Thursday, March 10, 2016

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

The editor that I so unabashedly trumpet myself to be is thankful that The New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris wrote Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. In fact, I could have written the same book without any need to change the subtitle. Norris wrote about her challenges while working for the magazine and used her real-life experiences to educate the reader on proper English usage. This book was as much a tale of working for the magazine as it was a grammar lesson, so for those who like The New Yorker, this book is a must-read. 

Since it was written as a memoir, complete with stories about all the beloved yet quirky people Norris used to work with, the grammar lessons sneak up on you. Norris says about her job:

"One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience. In the hierarchy of prose goddesses, I am way, way down the list. But what expertise I have acquired I want to pass along."

In grade seven and then throughout high school I was taught English grammar, how to parse sentences and the parts of speech. No one in my classes liked it, yet I drank it up. This knowledge served me invaluably when I started to learn German (I had already started learning French) as expertise in that language depends on one's grasp of nouns, pronouns, cases and inflections. Sadly, grammar is no longer taught in English class, definitely not in the same degree of depth as my late-seventies grade seven education. I simply could not have excelled in German class had I not known what the teacher was talking about when referring to indirect objects, the imperative case and dependent clauses. While my fellow classmates were puzzling over what case a verb took, and then trying to distinguish between the accusative and dative and what kind of clause threw the verb to the end, I was happily working away enjoying the Germanness of der-words and stem-vowel changes. Norris makes these same points: that knowledge of English grammar can help you enormously in learning foreign languages. And it should not need to be stated that in spite of the uninspiring lessons, my classmates in junior as well as high school remain better writers of the English language because they had been taught about the underlying structure of the language. 

Norris had to deal with some grammatically eccentric people at The New Yorker. Her coworkers had decades of history working for the magazine and championed certain words and spellings. The magazine is famous for its orthographic quirkiness as well: nowhere else in the twenty-first century will you read the words written as coöperate and reëxamine. Norris is a staunch defender of the gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun he

"I hate to say it, but the colloquial use of 'their' when you mean 'his or her' is just wrong. It may solve the gender problem, and there is no doubt that it has taken over in the spoken language, but it does so at the expense of number. An antecedent that is in the singular cannot take a plural pronoun. And yet it does, all the time--certainly in speech."

Exactly. I use the neutral pronouns hehim and his in place of plural pronouns or virguled monstrosities. However I must admit that our way of speaking and writing is doomed; I do not see future generations using he as a neutral pronoun. Norris and I will continue to use it, however, inasmuch as The New Yorker continues to use antiquated renderings such as coöperate

Norris chose the title of this book to highlight the relatively recent phenomenon of placing the nominative first-person singular pronoun I after the preposition between instead of the correct accusative form me. Her theory why people say "between you and I" instead of "between you and me" is that of a misguided sense of hypercorrection. Educated speakers, or those who strive to be, somehow believe that the accusative pronoun in this expression sounds informal. There is an inbred formality in the usage of the nominative I. I believe this formality is often ridiculed as being too highfalutin in expressions such as "It is I". While grammatically correct, no one really says "It is I" anymore. We substitute the accusative me, and when we do we tend to contract the subject and verb, thus: "It's me"There is another theory why people say "between you and me" which Norris did not touch upon: in English, the nominative and accusative forms of the second-person singular pronoun you are the same. Speakers then don't know what grammatical case they're using since the you that follows between resembles both the nominative and the accusative. If you didn't learn about grammatical cases then you are prone to make mistakes in your spoken and written English. Substitute different pronouns and see if you can spot the difference: would you say "between he and I"? Or would you mix the cases and say "between him and I"? Let's hope you see the logic in using the same accusative case for both: "between him and me".

Grammar lessons may not be cause to laugh out loud, however Norris gave me plenty of opportunities to chuckle. Her visit to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum gave her such delight that:

"Only a sign warning that the museum is under surveillance twenty-four hours a day kept me from dancing."

You know that if Norris finds such pleasure in pencil sharpeners, chances are she loves to use pencils themselves. If you have a particular fondness for a certain pen or pencil, you will appreciate Norris's quest to find a perfect Dixon Ticonderoga No. 1 pencil. Her box of damaged leads sent her on a frustrated quest to find one whose lead wouldn't break upon sharpening. 

Between You & Me covers punctuation as well as grammar, and gives easy-to-understand instructions on the proper use of commas, semicolons and colons. Norris covers hyphenation as well as the use of apostrophes, and the annoying occurrence of apostrophes in the plural when a simple -S will do. Grammar snobs and closet editors will love this book and will lap it up because we are the choir Norris is preaching to. Other readers not so vigilant with the blue pencil won't realize all the grammar they're learning in between all The New Yorker stories.

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