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.