“Between You & Me” by Mary Norris

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

In stores now.

I’ve wanted this book ever since I first read an excerpt from it in the New Yorker. I thought it was a book I had to have since I want to be a copy editor and I thought this book could provide me with some insight into the profession. Mary Norris is a copy editor at the New Yorker magazine and she has written various articles about her work there, most of which have been included in Between You & Me, thus this book is a memoir of sorts. As Mary Norris discusses the nuances of the English language, its grammar and punctuation, she also recounts certain events from her life like her early years working at the New Yorker, her road trips to odd museums, and her reaction to her brother’s sex change. No matter what she discusses, she ties it all back to grammar and punctuation.

“A misspelling undermines your authority.”

Norris is funny and there’s hardly a dull moment in the book, except the early chapters in which she discusses the history of the dictionary. She tries to keep her narration there light as well but the topic is dense hence the boredom. One thing is certain when reading this book and that is you’ll walk away having learned something new, or at least reminded of something you’ve forgotten. Norris takes on various common language quandaries such has using which vs. that, who vs. whom, and especially to use the objective pronoun “me” instead of the subjective pronoun “I” in the prepositional phrase “between you and me.” Norris hopes to cure the world of this common mistake. “Me” sounds so ordinary that we often think it’s incorrect. I certainly do and when I do use “me” it’s because of a slip of mind. Now I’ll try to be more mindful to use it.

“Job of copy editor is to spell words right: put hyphen in, take hyphen out. Repeat. Respect other meaning of spell: spell writer weaves.”

Along with such grammar advice, Norris also provides advice for those of us interested in copy editing. I’m not sure if that was her intention for this book but in recounting her time at the New Yorker, she provides tips about the profession, which I greatly appreciated. As I’ve mentioned, I would like to be a copy editor and I am currently being trained to become one (a slow process; there’s so much to remember!). As part of my training, my job sponsored me to attend the annual American Copy Editors Society conference in Pittsburgh back in March. It was there that I received a copy of Norris’ book. I was so excited to meet her and have her sign my book that I hardly knew what to say when I met her and only blabbed about how much I enjoy reading her articles, tripping over my words the whole time. Her seminar at the conference was jam-packed with some of the attendees having to stand. I guess in the copy-editing world she is among its stars. Another celebrity copy editor in attendance was Bill Walsh, who also hosted a seminar that was crowded. I have one of his books, Lapsing Into a Comma, which I’d bought for an editing class back in college.

“From copying the changes of proofreaders, I learned what proofreaders did.”

correction

It’s awesome to read about someone else’s experience in a field you’re embarking on, especially if it’s not a glamorous or popular profession. Much of what Norris mentions I’ve also had to do at my job, such as collating changes made to documents, which is a great way to learn proofing marks and pick up on mistakes that are usually flagged. However, I wonder if this process will still be around in a few years as the production process changes since sometimes the entire process is done electronically without the need for someone to collate all the proofs.

Another aspect of copy editing that Norris discusses is the various dictionaries the New Yorker uses which made me think of the various stylebooks used for a publication. It’s hilarious when Norris discusses the usage preferences of the editors at the New Yorker and the disagreements and debates on what method should be used, hence the need for a guide. To clarify, a stylebook is a guide for language, punctuation, and sometimes typography usage, among other things. It determines where commas and periods should be placed (do they appear inside the quotations marks or not), how certain words are spelt, how the second reference to a person should be made (Norris, Ms. Norris (even if she is married), Mrs. Norris, or Miss Norris).

Popular stylebooks include the AP Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the MLA Style Manual (you’ve probably used suggestions from the last one in college and high school). To me, reading this section emphasized the fact that editing is subjective, and language is always in flux since it is an effect of the human experience. As we progress and change, language morphs to match who (or maybe how) we’ve become (I’m thinking of texting/social media language here). Still, most times the rules remain the same.

autograph1

For someone starting out in copy editing, this section shows that the job can be both exciting and a headache since a publication sometimes has more than one stylebook (or refers to more than one dictionary). Usually a publication refers to one of the stylebooks listed above but also has an in-house stylebook that is unique to the publication. So when editing, one would first refer to the in-house stylebook and then to the other ones in order of which one is more important. I usually forget this and skip the in-house one (still learning).

Norris also discusses comma usage; the difference between the hyphen, dash, and em-dash; pencils, pencil sharpeners, and pencil-sharpener museums; and she even provides some commentary on Charles Dickens’ prose as well as that of other writers of the classics. Of course, this book wouldn’t be complete without her sounding off on her grammar/punctuation pet-peeves, the foremost one is used in the book’s title.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I highly recommend Between You & Me to those interested in working at a publication and veterans of the industry. Novices will find lots to learn and veterans will find lots to reminisce on. Because it is entertaining and easy to read, I also recommend it to others who may not be interested in publishing but simply enjoy reading memoirs, and writers may find this book of interest as well because of its insight into the editing process. It’s definitely a good read.

Favorite chapters:

  • Between You and Me
  • Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon
  • Who Put the Hyphen in Moby-Dick?
  • F*ck This Sh*t

Other copy-editing advice that stood out to me were:

  • “You had to be willing to admit that you are capable of missing something or you would not catch what you’d missed.”
  • “A lot of decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective.”
  • “So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province.”
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7 thoughts on ““Between You & Me” by Mary Norris

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