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Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

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Mary Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker's copy department, maintaining its celebrated high standards. Now she brings her vast experience, good cheer, and finely sharpened pencils to help the rest of us in a boisterous language book as full of life as it is of practical advice.

Between You & Me features Norris's laugh-out-loud descriptions of some of the most common and vexing problems in spelling, punctuation, and usage—comma faults, danglers, "who" vs. "whom," "that" vs. "which," compound words, gender-neutral language—and her clear explanations of how to handle them. Down-to-earth and always open-minded, she draws on examples from Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and the Lord's Prayer, as well as from The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace, and Gillian Flynn. She takes us to see a copy of Noah Webster's groundbreaking Blue-Back Speller, on a quest to find out who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick, on a pilgrimage to the world's only pencil-sharpener museum, and inside the hallowed halls of The New Yorker and her work with such celebrated writers as Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders.

Readers—and writers—will find in Norris neither a scold nor a softie but a wise and witty new friend in love with language and alive to the glories of its use in America, even in the age of autocorrect and spell-check. As Norris writes, "The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can't let it push you around."

228 pages, Hardcover

First published April 6, 2015

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About the author

Mary Norris

13 books246 followers
Mary Norris began working at The New Yorker in 1978. Originally from Cleveland, she now lives in New York.

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,295 reviews120k followers
April 9, 2020
Mary Norris has been carving text into shape at The New Yorker for so long, over thirty years, that she probably deserves an honorary MD in plastic surgery. She could definitely tell you, for example, whether "boob-job" requires a hyphen, or is correct as two separate words, and would definitely know the proper usage of nip and tuck. Between You & Me is both a memoir of her career in the copy department of that illustrious magazine and a look at some of the history, vagaries, and proper usage of the English language.

Mary Norris - from The New Yorker

The memoir element is fun if you are interested in seeing a bit of life behind the scenes at the magazine. Norris has had dealings with all the luminaries who have run the place over the last three decades, and tells of her experiences with a sampling of the household-name writers whose work has appeared in its pages. She also tells about some of the inner workings, such as the process through which pieces slated for publication are trussed, and normalized to New Yorker standards. Here we learn, for instance, the sequence of goto dictionaries that are applied whenever there is a question of proper spelling and usage. Her fondness for particular pencils is given its own pointed chapter, and includes a visit to a museum for pencil sharpeners.


Of far greater interest is her attention to language, in history and usage. Her brief telling of Noah Webster's contribution to normalizing spelling in American English was particularly illuminating. It was Webster, for example, who snipped the “u” from many an English word, giving us Yanks the color of honor. He also decoupled a trailing "k" from a bunch more, yielding the music of traffic, something Steve Winwood might appreciate. Webster also substituted the softer “s” for “c” in defense and offense, which, of course, makes no scents at all. Her look into how Moby-Dick acquired its hyphen (was it fate or a manifestation of God?) is fascinating. No fluke involved.

Moby-Dick - the 1851 American edition – from Bauman rare books

Punctuation is a large subject here. Attention is paid to the comma, and its abuse at the hands of, one, Charles, Dickens. Norris does a turn to take on the apostrophe. There really is an Apostrophe Protection Society. Clearly it needs protection. Teddy Roosevelt saw to it that many place names in the USA had their apostrophes removed. Maybe the big stick he is known for had an eraser at one end.

She also offers up a chapter on the use of profanity. A fun chapter, no shit.

I think George would have approved

The appendix includes a wonderful list of books for those who are more committed than most to making their writing as correct as possible

So, now we come to a couple of gripes. In describing a bit of life in NYC, Norris refers to “the street ballet, called alternate side of the street parking, during which New Yorkers who own cars but are too cheap to park them in lots or garages compete for a legal spot.” What a snotty way to characterize this. While not currently a car owner, I was, until recently. Along with the vast majority I have spent more than a reasonable amount of time coping with this particular form of hell on earth. But it was not because I was too cheap to pay for a lot. I simply could not afford it. This is undoubtedly true for most of the car owners here. Such excessive portions of our income are taken up by the insanity of housing costs that there is little left over with which to pay outrageous fees for garages or parking lots. Not everyone here is raking it in. Gee, sorry to clutter up your streets, Norris. You might be better off calling for your limo, unless you’re too cheap to arrange one.

On page 132, Norris writes, “The question mark, by contrast, is gentle, a lazy Irishman.” While she may know the difference between contemporary and antiquated usage, I am afraid she has some work to do to tell the difference between attitudes that are contemporary and others from a bygone era, Hibernophobia, for example, that should have been properly laid to rest, the Gallagher family notwithstanding.

So, bottom line. If you are a word nerd, this one is for you. If you are interested in learning some deep magic punctuation from a words wizard, ditto. You will learn some things you never knew, which is always a lovely experience. Norris's prose is fluid and easy to read. If you can overlook her occasional lapses into condescension Between You &Me is an educational and entertaining journey with a guide who really knows her way around the language. Take my word for it.

Publication dates:
-----Hardcover - April 6, 2015
-----Paperback – April 4, 2016

Review Posted April 1, 2016

This book arrived at my doorstep unrequested, from Norton. Think gift horse, mouth. No filthy lucre (or clean lucre, for that matter) or embarrassing photographs exchanged hands in payment for a review. Just so’s ya know.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

Norris has also parked a blog on the internet centered on the joys of auto stowage regulations in NYC - The Alternate Side Parking Reader

There is a wonderful short article on Copy Editing at The New Yorker with Mary Norris on Andy Ross’s blog

An excerpt from the book, on The New Yorker site.

There is a video series on the New Yorker site as well, Norris offering nineteen short episodes on usage. They are charming and informative.

