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Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

4.8 6
by Mary Norris

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“Hilarious. . . . This book charmed my socks off.” —Patricia O’Conner, New York Times Book ReviewMary Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker's copy department, maintaining its celebrated high standards. Now she brings her vast experience, good cheer, and finely sharpened pencils to help the rest of us in a boisterous language


“Hilarious. . . . This book charmed my socks off.” —Patricia O’Conner, New York Times Book ReviewMary Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker's copy department, maintaining its celebrated high standards. Now she brings her vast experience, good cheer, and finely sharpened pencils to help the rest of us in a boisterous language book as full of life as it is of practical advice.Between You & Me features Norris's laugh-out-loud descriptions of some of the most common and vexing problems in spelling, punctuation, and usage—comma faults, danglers, "who" vs. "whom," "that" vs. "which," compound words, gender-neutral language—and her clear explanations of how to handle them. Down-to-earth and always open-minded, she draws on examples from Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and the Lord's Prayer, as well as from The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace, and Gillian Flynn. She takes us to see a copy of Noah Webster's groundbreaking Blue-Back Speller, on a quest to find out who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick, on a pilgrimage to the world's only pencil-sharpener museum, and inside the hallowed halls of The New Yorker and her work with such celebrated writers as Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders.Readers—and writers—will find in Norris neither a scold nor a softie but a wise and witty new friend in love with language and alive to the glories of its use in America, even in the age of autocorrect and spell-check. As Norris writes, "The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can't let it push you around."

