The Comma Queen and Me

Mary NorrisI recently discovered that someone borrowed my copy (highlighted and annotated)  of Mary Norris’ Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen and not returned it. I keep a large file card in my living room to record when people borrow books or DVDs, but my system failed me this time and, thinking of Marie Kondo, that book gives me joy every time I think about it; it’s a permanent fixture in my writing and editing library. So after finding it missing and asking a few obvious suspects, I’ve had to buy another copy. All this because it had come to time to re-read it for the third time since I originally bought it in 2016.

In her New York Times review of the book, Sarah Lyall wrote: “Ms. Norris, who has a dirty laugh that evokes late nights and Scotch, is… like the worldly aunt who pulls you aside at Thanksgiving and whispers that it is all right to occasionally flout the rules.” Norris, whose earlier careers include milk truck driver, has spent more than 30 years in The New Yorker’s justifiably respected copy editing department. Usually, copy editors are invisible heroes but Norris’s profile began to rise after her 2012 essay, “In Defense of ‘Nutty’ Commas,” was published in The New Yorker. Since then, along with writing more essays, she has hosted a series of short YouTube videos with titles like “Who/Whom For Dummies,” “The Semi-Colon; or, Mastering the Giant Comma,” and “Excuse Me, Your Participle is Dangling.”

Spend as little as minutes reading her, or watching her videos, and you’ll dream of having her at every dinner party.

Mary Norris Between You & Me

  • “The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can’t let it push you around.”
  • “Whom” may indeed be on the way out, but so is Venice, and we still like to go there.”
  • “Who” stands in for “he, she, they, I, we”; “whom” stands in for “him, her, them, me, us.”
  • “Spelling is the clothing of words, their outward visible sign, and even those who favour sweatpants in everyday life like to make a bella figura, as the Italians say – a good impression – in their prose.”
  • “Why, if there is alphabet soup, do we not have punctuation cereal?”
  • Muphry’s Law: “If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”
  • “Those extra letters dangling at the ends of words are the genitalia of grammar.”
  • “The image of the copy editor is of someone who favours a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting 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.”
  • “I would never disable spell-check. That would be hubris. Autocorrect I could do without.”
  • “Has the casual use of profanity in English reached a high tide? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’m going to answer it anyway: Fuck yeah.”

― Mary Norris, from Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen