Comma comma comma comma, chameleon

Cover of Between you & meMight I recommend a splendid book called Between you & me: Confessions of a comma queen by Mary Norris.

Comma queen Mary has worked for thirty years at The New Yorker, mostly as a copy editor. If you ever thought grammar was dry and fusty, this book will change your mind.

My favourite things about it:

  • The chapter titles. The title of this blog post is the chapter heading for Chapter 5. Chapter 1 is called “Spelling is for weirdos”. And Chapter 9 about swearing has a very rude, asterisk-featuring title.
  • Fun learning – How to use hyphens. How to deploy commas, including serial commas. Clever punctuation explanation.
  • Great and thoughtful stuff about the feminine and masculine, and sex and gender in language.

    In a 2010 documentary about John Lennon, Yoko Ono remembered giving a beautiful silk pajama (she used the singular) to John. “She fit him totally,” Yoko said. (p.62)

  • Mary looks for that elusive gender-neutral pronoun, and gives a shout-out to one of my favourites:

    There is only one documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech, and that is “yo,” … (p. 66)

  • Her examples are brilliant – she analyses the words and style of writers like James Salter, Charles Dickens, David Foster Wallace, Herman Melville, and even Gillian Flynn (of “Gone Girl” fame).

Cover of The New YorkerThis is a rather wonderful memoir as well as a guide. We follow Mary through her education, and into various jobs until she arrives at the New Yorker. We see how the importance of gender in language is personal, as her brother transitions into a woman. We get to know her colleagues and their eccentricities.

Mary Norris seems like the kind of woman you’d love to chat with over a coffee. She is supersmart, funny, thoughtful and kind.

You can listen to Mary talk to Kim Hill in Commas and Punctuation.

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You can listen to Mary talk to Kim Hill in Commas and Punctuation.

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