Heir or Imitator? Review of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Jul 29, 2015

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen explores the ways in which grammar, punctuation, and language itself are evolving because of changes in publishing practices and standards, and our use of communication technologies and new media. Opening the book, I wondered if it would prove to be the rightful heir to Lynne Truss’s bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves or just the latest imitator.

Pedigree of the Comma Queen

Author Mary Norris is more than qualified to dispense grammar and punctuation advice having worked as a copy editor (a colleague once called her a ‘prose goddess’) at the New Yorker for over 30 years. Between You & Me serves as a memoir of her time working at the prestigious magazine, as well as a practical grammar guide. In the book, Norris explains the proofreading process and discusses her experiences and working relationships with colleagues and writers, including editing for the likes of Philip Roth.

Mary Norris, New Yorker Copy Editor

The Comma Queen

Personal Anecdote and Grammar Guidance

As the title suggests, Norris is irked by the incorrect use of pronoun case (‘you and I’ versus ‘you and me’), but she avoids straying into rant territory. The book is an exploration of grammatical issues that interest the author, such as dangling participles, compound words, the use of commas in relation to restrictive and non-restrictive phrases, and the lack of a gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun. Norris introduces each of these topics through amusing anecdotes from her childhood and everyday life.

The writing style opens up subject matter that is often seen as inaccessible by providing multiple points of entry for a wide range of readers. For example, Norris introduces a discussion of gender-neutral language with the story of her brother’s decision to become a woman and the difficulty Norris had with the pronoun change. (Since the book’s publication, Norris has observed with bemusement that her brother’s sex change gave rise to far less controversy than her recommendations on the use of the comma.)

Elsewhere, Norris’s reminiscence about her experiences of working with the Merriam-Webster dictionary caught my attention because it is a resource I refer to regularly in my role as a technical writer with TWi.

The approachable style is reflected in the author’s attitude to the application of grammatical rules; the Comma Queen is no dictator. When deliberating prescriptions of meaning, Norris pragmatically advises that while the dictionary is a wonderful thing, ‘you can’t let it push you around’. Emphasising the importance of context and purpose, her guiding principle is succinct: ‘Follow some rules, sure, but in the end what you’re after is clarity of meaning.’

Punctuation Changes Meaning and Usage Changes Punctuation

In each of her vignettes, Norris refers to examples from literature and popular culture, including Philip Roth, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Henry James, Gillian Flynn, The Simpsons, and The Honeymooners. Her discussion on the historical overuse of the comma includes detailed references to passages from Dickens and Melville, and she draws on Emily Dickinson to demonstrate overuse of the dash. In an insightful and funny exercise, Norris rearranges the punctuation in extracts by Dickens and Melville to demonstrate the importance of punctuation in the meaning of a text. She also uses several more contemporary examples of how punctuation can completely transform a text.

Norris goes beyond pedantism by investigating some of the reasons for common grammatical mistakes, and charting trends in usage. She argues that many errors are related to changes in how we speak or write. For example, she observes that the dash is becoming more prominent in everyday writing due to its prevalence in text messages, and suggests that it is beginning to replace the colon and the semi-colon.

Cover art from 'Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen'

Heir or Imitator?

The Verdict

This book will inevitably be compared to Lynne Truss’s seminal Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003), but Norris’s tome is far more anecdotal. Norris often meanders through her own quirky musings before getting to the heart of her discussion on grammar, and it’s well worth taking the scenic route. Several chapters are completely overtaken by non-grammatical topics, such as Norris’s obsession with pencils and her excitement at visiting the world’s only pencil-sharpener museum. Such diversions provide welcome light relief and are likely to be appreciated by anyone interested in the craft of writing.

Overall, Between You & Me is an irreverent, humorous look at the process of proofreading and the evolving application of grammar rules. I found Norris’s book accessible, engaging, and professionally relevant because of its insight into the content review process and its practical advice on grammar and punctuation.

Over to You

So, do you agree that the Comma Queen has earned the right to her throne? Let us know what you think of Norris’s approach to grammar and proofreading. Or, if you have some amusing or insightful punctuation or grammar related anecdotes of your own, leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you.

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