Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is an awkward combination of a memoir of a former copy editor of the New Yorker and discussions of grammatical errors and confusions, one of which gave its name to the book. I enjoyed the autobiographical tidbits, especially the curious career path of the author, starting with her first job as a teenager checking that public pool bathers properly used the footpath before swimming , a job delivering milk, her entrance at the New Yorker via the typing pool, and the politics of the copy-editing department.
I did not enjoy the grammatical discussions, and before you hasten to think that I’m just a barbarian who does not care for grammar, let me disclose that I happily listen to a weekly grammar podcast, a behavior my family seems to think is rather odd. But the fussy arguments of the book went too far to sustain my interest — between you and me…
Once upon a time, a couple or few decades ago, most American boys and girls in grade school were taught grammar and punctuation; we learned, for example, that “i” came before “e,” except after “c” (except sometimes, but never mind) and that the verb “to be” was “like an equal sign,” which meant that you used the nominative case (have I lost you yet?) on both sides of it. (“It is I,” in other words, is the correct, if dowdy, response to “Who’s there?”) Some of us were even taught to diagram sentences; some had parents who corrected us at the family dinner table. (I can still hear my father pressing the subjunctive upon me. “If I WERE,” he’d bellow, when I allowed as how there’d be later curfews if I “was” in charge.) Whether they retained the lessons or not, most people probably don’t wax romantic about the grammar lessons or teachers of yore.
Which is why even those of you who don’t have the soul of a second-grade grammar teacher will love Between You and Me, the hilarious and delightful “memoir” by the longtime New Yorker copy editor, Mary Norris, who confides in the subtitle that she is a “comma queen.” (The above is not a full sentence, I know — but I think I can get away with it by calling it “my style.” Also, I put quotation marks around the word “memoir,” Mary – I know you’re wondering — because I was trying to make the point that your book is an unusual take on the form, dealing as it does with thats and whiches as well as with your Ohio adolescence as a foot-checker at the local pool.) Who knew grammar could be so much fun — that silly marks of punctuation could be so wickedly anthropomorphized (a question mark is like a lazy person), that dashes grow in families (there are big dashes and little dashes and they can all live peaceably within one sentence), that there was once a serious movement to solve the he-or-she problem with the catchall “heesh”? Clearly, Norris knows: her book is plenty smart, but it’s its (one’s a contraction, one’s a possessive) joyful, generous style that makes it so winning. This is a celebration of language that won’t make anyone feel dumb – but it’s also the perfect gift for the coworker you haven’t been able to tell that “between” is a preposition that never, ever, takes an object that includes the pronoun “I.” –