Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is copy editor Mary Norris’ autobiographical style manual of sorts detailing her own voyage to The New Yorker’s copy desk and her encounters with the god- awful grammar she’s had to face at her job and in her everyday life. Not in any way diminutive or overbearing, Norris’ stern but open-minded perspective offers rules more as suggestions based on context rather than mandates required by grammatical law. Constantly throwing out expletives (not to mention an entire chapter on the inclusion of obscenities in print) and always roping in an air of comedy, Norris’ book is much more than just a style guide or grammar book: it’s a fun and inspirational glimpse into the success of a hardworking, resilient, language-loving woman.
Between You & Me features lessons on who vs whom, the correct usage of colons and dashes, as well as issues concerning apostrophes in our contemporary, digital, sales-driven age. Aside from these, though, are chapters delving into the history of the pencil, Norris’ relationship with her transgender sister (which she uses to illustrate the issues surrounding pronouns), and snippets of linguistic history. The author never fails to tie her personal life back to the didactic center of the book in a way that both enhances the lesson being taught and provides a tether of empathy to Norris so that the reader cares about her as the book’s author and not just the narrative voice.
For any English major who has doubted her choices in education, Norris’s story is divinely motivating as she details her early years working in a cheese factory and her journey to The New Yorker offices. For any writer, editor, or human being who has ever felt an ounce of doubt concerning the work that she creates, Norris stands as an archetypal model for making mistakes and moving past them. She constantly refers to grammatical blunders she’s made herself or missed in editing, and she often questions her own grammatical judgment. But wait, she’s a copy editor at The New Yorker! Shouldn’t she know everything? Shouldn’t she be perfect? Norris makes very clear that she’s human, just like every other person in the world who experiences self-doubt. She not only admits her mistakes, but she embraces them and explains to the reader what she’s learned from them.
Aside from purely grammatical insights, Norris also breaks into the philosophy and ethics of grammar with the advent of feminism and other cultural shifts related to gender, technology, social media and more. She brings to light issues and conversations that are very much alive in the cannon today, and offers insight, perspective and opinion, though she often admits that there is no easy answer to the grammatical wonders of our world. As she states, particularly in relation to the comma, but as a metaphor for grammar and the book as a whole: “…follow some rules, sure, but in the end what you’re after is clarity of meaning.”
Norris may be adamant about certain grammatical rules, like pronouns matching their antecedents, but there are others that, as she points out, are subject to the particular style manual of the publication a person is writing for – and then of course there is the issue of personal preference, and then there’s also the necessity for clarity. She drives home that making yourself crazy over a single misplaced apostrophe is not worth extreme anxiety: recognize it, pick up, and move on.
Overall, Norris provides goddess-like insight into common yet difficult grammatical issues with clarity and ease of understanding while keeping readers engaged with humor, history and a sense of humanity.
Scheduled for release from W.W Norton & Company in April 2015, Between You & Me Adventures of a Comma Queen is the perfect book for any literary lover and a superb choice for any reader interested in language. Pre-order the book from your local bookstore today!
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Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book for a fair and honest review of the text.