Editorial Reviews

Adam Gopnik
“Mary Norris brings a tough-minded, clear-eyed, fine-tuned wisdom to all the perplexities and traps and terrors of the English sentence.”
Ian Frazier
“Smart and funny and soulful and effortlessly illuminating.”
Marilyn Johnson
“Mary Norris is a grammar geek with a streak of mischief, and her book is obscenely fun.”
Garrison Keillor
“This is as entertaining as grammar can be. Very very. Read it and savor it.”
John McPhee
“Mary Norris is the verbal diagnostician I would turn to for a first, second, or third opinion on just about anything.”
Rebecca Mead
“There is so much to be learned from Mary Norris's marvelous memoir: she tells us when to hyphenate a compound noun, shows whether to employ the subjunctive, and elucidates the suggestively named copulative verb. But she is no dry guardian of grammar, no punitive Poobah of punctuation. In giving an account of her journey from provincial obscurity to the glamour of New York—and The New Yorker—she offers a warm, tender, and funny coming of age story. (Or possibly it's a 'coming-of-age' story. Mary could tell you.)”
Megan O'Grady - Vogue
“[A] winningly tender, funny reckoning with labor and language.”
Allan Fallow - Washington Post
“[P]ure porn for word nerds.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Destined to become an instant classic…. It’s hard to imagine the reader who would not enjoy spending time with Norris.”
Sarah Lyall - New York Times
“Ms. Norris, who has a dirty laugh that evokes late nights and Scotch, is…like the worldly aunt who pulls you aside at Thanksgiving and whispers that it is all right to occasionally flout the rules.”
Heller McAlpin - NPR Books
“Brims with wit, personality—and commas. . . . Norris' enthusiasm is infectious. She's as passionate about sharp pencils as she is about sharp writing. . . . Delightful.”
Miriam Krule - Slate
“Wonderfully confiding.”
Steve Weinberg - Houston Chronicle
“Laugh-out-loud funny and wise and compelling from beginning to end.”
“Mary Norris has an enthusiasm for the proper use of language that’s contagious. Her memoir is so engaging, in fact, that it’s easy to forget you’re learning things.”
Joanna Connors - Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Funny and endearing.”
The New York Times Book Review - Patricia T. O'Conner
Copy editors are a peculiar species…But those at The New Yorker are something else entirely…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…Despite the extreme grammar, this book charmed my socks off…Norris is a master storyteller and serves up plenty of inside stuff.
Publishers Weekly
Norris has spent more than 35 years in the New Yorker’s legendary copy department, earning the nickname Comma Queen along the way. So it makes sense that her first book is a delightful discourse on the most common grammar, punctuation, and usage challenges faced by writers of all stripes. Not surprisingly, Norris writes well—with wit, sass, and smarts—and the book is part memoir, part manual. She recounts the history of Webster’s Dictionary; explains when to use who vs. whom and that vs. which; distinguishes between the dash, colon, and the semicolon; delves into the comma and the hyphen; and weighs in on the use of profanity in writing. Norris also finds ways to reference the Lord’s Prayer, the Simpsons, Moby-Dick, and, in a touching anecdote, her own sister. The New Yorker has an unconventional house style—for instance, the magazine uses diaeresis marks in words like coöperate, where the prefix (co-) ends in the same vowel used at the beginning of the stem (operate), to indicate that the vowels are pronounced differently—and, though Norris doesn’t always agree with its strict style rules, readers may not agree with her ideas on language. But it’s a sure bet that after reading this book, they’ll think more about how and what they write. Agent: David Kuhn, Kuhn Projects. (Apr.)
Charles R. Larson - Counterpunch
“[An] utterly delightful romp.”
Deborah Hopkinson - BookPage
“[A] funny and entertaining new book about language and life… While Norris may have a job as a “comma queen,” readers of Between You & Me will find that “prose goddess” is perhaps a more apt description of this delightful writer.”
Eloise Kinney - Booklist
“Lighthearted and sparkling.”
Ben Yagoda
“A delightful mix of autobiography, New Yorker lore, and good language sense.”
Sarah Lyall - The New York Times
“Ms. Norris, who has a dirty laugh that evokes late nights and Scotch, is…like the worldly aunt who pulls you aside at Thanksgiving and whispers that it is all right to occasionally flout the rules.”
Patricia OConner - New York Times Book Review
“Hilarious… [T]his book charmed my socks off.”
Linda Lowenthal - Boston Globe
“Down-to-earth memoir interwoven with idiosyncratic, often funny ruminations on the nuts and bolts of language.”
Patricia O’Conner - New York Times Book Review
“Hilarious… [T]his book charmed my socks off.”
Julia Holmes - The New Republic
“Very funny, lucid, and lively.”
Library Journal
★ 02/15/2015
Part memoir and part writing guide, Norris's thoughtful and humorous narrative provides an irreverent account of her days as a New Yorker comma queen as well as an insightful look into the history of the English language. With examples ranging from Webster's to Moby-Dick to the proper way to sharpen a pencil, Norris considers the technical aspects of spelling, punctuation, and usage in a manner that is both engaging and entertaining. Her rules are easy to follow, and her writing fast paced and smart, making this a great read for anyone interested in a refresher course on the elements of style. This is not your grade school primer; expect wisecracks and pointed commentary on the many ways in which we embarrass ourselves while trying to sound grammatically superior. VERDICT Norris's handy guide is for writers of all levels. A great addition to public and academic library collections that support writing groups or programs.—Gricel Dominguez, Florida International Univ. Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-12-15
A New Yorker editor since 1978, Norris provides an educational, entertaining narrative about grammar, spelling and punctuation.The author devotes chapters to commas (who knew a printer more or less invented comma usage in 1490?); apostrophes; hyphens; the difference between "that" and "which"; the proper usage of "who" and "whom" (would Ernest Hemingway have published For Who the Bell Tolls?); dealing with profanity in a national magazine (a chapter in which Norris demonstrates that not all copy editors are prudish); which dictionary (if any) to rely on; and, as a bonus, an ode to pencils with and without erasers. Raised in the Cleveland area, Norris had a vague notion growing up of being a writer. But after attending college, she did not know how to proceed toward that goal, so she worked jobs that included delivering milk to homes, packaging cheese in a factory for sale to supermarkets and washing dishes in a restaurant. The possibility of an editing job at the New Yorker arose only because Norris' brother knew an important person there. Once at the New Yorker, the author engaged in spirited debates with more senior copy editors about all manner of decisions about grammar, punctuation and spelling. Though she observed the rules, she also began to realize that sometimes she had to compromise due to the fact that accomplished writers for the magazine followed their own logic. Norris delivers a host of unforgettable anecdotes about such famed New Yorker writers as Philip Roth, Pauline Kael, John McPhee and George Saunders. In countless laugh-out-loud passages, Norris displays her admirable flexibility in bending rules when necessary. She even makes her serious quest to uncover the reason for the hyphen in the title of the classic novel Moby-Dick downright hilarious. A funny book for any serious reader.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

Meet the Author

Mary Norris began working at The New Yorker in 1978. Originally from Cleveland, she now lives in New York.

