Why Pronouns Matter
By Alice MattisonMay 16, 2015
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
MARY NORRIS BEGINS the acknowledgments at the back of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by crediting “John Bennet, of The New Yorker, who encouraged me to write something — anything.” Really, Mr. Bennet? You told her to write anything? I imagine the remark coming at the end of a conversation, one that perhaps consisted of objections by Ms. Norris to the idea that she could write a book. Possibly she said she didn’t know how to organize one, that she didn’t have a coherent argument in mind, or that she thinks associatively rather than logically, all of which is true. But Mr. Bennet, bless him, knew that none of that would matter much.
“Just write something — anything!”
I imagine him saying this with some force. It’s not a line you’d whisper. He knew that Norris had such a quirky, well-equipped, and interesting mind that almost anything she put down would be worth reading. And so it proves.
Mary Norris is a copyeditor at The New Yorker, and Between You & Me is both a memoir and a reference book — a reference book for literate people, mostly about mistakes that are made by people educated enough to sell something they’ve written to The New Yorker and be copyedited by Norris. She says that the title is intended to get not only readers but anyone who happens to see the book to stop saying “between you and I” — a mistake made by people who imagine that “I” is classier than “me.” Many years ago I taught English composition at a Catholic college, where my students insisted that in grade school the nuns had told them never to say “me.”
I said, “You mean they’d expect you to say to your boyfriend, ‘Kiss I, kiss I’?”
The nuns, they said, didn’t want them to say anything about kissing at all. My students would have said, “Kiss me,” but if one of them had participated in group sex, she’d have instructed the man in bed with her and a friend to “Kiss Agnes and I.”
The correct uses of “me” are explained in this book, along with why it’s wrong to say “I feel badly” unless you mean that your fingers don’t work properly, as well as how to punctuate. Norris speaks of “sticklers” — people who are fussy about words and punctuation — and I am one. This book will become required reading for the students of sticklers, and it’s sheer pleasure for us — for people who, to our shame, are not quite as interested in the content of a sentence about the hungry lion consuming the townspeople as we are in a punctuation error in the description of the carnage.
At one point, Norris tells us she decided to read a novel by James Salter (even though he has never been published in The New Yorker). She takes the time to say that “Salter” is a pen name. Then she insists, twice, that what interests her about James Salter is not primarily his baffling use of commas where she would have omitted them. This reader is skeptical about whether the story really interested Norris more than his commas. Some of us are like that — we see the commas — and one of the joys of this book is that, for once, we needn’t be ashamed.
Not that we’ll agree with everything Norris and The New Yorker think about spelling and punctuation. Not that she invariably agrees with the magazine. In fact, she tells us that the two legendary women who ruled copyediting at The New Yorker for many years, Eleanor Gould and Lu Burke, didn’t always agree with each other. And why would they? The New Yorker famously spells and punctuates like nobody else. “Vender” stops me every time. Mostly (Norris’s objection to James Salter’s commas is atypical) The New Yorker inserts commas where other people don’t. Norris quotes a sentence by Marc Fisher about which she received a letter of complaint: “When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.” Norris becomes defensive about those commas. “It’s not insane — it’s not even nutty,” she writes. She believes that the commas helpfully subordinate parenthetical information about where and when the writer went to school to the main point, about the teachers. She thinks astute readers don’t take those commas as a signal to stop but as information about what will or won’t be essential to the point. I can’t read that sentence without stopping at the commas, as I am stopped each time by The New Yorker’s use of commas in sentences like “Translated, from the Russian, by Linda Smith,” even though I know the commas are there because “Translated from the Russian” without that comma might suggest that parts of the the piece had been translated from some other language by someone else. “Translated from the Russian by Linda Smith and from the German by Frank Jones.” I don’t think those commas are insane, but I think they are nutty.
However — this is a big however — those commas take to the extreme a rule that everyone should ordinarily follow, which Norris explains brilliantly: the rule that words essential to the meaning of a noun are not separated from it by commas, while those that supply additional information but could be removed without making the sentence nonsensical should be enclosed in commas.
