Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris - review by Lesley Levene

Lesley Levene

Style Guru

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen


W W Norton 228pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

Mary Norris got her first job at the New Yorker in 1978 and has been their page OKer since 1993. In this unique role, which seems to be the equivalent of copy-editorial superhead, she works with the magazine’s editor, the author, a fact checker and a second proofreader – staffing levels UK magazines could only fantasise about – to ensure that each piece is perfect when it goes to press. You can be pretty confident, then, that she’s learned a thing or two about grammar and punctuation, not to mention dealing with authors, over the years. Now she’s written a book, part memoir but mainly a charming, chatty, discursive style guide, to share that knowledge.

To say ‘memoir’ is perhaps misleading. The New Yorker itself is at the heart of this book, which means everything is viewed through that lens. The early personal information is simply background to how Norris found herself working there, and everything else we glean comes from her ruminations on the different aspects of language that inform New Yorker house style. What shines through is that Norris is someone who loves her work, is proud to be part of a long and venerable line of upholders of editorial standards, and is wise and humorous enough to admit that upholding those standards can sometimes be a pretty lunatic experience.

The aim of the copy editor at all times is to work with the author to make things as clear as possible for the reader. Despite rumours to the contrary, copy editors are not bullies who mindlessly impose rules just for the sake of it (‘anti-ultracrepidation’ is the word Norris drops in at this point). But there are commonly accepted rules and, as in any field, you need to know the rules first before you decide to break them. With this in mind, we get chapters on spelling, punctuation and a variety of potential grammatical pitfalls – hence the book’s title, though readers of Literary Review would surely sail through the ‘between you and me’ or ‘between you and I’ test. (If in doubt, try saying ‘between I and you’ and you’ll get it.)

Of course, the more Norris delves into the past, the more obvious it is that rules were always works in progress. For example, Noah Webster of dictionary fame was keen to match spelling with pronunciation, and had some lasting successes, which explains how the ‘u’ disappeared from words like ‘colour’ and ‘flavour’ in America, but the ‘ake for ache, hainous for heinous, soop for soup, cloke for cloak, and spunge for sponge’ in his 1806 Compendious failed to hit the spot and did not feature in subsequent dictionaries. Or, to take punctuation, you only have to look at Victorian novels to find a selection of doubled-up punctuation marks that would not be countenanced today. The American writer Nicholson Baker has come up with the glorious name ‘dashtards’ for these: meet the commash (,—), the colash (:—) and the semicolash (;—). Even the humble comma, invented in the late 15th century by Aldo Manuzio, the same Venetian printer who created the first italic typeface, has been the cause of considerable anxiety from the start, with doubts about when to insert it and where.

Assuming that you are the sort of person who likes to read about the editorial process, this is all good clean fun (explanations about copulative verbs and restrictive and nonrestrictive commas notwithstanding), and the book is chock-full of interesting material, but to my mind there is one glaring problem here for British readers. Between You & Me is written for an American audience and doesn’t travel terribly well. By concentrating on Mary Norris’s life and times at the New Yorker, the book cannot help but take for granted a high level of familiarity with the American literary world. It also champions forms of spelling and styles of punctuation and grammar that are not used in Britain. I am unfamiliar with the names of all those legendary editors and past comma queens who presided over the magazine’s content and I find the New Yorker’s house style totally alien and illogical. Why? Because I’m a copy editor too and I follow Hart’s Rules and a rather old edition of The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors.

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