Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Between You and Me is a warm and witty celebration of words, and of a life lived among them. In the late '70s, a young Mary Norris landed in The New Yorker’s editorial library almost by accident, and over the course of her career rose to prominence as the magazine’s Comma Queen. Between You and Me weaves stories of her life and work with reflections on language, and is a charming read for anyone interested in the mechanics of English.

Norris’ reflections on language are pragmatic and grounded in a sense of fun: an unexpected chapter on the history of swearing in the pages of The New Yorker closes with a justification of her decision to euphemise the chapter’s title, “F*ck this sh*t”. While she swears with gusto in the text of the chapter itself, Norris preferred to style the title with asterisks, which act as “interior punctuation, little fireworks inside the words.”

The joy Norris takes in punctuation is particularly evident in chapter 7, “A dash, a semicolon, and a colon walk into a bar”. Here, she balances a discussion of guidelines for use with a celebration of the nuance and personality conveyed by the sparse set of punctuation marks available to writers in English: Emily Dickinson’s ambiguous, musical dashes; Henry James’ sceptical semicolons; Dickens’ emphatic double dashes. And the colon: a stuffy, button-up, oft-indispensible butler.

Norris’ reflections very occasionally veer into the specialised, although these discussions are brief, clear, and often illustrated by engine metaphors; readers ought to have a basic understanding of the mechanics of English grammar or a willingness to learn. Then again, the narrative loses nothing if the reader should skip merrily over some of the more abstract paragraphs.

Throughout the book, the descriptions of the offices of The New Yorker and the mavens that inhabit them are evocative, but my favourite comes toward the end:

In the old days . . . There was an office boy who came around in the morning with a tray of freshly sharpened wooden pencils. And they were nice long ones—no stubs. The boy held out his tray of pencils, and you scooped up a quiver of them. It sounds like something out of dream!

The book’s nostalgia for a time of graphite pencils and heavy paper dictionaries is strong, but it is tempered by Norris’ pragmatism and enthusiasm for the flexibility of language – and, by extension, the humans who wield it. Time marches on, and our language dances with it.

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