Confessions of a Comma Queen; lifting grammar off the page …

A New Yorker proofreader of 30 years’ experience offers a personal account of the rules of language … By Gilda Williams. Thu 7 May ‘15 16.00 BST.

Mary Norris held jobs as a cashier, dishwasher and athlete’s foot-checker at her local public swimming pool in Ohio prior to embarking in 1978 on her 30-year tenure as a proofreader at the New Yorker – her occupational recollections are evidence of a natural inclination for repetitive and thankless work, an attribute tested daily since she joined the revered weekly. Her first book is both an English-usage manual and a memoir; but Norris’s unending patience is not required of her readers, who are repeatedly rewarded with gems of wit and wisdom. “‘Whom’ may indeed be on the way out”, she writes, “but so is Venice, and we still like to go there.”

The title refers to her top-rated grammatical offence, “between you and I” – ranked second in David Foster Wallace’s catalog of blunders in his essay “Authority and American Usage”. It rankles with her, not because of offenders’ ignorance, but because they foolishly imagine that “between you and I” sounds grand. Down-to-earth Norris dislikes pretentiousness even more than crummy grammar, but she is no stickler. She blithely commits old-school misdemeanors without comment; purists will gasp at her wanton split infinitives – “to always have to write ‘he or she’ … is pretty cumbersome” – and sentences ending with a preposition (“‘Transpire’ and ‘enthuse’ are still disapproved of”, she writes). A modern and open-minded grammarian, Norris accepts that texting might one day legitimise apostrophe-less contractions, just as “today” and “deluxe” dropped their hyphens without injury. Emoticons, such as :-), are not the first instances of building emotion out of punctuation; Henry James’ semi-colon pause in dialogue is the expressive equivalent of a raised eyebrow, she observes.

Norris excels when she lifts grammar off the page and observes its effects in everyday life. A compendium of the many failed attempts to invent an ungendered English-language personal pronoun (heesh, mef, hu, anyone?) segues into the story of her sibling, Dee, who comes out as transgender during one of the author’s visits home. Norris takes the news in her stride and invites Dee out for a meal, but then accidentally lets slip the male personal pronoun – “that’s his cheeseburger” – and it lands “like a cannonball” between them, reducing Dee to tears. As with the homicidal panda in Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, careless usage can have devastating consequences.

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Dr. Salvatore Ivan Italiano
Dr. Salvatore Ivan Italiano

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