***Between You and Me

Mary Norris, punctuationBy Mary Norris – This book—part history of language, part grammarians’ bible, part punctilious punctuation-snob puncturer—by a veteran New Yorker copy editor attempts to explain why writers in English, particularly those whose work appears in The New Yorker, make the choices they do. Form, not content, is her subject. While that publication is notoriously picky about copy matters, Norris’s anecdote-rich text suggests how much elasticity actually exists within its seemingly constricting rules.

Particularly entertaining are the early sections that include a review of her checkered, pre-New Yorker work experience. (You can’t really call a stint as a milk-truck driver and costume shop clerk a career for a person who did graduate work in English.)

Norris took her title from the common grammar mistake people make in using “I” when “me” is required. I yell at the radio when I hear the awful “between you and I” or “He invited Tom and I . . .” I suspect Norris does too.

Several chapters cover the ongoing punctuation wars. No surprise, as the subtitle of the book is Confessions of a Comma Queen. In the comma skirmish, I find I fight on the side of “playing by ear,” dropping in a comma where I sense a pause. And in hyphen disputes, her emphasis on clarity of meaning seems a useful approach. Thus the hyphen in milk-truck driver above.

Some of the text on verbs got away from me and her suggestion for how to tell whether a sentence needs “who” or “whom” (for the straggling soldiers in that lost battle), her system was overly complex or not explained clearly. I’ll stick with mine.


photo: Vladimer Shioshvili, creative commons license

The very best chapter was devoted to Norris’s love of pencils. Extra-soft No.1 pencils, in fact. The kind of pencil that has also kindled a love of pencil sharpeners. (I’ve served time in innumerable meeting rooms over the years and can tell you that The Ford Foundation’s black pencils, embossed with its name, and the round ones of the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., which come in easter egg pastels, are the best. Whenever I attended meetings there, I stocked up.)

Reading anyone’s description of something they are both passionate and deeply knowledgeable about—making wine, say, or 1950s automobiles—is always interesting, and you learn as much about the person as about their particular interest. I don’t ever have to read about pencils again, but I’m glad I did.

7 thoughts on “***Between You and Me

    • I just turn the sentence around. If the revised sentence would take he or she, then WHO is needed; if it would take him or her, then WHOM is needed. E.g., “WHO are you talking to?” turned around becomes “you are talking to WHOM,” a word order that clearly shows the correct choice; Or, “The person WHO they said was absent,” turned around is “they said HE was absent,” thus WHO is correct (it can trip you up when you have a phrase like “they said” in the middle a sentence, because a too-quick glance might suggest that “who” would be correct); Or, “That neighbor, who Attorney Jones is representing in a lawsuit . . .” turned around becomes “Attorney Jones is representing HER in a lawsuit,” thus, WHOM is required. Of course, when I’m writing dialog, I almost never use “whom,” even when it’s correct, because people (my unsavory characters, anyway) don’t speak that way! I’ve used this system so long, I can even mentally calculate ahead when speaking, unless I’m too excited. 🙂 Thanks for asking.

  1. Love the Comma Queen. Just bought this book and added it to my recommended reading list for writing students. Thanks for review, Vicki!

  2. Years ago I passed over old dictionaries at antique and vintage shops and so regret it now. All those delightful words that are no longer used and wouldn’t necessarily have you running to determine their meaning like Jola’s example of shoresmen.

    • I agree. It’s part of the reason a good dictionary is often so much more useful than a thesaurus. It gives the origins of the word, and from there you can make solid associations.

  3. I loved this book. I ordered her recommended Blackwing 602 pencils and the sharpener that goes with them, and I love them. I particularly enjoyed her discussion of the dictionaries used at the New Yorker. Several years ago, a colleague at work brought me a dictionary he found while cleaning out his mother-in-law’s home: Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, 1934. It is more than half a foot thick (one thinks of doorstops and yacht anchors as possible uses). They call it “Web II” at the New Yorker. I was thinking of donating it to Goodwill, but when I read “Between You and Me,” I found that it is preferred at the New Yorker over the more recent third edition because it is “prescriptive” and the third is “descriptive.” In other words, the second edition tells what is “correct” and the third does not. So I kept it and am using it; last night I used it to confirm the existence of a word I couldn’t find in any other dictionary: “shoresmen.”

    • There you go. I can open up at random the Garner’s Modern American Usage you recommended to me and find something interesting and worth thinking about! I should have mentioned that Norris has a nice list of resources in the back of her book for the language stewards among us.

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