Allan Fallow was a copy editor at Time-Life Books from 1979 to 1983.
By Mary Norris
Norton. 228 pp. $24.95
The secret is out, grammar is fun.
That statement is true but wrong. It glorifies the “comma splice” — suturing two sentences with a comma rather than sectioning them with a period — and is just one of the “barbaric habits in contemporary usage” that longtime New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris sets out to diagnose and cure in her memoir cum style guide, “Between You & Me.”
Yet these “confessions of a comma queen” are no mere roundup of Miss Thistlebottom’s hobgoblins. Despite the popular view of the copy editor as “a bit of a witch,” keen to prod some tender young writer “with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas,” Norris comes off in these pages as an especially wise, patient and forgiving grammar guru: “In the hierarchy of prose goddesses,” she writes, “I am way, way down the list. But what expertise I have acquired I want to pass along.”
Legacy accomplished. When Norris illuminates the New Yorker’s “close” (code word for “extravagant”) style of punctuation, she proves flexible enough to defend a commatose sentence — “She smiled that stunning, wide smile” — by claiming that its creator, James Salter, was merely “smacking the adjective with a comma as one would put English on a cue ball.”
Words and punctuation marks leap to life in similar fashion throughout the book: Apostrophes are “jewelry,” colons are “proper butlers” that say “Right this way,” and asterisks are “little fireworks” inside the words “F*ck This Sh*t” (the title of Chapter 9, I’ll have you know). Norris leaves no trope unturned, whether it’s showing why orthography (whose Greek roots mean “straight scratching”) “ennobles our enterprise” or tracking down the source of the hyphen in “Moby-Dick” (it was Melville’s brother Allan). She even attempts to explain and thereby uphold the who-vs.-whom distinction, which language permissivistes such as Steven Pinker contend is ripe for culling: “ ‘Whom’ may indeed be on the way out,” Norris bustles, “but so is Venice, and we still like to go there.”
Between you and me, Norris is most affecting when she lowers her curmudgeon’s carapace long enough to explore some intensely personal terms of address. She witnessed a “pronoun transplant” the weekend “my younger brother announced that he was transsexual” to their parents back in Cleveland: “Nothing makes it clearer how intimately and deeply pronouns are embedded in our lives,” she reflects, “than having to alter them to refer to someone you’ve known all your life.”
In “The Elements of Style,” E.B. White confessed that he initially lacked “any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood” of the English language. Norris tinkers with, then tortures, her own grammar-as-gasoline-engine analogy, so the occasional backfire is to be expected — as when she blithely doubles prepositions (“outside of the country”).
Will cavils such as this summon forth John Bangsund’s “Muphry’s Law”: “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written”? Sure hope not; Norris has paid her syntax forward, making “Between You & Me” pure porn for word nerds.