Between You & Me: confessions of a comma queen

Are you a grammar aficionado? Do you love learning the ins and outs of different jobs? Do you like reaffirming that your grammar and punctuation is spot-on, or why and how it has strayed from the path of correctness?  If so, Mary Norris’s Between You & Me is exactly right for you. 

Norris describes her life before and during her thirty year tenure at The New Yorker as a copy writer with the detailed knowledge to make sure that the correct word, usage and punctuation is always employed. To accomplish that, her best tool (other than her comprehensive knowledge of grammar) was her noteworthy stash of No. 1 pencils. What an odyssey it was to keep a supply of the best proofreading pencil in the world. And those in a perfect working state.  Solution: a passionate epistolary correspondence with one manufacturer of the yellow-painted rods.

With humor and great descriptive ability Norris describes her first jobs, as a foot checker at a public swimming pool (checking for Athletes foot before swimmers entered the pool), and milkman—make that milkwoman--a job those under fifty may not even know existed. Later, she went to graduate school in literature, and  moved to New York where she took a few lowly desk jobs before she scored an interview at America’s most prestigious literary magazine, The New Yorker.

Norris spins a funny and utterly charming memoir, describing some of the authors and editorial and proofreading staff—a cast of very interesting characters as you might guess. Including one tiny dog who peed in the hallway regularly and got away with it because he belonged to the lover of the magazine’s general editor, Mr. Shawn.

Norris is a fine writer. She describes spelling as “clothing for words.” Copy writing for The New Yorker also takes a lot of smarts.  Norris had to know that when Pauline Kael, the movie reviewer typed “prevert” instead of “pervert” she really meant “prevert.” Look it up!

During her tenure at the magazine, she watched language usage change from Miss and Mrs. to Ms., and he and she move along the path to becoming the singular they (not here yet but she says it’s coming). To be used instead of defaulting always to the masculine he.

Her chapter on gender, titled whimsically, “The Problem of Heesh” is a hoot.  As in the rest of the book, Norris brings grammar and language to life with her own personal stories. Her brother became her sister, so she describes this change in person by how she learned to use the correct pronoun in reataurants, as in “She’ll have the salmon.”

“Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma, Chameleon” is the title for a fun chapter on that common piece of often misused punctuation. Did you know that it was invented in Venice in 1490, shortly before Columbus left for the new world?

Perhaps, even more surprising, Norris tells us, is that a head copy writer named Lu had a comma shaker at The New Yorker. Even more astonishing is the fact that she became a millionaire.

Finally, something of the sass and voice of this writer can be found in this quote, “The dictionary is a fine thing, but you can’t let it push you around.” This grammatically perfect memoir will nudge you in all sorts of delightful directions. If you liked Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, this book will hit home.