April 2019 - A charming Mary Norris article you are sure to enjoy - The New Yorker - Dropped Hyphens, Split Infinitives, and Other Thrilling Developments from the 2019 American Copy Editors Society Conference

May 2019 - from Literary Hub - The Comma Queen and the Internet’s Copy Chief on What Matters to a Copyeditor: Mary Norris and Benjamin Dreyer Talk Grammar and Style

Norris’s latest book is her 2019 Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen
Profile Image for karen.
3,979 reviews170k followers
July 14, 2018
If commas are open to interpretation, hyphens are downright Delphic.

now that i see i was not the only one to be mysteriously gifted with a copy of this book in the mail and that even people like melki, who exhibits flawless grammar despite having to type with giant clumsy bear paws, were similarly singled out, i feel less self-conscious about my casual butchery of my mother tongue.

this is one of those books equal parts instructive and fun. it's closer to a memoir than a primer, but the anecdotes about norris' three decades in the new yorker's copy department will generally lead to some nugget of wisdom about usage or orthographic history that will delight you if you are a word nerd.

it's remarkably playful for a book so consumed with usage and the history of punctuation, but it's also as nerdy as you'd expect:

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."

oh, dear, not 'hilarious' enough for you? luckily, i know the kind of people who read my reviews, so i can point you to something you will likely find funnier:

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.

you're welcome.

i learned a great many things in this book:

the correct spellings of chaise longue,garnishee, and minuscule, and that by misspelling that last one wrong all this time (in my head - i don't know that i've ever written it), i was being barbarous. me, barbarous!!

Webster's includes a lot of words that people spell and use in nonstandard ways. (Lu Burke once jumped all over me because she thought that I had let "minuscule" go spelled with two i's because Webster's includes the barbarous spelling "miniscule" to guide people to the right one.)

that cruel jab aside, she's more forgiving than many of her (dare i say "our?") breed about spelling errors, particularly in grocery store signage & etc:

The lunch specials chalked on a blackboard outside a restaurant in the East Village included a "salomon snad." I would never order a salmon sandwich-- doesn't sound good; obviously, it's not sushi-grade salmon if they're making patties out of it--but I found the salomon snad quite beguiling.

she's willing to sacrifice her own standards, sometimes making grammatical concessions to honor the (fiction) writer's choices; which can come at a great personal cost:

I backed down, allowing something ungrammatical to appear in the magazine, which, in future times, would be held up as proof that it was grammatical because The New Yorker had printed it.

she pokes a little fun at England's Apostrophe Protection Society, founded with the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English language.

she's realistic about how complicated grammatical rules can be to regular folks:

I don't mean to make this any more confusing than it already is, but let's not pretend it's easy.

and she's always willing to expose her own gaffes, in a confessional chatty tone:

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."

although she did miss one error, in chapter 5's title:


needs one more COMMA to make it a chorus

other things i learned:

-the little double-dot in the word naïve is not an umlaut, but a diaeresis.

-pencil sharpener factoid:

The collection included some double-hole sharpeners, and McKinnon had assumed, as many people do, that one hole was for regular pencils and the other for colored pencils. I explained how it worked: the cylinders beneath the blades are angled differently, and each pencil goes first in one hole, for whittling away the wood, and then in the other, for grinding the graphite.

-some craziness about word breaks as they relate to the word "bumper:"

when the word is being used as a noun meaning a brimming cup or glass, or as an adjective meaning unusually large, the word is divided "bum-per" if split by a line break.

BUT, when it i used as a noun meaning one who bumps, or a device for absorbing shock or preventing damage, the break is "bump-er."


but not just learning, because her stories are fun and charming and she's adorably dorky, sometimes unconsciously so:

-I was traveling with a black KUM long-point sharpener…I loved having it with me, to sharpen pencils on the go or to whip out in a cafe if a friend's point had gotten dull.

-when you think about it, suspense is what punctuation is all about: how is the author going to finish the sentence?

-Even the dictionary citation illustrating a "restrictive clause" is a bummer: Webster's gives the example of "that you ordered" in the sentence "The book that you ordered is out of print." Oh, no! The Random House College Dictionary has a slightly more positive definition for the grammatical sense of restrictive -- "of or pertaining to a word, phrase, or clause that identifies or limits the meaning of a modified element" -- but it goes on to give yet another bummer of an example: "that just ended in The year that just ended was bad for crops." Just my luck: the book that I wanted is out of print and now the price of corn is going to skyrocket.

-this is how nerds namedrop:

Light Years had an introduction by Richard Ford, whose work I once tried to take a comma out of.

and speaking of james salter and nerdishness, her story about Light Years is that, noticing the unusual and distracting use of commas in light years, I decided to write to James Salter and ask him about his commas.


and he wrote back!

"I sometimes ignore the rules about commas although generally I follow convention and adhere to the advice in Strunk and White. Punctuation is for clarity and also 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."

he goes on to explain each and every comma she'd questioned in his book before promising, "The commas are better in A Sport and a Pasttime."

oh my god, adorable. i love it.

the chapter about cussin' is obviously fun because i'm a child, but also because she references my boy

and shares this anecdote so gleefully:

I first gave full vent to the urge to curse after terminating analysis, in 1996. I felt so free--I could change jobs, move from Queens to Manhattan, enjoy a little discretionary income because I wasn't always shelling out to the shrink--and I just let fly with every joyous expletive I could think of. If someone mentioned The House of Mirth, I would say, "Edith Wharton blows," or if a friend suggested reading Middlemarch my response was "George Eliot sucks." It was so satisfying. The shell of prudery surrounding childhood and adolescence cracked wide open, and I emerged a fucking monarch butterfly. So I would say that analysis worked for me.

and a saving grace for those of us with comma issues, w/r/t comma theory:

Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure. Each school believes that the other gets carried away.

as long as we're all carried away together.

it's just a really fun book -plenty of stories and a really expressive way of explaining potentially dull concepts in a lively way:

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--breasts, hips, bulges--are decorative as well as essential to the survival of the species. Lipstick and high heels are inflections, tokens of the feminine: lures, sex apps. Those extra letters dangling at the ends of words are the genitals of grammar. And the pronouns turn out to be in our marrow.

so i thank whomever is to thank for this unexpected book-present, even though it gave me a moment of horror when i thought i was being scolded for my transgressions.

because i wasn't, right?? RIGHT???
i got this in the mail, completely unexpectedly - with no begging on my or anyone else's part. on the one hand - AWESOME! this is exactly the kind of book i love! on the other hand, i can't help but fear this is some passive-aggressive jab, since the way i abuse the comma ought to come with its own commercial/ accompanying sarah machlachlin song.

whatchoo trying to say, norton??


i am going to read this as soon as possible. it looks great!