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Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
“What is a semicolon, anyway?” Is it half a colon? Is it a period on top of a comma? Or an apostrophe that has been knocked down and pinned by a period?” Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is the first book by Mary Norris, who has been on the staff of The New Yorker for some 35 years, and a Page OK’er for twenty of those. She has been referred to by some as a prose goddess, or a comma queen, and indeed, a whole chapter of this book is devoted to comma usage, and cleverly titled “Comma, comma, comma, comma, chameleon”.   This is a book that seems to be a mix of memoir, opinion piece, language textbook and history book. Norris describes the New Yorker’s Style rules (“It did sometimes feel as if we belonged to some strange cloistered order, the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Hyphens”) and some of its more eccentric personalities. This is a book packed with facts, but Norris conveys them in a manner that makes them easy to assimilate, and often treats the reader to laugh-out-loud examples such as those on the serial comma debate. And who knew there were such things as Dictionary Wars, an Apostrophe Eradication Policy (USA), an Apostrophe Protection Society (England) and a Pencil Sharpener Museum?  As well as demonstrating just why spelling, grammar and punctuation DO matter, Norris explains just what a copy-editor does, and the risks of being one (“When I finally made it to the copydesk, it was a long time before I could once again read for pleasure. I spontaneously copy-edited everything I laid eyes on”), and provides a wealth of handy hints about pronouns, hyphens, expletives (deleted and not), restrictive clauses, dashes, colons and semicolons and copulative verbs. She backs up her advice with plenty of examples, extensive references and a comprehensive index. And, of course, her punctuation is absolutely flawless!  Norris offers plenty of succinct opinions: On autocorrect: “I type “adverbial” and it comes out “adrenal,” which is like a knife thrust to my adverbial gland”. On compound words: “I was learning that the dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can’t let it push you around, especially where compound words are concerned. Also that a hyphen is not a moral issue”. And on gender: “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 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 genitalia of grammar” She tells us: “I would get lost in throngs of adjectives”. And when her friend remarks “There is no pleasure so acute as that of a well-placed semicolon”, Mary concludes that there must therefore be “no displeasure so obtuse as that of an ill-placed semicolon”. The Text Publishing edition has a cover designed by W.H.Chong with a very clever constructed crown for the Comma Queen. This book is informative, witty and very funny: a must for anyone who cares about what they write. 4.5 stars
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was entirely delicious. I'm not sure who else would say that except another person who has spent countless hours editing the words of other writers and wrestling with the questions that arise. For example, what do you do when the author has written a sentence that flows easily and readers will have no difficulty understanding what the author means to say, but it contains a dangling participle, so that grammatically, the sentence is saying that the full moon withdrew money out of a traveler's checking account -- but every way you try to restructure the sentence so that it says what it means comes out clunky and breaks the flow of the paragraph? When I read the author's musings on this problem, it was like discovering a new family member -- I have a companion! This book is not for those looking for instructions to copy editors and writers. That's not what it's about. It is like having tea with a friend and gossiping about your acquaintances: the comma, the dash, and the apostrophe. It is like looking at the pictures your brother's family brought back from their trip to Disney World. You've been there yourself, but that only enhances your appreciation in hearing about their adventures, their likes and dislikes. It was interesting to read about working at the New Yorker magazine, which follows a very different editorial style than the Chicago style I'm used to working in. But as a person who has usually been the only copy editor in the places where I've worked, I envy a world where co-staff have hallway arguments about the allowable uses of semicolons and obscenities. What fun!
oldmanPB More than 1 year ago
i spent 10 days reading this book. it was a struggle in some places and did re-reading. it was worth the effort. ms. norris is an excellent teacher and she can bring on some laughter while getting her knowledge into your brain. if an old man can learn things, i think mary norris can be of great value to 10 year old children who would be helped to get grammar correct before they become another me. p. bloomberg old man glendale, ca
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
I received this ARC on February 17th, 2015 as a Goodreads Giveaway from W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. and Mary Norris. Thank you so much for allowing me to read this book! I started this book relatively comfortable with the level of my understanding of basic grammar. I guess I know better, now! This is a hoot! The Comma Queen has a way of putting us in our places with humor and fun. It is a must read for all New Yorker fans and other Comma Queens, as well. I will keep it around to refer to when I have a grammar problem - and that is going to be much more often now that it was before I read this.
jsymons More than 1 year ago
A smart, funny book for people who love the English language and its quirkiness from an author who knows her commas -- and a good deal more besides.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago