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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.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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 Dixon-Ticonderoga 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
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
(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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Commas (and a helpful word or two) are important.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.