Copy Editors Are People Too

There can’t be many books about the life and adventures of a professional word doctor, but one that came out in 2015 is definitely worth a look.

It’s Between You and Me, by Mary Norris, a longtime New Yorker copy editor who calls herself a “comma queen.” Norris admits that the book’s very title is a grammar lesson: “My fondest hope is that just from looking at the title you will learn to say fearlessly ‘between you and me’ (not ‘I’).”

Copy editors are those driven souls who spend their days fixing authors’ manuscripts. They cherish a perfectly sharpened No. 1 pencil as if it were a flawless diamond. And they look askance at technology, which breeds terrible language habits. Norris once texted a friend “Gute Nacht” (good night in German), and her autocorrect changed it to “Cute Nachos.”

Norris touches lightly on her pre-New Yorker days. In her teens she checked swimmers’ feet at a public pool and later delivered dairy goods on a milk truck. She first started reading The New Yorker in graduate school at the University of Vermont. She got an entry-level job at the magazine in 1978 and worked her way up to copy editor, working with a roster of illustrious writers that included Philip Roth, James Salter, and George Saunders.

Much of this tidy two-hundred-page book is an informal but informative discourse on grammar and punctuation. The author’s voice is warm and cordial, and also self-assured and feisty. Reading Between You and Me is like sitting at Norris’s table while she speaks about her life and her passion for language.

There are ten chapters, whose titles reflect the book’s breezy tone. Chapter One is called “Spelling Is for Weirdos.” A later chapter is titled “A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar.”

Early in the book Norris profiles Noah Webster, whose greatest achievement was 1828’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. This hugely successful work established the legitimacy and singularity of the American language.

Webster was an odd man who sometimes just made stuff up and claimed it was true. But he was a scholar of great influence who counted George Washington and Benjamin Franklin among his friends (Franklin felt that the letters c, w, y, and j should be removed from our alphabet).

We have Webster to thank for the American spelling of jail instead of gaol and mold instead of mould. America’s u-less spellings of words like color and flavor (as opposed to the British preference for colour and flavour) are Webster’s doing. He also got the k removed from the end of such words as music and traffic, and got re changed to er at the end of theater and center. But he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get ache changed to ake or soup to soop.

Norris is no prude. She sometimes uses language that would make your Aunt Matilda blush. (“Profanity ought to be fun.”) Still, she is a traditionalist. Even though some publications are now endorsing the “singular they” in sentences such as  someone forgot their keys, instead of his or her keys, Norris won’t hear of it: “ ‘their’ when you mean ‘his or her’ is just wrong.” This past January must have been a bleak month for Norris. That was when the American Dialect Society proclaimed the singular they the Word of the Year for 2015.

This “comma queen” takes her commas seriously: she once asked a writer to justify his use of the comma in “a thin, burgundy dress.” But then Norris is deadly serious about all punctuation—that’s her job. Most amateur writers misuse or ignore hyphens, but they are crucial in the war against ambiguity—can you see the difference between a high-school principal and a high school principal? (“If the school principal is high she should be escorted off the premises.”)

Apostrophes are also endangered. “Are we losing the apostrophe?” Norris asks. “Is it just too much trouble?” The mark’s mistreatment has led to the formation of England’s Apostrophe Protection Society.

Dashes—as opposed to hyphens—can replace quotation marks, periods, colons, and semicolons. Ah yes, semicolons: “Used well, the semicolon makes a powerful impression; misused, it betrays your ignorance.”

Copy editors have devoted their lives to the principle that if people would be conscientious about English, more would be right with the world. Those to whom good grammar and good writing are stimulating topics should spend a little time with Mary Norris. She’s classy company.


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10 Comments on Copy Editors Are People Too

10 responses to “Copy Editors Are People Too”

  1. leftylimbo says:

    Hi there. I have a question regarding hyphens when applied to more than one adjective/descriptor. Is the following sentence correct?

    “This product is phthalate- and latex-free.”

    The statement is meant to be interpreted that the item is both phthalate-free and latex-free. Is it correct to have a “hanging hyphen” after the word phthalate? I recall seeing this type of grammar published somewhere before, but wanted to check with you to make sure it was grammatically correct.

  2. Amy V says:

    Which is correct?
    1:00-2:00 or 1:00 – 2:00

  3. Christopher Garvey says:

    There is a small grammatical error on this page:

    “Ah yes, semicolons: ‘Used well, the semicolon makes a powerful impression; misused, it betrays your ignorance.’ ”

    Colons may only follow a complete sentence, even when introducing a quotation.

    • The Chicago Manual of Style’s Rule 6.59 says, “A colon introduces an element or a series of elements illustrating or amplifying what has preceded the colon.” Not all colons follow complete sentences.

  4. Mark Colligan says:

    How do you punctuate a quote within a quote within a quote? I.e.
    The author states on p 75, “Mr Schneebly grabbed the microphone and said, ‘Boys and girls I quote ,’Oh, we’re half way there. Oh Oh! Livin on a prayer’ so remember to pray for your exam.'”

    How would I punctuate schneebly’s quote that he he quoting?

    • The author states on p. 75, “Mr Schneebly grabbed the microphone and said, ‘Boys and girls I quote, “Oh, we’re half way there. Oh Oh! Livin on a prayer.” So remember to pray for your exam.’ ”
      Your quote has other punctuation errors. We assume you are quoting it exactly how the author wrote it. Therefore, we only corrected the punctuation related to the quotations.

  5. Sandy says:

    HI, I am not sure where to ask this, therefore, I asking it here. I hope that is OK.
    I have been doing more research on punctuation lately, knowing that I have little understanding of their uses.
    Upon reading rule 1a under apostrophes, I am more confused than ever.
    I am sure I was taught that an apostrophe was put after the letter “s” to show the possession of a following noun. Using your example of “Mrs. Chang’s house”, I would have thought the apostrophe came after the “s” showing the house belonged to Mrs. Chang. Where as the apostrophe prior to the “s” would indicate “Mrs. Chang is house”
    The couldn’t seem to clarify this for me. Could you help? Oddly, for me, this is the one rule I really want to know. Thank you, Sandy O

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