Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma QueenBetween You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
My rating: 4/5 cats
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If commas are open to interpretation, hyphens are downright Delphic.

now that i see i was not the only one to be mysteriously gifted with a copy of this book in the mail and that even people like melki, who exhibits flawless grammar despite having to type with giant clumsy bear paws, were similarly singled out, i feel less self-conscious about my casual butchery of my mother tongue.

this is one of those books equal parts instructive and fun. it’s closer to a memoir than a primer, but the anecdotes about norris’ three decades in the new yorker’s copy department will generally lead to some nugget of wisdom about usage or orthographic history that will delight you if you are a word nerd.

it’s remarkably playful for a book so consumed with usage and the history of punctuation, but it’s also as nerdy as you’d expect:

Here is the definition from Web II of a nonrestrictive clause: “An adjective clause which adds information but is so loosely attached to its noun as to be not essential to the definiteness of the noun’s meaning (the aldermen, who were present, assented)–called also descriptive clause. Such a clause is marked off by commas, whereas the corresponding restrictive clause is not (the aldermen who were present assented = such aldermen as were present assented).”

Of course, the hilarious thing about this is that the definition itself uses “which” (“an adjective clause which adds information”) where standard modern American usage prefers “that”: “an adjective clause that adds information.”

oh, dear, not ‘hilarious’ enough for you? luckily, i know the kind of people who read my reviews, so i can point you to something you will likely find funnier:

I have spent whole hangover days laughing at the idea of a law firm with letterhead stationery printed “Johnson, Johnson, Johnson & Johnson.” I don’t know why it took me so long to find the name of the Band-Aid and baby-shampoo company in my college town funny: New Brunswick’s own Johnson & Johnson. I am sure that Samuel Johnson, the father of lexicography, would get a kick out of knowing that his surname was synonymous with penis. One day, in the course of my mundane working life, I read the words “Robert Caro writes in the most recent volume of his Johnson biography…” and cracked up. I know that Caro is writing the definitive biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, but in the privacy of my office I permitted myself to picture Robert Caro as a square-looking guy who had yet led a life of such sexual adventurism that he needed to write a multivolume biography of his Johnson.

you’re welcome.

i learned a great many things in this book:

the correct spellings of chaise longuegarnishee, and minuscule, and that by misspelling that last one wrong all this time (in my head – i don’t know that i’ve ever written it), i was being barbarous. me, barbarous!!

Webster’s includes a lot of words that people spell and use in nonstandard ways. (Lu Burke once jumped all over me because she thought that I had let “minuscule” go spelled with two i’s because Webster’s includes the barbarous spelling “miniscule” to guide people to the right one.)

that cruel jab aside, she’s more forgiving than many of her (dare i say “our?”) breed about spelling errors, particularly in grocery store signage & etc:

The lunch specials chalked on a blackboard outside a restaurant in the East Village included a “salomon snad.” I would never order a salmon sandwich– doesn’t sound good; obviously, it’s not sushi-grade salmon if they’re making patties out of it–but I found the salomon snad quite beguiling.

she’s willing to sacrifice her own standards, sometimes making grammatical concessions to honor the (fiction) writer’s choices; which can come at a great personal cost:

I backed down, allowing something ungrammatical to appear in the magazine, which, in future times, would be held up as proof that it was grammatical because The New Yorker had printed it.

she pokes a little fun at England’s Apostrophe Protection Society, founded with the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English language.

she’s realistic about how complicated grammatical rules can be to regular folks:

I don’t mean to make this any more confusing than it already is, but let’s not pretend it’s easy.

and she’s always willing to expose her own gaffes, in a confessional chatty tone:

Often a word would come up that I had never seen before and could not find in the dictionary. That didn’t mean it wasn’t there–I just couldn’t see it, probably because I didn’t want to see it. I had a skeptical streak and an ego, and at some level I thought that if I had never seen a particular word it didn’t exist. One year in the Christmas list on food, the writer inserted the word “terrine,” as in “a terrine of foie gras.” I had never seen the word “terrine” (much less an actual terrine full of foie gras) and couldn’t find it in the dictionary, neither the Little Red Web nor the unabridged. So I changed it to “tureen.” I might as well have changed it to “punchbowl.” It was no excuse that I came from a family that didn’t eat a lot of pate. (The fanciest thing we had on the table was Brown ‘n Serve rolls, which we called Black ‘n Serve rolls, because my mother usually burned them. A college friend made merciless fun of me in the dining hall when I complained that the butter tasted funny and it came out that I had been raised on margarine.) Fortunately, the structure of the department was such that several people, including the author, read the proofs the next day, and the word appeared in the magazine as “terrine.”

although she did miss one error, in chapter 5’s title:


needs one more COMMA to make it a chorus

other things i learned:

-the little double-dot in the word naïve is not an umlaut, but a diaeresis.

