‘Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen’ by Mary Norris

Non-fiction – memoir; Norton; 228 pages; 2015.

Mary Norris has spent more than 30 years working in the copy department of The New Yorker. Her book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, is billed as a guide to good language usage, but it’s also an insight into Norris’ career and is as much memoir as it is practical text book.

Like Norris, I, too, have made a career out of being a “comma queen” on magazines. I left the industry at the end of 2016 (after 20 years), but still work with words and am the go-to person in my company when it comes to spelling, grammar and punctuation usage. I expected to absolutely adore this book, but I was mildly disappointed by it.

Divided into 10 chapters, it covers everything you’d expect from a grammar book — such as spelling, punctuation and the use of hyphens — and some things you don’t (for instance, in the chapter about personal pronouns, Norris tells us that when her younger brother announced he was transgender it was difficult to suddenly start calling him “her”). It’s important to know that it’s all about American grammar usage, not British usage, so it’s not particularly useful for anyone who lives outside of the US unless you want to know the differences.

It’s written in an easy-to-read, engaging style and is brimful of gentle humour, whether Norris is talking about her own life or the way to use a comma or apostrophe. The chapter entitled “F*ck This Sh*t” is a case in point:

Has the casual use of profanity in English reached a high tide? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’m going to answer it anyway: Fuck yeah.

I’m not sure I learned anything new from Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen — although I did find out far more than I wanted to know about 1B pencils and how to sharpen them (there’s an entire chapter devoted to Norris’ love of lead pencils for marking copy; my preference is for a red gel pen).

The most interesting bit is the first chapter, which explains how American spellings came about — you can blame Noah Webster, a 19th century American lexicologist who wrote and published the first American dictionary. His idea was to simplify the language to make it easier for school children to spell words. Some of his ideas — removing silent letters, removing double letters, and replacing the soft “c” with an “s” — didn’t take off, but others, such as removing the “u” from colour, valour and neighbour, did.

As an inside look at life as an old school copy editor (or what we, in the UK, call a sub-editor), Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is an entertaining read. But it doesn’t quite know whether to be a memoir or a guide to grammar, and I’m not sure the combination really worked for me. It’s interesting, but not compelling.

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14 thoughts on “‘Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen’ by Mary Norris

  1. I see this at the library a lot and am always tempted to grab it. I think you’ve saved me some time – that bit about why some American spellings are slightly different from British is probably the best part!

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    • LOL. I do regret never keeping a diary of the things that happened when I worked on magazines… the titles I worked on (all specialist ones) attracted a weird assortment of people. I think it’s why I like “newspaper novels” so much: they’re peopled with crazy characters but they all seem very familiar to me.

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  2. I don’t mind Americans having their own spelling, good luck to them. What I mind is the slavish adoption of it in our own Australian publishing…

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    • I bought this one a couple of years ago, eager to read it, but in a house full of books it got waylaid and I only pulled it from the pile last week when I was looking for something factual to read. I think I would have loved it a whole lot more if it was British but I’ve already read Lynn Truss’ work…

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  3. I feel like I’ve read this but it’s not in a search on my blog, but maybe not. It does sound like it needed to be one book or the other but not both a guide and a memoir. What a shame!

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  4. I gave this to my Mum a couple of years ago – she’s a keen grammarian and has worked as an editor (on the Macquarie Dictionary, mainly, but now volunteering for a semi-peer-reviewed journal, if that makes sense.) I think she enjoyed it. It was reviewed I think by Stefanie of So many books (though I may have that wrong – Stefanie has reviewed a few books of this ilk that I’ve bought my Mum). Both my husband and I are word people, and we’ve passed it to our kids. Every now and then, out of the blue one of them will message me with a grammatical query or related query. It’s fun – and it’s usually because they are getting a name for being the go-to persons in their organisations.

    I must say though that I’m trying to relax my prescriptiveness a bit – but how far. That’s the million dollar question!

    PS Sorry for the late comment. I was away when this posted and I’m trying to catch up!

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    • Never too late to leave a comment, Sue 🙂

      Did this book not bug your mum?If she was an editor at Macquarie I’m sure the grammar / spelling rules in this one must have really annoyed her… they certainly wound me up!!

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      • I think it did, in fact, but I just can’t fully recollect what she said. I’ve given her several books about grammar, editing and words over the last few years, and a couple have been disappointing in terms of their writing. I think this was one of them.

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