Books

Language lovers will love this memoir, including commas

“Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” by Mary Norris (W.W. Norton, 228 pages, $24.95)

If there’s anyone in a newsroom who has an oddball job, surprising background or hidden talent of some sort, it’s probably someone on the copy desk. Mary Norris, a longtime copy editor at the New Yorker, began her working life as a milkwoman, back when dairy products were still delivered to doorsteps. What does this have to do with editing? Nothing, but it gave her, among other things, a deep knowledge of agriculture that came in useful later.

“One of the things I like about my job,” Norris writes, “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. And in turn it feeds you more experience.”

Part grammar book and part memoir, with a paean to pencils at the end, “Between You & Me” is a charming, funny, fascinating-fact-filled book. If you judge a book by the number of times you have to stop and tell whoever is sitting next to you something about what you just read, then this book will rank highly.

Most of it is not gossip from inside the New Yorker, though there are some interesting tidbits, such as fellow copy editor Lu Burke’s “comma shaker,” a visual protest against commas sprinkled, not unlike pepper, indiscriminately through writing, and another editor’s physical restraint of the author to prevent her looking up a word in the dictionary out of fear that the dictionary might provide a differing opinion (it did).

Norris takes us through grammar, various marks of punctuation, and even when (and when not) to use profanity, with writing that sparkles and a wicked sense of humor. Her explanations are clear; her advice is practical. Even if you don’t think you like grammar, Norris makes it enjoyable and interesting.

But if you do like grammar, this book is a real gift. Copy editors deal with arcana and minutiae and care deeply about them; we toil in obscurity and have heated (though generally collegial) arguments over pronouns, commas and spelling. Norris incisively presents the range and the joy of this career and relishes the details. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go join the “Sisters of the Holy Humility of Hyphens.”

Lisa McLendon is a former Eagle copy editor and now teaches editing at the University of Kansas. Reach her at lisa.mclendon@gmail.com.

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