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Jan.
203 reviews25 followers
June 18, 2015
I once casually asked a friend how her grandson’s graduation ceremony had gone, and she responded that she and her husband, both schoolteachers, had been quite distracted by the number of errors in the program. “That’s the kind of thing that drives Lou and I crazy,” she explained. I was tempted to say, “That drives I crazy too.”

Well, if you don’t quite get that -- or could care less -- then “Between You & Me” is not going to be your kind of book. In fact, Mary Norris’ combination memoir and grammar guide, which I’d eagerly anticipated, in the end wasn’t so much my kind of book either.

This book is essentially a hodgepodge of personal anecdotes and feeble attempts at wit mixed with an insider’s look at copy editing at “The New Yorker,” the author’s own sometimes tedious explications of grammar issues, and forays into semi-related subjects like Norris’ relationship with the pencil. Pages of analysis of a Herman Melville passage littered with commas put me right to sleep, and I, a former English teacher, was perplexed by the differences among the hyphen, the “en” dash, and the “em” dash (and I mean after reading them).

And when it came to the “Between You and Me” chapter, in which I expected to find the simple test to help speakers know whether to use “I” or “me,” we are treated to lessons on verb types, parts of speech, and cases, under the assumption that when you “learn the pattern of the grammar, and see the beauty and the economy of it, you’ll find it easier to nail the usage.” Yeah, maybe if your job depends on it, but not as a little helpful hint to a misguided friend.

To be fair, there were a few pluses: a fascinating glimpse into life at the pre-eminent periodical, plus some laughs and clever descriptions. But at bottom the level of detail is overwhelming and impractical for the average person, and I believe the book might be of far greater interest to other copy editors of highbrow publications.

And maybe pencil aficionados.
Profile Image for Melki.
5,794 reviews2,340 followers
March 4, 2016
I was completely surprised when this book arrived in the mail. I'm guessing that someone at W.W.Norton has read my reviews and decided I needed a primer. Thank you. I learned quite a bit.

In her thirty-five years as a copy editor at The New Yorker, Mary Norris has read, and corrected, quite a a few pages of writing, and she's developed some strong opinions on the subject. Her chapters cover a wide variety of subjects, from gender to profanity. In addition to pondering all forms of punctuation, she waxes philosophical about dictionaries, pencils, and pencil sharpeners. I have my own opinions on these topics, which I will happily share with you now, because, when will I ever get the chance again?

Though I do one hundred percent of my word-looking-up online, I still keep a few dictionaries with my reference books. Come to think of it, I do all my reference-type searching at the computer, but who could ever part with those wonderful books? Only my father's OED gets a prime spot on the desk, and that's because of the enclosed super-nifty magnifying glass. Damn, does that thing ever come in handy! Pencils, I love -- the smell, the look, the feel of them. And Ms. Norris, you're not alone in admiring the little "skirts" made by manual sharpeners. I confess to once keeping a jarful of them, dreaming of the perfect art project. As to using the British "u" in words, I think we should feel free to use whatever best suits a particular word. I've always felt that "mould" best describes the black stuff that grows in my bathroom, while "mold" seems more appropriate to the plastic thing that shapes my Jell-O.

Oh, how I love a book that makes me ponder subjects like this.

I thoroughly enjoyed every chapter of this one. The author's enthusiasm for language is wholly infectious. Her sense of humor and anecdotal style won me over in her introduction and kept me enthralled throughout her tale. I found Norris's struggles to balance her natural impulses to correct an author's text with the idea that perhaps a writer meant to "miswrite" a line to be most fascinating. Was a spelling or punctuation error done purposely to enhance a character's personality and speech patterns, or is it an honest grammatical mistake or typo? I love her reasoning here:

Anyway, spelling not point. Point is words -- right words in right order for devastating effect. Job of copy editor to spell words right: put hyphen in, take hyphen out. Repeat. Respect other meaning of spell: spell writer weaves.

I can recommend this book to everyone who truly loves reading and language. It is "wordy" fun from beginning to end. And, here's the ultimate compliment - I wish my dad were still alive to read this; he would have LOVED it!

You can watch Mary in action on her YouTube channel - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list...
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68.1k followers
April 14, 2019
Responsible to a Higher Power

The train driver, the shelf-stacker in the supermarket, the telephone engineer working on the overhead cables. These people are not just anonymous, they are also effectively invisible. We all are aware, at least vaguely, that there are any number of people who mediate our world continuously but go largely unnoticed. In fact the better they do their work, the less notice we take of their existence.

Among these invisibles are the copy editors of commercial publishing. They sit between writers and readers, largely unknown, unrecognised, even derided as obsessive fanatics who interfere with authorial art. Mary Norris is one of these. She has been one of these for most of her adult life. And she has written about it, undoubtedly in the same correct prose she has insisted upon throughout her career.

The title she has chosen is suggestive - ‘Confessions’. There is no irony here; I doubt there is much irony anywhere among copy editors. This is not an exposé of the inner workings of the publishing business; it is an old-fashioned apologia, an explanation of one’s life, directed, like the similarly named book by St. Augustine, to oneself as much as to the world at large. It is a sort of empirically derived theory of a modest, ordinary, unremarkable life, a description of what it’s like to be floating unnoticed in a sea of fame, notoriety and reputation.

