Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen 1st Edition
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An Amazon Best Book of April 2015: Once upon a time, a couple or few decades ago, most American boys and girls in grade school were taught grammar and punctuation; we learned, for example, that “i” came before “e,” except after “c” (except sometimes, but never mind) and that the verb “to be” was “like an equal sign,” which meant that you used the nominative case (have I lost you yet?) on both sides of it. (“It is I,” in other words, is the correct, if dowdy, response to “Who’s there?”) Some of us were even taught to diagram sentences; some had parents who corrected us at the family dinner table. (I can still hear my father pressing the subjunctive upon me. “If I WERE,” he’d bellow, when I allowed as how there’d be later curfews if I “was” in charge.) Whether they retained the lessons or not, most people probably don't wax romantic about the grammar lessons or teachers of yore.
Which is why even those of you who don’t have the soul of a second-grade grammar teacher will love Between You and Me, the hilarious and delightful “memoir” by the longtime New Yorker copy editor, Mary Norris, who confides in the subtitle that she is a “comma queen.” (The above is not a full sentence, I know -- but I think I can get away with it by calling it "my style." Also, I put quotation marks around the word “memoir,” Mary – I know you’re wondering -- because I was trying to make the point that your book is an unusual take on the form, dealing as it does with thats and whiches as well as with your Ohio adolescence as a foot-checker at the local pool.) Who knew grammar could be so much fun -- that silly marks of punctuation could be so wickedly anthropomorphized (a question mark is like a lazy person), that dashes grow in families (there are big dashes and little dashes and they can all live peaceably within one sentence), that there was once a serious movement to solve the he-or-she problem with the catchall “heesh”? Clearly, Norris knows: her book is plenty smart, but it’s its (one’s a contraction, one’s a possessive) joyful, generous style that makes it so winning. This is a celebration of language that won’t make anyone feel dumb – but it’s also the perfect gift for the coworker you haven’t been able to tell that “between” is a preposition that never, ever, takes an object that includes the pronoun “I.” – Sara Nelson
- Patricia O’Conner, New York Times Book Review
“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.”
- Sarah Lyall, The New York Times
“[P]ure porn for word nerds.”
- Allan Fallow, Washington Post
“Mary Norris has an enthusiasm for the proper use of language that’s contagious. Her memoir is so engaging, in fact, that it’s easy to forget you’re learning things.”
- Miriam Krule, Slate
“[A] winningly tender, funny reckoning with labor and language.”
- Megan O'Grady, Vogue
“Very funny, lucid, and lively.”
- Julia Holmes, The New Republic
“Funny and endearing.”
- Joanna Connors, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Laugh-out-loud funny and wise and compelling from beginning to end.”
- Steve Weinberg, Houston Chronicle
“Down-to-earth memoir interwoven with idiosyncratic, often funny ruminations on the nuts and bolts of language.”
- Linda Lowenthal, Boston Globe
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Of the three, Between You and Me is the only one I like. Mary Norris obviously feels no need for mean-spirited comments about the illiteracy of those less educated on punctuation than she (like Eats, Shoots & Leaves). Instead, her comments about grammar and punctuation are matter-of-fact and kind. In many cases, she is telling how she learned a particular bit of grammar, spelling, or pronunciation trivia--it is an amusing fact about readers that we often have vocabularies full of words we've never actually heard spoken aloud. The technical bits are interspersed with stories from her life, making this a fun and amusing read. I'm enjoying this one a lot. It's exactly what I was looking for (and didn't find) when I bought the better-known title.
In the Introduction, author Mary Norris describes the evolution of her early life that finally deposited her in the niche profession of being a copy editor for “The New Yorker” magazine, a publication that always seemed too effete for my tastes growing up as I did on the West Coast. Mary then launches off on the evolution of dictionaries and their influence on spelling, the reputation of being witches that bedevils copy editors, the political incorrectness (or not) in the use of gender specific pronouns, and the common errors that befall writers in their use of hyphens, dashes, apostrophes, colons, and semicolons. Finally, she closes with perhaps the two most interesting chapters: the growing acceptability of obscenities’ use in everyday speech and writing ‒ especially the F-word, and the evolution of pencils, pencil erasers, and pencil sharpeners.
