Enforce the rules long enough, and eventually the rules become a part of you. Mary Norris, who spent three decades fine-tuning the text of some of our nation’s most celebrated journalists and authors at the copyediting desk for The New Yorker, came to internalize the magazine’s exacting standards of editorial style in a way word nerds will absolutely love. Her new book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen — part memoir, part usage guide — is both poignant and funny in unexpected ways.
“Between You & Me touched me deeply,” Ann Patchett says. “Norris mixes personal history and punctuation history and spins out a supremely engaging tale. The part about gender pronouns is downright tender. And while I’ll admit that the chapter about dashes — em vs. en vs. hyphen — had me struggling, I think it was probably good for me.” (Many fellow writers agreed, including Patricia O’Conner, who wrote in her review for The New York Times, “This book charmed my socks off.”)
The Elements of Style this isn’t (there’s a hilarious chapter on spelling of cursewords, called “F*ck This Sh*t”), although Norris admits she does love a good grammar book. She calls herself “an obsessive collector” and adds, “Once I realized that I could write off books on my income taxes, I knew no limits. I go straight to the writing/reference section in bookstores and buy everything that appeals to me.” That’s certainly one way to realize you’re head-over-heels for textual correctness.
How else might you know you’re a full-on grammar geek? Norris got together with our Musing editor (and resident comma queen… or at least punctuation princess), Mary Laura Philpott, and the two of them came up with a list. Do you have any of these 10 signs?
1. You sometimes can’t enjoy reading because you can’t stop proofreading.
Norris reports that for a while after joining the copy desk, she couldn’t read for pleasure, because, “I spontaneously copy-edited everything I laid eyes on.”
3. You are not comfortable without a pencil in your hand (or behind your ear).
“I always grab a pencil before walking a proof down the hall, in case I see something I missed,” Norris says. “And there may not be a pencil available that is up to my standards.” No dull pencils, people.
4. A person can win you over with proper use of the subjunctive mood.
If only it were the case that everyone understood.
5. You cannot throw away a dictionary.
“I have 11 copies of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate at the office (Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh editions) and two at home,” Norris explains. “Just because the publisher updates a dictionary doesn’t mean the old ones aren’t useful.”
6. The Oxford comma seems like a perfectly good reason to get riled up.
Some may argue about whether that last comma is necessary in a series (Norris generally believes it is), but her beef is with the name itself: “I feel my hackles rise,” she writes in the book, “when I hear people refer to the serial comma as the Oxford comma. Why does Oxford get all the credit? Why does the stricter, more conservative choice belong to the university that gave us the eponymous shirt with the button-down collar and the androgynous lace-up shoe? Why not the Harvard comma, or the Rutgers comma, or the Cornhusker comma?” (See, there it is.)
7. In the cafeteria, you cannot see a sign that says “Apples Must Wash Before Eating” without wanting to punctuate it.
“What, are the apples supposed to wash before sitting down to a meal?” Norris asks. “At least give it a dash: ‘Apples—Wash Before Eating.’ Or make one sign for all the fruits: ‘Handheld Fruit Should Be Washed Before Being Eaten.'” Now we can’t stop imagining little apples taking a bath.
8.You alienate your sister-in-law by telling her there’s no “u” in “flamboyant” after she’s printed 200 copies of her concert program.
“There’s no way to correct people’s spelling or grammar or pronunciation without making them like you a little less,” Norris says. Really? Really. “If you find one, let me know.”
9. You once responded “Thx!” instead of “Thanks!” to a text.
And it haunted you for days.
10. You use a comma after “Hi” in email salutations, because, hey, it’s direct address.
“If it takes more energy to leave it out than it does to put it in, then put it in, even if it makes you a figure of fun.” Well, then. Hi, Mary Norris!
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Bring your fellow English majors, irrepressible proofreaders, teachers, memoir-lovers, and readers of all sorts (<– note comma usage) to Parnassus Books this Sunday, September 20, at 2 p.m., when the very charming Mary Norris will read and sign Between You & Me.