The dramas in this invisible world are real but slight, often trivial by external standards - the appropriateness of restrictive or unrestrictive clauses, the irritation of a dangling participle, the use of gender specific pronouns. These are hardly issues to rival the negotiations of international trade agreements or a corporate takeover. Copy editors rarely even meet the famous authors whose work they improve.

Nonetheless, there is something distinctively important in Norris’s memoir of a life devoted to correctness. Grammar and spelling and usage are not merely the equivalent of literary etiquette, how we show respect to each other through small formalities. Language is the core of our everyday existence; yet it is as invisible to most of us as the other things and people who mediate that existence.

Norris’s is a life devoted to that central invisible fact of language. Her concern is its preservation, protection, and its beauty as an object created by human effort but beyond human control. This makes her a ‘nerd’ but in a manner entirely different from that of a computer programmer for whom the ‘language’ they employ is essentially fixed and dead. In contrast, the ‘client’ in Norris’s profession is not the author, nor her employer, nor even the reader; it is language itself, which is alive and has its own agenda.

So Norris is not simply an example of another invisible professional. In a way that is different from the train driver, or the shelf-stacker, or the telephone linesman (or for that matter, the bank president or the national politician), Norris’s professional life is one of true vocation to something that is as close to the divine as human beings are ever likely to get.

Such a life is not to be judged by wealth, advancement or reputation but by the service rendered to an ideal which is vague even to the one who holds it. It is her devotion to an ideal of language which is both expressive and precise that I find remarkable in this short book. It is an ideal which she knows can only be approached but never reached. Language is her higher power, always just beyond her grasp but always calling for, and getting, her attention.
Profile Image for Carin.
Author 1 book102 followers
February 5, 2016
What a delightful book! It's as if someone took my favorite genre (memoir) and made it about my favorite topic (grammar). Could a book be any more tailor made for me? Luckily, it held up to my expectations.

Mary Norris didn't always intend to be an editor. In fact, after college she worked at a costume rental store, as a milkman, and as a cheese packer. Then she decided to move to New York, and through a family friend, she found a job at The New Yorker. Never could there have been a more perfect fit. Where else could Mary have had lengthy and serious discussions about hyphens, attended a party for a particular brand of pencil, and gotten fan mail from Phillip Roth? Interspersed between her personal stories, she includes digressions about apostrophes, who/whom, and curse words, but she's not too pedantic or precious (in fact, she admits to disagreeing with The New Yorker's style rules on a couple of points.) I even think I might now have mastered when to insert (or not) a comma in a series of adjectives (although restrictive clauses still just escape me.)

Ms. Norris's writing is accessible, humorous, and charming. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with her and I actually would have loved if the book had been twice as long!
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,223 reviews2,052 followers
November 29, 2016
Not really for me. I was expecting something along the lines of Eats, Shoots and Leaves especially as the blurb said it was laugh aloud funny. It really was not. Sometimes I think the author found herself funny but it was not on my entertainment radar at all.
There were some good bits, some mildly amusing anecdotes and some informative sections although these usually got too bogged down to finish them. I persevered and completed the book but I could not say I enjoyed it or even actually learned anything from it.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,412 followers
December 15, 2016
Mary Norris’ conversational, confessional manner first made me think that the person always behind the scenes at The New Yorker, America’s prestigious literary magazine, wanted her day in the sun. “ME!” I imagined her pointing, two thumbs to her chest, “I’m HERE!” The more I read, though, the more chummy she seemed. “I want to read what you guys are saying on the web, in reviews, articles, and blogs,” she seemed to be saying, “but don’t bug me with bad punctuation. It’s not easy, what I do, but here are a few pointers…”

I love her for that. It really isn’t easy, what she does, and when she gets into accusative, transitive, and copulative verbs, though they do sound right up my alley, my eyes watered just a little. But I am so glad she laid to rest the “you and me” bit. She gives an example of the “pratfall in dialogue form” when a TV character, known to be a bit dim, tries to elevate his diction by saying archly, “We have already reserved that bowling alley for Teddy and I.” She mentions that David Foster Wallace was “a fabulous stickler—a snoot, in his own term.” He lists “between you and I” second in a catalogue of blunders, and Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, notes this grammatical error is “committed almost exclusively by educated speakers trying a little too hard to sound refined but stumbling badly.” Well, that puts a nail in it.

My problem, I freely admit, is commas. I can actually feel readers cringing to read some of the stuff I have generated, though you probably know all about this failing of mine. I am always wishing I had a copy editor to just run through the thing with a Palomino Blackwing* and tell me what I meant to say. That’s why I got this book. I love the example in her discussion of serial commas or not: "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

What I actually learned from this book is that there is, as I’d hoped, quite a lot of flexibility in the actual putting together of a sentence. The ultimate objective, of course, is clarity. "THE PRIME NECESSITY IS TO SAFEGUARD AGAINST MISREADING." As such, "if commas are open to interpretation, hyphens are downright Delphic." Ah, she hits all the sore spots. For those of us who write quite a lot, we worry about these things. "There is a phase in the life of every copy editor when she is obsessed with hyphens." That’s a relief. Further good news is that one might be able to argue for one’s intent in case of disagreement with, say, another copy editor or writer of the dreaded ‘letter to the editor’, but one should at least try to be consistent within the same essay.

As for the dash—for years my letters home were filled with dashes—with not a period in sight. Once I realized my dashes were getting longer and so populous I barely had room for a few words squeezed between them, I knew the game was up. I had to begin writing comprehensible sentences. Norris says of the dash:
"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.

My favorite funny bit may be the time she changed 'terrine of foie gras' to 'tureen of foie gras,' never having seen the term terrine and being unable to find it in a dictionary. I also greatly appreciated A.A. Milne's observation that
"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.

Norris tells great stories with illustrative examples from the works of authors you will recognize, but the stories about her own life make her accessible. Who wouldn’t be impressed and intimidated by the behind-the-scenes editors who make possible the output of a weekly literary magazine of such reputation? She had me laughing so often it made me realize that I would love to see “pratfalls in grammar” illustrated in a separate column. She is a gem.

