Mary Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker 's copy department, maintaining its celebrated high standards. Now she brings her vast experience, good cheer, and finely sharpened pencils to help the rest of us in a boisterous language book as full of life as it is of practical advice.Read more...
Mary Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker's copy department, maintaining its celebrated high standards. Now she brings her vast experience, good cheer, and finely sharpened pencils to help the rest of us in a boisterous language book as full of life as it is of practical advice.
Between You & Me features Norris's laugh-out-loud descriptions of some of the most common and vexing problems in spelling, punctuation, and usage comma faults, danglers, "who" vs. "whom," "that" vs. "which," compound words, gender-neutral language and her clear explanations of how to handle them. Down-to-earth and always open-minded, she draws on examples from Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and the Lord's Prayer, as well as from The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace, and Gillian Flynn. She takes us to see a copy of Noah Webster's groundbreaking Blue-Back Speller, on a quest to find out who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick, on a pilgrimage to the world's only pencil-sharpener museum, and inside the hallowed halls of The New Yorker and her work with such celebrated writers as Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders.
Readers and writers will find in Norris neither a scold nor a softie but a wise and witty new friend in love with language and alive to the glories of its use in America, even in the age of autocorrect and spell-check. As Norris writes, "The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can't let it push you around.""
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-12-22
- Reviewer: Staff
Norris has spent more than 35 years in the New Yorker’s legendary copy department, earning the nickname Comma Queen along the way. So it makes sense that her first book is a delightful discourse on the most common grammar, punctuation, and usage challenges faced by writers of all stripes. Not surprisingly, Norris writes well—with wit, sass, and smarts—and the book is part memoir, part manual. She recounts the history of Webster’s Dictionary; explains when to use who vs. whom and that vs. which; distinguishes between the dash, colon, and the semicolon; delves into the comma and the hyphen; and weighs in on the use of profanity in writing. Norris also finds ways to reference the Lord’s Prayer, the Simpsons, Moby-Dick, and, in a touching anecdote, her own sister. The New Yorker has an unconventional house style—for instance, the magazine uses diaeresis marks in words like coöperate, where the prefix (co-) ends in the same vowel used at the beginning of the stem (operate), to indicate that the vowels are pronounced differently—and, though Norris doesn’t always agree with its strict style rules, readers may not agree with her ideas on language. But it’s a sure bet that after reading this book, they’ll think more about how and what they write. Agent: David Kuhn, Kuhn Projects. (Apr.)
Declarations from a comma queen
“Let’s get one thing straight right from the beginning: I didn’t set out to be a comma queen.” In fact, Mary Norris explored quite a few interesting career paths before finding her calling as a copy editor at The New Yorker. Her work life began at the age of 15, checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland. She went on to drive a milk truck, package mozzarella at a cheese factory, and wash dishes (all the while managing to pursue a graduate degree in English).
Eventually, in 1978, Norris landed a job in the editorial library of The New Yorker. Her first day at work coincided with a snowstorm. While riding in the elevator with an editor, she remarked that he was wearing “the kind of boots we wore in the cheese factory.” The editor quipped, “So this is the next stop after the cheese factory?”
As it happens, it proved to be a very good stop, both for devotees of The New Yorker and readers of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Norris’ funny and entertaining new book about language and life (both in and out of the magazine’s offices).
After more than 35 years at The New Yorker, Norris has amassed considerable knowledge of the English language and how (not) to use it. In a chapter entitled “Spelling Is for Weirdos,” Norris discusses the history of dictionaries and why spellcheck isn’t enough, and recounts the story of her first big break at the magazine—discovering a typographical error everyone else had missed. We learn that Charles Dickens punctuated by ear, that the semicolon is an “upper-crust” punctuation mark best avoided and that the apostrophe will most definitely need our prayers if it is to survive.
While Norris may have a job as a “comma queen,” readers of Between You & Me will find that “prose goddess” is perhaps a more apt description of this delightful writer.