Norris is wonderful on “which” and “that,” which she explains with a line of poetry by Dylan Thomas. About restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, she writes,
I always have to pause and think what I mean by restrictive: you think something that is restrictive is going to take the commas, that the commas will restrict the clause, cordon it off, keep it out of the way. But it is just the opposite: a restrictive clause is so much a part of the noun it modifies that it doesn’t need any punctuation to stake its claim.
All this matters; meaning depends on it. In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, “It’s Not Gay Marriage vs. the Church Anymore,” by William N. Eskridge Jr., the author points out that while many people think all religious groups oppose same-sex marriage, the truth is that numerous religious communities favor it. Later in the piece, Eskridge — victim, I suppose, of an inattentive copyeditor — appears to contradict himself. He’s speculating about a future in which same-sex marriage is legal throughout the United States and asks, “What will the faith traditions, which are adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage, do?” The sentence equates “faith traditions” and “adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage”: the commas and the “which” make the clause nonrestrictive, just another piece of information about the faith traditions. What Eskridge intends, of course, is “What will the faith traditions that are adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage do?” He’s just discussed the traditions that aren’t opposed — but what about those that are? I really am a stickler. I was surprised that none of the 300 or so comments this piece had garnered on the Times website two days after it appeared mentioned those commas. I suppose anyone who noticed considered them unimportant.
Norris doesn’t recognize distinctions between “important” and “unimportant”; maybe you aren’t allowed to be a copyeditor if those differences matter to you. Her book doesn’t subordinate the trivial and emphasize the significant, and the result is a verbal flea market with unexpected treasures. I wasn’t particularly interested when her curiosity took her to visit the houses of Noah Webster and Herman Melville, but perked up to learn that Webster tried to reform American spelling, and is the one who took the British “u” out of words like “colour,” replaced c with s in “offense” and “defense,” and changed “re” to “er” in “theater” and “center.” As for Melville, I too had wondered, as Norris does, why there’s a hyphen in the title Moby-Dick (though not in the whale’s name within the novel).
What matters and what doesn’t matter are inextricably connected, and that’s clearly demonstrated in chapters about changing social norms concerning language, such as whether dirty words are printable. Her chapter on The New Yorker’s belated changes makes clear that not all fucks are equal and context may matter. And Norris is hilarious about “bros before hos,” which appeared in a piece about Brazilian soccer players.
The best chapter about evolving usage is about the lack in English of a gender-neutral singular pronoun. What should we do with the likes of, “When the writer reconsiders his manuscript, he may decide …”? Norris lists the amusing words people have invented to mean “he or she,” then considers more realistic possibilities. She’s more troubled than I am by the obvious one, “he or she,” and less troubled by the traditional “he.” That “he,” when I was a girl, made me decide that consciousness — the intelligence at one’s core — was male, so anytime I wanted to think, I’d have to become temporarily male (as a woman or girl legitimately becomes temporarily male while reading a novel from the viewpoint of a male character); if I were always female, I wouldn’t think. This idea was bad for me, and I’ll never write “he” for “he or she.”
Writing “she” at times feels fine to me, and Norris agrees. She doesn’t have a final answer; who does? But she becomes my friend forever when she writes, “I hate to say it, but the colloquial use of ‘their” when you mean ‘his or her’ is just wrong.”
Her book makes dramatically clear how important all this is — why scraps of speech like pronouns matter — when the subject of gender-neutral pronouns becomes the story of Norris’s younger brother, who one day announced that he was transsexual, and became a woman. After some irritation at her new sister’s intense interest in shopping for women’s clothing, Norris and her mother were encouraging. But they had trouble remembering to say “she” instead of “he,” and didn’t even notice they were doing it. Pronouns, Norris points out, “turn out to be in our marrow.”
So the technical becomes personal. Norris writes about copyediting John McPhee, whose work she loves. He wrote a piece about Interstate 80, the road she took when she drove from Cleveland, where she grew up, to New York — the road, as she puts it, “between my parents’ house and my independence.” She remembers stops she made when she and her father drove it together, including a pretty spot where they ate sandwiches they’d brought. She searched for it later but never found it again. “Either that or it never looked as spectacular to me again.” Back she goes, after that memory, to copyediting McPhee.