*Palomino Blackwing: Even the name of this pencil sounds somewhat thrilling to someone who never knew there was anything worth using beyond a Dixon No. 2 Ticonderoga. Norris tells us what she learned about herself when the Dixon No. 1 Ticonderoga could no longer be found for sale. Besides pencils, she became something of an expert on pencil sharpeners and once made a pilgrimage to a pencil sharpener museum in Ohio, a tale so well told and filled with zany details that it could easily have been published to great acclaim in her own magazine.
Profile Image for Lisa.
144 reviews4 followers
March 5, 2016
*I won a copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads in exchange for an honest review.*

A self-proclaimed grammar nerd, I cringe while reading published works that confuse "lie" and "lay" or subjective and objective pronouns. I could hardly wait to receive and begin reading Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, as I expected the book to be a funny collection of grammatical tragedies. How very disappointed I was - not due to poor quality but because of false advertising. First, I believe the book would be more appropriately titled: Between You & Me: Lessons of a Comma Queen or Between You & Me: Tutorials of a Comma Queen. The book is not a confessional. Second, while the writing is quite good, it is far from being comical and even farther (not further) from being "laugh-out-loud."
Profile Image for Marianne.
3,396 reviews145 followers
April 22, 2015
“What is a semicolon, anyway?” Is it half a colon? Is it a period on top of a comma? Or an apostrophe that has been knocked down and pinned by a period?”

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is the first book by Mary Norris, who has been on the staff of The New Yorker for some 35 years, and a Page OK’er for twenty of those. She has been referred to by some as a prose goddess, or a comma queen, and indeed, a whole chapter of this book is devoted to comma usage, and cleverly titled “Comma, comma, comma, comma, chameleon”.

This is a book that seems to be a mix of memoir, opinion piece, language textbook and history book. Norris describes the New Yorker’s Style rules (“It did sometimes feel as if we belonged to some strange cloistered order, the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Hyphens”) and some of its more eccentric personalities. This is a book packed with facts, but Norris conveys them in a manner that makes them easy to assimilate, and often treats the reader to laugh-out-loud examples such as those on the serial comma debate. And who knew there were such things as Dictionary Wars, an Apostrophe Eradication Policy (USA), an Apostrophe Protection Society (England) and a Pencil Sharpener Museum?

As well as demonstrating just why spelling, grammar and punctuation DO matter, Norris explains just what a copy-editor does, and the risks of being one (“When I finally made it to the copydesk, it was a long time before I could once again read for pleasure. I spontaneously copy-edited everything I laid eyes on”), and provides a wealth of handy hints about pronouns, hyphens, expletives (deleted and not), restrictive clauses, dashes, colons and semicolons and copulative verbs. She backs up her advice with plenty of examples, extensive references and a comprehensive index. And, of course, her punctuation is absolutely flawless!

Norris offers plenty of succinct opinions: On autocorrect: “I type “adverbial” and it comes out “adrenal,” which is like a knife thrust to my adverbial gland”. On compound words: “I was learning that the dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can’t let it push you around, especially where compound words are concerned. Also that a hyphen is not a moral issue”. And on gender: “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 as male or female—breasts, hips, bulges—are decorative as well as essential to the survival of the species. Lipstick and high heels are inflections, tokens of the feminine: lures, sex apps. Those extra letters dangling at the ends of words are the genitalia of grammar”

She tells us: “I would get lost in throngs of adjectives”. And when her friend remarks “There is no pleasure so acute as that of a well-placed semicolon”, Mary concludes that there must therefore be “no displeasure so obtuse as that of an ill-placed semicolon”. The Text Publishing edition has a cover designed by W.H.Chong with a very clever constructed crown for the Comma Queen. This book is informative, witty and very funny: a must for anyone who cares about what they write.
Profile Image for Antigone.
500 reviews741 followers
November 18, 2021
For those enamored of the rules of language and the mechanics of the manner in which a thought is meant to be expressed, this work will prove a pleasure from start to finish.

Mary Norris worked in the copy department of The New Yorker magazine for over thirty years, striving to maintain the publication's sterling standard with regard to spelling, punctuation, and usage. In an account that is half-manual/half-memoir, she walks us through the most common snarls faced by those who write for both profession and lark. Language is quite clearly her passion. She engages its frustrations on every page in a way that is direct, companionable, and eminently precise. Should you share that passion, I suspect you will be greatly pleased.

I have found, over the years, that there's a limit to the amount of instruction I can take. Eyes glaze, focus slips, irritation rises as I shift into feeling imprisoned by an overabundance of regulation. How I express myself is an extremely important matter to me, and I have discovered - much to the chagrin of easily half a dozen English teachers - that I would rather language did what I needed it to do than enslaving me to its dictates. Tilting at windmills, I know, but there it is.

This should in no way reflect upon the generous and lively effort Ms. Norris has made in her volume. Once again, if the mechanics of language appeal? This is a book to consider.

Profile Image for MaryG2E.
372 reviews1 follower
August 4, 2015
I really wanted to like this book. I'm constantly fascinated by the nature of English, and I'm also a bit pedantic about correct spelling, grammar and usage. I was ready for an entertaining look at the evolution of our current version of English, and how the role of copy editor can have far-reaching influences. However, I found it rather difficult to engage with the author's dry writing style, and her somewhat haphazard tour around aspects of the language. In the end, I realised I was thoroughly bored by the book and have discontinued my reading. A rare DNF (did not finish) for me.
Profile Image for Emily.
1,735 reviews37 followers
June 16, 2015
100% delightful.

If you're the kind of person who laughs at funny anecdotes concerning apostrophes, read this book.
If you're the kind of person who finds personification of punctuation marks hilarious, read this book.
If you're the kind of person who thinks a whole chapter devoted to pencils is rather charming, read this book.

