Mary Norris Confesses her Dislike of the Serial Comma and Discusses the Great Pronoun War With her Sister in Between You and Me

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

Mary Norris‘ memoir as a “page OK’er—a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader; until they go to press” (Norris, 12) is called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. It’s a sweet memoir about editing, grammar, and pronouns that reads as easily as a gossip magazine. And at times, it’s just as catty as those magazines.

Norris goes into a brief history of dictionaries and the “great dictionary war of the early sixties” and reveals that The New Yorker uses the Webster’s dictionary despite the “institutional distrust, . . . in fact, [they] use three editions of Webster’s, following a sort of sacred hierarchy.” (Norris, 18-19). She explains the subtleties of copy-editing and how one can essentially enter a K-hole of addressing the proper possessive plural name that ends with an s. Eek! I have found myself at a similar precipice and it’s as dizzing as it sounds.

I am extremely conservative when it comes to commas. I use them frugally and believe that roughly fifty percent of them are unnecessary. However, I am a staunch supporter of the Oxford (also known as serial) comma because it helps create order in lists and keeps items paired if they should be. Perhaps one of my favorite quotes in Norris’ memoir is when she declares herself “a comma apostate” because she dislikes using the serial comma, which is used in The New Yorker. People get very worked up about the preferred comma use: one of my closest colleagues does not use it, and we agree to disagree. (She recommended that I read this book.) Fortunately the former director of marketing and I agreed on this contentious subject. Oh the fisticuffs that could have arisen if we disagreed on the serial comma. He started dating someone; everything about his new beau was perfect: except for one tragic problem—the new boyfriend does not use the serial comma. I was warned to not bring this subject up in front of the beau.

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

Norris tackles one of the greater language problems we currently face: the pronoun. There are so many problems we face regarding the pronoun, such as there is “no common-sex singular personal pronouns. Instead, we have he, she, it’. (Norris, 64). She admits that although she is loathe to say it, “but the colloquial use of ‘their’ when you mean ‘his or her’ is just wrong. It may solve the gender problem, and there is no doubt that it has taken over in the spoken language, but it does so at the expense of number.” (Norris, 69) I wholeheartedly agree with her. I detest using “their” to avoid assigning a gender to a singular person. And not because I disagree with avoiding naming genders. As a firm believer in proper language, why should we identify something as male or female when it could be either?* And why, when we have so many people who do not want to be identified as male or female, why can’t we have a proper pronoun to describe them in singular form? It’s not only grammatically incorrect it’s also disrespectful. I am not proposing a particular pronoun because I don’t believe it’s my place, but I will continue to petition one. Language is how we identify ourselves and when the right words are missing, it can be debilitating and destructive.

Norris shares her personal experience with “a pronoun transplant.” (71). Norris’ sibling announced she was transgender and initially Norris was grateful for the gender-free word “sibling.” (72) However, she soon was in a pronoun war with her sister. Norris casually referred to her sister as “he” in front of a restaurant server. Her initial inability to refer to her sister in the feminine resulted in hurt feelings. But Norris strove to adapt her language to her sister and now has no problem remembering the proper pronoun when referring to her sister.

There are so many lovely little gems in Mary Norris’ Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. She notes that we “are living in a punctuation renaissance” (Norris, 97) and addresses “the loss of the apostrophe in place-names [as] a natural process, a form of linguistic erosion.” (Norris, 149) She writes a chapter about pencils, and although I’m quite nerdy and appreciate people’s quirky obsessions, I felt that the pencil chapter was filler copy: as though it were added at the end to turn the memoir’s length from novella-length into novel-length. Although I could have done without the chapter on pencils, Norris’ humorous excitement over copy-editing and proper punctuation is sustained throughout her memoir.

*Here I mean something along the lines of a subject that could be male or female. For example: “if an applicant were to be hired, he or she would need to be available tomorrow.” It is clunky to say “he or she” and reads better as “they” even though only a singular worker were to be hired.

Mary Norris, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 2015.

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