Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s Comma Queen

Punctuation may not be the most riveting of reading matter but for those of us who ‘get off’ on grammar, it’s a small diversion. Marry Norris has been working at The New Yorker since 1978 and her revelations of how the magazine works, and the characters who work there, are fascination enough. However with chapters called “Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon” and “A Dash, A Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar” you know that her tongue is firmly in her cheek. However I do note that in her few pages on ‘the serial comma’ (some call it the Oxford comma, named by them who decreed it should be used, but it is used more by the Americans than the British), that’s the one before the ‘and’ in a series (or list), she is rather snobbish about its use:

Chances are that if you use the Oxford comma you brush the crumbs off your shirtfront before going out. The British get to have it both ways: they deride us Americans for our allegiances to a comma that they named and then rejected as pretentious.”

If you don’t use the Oxford comma you run the risk of the following, “This book is dedicated to my parents, Alan Jones and God.”

I didn’t “laugh out loud” as the jacket cover said I would (although you might in her chapter on symbols, F*ck This Sh*t), but I certainly had a constant smile on my face; except when it came to the hyphen.

I use these rarely except in a compound word (a made up word) like in the phrase ‘a comma-bashing critic.’

A bird-watcher is a watcher of birds; a bird watcher would be a bird that keeps an eye on things.”

As for the dash, a long hyphen, I never use it and never see the need to; commas will do very nicely.

I did enjoy finding out about something new: the diaeresis (pronounced ‘die heiresses’), also spelt dieresis. It is those two little dots over the vowel to denote the beginning of another syllable; for example, naïve, Charlotte Brontë, and coöperation (see Mary, I use the Oxford comma). Not to be confused with the German umlaut which denotes a change in the vowel’s pronunciation.

It is often said that texting will be the death of punctuation, if not spelling; but I don’t think so as long as there are people who punctuate their texts.

Punctuation was invented to facilitate reading aloud: from the pulpit originally. However we do this rarely these days and so the use of punctuation can often be individualistic; and if so all that Mary asks is that you be consistent.

Anyway the bottom line is that punctuation to prose is like music to film: it should never overpower that which it is there to enliven.