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228 pages, Hardcover
First published April 6, 2015
Here is the definition from Web II of a nonrestrictive clause: "An adjective clause which adds information but is so loosely attached to its noun as to be not essential to the definiteness of the noun's meaning (the aldermen, who were present, assented)--called also descriptive clause. Such a clause is marked off by commas, whereas the corresponding restrictive clause is not (the aldermen who were present assented = such aldermen as were present assented)."
Of course, the hilarious thing about this is that the definition itself uses "which" ("an adjective clause which adds information") where standard modern American usage prefers "that": "an adjective clause that adds information."
I have spent whole hangover days laughing at the idea of a law firm with letterhead stationery printed "Johnson, Johnson, Johnson & Johnson." I don't know why it took me so long to find the name of the Band-Aid and baby-shampoo company in my college town funny: New Brunswick's own Johnson & Johnson. I am sure that Samuel Johnson, the father of lexicography, would get a kick out of knowing that his surname was synonymous with penis. One day, in the course of my mundane working life, I read the words "Robert Caro writes in the most recent volume of his Johnson biography…" and cracked up. I know that Caro is writing the definitive biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, but in the privacy of my office I permitted myself to picture Robert Caro as a square-looking guy who had yet led a life of such sexual adventurism that he needed to write a multivolume biography of his Johnson.
Often a word would come up that I had never seen before and could not find in the dictionary. That didn't mean it wasn't there--I just couldn't see it, probably because I didn't want to see it. 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. One year in the Christmas list on food, the writer inserted the word "terrine," as in "a terrine of foie gras." I had never seen the word "terrine" (much less an actual terrine full of foie gras) and couldn't find it in the dictionary, neither the Little Red Web nor the unabridged. So I changed it to "tureen." I might as well have changed it to "punchbowl." It was no excuse that I came from a family that didn't eat a lot of pate. (The fanciest thing we had on the table was Brown 'n Serve rolls, which we called Black 'n Serve rolls, because my mother usually burned them. A college friend made merciless fun of me in the dining hall when I complained that the butter tasted funny and it came out that I had been raised on margarine.) Fortunately, the structure of the department was such that several people, including the author, read the proofs the next day, and the word appeared in the magazine as "terrine."
"Women seem to use it a lot, especially in correspondence, as if it were a woman’s prerogative to stop short without explanation, to be a little vague, to have a sudden change of heart, to leave things open-ended."Exactly. Leave ‘em guessing.
"If the English language had been properly organized...there would be a word which meant both 'he' and 'she,' and I could write: 'If John or Mary comes, heesh will want to play tennis,' which would save a lot of trouble."Lu Burke was a colleague of Norris, a proofreader from her arrival at The New Yorker in 1958 to her retirement in 1990. On her desk she kept a canister wrapped in brown paper and marked with hand-drawn commas. It had a perforated lid, like the red-hot pepper shakers at a pizzeria. Lu thought The New Yorker’s “close” style of punctuation used too many commas. “In almost every way Lu was the opposite of Eleanor” Gould, the magazine’s legendary grammarian, query proofreader, and a certified genius. It is probably best organizations have long-running disagreements about punctuation. It keeps everyone sharp for the next opportunity to press their point.
In the face of an etymological mystery, Norris is “ecstatic.” She retraces the evolution of the comma (invented by a Venetian printer, Aldo Manuzio, in 1490 “to prevent confusion by separating things”) and recounts the arcane history of pencils (which were obscure until the Civil War created a demand for “a dry, clean, portable writing instrument”); she pays a visit to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum. She explores the “secret burden of gender” carried by the English language, following the 165-year-old American quest for gender-neutral pronouns (ne, nis, nim; ip, ips; ha, hez, hem; ta; shem, herm; ho, hom, hos; ze, zon), in the context of her own struggle with pronouns and acceptance during the transition of her transgender sister. She delves into the origins and evolution of American English and looks ahead to fresh threats: “Are we losing the apostrophe?”