Have you ever wanted to argue with a copy editor’s deletion of a hyphen? Do you have strong feelings about using commas for cadence? If so, you’ll love reading Mary Norris’ Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.
The book dedicates entire chapters to gendered pronouns, hyphens, apostrophes, and—yes—commas. It sheds light on The New Yorker‘s copy editing styles, including its use of the diaeresis: the archaic two dots over a vowel as in the second “o” of the word cooperate. I would demonstrate if I knew how to make it in HTML. (See Norris’ article The Curse of the Diaeresis.)
Punctuation, grammar, and even pencils become fascinating subjects when described by someone who cares deeply about them. A few of my favorite highlights include:
- Various proposals for gender-neutral pronouns (including heesh and yo). Norris comes down firmly against the colloquial singular “their” in written language.
- The term copulative to describe the verb “to be”
- The entire chapter on profanity
The book is also filled with entertaining stories of tussles with authors and other editors. Reading this book makes me wonder if passion about comma choices is an indication of moral fiber.
Norris has spent decades delving deeply into the words of other authors at The New Yorker. Yet she writes in her own distinctive, personable voice, apparently as confident of her tone and style as her copy editing skills.
Read this book to be entertained; picking up grammar and punctuation tips are welcome side effects.
A Glimpse into a Copy Editor’s Mind
I’m about to send a manuscript off to a copy editor. Having just finished reading Between You and Me gives me a better understanding of the inner dialog within a thoughtful copy editor’s head. In Mary Norris’ case, the head is wise and thoughtful indeed.
Some writers have prickly relationships with copy editors. After reading this book, I would be honored if anything I wrote down merited deep, considered scrutiny from someone as committed to the language as Norris.