would find it difficult to choose between “bright red car” and “bright-red car,” if you care about no. 1 and no. 2 pencils, if you think road trip when you hear Pencil Sharpener Museum, you’ll find much to like in Between You & Me. If you cannot imagine, have not wondered, wouldn’t find it difficult, don’t care, and don’t think road trip, Mary Norris will show you what you’re missing.

And in case it isn’t already clear: Mary Norris is not the American Lynne Truss. There is one moment of Truss-like hyperbole in the book, and it feels entirely out of place: Norris says that when she hears the words “He sent flowers to Kate and I,” “some lining between [her] skin and [her] inner organs begins to shrink.” That physical reaction may call for a truss. But unlike Truss, Norris is knowledgable, and she’s a careful, graceful writer. Given her line of work, she’d have to be, don’t you think?

Between You & Me will be published on April 6. Thanks to W. W. Norton for a review copy.

Related post
The irregular restrictive which (A New Yorker usage)
Marry Norris on New Yorker style

[Gould is an intimidating figure. I have followed her practice in spelling copy editor and copy-edit. Garner’s Modern American Usage: “Each is now preferably a single unhyphenated word.”]

comments: 2

The Crow said...

Road trip!

Delightful post, Michael. Best start to a day that I've had in quite a while.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Martha.

If I get to that museum, you can be sure I’ll file a report. (I almost said “full report,” but then I remembered “gnarled oak.”)