WEBEXCLUSIVE

The Glory of Grammar

Mary Norris
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
(W.W. Norton & Company, 2015)

For over 30 years, comma queen Mary Norris has reigned the page as a copy editor at the New Yorker magazine. She’s fixed modifiers, caught misspellings, and dissected sentences. She’s considered punctuation as art, as well as logic. The words matter; the craft of writing is the very essence of Norris’s world. In Between You & Me, Norris’s part-memoir, part-writing reference guide, she turns traditional writing lessons into narrative, inviting us into her stories, not just as a grammarian, but as a writer and friend.

Norris is a word nerd, but she’s the kind who will talk punctuation over a frosty beer. This book could be a long, boring slog through hyphens and dangling participles (topics Norris covers), but instead, grammar is a joy to learn. In large part, this is because Norris enjoys her work and she proves adept at sharing it. “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 … and in turn it feeds you more experience.”

Norris finds heart in the mechanics of writing, often applying her lessons in a personal way. When she covers parts of speech, we’re given interesting history and practical explanations, but the sections soar when Norris incorporates her own life: “I have experienced a pronoun transplant,” she says of her transgender brother, who transitioned into a woman. “The idea that gender in language is decorative, a way of dressing up words, can be applied to the human body: things that identify us outwardly as male or female—hips, breasts, bulges—are decorative, as well as essential to the survival of the species. … Those extra letters dangling at the end of words are the genitalia of grammar. And the pronouns turn out to be the marrow.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, language mirroring anatomy. For her brother, that pronoun is more than a word. It’s deeply important. It’s identity.

Norris also takes an intimate approach when it comes to her work. Much of the book is peppered with stories about the New Yorker. She affectionately tells us about a bygone era, when typesetting was a concern and there were boys who walked around with trays of pencils. “It sounds like something out of a dream! Even then I think I knew the office boy and his tray of pencils would go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker.” To Norris, the New Yorker is a place where she can sharpen her pencil and meddle with writing and writer alike. It’s a literary temple. She has interactions with authors she admires—her gods. For them she works hardest, finding the finest writers challenging her, “the itchy-fingered copy editor,” who must stay her hand lest she overcorrect. Norris praises writer John McPhee’s immaculate prose, but recalls a time he gave her pause, writing “new, and far between,” causing her great contemplation. Did he mean the cliché “few and far between” or was he being artful? She shouldn’t allow a cliché, but she shouldn’t allow a typo either. “It was a Friday … if I made this change I would have to live all weekend with the possibility … that I had made a mistake.” But this is what Norris loves: hunting for an error like a bloodhound, sniffing out a challenge. The prose in these sections is always honest and brave. “I had a skeptical streak and an ego, and at some level I thought that if I had never seen a particular word it didn’t exist,” she says of her early years. She even confides her longtime crush on Philip Roth, who, to Norris, is a writer of perfection: “… if he should ever read this I just want to say I’m still available.”

The nuts and bolts of punctuation come in the middle chapters, with clever titles like “Comma, Comma, Comma, Chameleon.” Norris’s explanations are infused with concrete examples that bring the concepts to life. For instance, she humorously uncovers the serial comma’s flaw: “I’d like to dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” And when Norris gets to teaching, her approach works wonderfully, like a smart friend leveling with you. Take the apostrophe, for example. We’re guided through frank lessons about its use as a conjunction—“Like the blank in a game of Scrabble … it fills in for a missing letter”—to the proper use of the possessive apostrophe. Accuracy is paramount for Norris, but she’s a reasonable human being and even she can say when enough is enough. “I once asked Eleanor Gould [then the New Yorker’s head grammarian] how to make the plural possessive of McDonald’s, and she very sensibly told me to leave it alone. ‘You have to stop somewhere,’ she said. We stopped at McDonald’ses.” 

When dealing with sentence construction, Norris occasionally probes so intensely into usage that lesson dominates over narrative. She can use too many parentheticals to explain her point, causing her own sentences to stiffen. “The noun that is the subject (I, my plumber, you) is in the subjective case and the noun that it links to (copy editor, saint, reader) through the verb is also in the subjective case.” The result is prose that doesn’t quite dazzle the way it does in other sections; the content feels like a cram session.

I felt a fondness for Norris’s dedication to one particular writing implement: the No. 1 pencil. No No. 2 will do: “Writing with a No. 2 made me feel as if I had a hangover.” The great lengths she goes to to obtain this simple, rare item, the sheer stubbornness of refusing to let it go, this hits home. It’s such a human tendency, flawed but from the gut. These are the moments when Norris shines, when she gets personal and lets it all hang out—when she settles in with that No. 1 and she tells us a story, perfectly, lovingly, grammatically correct.

Contributor

Sara Webster

Sara Webster is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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