I do enjoy a good grammar-themed book, and it was interesting to read stories of the author's experience as a copy editor for the New Yorker. Highly recommended for word nerds.
Profile Image for Oriana.
Author 2 books3,300 followers
Want to read
March 12, 2015
Oh come on, how am I only hearing about this now? A book by a copyeditor that is part memoir, part cultural grammatical history of the world, part style guide—I have got to be like the #1 person in the target demographic for this. I feel like the universe owes me a copy just because both I and this book exist on the same terrestrial plane. Don't you think?

Also, here's from Julia Holmes' review in the New Republic:

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?”

Come ON!
Profile Image for Becky.
1,339 reviews1,629 followers
March 6, 2018
2.5 stars.

I had actually started this audiobook on my flight back from Dallas a while ago, but got bored and switched gears. Which didn't bode well for the rest of the book, but I persevered... Yay?

This was just... kind of a slog. For a certain type of audience, one with patience and grace and all sorts of virtues I possess not, this will be a delightful punctuation text-slash-memoir. But for me... It wasn't. It just wasn't. I could not wait for her to get to the point of so many sidebars.

WHY did I listen to 25 minutes of lamentation over PENCILS and pencil sharpeners?? Zzzzzzz....

There were segments of this that were cute and interesting, but they were far less frequent than I would have liked. The comma section was my favorite punctuation-related section, and of course I liked the section on APPROPRIATE FUCKING LANGUAGE (featuring a cameo reference to Earl Sweatshirt, which was ironic because the Boy and I (me?) had just been talking about the EXACT story that she related in this book the very day prior. I backed up the audio so he could listen too, because it was eerie how she was spying on us from beyond the book...). I liked the section on how language and usage evolves, but there are better books out there on that topic. John McWhorter and Mark Forsyth are authors of two of them. Check them out.

I dunno... Something about this just didn't work for me. Maybe it wasn't the right time, or the right medium (audio vs print may have played a role... I certainly didn't care for Mary Norris's raspiness after a surprisingly short time). Who knows? It was OK, edging on good... but really it's only made me realize that as much as I consider myself to be good at grammar and shit, I'm not. And that's OK. I'd rather not agonize over every word and word accessory that I've ever barfed out into the world.
Profile Image for Text Publishing.
595 reviews221 followers
June 25, 2015
Featured in Amazon's "Best Books of the Year So Far 2015: Nonfiction"

Pedantry made fashionable. That's no mean feat, but you'd expect nothing less from Mary Norris of New Yorker fame. Gather all your misplaced commas and wait for further instruction. In an age where the exclamation mark has lost all character, it's just good to know some people still care.

Here's a few people who agree:
‘Very funny, lucid, and lively…[Norris’] love of language transcends all, reconnecting the alienated pieces of this world—from the micromachinery of the serial comma up to the cosmic mystery of story.‘ New Republic

‘I enjoyed Mary Norris’s book so much. It’s exactly my idea of a good read.’ Kate Grenville, in correspondence

‘This book charmed my socks off…Norris is a master storyteller.’ New York Times

‘Norris is warm, knowledgable and unapologetically fussy…The pleasure of Between You & Me boils down to a willingness to spend 200 tightly edited pages in Mary Norris’s good-natured, wise company.’ Guardian
Profile Image for Krenner1.
575 reviews
August 7, 2015
Five star probably only to those who follow and revere New Yorker magazine. Written by one of its copy editors, the book is rife with anecdotes about fellow staff members, the magazine's strict copy style, and conundrums about grammar and punctuation. (I did skim some of the grammar parts.) Norris is witty and turns what could be a ho-hum topic into many chuckles and a great read. She includes stories from her own personal life, as well, including a hilarious party for pencil fanciers in NYC where there was even a Sharpening Lounge.

In a chapter where she discusses how profanity has become mainstream in text, she reminiscences about how her father rarely proclaimed much beyond "Great Scot!".

"My mother, on the other hand, was a font of vulgarity, a regular gusher. She would as soon call the neighbors assholes as tell them to mind their own business. Her epithet of choice for our nosy aunt was Fuzz Nuts."

And so it goes...
Profile Image for L.A. Starks.
Author 11 books653 followers
February 5, 2016
I had high hopes for this book. It is written smoothly enough. No doubt we can benefit from Norris' advice, but ultimately it felt like reading a longish tome on varieties of thumbtacks or thread spools, not something most would voluntarily do.

And is it required that so many books published knock the political right or is there just a majority of authors and editors who hold those beliefs and can't restrain themselves? In a book about punctuation the author's opinion on Reagan was gratuitous, and it commits the crime of taking readers outside the four corners of the page.

For a more useful book about writing, try Strunk and White's Elements of Style.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,133 reviews
May 13, 2016
The New Yorker’s readers demand the highest standards of copy, and Mary Norris has been of of those editors for the past three decades giving the readers what they demand. Having sharpened all her pencils, she now brings us her take on the newspaper business and the (American) English language. Working her way through the most common language issues, such as spelling, commas, when to swear, and when not to. She investigates the less common punctuation, extols the use of the hyphen – excessively perhaps and contemplates the genders. Drawing from classic works by Dickens and Melville and reasonably up to date works by Flynn and Wallace she aims to enlighten us in the ways and foibles of our language, from the Oxford comma to the apostrophe that wanders up and down the word depending on the profession.

This is not a bad read overall; it is fairly short, light hearted and informative and she writes with a gentle humour. Whilst she goes in to the minutiae of language with regards to punctuation, it is very much centred on the The New Yorker and her work there. There are some good parts, the chapter on profanity is quite amusing, her ventures into the historical reasons behind certain word uses and her penchant for a particular type of pencil. It is almost trying to do too much; is it a memoir of her work at the paper or a book on language? I’m still not sure. Worth reading, but if you are looking for a book on the delights of language, pop it back on the shelf.
Profile Image for Angie Reisetter.
506 reviews6 followers
April 8, 2015
Mary Norris has a very chatty tone when she's telling you about the spelling and grammar mistakes she's corrected in her career at the New Yorker, and it's easy to forget how remarkable her information is. She's talking about a certain language rule, and to illustrate, she tells you about a particular sentence she corrected years ago and the iterations it went through. But every once in while I had to stop to ponder: is her memory just that incredible? or was the sentence that memorable? or did she just do a buttload of research to write this book? Actually, I think the answer to all three of those questions might be "yes".

