New Yorker’s ‘Comma Queen’ offers a guide for the grammatically insecure

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: Mary Norris has spent more than three decades at The New Yorker, copy editing the work of some of the world's most vaunted writers.

For our NewsHour Bookshelf, Jeffrey Brown sat down with Norris, whose job title is "OK-er" and whose mission is clarity and purpose.

JEFFREY BROWN: Consider the comma, when to use it, when to avoid it. Is it I at the door or me? Who are you, anyway, and from whom did you learn to write proper English? Did you learn? Do you care?

Well, Mary Norris cares a lot, as a copy editor for The New Yorker magazine, famous for its high, or perhaps highly idiosyncratic, standards.

Norris recounts a life of grammatical grief and glory in her book, "Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen."

We spoke recently at the Shirlington Library in Arlington, Virginia.

Is this that a crown that you wear with pride?

(LAUGHTER)

MARY NORRIS, Author, "Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen": Well, yes, I do.

This is a crown that a friend made for me on publication on the book. "Comma Queen" is the title they came up with for me for the book. It's not something we toss around at the office.

But the crown, if I can just point out, it has — it's aluminum, and these commas are individually cut. They're from unique historical fonts. There's Futura and Bodoni and the great Bembo.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you have written a book that is part memoir, part, I guess, a grammar kind of guide. What were you after? What were you doing?

MARY NORRIS: Well, I was just trying to help people who are insecure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which is most of us, probably.

MARY NORRIS: It turns out that a lot of people are insecure. They learned about commas. They learned about grammar. Some of them learned how to diagram sentences coming up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

MARY NORRIS: And they — I don't know if these things are taught at all anymore. There's something called language arts in schools, I think, but they're still important.

And they certainly should still be taught.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is it important to know about when to use a comma or when a dangling participle is wrong?

MARY NORRIS: Well, the main thing is to be clear in what you're saying.

The comma, if it's left out, sometimes can be a problem. There's a slogan on a T-shirt going around that "Let's Eat, Grandma," and "Let's Eat Grandma."

(LAUGHTER)

MARY NORRIS: So, it is kind of a matter of life and death sometimes.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Life and death, cosmic. If you happen to work at a place like The New Yorker, these things are incredibly important, right?

MARY NORRIS: They are important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Famously important.

MARY NORRIS: They are. They have always been important at The New Yorker.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, give me an example.

MARY NORRIS: I'm thinking of the writer George Saunders, who writes in the voice of somebody who's not very educated.

And he would write — I think there's a dangler in one of his sentences — while picking kids up at school, bumper fell off Park Avenue.

And that means, while I was picking up the kids at school, the bumper fell off, or, while picking up kids at school, I noticed the bumper fell off.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

MARY NORRIS: It's a dangler. But it's also possible to see that, in the mind of the narrator, it's exactly what he wants to say. So, you don't change that.

We use the serial comma because it's important sometimes to prevent ambiguity. I have a few examples in the book. Like, I think the big one is, "We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin."

And without a comma after JFK, it reads as if JFK and Stalin are the strippers. I would also like to make the point, because people ask me about the serial comma so often, that it's not — it's not a moral decision. You can decide whether to use the serial comma or not use the serial comma, and as long as you're consistent.

The New Yorker puts all the extras in that it can, the diaeresis, the two dots over the second O. in cooperate. We like that kind of thing. It just keeps us off the street.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it hard for you to be alive when you know — when you know the rules so well?

MARY NORRIS: No, it's not that bad.

(LAUGHTER)

MARY NORRIS: For one thing, I'm only on duty when I'm on duty. There are songs, though, like that famous Doors song, "When the stars fall from the sky for you and I"…

JEFFREY BROWN: For you and I.

MARY NORRIS: … I kind of want to put my hands over my ears when I hear that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? You're — I see you. You're cringing.

(CROSSTALK)

MARY NORRIS: There are a few things that — but I live through them.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about in the age of spell-check and autocorrect? Are you worried about what's going to happen to our language and our writing?

MARY NORRIS: I worry a little with spell-check that kids won't ever bother to look words up in the dictionary again.

And you learn a lot just by poking around in the dictionary. And everybody is a writer now. Everybody uses e-mail and has Facebook pages and tweets.

The apostrophe is on its way out, I think, because you have to switch screens when you're texting to use an apostrophe. It's a lot of trouble for impatient young people to go and switch screens, and just to put in an apostrophe in order to write "won't."

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: So, it's OK in Twitter, but it's not going to — still not going to get by at The New Yorker.

MARY NORRIS: On the printed page, it's best to have everything — you know, to still mind your P's and Q's, dot your I's and cross your T's, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, "Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen" with her crown, Mary Norris, thanks so much.

MARY NORRIS: Thank you.