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Consider the Comma

A review of Mary Norris’s Between You & Me, from the New York Times Book Review

For the uninitiated, The New Yorker is a magazine that until 2003 spelled the word “deluxe” with a hyphen: “de-luxe.” It inserts periods into “I.B.M.,” though IBM itself dropped them long ago. It phonetically splits the word “England,” when it breaks at the end of a line, like this: “En-gland.” (One imagines a verb, “england,” meaning to provide with glands.)

A regular reader might be forgiven for wondering, “Are these people nuts?” In Mary Norris’s “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen,” we have our answer: They most certainly are. And their obsessions, typographical and otherwise, make hilarious reading.

Norris, a pillar of the copy department for decades, is not crazy herself, or not entirely. For instance, she knows when to stay her hand and let the writer’s voice come through. She also admits occasionally doubting the sanity of The New Yorker’s storied grammar goddess, Eleanor Gould Packard: “I had the unsettling thought ‘What if Eleanor ever loses it?’ ” But what to do? “No one would enter the copy department and say to Eleanor, ‘Drop the pencil and step away from the desk.’ ”

“Between You & Me” is mostly a memoir, but it’s part usage guide, too. Norris shares her views on spelling, punctuation, dangling participles and troublesome pronouns, providing apt illustrations from an editing life. V. S. Pritchett, we learn, was “a terrible speller,” but “when Pauline Kael typed ‘prevert’ instead of ‘pervert,’ she meant ‘prevert.’ ” James Salter adds control to a word “by smacking it with a comma as one would put English on a cue ball.” And by judiciously placing a colon, “Kelefa Sanneh, writing about Scotch, can sound like Henry James.”

But the grammar advice is less illuminating. Norris defends a friend of hers who actually said, while looking for her sunglasses, “Are those they?” Mary, drop the pencil and step away from the desk. Yes, one may use “It is I” if one wishes, but “It is me” is faultless English. The old prescription requiring the nominative case after the verb “to be” has long been discredited as a Latin construction mistakenly applied to English.

Despite the extreme grammar, this book charmed my socks off. Norris tracks down the person responsible for the hyphen in the title of “Moby-Dick” (it wasn’t Melville). There’s a chapter about dirty words, suitably salty. And Norris is passionate on the subject of pencils, describing them as seductively as others write about wine. Her current love is the “delicious” Blackwing, with its soft lead and flat eraser. On a pilgrimage to a pencil sharpener museum in Ohio (yes), only a sign warning that patrons were under surveillance, she writes, “kept me from dancing.”

Norris is a master storyteller and serves up plenty of inside stuff. When Mark Singer wrote an article about the cost of going to the movies and buying refreshments, the editors cut his reference to Junior Mints. As one editor intoned, “A New Yorker writer should not be eating Junior Mints.” Norris tells of the night she mopped up after Lillian Ross’s poodle, Goldie. She was even propositioned by Philip Roth! Well, sort of. She made a good catch in one of his pieces, and he replied: “Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?” She’s been smitten ever since: “If he should ever read this I just want to say I’m still available.”

(Patricia T. O’Conner’s books on language include “Woe Is I” and, most recently, “Origins of the Specious,” written with Stewart Kellerman. They blog about language at

From the April 19, 2015, print edition of the New York Times Book Review.