But one more thing about punctuation. When Norris gets to the em dash, which seems to be her favorite punctuation mark (it’s mine, too), she says, “If you have no personal anecdotes to share about the Dashes, feel free to appropriate mine.” (She once knew a family named Dash.) I do have a personal anecdote about dashes, and it even involves The New Yorker, about which, I should probably have already said, I’m not quite a disinterested observer.
About 30 years ago, when I was a virtually unpublished writer of fiction, The New Yorker bought one of my stories from the slush pile and followed that by printing half a dozen or so in the next year; it then came to its senses and has been much more cautious about my prose ever since. In those days, before email, most of my editor’s business with me was conducted over the phone, often in unexpected calls while I cooked dinner or looked after my kids — I’d be suddenly interrupted by the news that someone had found a dangler.
One day he announced that there was something he needed to tell me that he couldn’t say over the phone: I’d have to come see him. Disconcerted, I remembered that when my grandmother had something to say that couldn’t be said over the phone, she would say it in Yiddish, which, presumably, the listening operator did not understand. The editor wasn’t likely to talk in Yiddish. I live in New Haven, Connecticut, not far from New York. I could go.
So I gathered my courage, and it turned out that he wanted to show me how to use em dashes to enclose part of a sentence that already had commas within it, like this sentence by Norris: “Still, considering that we have only a handful of tools — think of them as needles and pins in a sewing kit, or drill bits and screws in a tool chest — the variety of tics that writers develop and effects that they create is astonishing.” He used a pencil and it took a minute. Then he took me to lunch. I’ve used em dashes with glee ever since.
During the time when my stories were bring printed, along with expressing excitement, envy, and so on, people I knew sympathized about The New Yorker’s famously thorough editing. I suppose Norris copyedited me. I loved the editing, maybe because my editor had told me at the outset that they wouldn’t change anything unless I agreed — and that was true, though at times I had to argue until I was close to tears. I didn’t have trouble talking with smart, funny people about writing — that was what I knew and recognized. It was a relief to talk about sentences, to look together at some words.
But I did have trouble. What had happened to me was so damned momentous. I was afraid something equally bad might happen to balance it, or that it would somehow un-happen: they’d get mad at me, or they’d realize they’d always meant somebody else with a similar name. The editor was wonderful — but august. The New Yorker was just too important, and its habit of showing off by refusing to show off didn’t help. Once, my editor asked, “Have you seen the latest issue?” and then added helpfully (as I hesitated, trying to decide whether the issue then sitting on my kitchen table was the one he’d call “latest”), “of The New Yorker?” When I overdid the awe (which must have been obnoxious), he would say that in fact they were lucky because I’d sent them my stories — as if I had chosen them from among dozens of distinguished weekly magazines that paid thousands of dollars for a short story.
That unconvincing humility turns up in Between You & Me. Norris’s account of going from a job at a cheese factory to meeting the chairman of the board of The New Yorker after her brother happened to become friends with his wife (the chairman didn’t get her a job but did encourage her to seek one) is I think what is now called a humblebrag. I suppose I used one above when saying The New Yorker printed my stories, and, indeed, it’s hard to know how to talk about that magazine casually.
I found dealing with The New Yorker absurd at times, though I’m sure the people I dealt with would have been baffled to hear that; they were just leading their lives. One story of mine was rejected twice: the editor proposed revisions the first time, but whatever I did didn’t solve the problem. In his second rejection letter (undoubtedly trying to be comforting) he wrote, “I remember a similar impasse with V.S. Pritchett.” That sentence struck me as so funny that I walked around for days reciting it. At the time we had two dogs, who would often stand side by side and bark at the back door to be let out, then bark together to come back in. But occasionally, somehow, one dog would be barking on each side of the door, and when you opened it they’d change places and continue barking on the opposite sides. I’d say to them, “I remember a similar impasse with V.S. Pritchett!” After a while my kids would hear the dogs barking and call out, “Similar impasse!”
