Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Mary Norris

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
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Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Mary Norris

The most irreverent and enjoyable book on language since Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Mary Norris has spent more than three decades guarding the New Yorker’s grand traditions of grammar and usage. Now she brings her vast experience and sharpened pencil to help the rest of us, in a charming language book as full of life as it is of practical advice.

Between You & Me features Norris’s hilarious exhortations about exclamation marks and emoticons, splice commas and swear words; her memorable exchanges with writers such as Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders; and her loving meditations on the most important tools of the trade.

Readers - and writers - will find in Norris neither a scold nor a softie but a wise new friend in love with language.

Review

Last night I went to I Gradi for pizza with my son. It was an easy decision for Joe and me to make and we enjoyed the pizzas very much. You, possibly, think I should have written ‘Joe and I’. Well, that’s not correct. I know because I’ve just read Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. As Norris demonstrates, in the context I’ve just described, if Joe were not part of the story you would never write, ‘it was an easy decision for I to make’, you’d write, ‘it was an easy decision for me to make.’

Mary Norris is a copyeditor at The New Yorker and has been for over 30 years. How she started off as a milkman in Cleveland and ended up as the Comma Queen is part of this book, but only part. The bulk of this enchanting little tome is a journey through her world of punctuation and grammar, with some very cool anecdotes. For example, when The New Yorker accepted the opening chapters of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist for extract, Norris found a small error in the material supplied. Roth subsequently wrote a note to the editor of The New Yorker which read, in part, ‘Who is this woman? I want her to come and live with me!’.

Norris sometimes comes across as a pedantic American pushing her colors, humors and periods (full stops) but I actually found that kind of interesting. But most of the book’s content is Norris’ analyses of different grammatical conundrums. Consider the hyphen: is James Thurber a dog lover or a dog-lover? Of course Thurber is a dog-lover; whereas the dog ‘Tramp’, in Lady and the Tramp, is a lover that happens to be a dog. And, again, what’s the difference between star-f*cker and star f*cker? That had me thinking for a bit, but I think I got it. Norris has a whole chapter, ‘F*ck this Sh*t’, on how to use profanity: ‘… no one wants to be pummelled constantly by four-letter words. If we are going to use them, let’s use them right. Profanity ought to be fun.’ She devotes another chapter to gender – was Mary a milkman, a milklady or a milkperson? She’s not conclusive or prescriptive about this, but it makes for interesting reading. If you like words, language or puzzles, this is the book for you – or that friend or mother who always corrects you.


Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings.

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