“Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” is not a book everyone will love. However, this New York Times Bestseller is perfect for word nerds like me. Mary Norris . . . the titular “Comma Queen” . . . worked for The New Yorker Magazine for over thirty years, and her book is both a look back on her time there, working her way from an entry level position to the page OK’er, and also an entertaining primer on all things grammar.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mary Norris at an English Convention in Cincinnati earlier this year before I had the opportunity to read her book. I was delighted to find that her geniality and warmth that I experienced during her convention talks and in the short personal conversation we shared translates exactly to her writing style. A book on grammar could ostensibly be dry and stuffy, but “Between You and Me” was a delight.
The chapters cover topics like spelling, pronouns, and punctuation, with a great deal of the history of each particular subject worked into her explanations of mechanics. Norris weaves personal stories and anecdotes throughout the technical talk, making it much more approachable and enjoyable. For instance, in Chapter 3, titled “The Problem with Heesh,” Norris explores the topic of pronouns by relating her experiences with her transgender sibling and the journey they went on during their transition. Who knew that the search for gender-neutral pronouns has been going on since about 1850?! (And who knew that the combination of a question mark and an exclamation point I just used is actually a non-standard form of punctuation called an interrobang?) After reading this book, I do!
Anyone who is interested in writing and publishing will find her recounting of her time at The New Yorker interesting. I particularly loved Chapter 9, titled “F*ck This Sh*t.” The chapter begins with a question—and an unorthodox answer. “Has the casual use of profanity in English reached a high tide? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’m going to answer it anyway: Fuck yeah.” The chapter goes on to explore the progression of the acceptance of profanity in America, but it also recounts the informal competition between publications concerning which forms of profanity they could get into print. It was very interesting, to say the least.
As I began this review by saying, not everyone will love this book, but, for those who really enjoy language and the history and progression of language, I think you’ll find it very interesting. Norris’ good humor and clear explanations are clearly the reason this book is a bestseller!
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, The Society of Classical Poets, and various other literary journals. She recently won an Honorable Mention for her short story “A Slow Burn” at the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society’s annual convention. She also received the Springs of Helicon Award for Poetry, awarded by Tennessee Wesleyan University. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.
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