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Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen


Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

As I sit down to write this review, I find myself becoming more than averagely aware of my choice of words and punctuation, as if Mary Norris herself was looking over my shoulder with editing pencil in hand (did you catch my use of the subjunctive up there, Mary? That was just for you). That is kind of the point of BETWEEN YOU & ME, after all: giving all of us an opportunity to consider more carefully the kinds of choices we make in our writing and speaking, often without even thinking about them. 

Norris, who has worked for decades as a so-called comma queen at the venerable magazine The New Yorker, has a lot of opinions about such things, on everything from the titular phraseology (and why we are so apt to misuse it, especially when speaking in public) to the correct use of commas and hyphens, both of which are as much a mystical art as a science. And, of course, Norris weighs in on other forms of punctuation, including the semicolon, colon and, my personal favorite, the dash. She also offers readers a thoroughly entertaining consideration, filled with examples, of when it's appropriate to use profanity in writing --- and how to use it to greatest effect. And, in somewhat of a departure from the rest of the book’s focus on grammar and usage, she offers readers a glimpse into the tools of the trade, with a heartfelt chapter on her favorite type of pencil.

"Part memoir, part grammar guide, part exposé on The New Yorker, BETWEEN YOU & ME will appeal to readers who want to think more deeply about how they write and how they read."

BETWEEN YOU & ME is not as uproariously funny as Lynne Truss' bestselling EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES, which travels some of the same territory, nor is it as in-depth in questions of usage as many of the (excellent) books Norris cites in her footnotes and in a separate appendix. At times, it can be hard to discern the intended audience for the book, given that the wordsmiths and writerly types who would be most drawn to her topics probably already know most of what she conveys about restrictive clauses and serial commas.

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of reasons for both self-styled grammarians and laypeople to read BETWEEN YOU & ME. Readers of The New Yorker, especially, will relish Norris' behind-the-scenes glimpses into the workings of the magazine, not only the many layers of editing, fact-checking and proofreading that go into the publication of each and every piece of prose, but also the personalities that have shaped the magazine and whose words fill its pages. Norris urges her readers to consider the challenges of editing, for example, a piece of experimental fiction, or of finding an error in an excerpt from a book that's already well on its way to publication.

Also intriguing is the way in which Norris (mostly) successfully integrates her own personality and family history into what is, on the surface of things, a manual for English usage. I've already mentioned her penchant for particular soft-leaded pencils; she also offers readers glimpses into her Midwestern upbringing, her early career at The New Yorker, and, in one of the more poignant sections of the book, she begins with a discussion of the gender of nouns in languages other than English and then verges into a far more personal exploration of what it has been like for her to learn how to talk about --- and to --- her transgender sibling.

Part memoir, part grammar guide, part exposé on The New Yorker, BETWEEN YOU & ME will appeal to readers who want to think more deeply about how they write and how they read.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 10, 2015

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

  • Publication Date: April 4, 2016
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Reference, Writing
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393352145
  • ISBN-13: 9780393352146