Once upon a time, in the dim recesses of the twentieth century, I learned the rules of spelling and grammar from my mother (a former English teacher) and a succession of prim ladies in the public school system of Lima, Ohio. It was all cut and dried, as rules tend to be. Rules were rules. There was only one right way to do things, and every other way was wrong. Now here comes Mary Norris, a longtime copy editor at The New Yorker, of all places, to tell me that editors like her argue all the time about punctuation, spelling, and grammar. Good grief! What is the world coming to? Is the editorial process at The New Yorker as messy as work in any other office? Is terra firma no longer firma? Is the process of writing good copy no more tolerable than the making of sausages or laws?
Apparently not. In the final analysis, Norris recommends that you “follow some rules, sure, but in the end what you’re after is clarity of meaning.” She serves up this advice in the course of a memoir, of sorts, about her long experience at a magazine that is often thought to feature the best writing that America has to offer.
Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (2015) 241 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
And, oh, by the way: Norris’s account is often hilarious. Just for example: “The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower edited The F-Word, a 270-page alphabetized collection of variations on this versatile oath. My colleagues and I have argued in the office over whether it should be rendered F-word, F word, “F” word, or “f” word, but who really gives a f*** about the proper form of a euphemism?” (Norris spells out the word, but I don’t, given that I intend to re-post this review on Amazon, which would chuck it into oblivion unless I do.)
The editorial process at The New Yorker is alarmingly complex
Just to give you a sense of how complicated this whole business can become, consider this account from Norris. “Who doesn’t know that the word ‘bumper’ breaks after the ‘bump?’ Back to the dictionary. The first entry for ‘bumper’ is indeed ‘bum-per,’ a noun that means ‘a brimming cup or glass. . . The second sense, also divided ‘bum-per,’ is an adjective meaning ‘unusually large,’ as in ‘bumper crop.’ Finally, the third sense is rendered ‘bump-er,’ a noun, meaning ‘one that bumps’ or ‘a device for absorbing shock or preventing damage (as in collision); specif: a bar at either end of an automobile.'” Now, if you had any clue about those arcane distinctions, go to the head of the class. I certainly didn’t. And no doubt will completely forget about within the next two hours. But this is the sort of stuff that editors at The New Yorker actually worry about!
Mary Norris has been a working wordsmith at The New Yorker for more than thirty-five years since she started there in an entry-level position. However, it’s been “more than twenty years since I became a page OK’er — a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go to press. An editor once called us prose goddesses; another job description might be comma queen.”
For further reading
I’ve reviewed four other books about the English language and dictionaries:
- Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (A very funny book about words, grammar, and dictionaries)
- Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer (A top copyeditor explains how to write clear English)
- The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner (The famous dictionary that threw out the rules of grammar)
- The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault (A refreshingly offbeat novel about creating a dictionary)
You might also be interested in 20 excellent memoirs reviewed here.
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.