The author closes with an utterly boring (for me) Epilogue on her attendance at a ceremony celebrating the bequest of a million bucks plus to a small town library by a long-serving copy editor of The New Yorker.
Did I learn anything? I know now that I’ve probably misused the word “overall” (a one-piece work suit worn by painters) when I should’ve used “over all”, i.e. above all. Never again shall I err. Beyond that, I absorbed a statement by novelist James Salter quoted by Norris:
“Punctuation is for clarity and emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences. You don’t get permission for this, of course; you take the liberty.”
Yes, indeed. Thank you.
I love this type of book but get the puckers when I start to review it. The how-tos are here but it’s simply too late to correct my wayward word usage. I’ll just have to make do with my ingrained incompetence. Mary Norris, Comma Queen, please accept my apologies for the errors of my ways. But know that “Between You & Me” is one of the best of the help books I’ve read.
Norris is one of those people: a copy editor with all the answers. But she’s not prickly. She knows what to do with grammar and punctuation; passing on her knowledge without snipe or snarl. Her explanations are clever, clear, and sometimes comical. The advice is practical and should be easily assimilated by even the biggest dolt. One doesn’t expect to have fun reading about punctuation, spelling, and usage. But this book is pure entertainment in its counsel with amusement on every page.
The author is going to coach you on subjunctives, spoken versus written language, word breaks, compounds, pronoun gender, and other scary elements. Along the way she’ll touch on commas, colons, dashes, hyphens, semicolons, and other punctuation marks that we all know about. Or do we? If you let this frighten you away, you’ll miss some unforgettable examples of how to get it right.
It would be a good idea for the censor cops at Amazon to read Chapter 9 with the earthy title of F*CK THIS SH*T. Norris discusses the use of profanity, decries its abolition, and, obliquely, takes a poke at Amazon’s hypercritical policy of bouncing reviews that have even a hint of impropiety. That practice has always been annoying to me. Amazon is a publishing giant that is willing to sell anything—erotica, rap music with explicit lyrics, sexual tools and potions, books with profanity in the title—but will not publish a review that even hints at bad language or contains veiled sexual banter.
This is a must-have book for readers and writers. It might not improve your overall grammar and language skills, but it will make you appreciate that there are people out there who would have you to do better, who work hard at making it simple, and who should be listened to with an appreciative ear. Mary Norris. More than just a Comma Queen.
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES
Top international reviews
It is such a joy to read this book because, between you and me, it reads more like a biography than a grammar book. She tells of the envy she had for her brother Dee who had privileges as a boy, and how, after years of wanting to be like him, he decided to change his sex. There is a chapter on ‘Between you and me’ of course, and every chapter is full of humour – some of the humour starts with the chapter heading, for instance, ‘Who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick?’ Fun to read anywhere – even while waiting for a parking lot.
The book is of great value, because it describes how, although a language may be and is in flux, some logical consistencies must remain enforced, even as times change. (I wonder whether Ms. Norris would let this sentence construct pass.)
But the value of the book extends beyond that. Parties in a population that have an agenda adhere to the paradigm that changing the rules of language will change the political outlook of the users of the language. Not that we have any historical evidence that this paradigm was ever successful; Nonetheless, it still goes on. (Read her chapter about when to use "he" and/or "she".) Irrespective of the historical evidence, editors in serious publications must deal with the political forces exerted and arguments presented by adherents to these paradigms. Chapters dealing with these editorial issues, even if you may not agree with the tenets of the paradigms, are not only an enjoyable read, but an insightful and educational one.
Which is why I heartily recommend this book.
Would The New Yorker allow me to use "which" in this construct?
Would it allow this construct?
One cautious note: some technical terms are not defined and may not be known to the reader (as has happened to me). In line with the context of the text, this is fine, but don't be upset.