-pencil sharpener factoid:

The collection included some double-hole sharpeners, and McKinnon had assumed, as many people do, that one hole was for regular pencils and the other for colored pencils. I explained how it worked: the cylinders beneath the blades are angled differently, and each pencil goes first in one hole, for whittling away the wood, and then in the other, for grinding the graphite.

-some craziness about word breaks as they relate to the word “bumper:”

when the word is being used as a noun meaning a brimming cup or glass, or as an adjective meaning unusually large, the word is divided “bum-per” if split by a line break.

BUT, when it i used as a noun meaning one who bumps, or a device for absorbing shock or preventing damage, the break is “bump-er.”


but not just learning, because her stories are fun and charming and she’s adorably dorky, sometimes unconsciously so:

I was traveling with a black KUM long-point sharpener…I loved having it with me, to sharpen pencils on the go or to whip out in a cafe if a friend’s point had gotten dull.

when you think about it, suspense is what punctuation is all about: how is the author going to finish the sentence?

Even the dictionary citation illustrating a “restrictive clause” is a bummer: Webster’s gives the example of “that you ordered” in the sentence “The book that you ordered is out of print.” Oh, no! The Random House College Dictionary has a slightly more positive definition for the grammatical sense of restrictive — “of or pertaining to a word, phrase, or clause that identifies or limits the meaning of a modified element” — but it goes on to give yet another bummer of an example: “that just ended in The year that just ended was bad for crops.” Just my luck: the book that I wanted is out of print and now the price of corn is going to skyrocket.

-this is how nerds namedrop:

Light Years had an introduction by Richard Ford, whose work I once tried to take a comma out of.

and speaking of james salter and nerdishness, her story about Light Years is that, noticing the unusual and distracting use of commas in light years, I decided to write to James Salter and ask him about his commas.


and he wrote back!

“I sometimes ignore the rules about commas although generally I follow convention and adhere to the advice in Strunk and White. Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences. You don’t get permission for this. of course; you take the liberty.”

he goes on to explain each and every comma she’d questioned in his book before promising, “The commas are better in A Sport and a Pasttime.”

oh my god, adorable. i love it.

the chapter about cussin’ is obviously fun because i’m a child, but also because she references my boy

and shares this anecdote so gleefully:

I first gave full vent to the urge to curse after terminating analysis, in 1996. I felt so free–I could change jobs, move from Queens to Manhattan, enjoy a little discretionary income because I wasn’t always shelling out to the shrink–and I just let fly with every joyous expletive I could think of. If someone mentioned The House of Mirth, I would say, “Edith Wharton blows,” or if a friend suggested reading Middlemarch my response was “George Eliot sucks.” It was so satisfying. The shell of prudery surrounding childhood and adolescence cracked wide open, and I emerged a fucking monarch butterfly. So I would say that analysis worked for me.

and a saving grace for those of us with comma issues, w/r/t comma theory:

Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure. Each school believes that the other gets carried away.

as long as we’re all carried away together.

it’s just a really fun book -plenty of stories and a really expressive way of explaining potentially dull concepts in a lively way:

The idea that gender in language is decorative, a way of dressing up words, can be applied to the human body: things that identify us outwardly as male or female–breasts, hips, bulges–are decorative as well as essential to the survival of the species. Lipstick and high heels are inflections, tokens of the feminine: lures, sex apps. Those extra letters dangling at the ends of words are the genitals of grammar. And the pronouns turn out to be in our marrow.

so i thank whomever is to thank for this unexpected book-present, even though it gave me a moment of horror when i thought i was being scolded for my transgressions.

because i wasn’t, right?? RIGHT???
i got this in the mail, completely unexpectedly – with no begging on my or anyone else’s part. on the one hand – AWESOME! this is exactly the kind of book i love! on the other hand, i can’t help but fear this is some passive-aggressive jab, since the way i abuse the comma ought to come with its own commercial/accompanying sarah machlachlin song.

whatchoo trying to say, norton??


i am going to read this as soon as possible. it looks great!

read my reviews on goodreads

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