It’s not Norris’s fault that the very unpretentiousness of The New Yorker — combined with its fussiness — comes across as showing off. We readers like it that way, and start to giggle and raise our eyebrows the minute anybody begins writing about the magazine, as we do when people talk about the British royal family. The New Yorker can be as up to the minute as it likes, use “fuck” in every other sentence, contribute to the national discussion on important topics. But it’s always been a humor magazine, and the original joke was that Eustace Tilley put on airs. The magazine still does, to a degree. Who would want it different?
I wouldn’t want much of this book to be different either. I was sometimes startled to notice the sort of sentence that Norris got me to read for pleasure — sentences like, “The easiest compounds to codify are adjectives formed from the past participle (irregular or formed with –ed) preceded by an adjective, a noun, or an adverb that does not end in ly.” She’s explaining why words like “hard-boiled” have hyphens. (She tells us that “The New Yorker uses the hyphen for the egg and one-words it for a person.”) Of course I could always look forward to sentences like this one, about a dairy where she once worked: “The plant was all gleaming stainless steel, heated milk undercut with a bracing whiff of ammonia.” Those sentences are more plentiful than the other kind. Between You & Me really is a reference book to read for pleasure.
Almost entirely. I am unqualified to comment on the last chapter, which is about pencils. I still edit my work on paper, and I even use pencils — not for editing, but for solving The New York Times crossword puzzle. I like Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils, which are soft enough that I can read the marks, and which have erasers that work. But it turns out that for pencil-lovers, expressing a preference for Ticonderoga No. 2s is like interrupting a conversation about hidden gems in New York to suggest the Statue of Liberty. Everybody uses Ticonderoga No. 2s. Norris likes Ticonderoga No. 1s, and when she can’t get those she likes Blackwings. She uses stand-alone erasers and fancy pencil sharpeners. At the end of the chapter she describes visiting a museum of pencil sharpeners, and I found it hard to care.
There’s an epilogue, a short chapter about how the copyeditor Lu Burke left a million dollars to the Southbury Public Library, which already had plenty of money. I couldn’t get interested in that either. I guess I was miffed that the book was ending without more of what I liked best. I didn’t expect Norris to make up new punctuation marks, but there are plenty of errors made by literate people that she barely mentions or ignores altogether — like “alright” for “all right” and incorrect uses of “disinterested.” A word that’s been bothering me lately is “ironically” when it’s used to mean “coincidentally,” as in “My neighbor, Dorothy, moved out, and, ironically, someone else called Dorothy moved in.” I would have liked her to write about that.
I would also like to know more about copyediting at The New Yorker — not why they put commas in but how many people read a piece and in what order. We learn that Norris worked in “Indexing” for three years, and I think she’s saying that they created a library of old issues of the magazine, not by putting them on a shelf, as you’d expect, but by cutting out each story and pasting it into a scrapbook. Why, please?
During that time she was trained as a “foundry proofreader” (why “foundry”?) and caught an important mistake: “flower” was about to go into the magazine instead of “flour.” Despite this great catch she was sent back where she’d been, and only after three years did she move up to “collating.” “In collating,” she says, “you transferred changes from the editor, the writer, the proofreaders (usually two), and the fact checker onto a clean proof for the printer.” She said she learned there how the place works — but she doesn’t quite tell us. We get hints like “The great minefield in collating was a proof from the author, because that is where collating overlapped into copy editing (two words as a gerund).” After that section she says, “When I finally made it to the copydesk […]” but doesn’t say how long that took or what it meant, exactly. I’d like to know what happens from the viewpoint of the piece of writing — where does it go first, second, and third? And I’d like to know how computers have changed copyediting. Norris refers to editing with the keys of her computer — but, somehow, she also still uses pencils.
Ms. Norris, please write another book. Something. Anything. Well, almost anything.
Alice Mattison’s The Kite and the String will be published in 2016. She is the author of six novels, most recently When We Argued All Night, four collections of stories, and a book of poems. She teaches in the MFA program at Bennington College.
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