Between You & Me is partly a memoir of Norris' life and partly a behind-the-scenes tale of the New Yorker. But mostly it's a book about language by a language lover. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I loved her descriptions of her work. But I'm also glad I don't have her job. It's that gladness that keeps me from being incredibly nervous about writing a review for this book -- won't everyone who reads these be hyper-critical about grammar? Eh. I don't have her job, so I can turn off the grammar hyperdrive and just write and just read. Something she admits she has trouble doing.

She's gotten to read some amazing things and meet some amazing people. And at times she made me smile or laugh. I particularly liked her memorable inquiry as to the nature of semicolons. But I'll leave that for other readers to discover on their own. Highly recommended for word lovers.

I got a free copy of this from First Reads.
Profile Image for Susan Swiderski.
Author 3 books37 followers
February 26, 2015
Word nerds and grammar groupies, unite! With Comma Queen Mary Norris as our fearless leader, perhaps we can change the world, one dangling participle and misplaced modifier at a time.

We can only hope, right?

Okay, so maybe we can't change the world, but if you're in love with language, this is the book for you. You'll learn the basis for some of the editing standards used at "The New Yorker," and find out if copy editor Norris is bugged by the same common errors that drive YOU crazy. See what the pros think about various dictionaries, and follow Norris' quest to discover why the book title "Moby-Dick" is hyphenated, but the whale's name isn't. Get some simple explanations for grammatical usages, and see how attitudes about the use of "certain words" have mutated over the years. What makes it all even more enjoyable, the book is written in a simple conversational style and with an understated sense of humor, so reading it is like hanging out with a fellow word nerd... and it feels good!

I won an ARC of this book through a Goodreads giveaway. (Thank you!) Now if I can only find a comma shaker...
Profile Image for Carolyn.
185 reviews35 followers
February 23, 2016
I try really hard not to be “that guy” when it comes to grammar. I don’t have enough friends to play with fire and correct every grammatical mistake that flies out of their mouths. But like most voracious readers, I notice when these errors pop up. These days I work at a publishing company, where we pore over every minute detail. It’s pretty common here to see a production assistant with her face practically buried in a draft, searching for any errant commas to vanquish.

All this to say, I was really excited to pick up Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Written by long-time copy editor Mary Norris, the book details her journey to working for The New Yorker (it involved noticing flour had been spelled flower in a page about to go to print) and her love of the written word. I thought it would be a great celebration about all of the intricacies and insanities that make up our beloved language. And calling it Confessions of a Comma Queen made me think that the book would be funny(ish) as well. Instead…

It was pretty fricken boring. And I’m one of the dorks she was writing to (I’m sorry, to whom she was writing). I don’t understand why this was a book. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Morris knew either. Unfocused and puzzling, it veers from grammar lessons, to cheese-packing tricks (not a euphemism) to gendered-pronouns, to a treatise on the best brand of pencils. She flits around for 200 loooooooong pages talking about whatever pops into her head but never gave me a reason to care.

Between You and Me is a confessional without any confessions. It’s a memoir without any heart, a grammar book without any practical advice, and just so painfully boring. Her chapter about pencils or about her Sarah Vowell-esq quirky journey to a pencil sharpener museum are meant to be funny, but miss the mark.

There’s stuff to like in this book. Norris’ enthusiasm is infectious and she still so clearly loves her job. We should all be so lucky to feel passionate about the thing we’re paid to do. But her book was a slog. When I was finally done, I was surprised it was only 228 pages. It felt a lot longer.
Profile Image for Stephanie  H.
110 reviews12 followers
May 3, 2016
I won this book for free through Goodreads First Reads.

First let me say that you will only appreciate this book if you're one of those people who silently corrects your friends' grammar in your head. I am one one of those people, so I enjoyed this book.

I found it informative, and it did teach me things that I had either wondered about or that had never occurred to me, things I found very useful as a self proclaimed grammar cop. I liked the writer's voice and I found her humorous and entertaining.

That said, parts of it were a tiny bit hard to get through and just a little confusing to me. Other parts, such as the difference between a hyphen and a dash, I found kind of trifling. Overall, I found the book to be just somewhat dry.

Also, I'm not sure if this was the point, but it sort of read more or less as a memoir of her tenure at the New Yorker, and not always so much as a book about grammar. Again, this may be the point, and I may have missed it, so if that's the case I apologize. Just the same, if you are the sort of person who, like me, judges the grammar of the people around you, I think you'll gain something from it.
Profile Image for Sarah.
586 reviews10 followers
March 19, 2015
I received this book for free from a Goodreads giveaway.

Let me start by saying, bless, Mary Norris. I believe she is a talented writer and when it comes to grammar, punctuation, and general conventions of the English language, she certainly knows her stuff. I believe she did the best job she could with this book.

