Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

M Norris, Norton, 2015, 240pp, £15.99 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 39324 018 4

Reviewed by Nancy Campbell

Buy this book

Mary Norris has worked at The New Yorker for over three decades. Part memoir, part grammar guide, Between You and Me reveals how a woman who began her career checking feet for hygiene at a public pool in Cleveland, Ohio, went on to work at America's foremost literary magazine. Norris's first role at The New Yorker was in the editorial library, but she was soon promoted to foundry proofreader, and then to indexer, before being entrusted with collating. It was in this last role, transferring changes made by editors and proofreaders onto a clean proof for the printer, that she learnt how a magazine came together. Despite her poor handwriting, a disadvantage in the era of hard copy, she went on to become a copy-editor, being called a 'prose goddess' or 'comma queen', and working with writers such as John Updike, Oliver Sacks and Philip Roth.

Norris's tales of life in the The New Yorker office introduce a set of characters worthy of humorist James Thurber, a former star writer for The New Yorker and a fellow Ohioan. Under the eye of a proud member of Mensa and an ageing beatnik, Norris learnt to field memos and avoid mistakes. She made her fair share of the latter – all related with winning self-deprecation. One of the first decisions she had to make was how to style 'copyedit' – with or without a hyphen? (She got it wrong.)

Now Norris is sharing the knowledge she dispenses daily from her desk in Manhattan with the world. She covers the many vexing issues a copy-editor encounters, such as spelling (we learn why The New Yorker uses Webster's dictionary); the scariness of the subjunctive; the use of the hyphen in forming compounds or splitting words; and other punctuation, including the semi-colon and – of course – the comma. Norris likes her job because 'it draws on the whole person'. Thus, her discussion of personal pronouns (and all the gender-neutral variants, including 'himorher') is aptly illustrated by her own experience of 'pronoun transplant', when her sibling comes out as transsexual.

Although the rules that Norris covers will be familiar to all members of the SfEP, it is a pleasure to see them explained with such wit and verve. Editors who work with authors of fiction will identify in particular with Norris's dilemmas as she strives to correct a text while being faithful to the nuances of the narrative voice. As an editor who works with UK English, I learnt a lot from Norris's stateside slant on the language. Her chapter discussing the hyphen, for instance, takes in the use of dashes in the letter that Jackie Onassis wrote to Richard Nixon after JFK's death, and Emily Dickinson's poems, and concludes with how the hyphen wriggled into the title of Moby-Dick, even though it's not part of the whale's name within the text. Philip Roth was so grateful for Norris's close reading that he sent her a proposition via her proofs ('Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?'). No doubt Norris will receive even more fan correspondence as a result of this book.

NB. This book should come with a health warning for stationery fetishists – Norris dedicates a whole chapter to the editor's most important tool: her pencil.

Reviews of other literary criticism and books on language All book reviews