One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts an angry looking customer at a restaurant examining the menu. He tells the waiter, “I’ll have the misspelled ‘Ceasar’ salad and the improperly hyphenated veal osso-buco.”
Ask my long-suffering wife: That man is me.
I circle errors in books I check out from the library, usually adding an exclamation point, to signify my shock. I stop cold when I come across a sentence with punctuation that doesn’t seem kosher. I point out misspellings on store signs to the people who made them. I choke at the bad grammar in newsletters my kids’ teachers send home. It’s the curse of the copy editor. Secretly, we feel smarter than everyone else, probably because we are.
All these reasons are probably why my wife forwarded me a link to a book called “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” by Mary Norris. From the fly-leaf text, I knew I’d found a sister in arms. (Mary, if this review ever crosses your computer screen and you happen to be near my home, stop by for dinner. You can bring nothing but your stories of your humorously rigid coworkers. You’ll need some patience, too—some of my kids say “tooken.”)
For more than 30 years Norris has been a copy editor at The New Yorker, a publication that takes its language seriously. Too seriously, some might argue. People there discuss arcane grammar points the way nerds discuss “Star Wars” plot points from their mom’s basements. She relates in detail the thought process that has gone into, say, where the em-dash should fall in a line of text or why the magazine sets off the phrase “of brain cancer” in the sentence “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991…” Sadly, she never addresses why the magazine insists on using “insure” in cases where “ensure” is clearly the proper word, but I digress.
Norris includes personal anecdotes as well. When she writes about the proper use of pronouns, she includes the history of attempts to find a gender neutral one to replace the often awkward “him or her” and “he or she.” Then recounts how important using the right one is when her brother became her sister and she had trouble not calling her “him.”
I also like Norris because she seems like a 14-year-old boy at heart. She writes of giggling at the name Johnson because of its slang use the way I giggled at her sentence that began “The force of Garner’s colon…” when discussing one man’s punctuation. She also espouses liberal use of profanity (one of her chapters is called “F*UCK THIS SH*T”) as long as they are used properly: “Profanity ought to be fun.”
When I read a book I plan on writing about, I fold over the pages on which there is something I expect to comment on. When I was done, this book looked as though I had been practicing origami. So much of it was as engaging as it was educational that the wonky parts when she brings up those confusing grammar … thingies … like “nominative case” and “nonrestrictive clauses” didn’t bother me the way they usually do in a book like this. I suppose I should want to know why “If I was you” is wrong and “If I were you” is right, but I don’t. I don’t have to teach you why it’s wrong, I just have to tell you it is.
I’ll be a bit of a wonk myself here and point out two things that bothered me about this book. First, when she writes about her brother who became her sister, she says he “was two years younger than me” made me stop because, being still alive, he remains two years younger than her. Unless, by the use of the past tense she means to signify that her brother no longer exists. The other comment is that her chapter on the history of commas is titled “Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon.” First, why that actual comma before “Chameleon,” and, more important, to keep to the song from which she took the title, there should be an additional “Comma.”
But then, this is the way those conversations begin. Here’s hoping “Between You and Me” starts many of them.