I should have been in the target audience for this book. I have taught English, my grandmother taught English, and I was raised with a mother who was often referred to as a "grammar nazi", but this book still failed to really engage me. Ms. Norris' writing is interesting and she has great examples to go with the points she makes but at the end of the day, this is a book about grammar, and there is a limit, in my opinion, to how fascinating reading about that can be. Multiple pages spent on restrictive versus non-restrictive clauses for example. So yeah. Points for doing as good a job as is possible for this topic however, I'm afraid this book is really only going to appeal to and captivate a very small percentage of readers.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
329 reviews270 followers
May 30, 2018
A comma shaker is the perfect desk accessory for a New Yorker copy editor. That it was inherited from another legendary editor speaks to the genealogy of New Yorker wordsmithing.
I would also like to try a Palomino Blackwing pencil.
Profile Image for Carol.
592 reviews3 followers
November 25, 2014
For all of us who love a grammar nerd, (and who does not???) this book is a perfect read. Quick, funny and enlightening on some things about our wonderful language that I have wondered about.
Profile Image for Jaclyn Eccesso.
92 reviews9 followers
January 25, 2015
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is copy editor Mary Norris’ autobiographical style manual of sorts detailing her own voyage to The New Yorker’s copy desk and her encounters with the god- awful grammar she’s had to face at her job and in her everyday life. Not in any way diminutive or overbearing, Norris’ stern but open-minded perspective offers rules more as suggestions based on context rather than mandates required by grammatical law. Constantly throwing out expletives (not to mention an entire chapter on the inclusion of obscenities in print) and always roping in an air of comedy, Norris’ book is much more than just a style guide or grammar book: it’s a fun and inspirational glimpse into the success of a hardworking, resilient, language-loving woman.

Between You & Me features lessons on who vs whom, the correct usage of colons and dashes, as well as issues concerning apostrophes in our contemporary, digital, sales-driven age. Aside from these, though, are chapters delving into the history of the pencil, Norris’ relationship with her transgender sister (which she uses to illustrate the issues surrounding pronouns), and snippets of linguistic history. The author never fails to tie her personal life back to the didactic center of the book in a way that both enhances the lesson being taught and provides a tether of empathy to Norris so that the reader cares about her as the book’s author and not just the narrative voice.

For any English major who has doubted her choices in education, Norris’s story is divinely motivating as she details her early years working in a cheese factory and her journey to The New Yorker offices. For any writer, editor, or human being who has ever felt an ounce of doubt concerning the work that she creates, Norris stands as an archetypal model for making mistakes and moving past them. She constantly refers to grammatical blunders she’s made herself or missed in editing, and she often questions her own grammatical judgment. But wait, she’s a copy editor at The New Yorker! Shouldn’t she know everything? Shouldn’t she be perfect? Norris makes very clear that she’s human, just like every other person in the world who experiences self-doubt. She not only admits her mistakes, but she embraces them and explains to the reader what she’s learned from them.

Aside from purely grammatical insights, Norris also breaks into the philosophy and ethics of grammar with the advent of feminism and other cultural shifts related to gender, technology, social media and more. She brings to light issues and conversations that are very much alive in the cannon today, and offers insight, perspective and opinion, though she often admits that there is no easy answer to the grammatical wonders of our world. As she states, particularly in relation to the comma, but as a metaphor for grammar and the book as a whole: “…follow some rules, sure, but in the end what you’re after is clarity of meaning.”

Norris may be adamant about certain grammatical rules, like pronouns matching their antecedents, but there are others that, as she points out, are subject to the particular style manual of the publication a person is writing for – and then of course there is the issue of personal preference, and then there’s also the necessity for clarity. She drives home that making yourself crazy over a single misplaced apostrophe is not worth extreme anxiety: recognize it, pick up, and move on.

Overall, Norris provides goddess-like insight into common yet difficult grammatical issues with clarity and ease of understanding while keeping readers engaged with humor, history and a sense of humanity.

Scheduled for release from W.W Norton & Company in April 2015, Between You & Me Adventures of a Comma Queen is the perfect book for any literary lover and a superb choice for any reader interested in language
Profile Image for Reese.
163 reviews62 followers
April 7, 2016
An audience for Between You and Me, a New York Times bestseller, is somewhere out there -- obviously. I'm just having difficulty figuring out who's in that vast audience. The subtitle of the work (Confessions of a Comma Queen) encouraged me to think that I would be among those delighted by Mary Norris's book. I'll admit that I harbor some of the feelings about grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors that Norris owns. But while editors, proofreaders, composition teachers, et al. may sympathize with her attitudes, they are the very people who don't need to read this book -- or at least not all of it. They have "been there [and] done [some of] that"; they just, in most cases, haven't written the book "to prove it." I can't say that countless people could have written a similar book since Norris reveals experiences that only someone who has worked in the copy department of The New Yorker could have had. However, for the audience who can best relate to her experiences, reading discussions of grammar and punctuation rules is a waste of time. So I'm wondering, "Who appreciates Norris's book?" People bursting with interest in the history of pencils (a subject given considerable attention by Norris)? Seriously, who is not "in the choir" already or in the large chorus shouting, "F-- the correct use of semicolons, apostrophes, objective-case pronouns, etc.," or in the apathetic crowd groaning, "whatever"? Whatever the reason(s) -- many folks apparently agree with Marilyn Johnson's blurb; i. e., they find the book "obscenely fun." Not me. Oops -- not I.
Profile Image for Jo.
293 reviews28 followers
May 27, 2015
I spent a hot summer before my sophomore year in college studying my Grammar for Journalists book. I was preparing for the dreaded test that the University of Wisconsin Journalism School gave prospective students as part of the admissions process, and was told that more than 60 percent failed. I was one of the fortunate who passed, and thus began my obsession with grammar.

Sometimes this obsession can drive me bonkers. I catch grammatical mistakes on billboards, television screens, web sites and newspapers. I often catch them when reading a novel, and I have to convince myself to not let that ruin the book for me.

But my obsession pales in comparison to Mary Norris, a retired copy editor for The New Yorker. She shares her life story and grammatical explanations in her new book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. She tells how she went from delivering milk in Cleveland to working at the great literary magazine in New York City.

She eloquently writes about the proper use of punctuation while throwing in some fascinating historical facts. For example, the comma was invented in 1490. Also, we can thank Noah Webster for Americanizing certain British spellings, such as colour to color and theatre to theater. (Should I have used a semi colon there? Oh dear …)

Pick up Between You & Me if you relish the English language and want to brush up on its usage, such as who vs. whom and that vs. which. Grammar has never been so entertaining.
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