The Comma Queen: Mary Norris

Durante más de dos décadas fue correctora de estilo de la prestigiosa revista The New Yorker, lo que le valió el título de Reina de las Comas. Autora de un libro sobre su pasión por la cultura griega, nos habla de su meticuloso trabajo con la lengua inglesa.

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Which is grammatically correct: ‘between you and me’ or ‘between you and I’? Plenty of native English speakers would have to think twice. And plenty of others would enjoy criticising those who got it wrong!

In her first book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, American writer Mary Norris uses humour and anecdote to demystify these shibboleths of standard English grammar. And because, having studied Greek, she understands the struggles of learning another language, she wouldn’t judge you if you thought the correct form was ‘between you and I’! 

an expert

Back in 1978, Mary Norris, the daughter of Irish immigrants living in Cleveland, Ohio, started work at the prestigious The New Yorker magazine as a proofreader. Her work involved checking the spelling, grammar and punctuation of articles being prepared for publication and, of course, making sure that every comma was correctly placed. She spent twenty-four years in the role and became an expert on punctuation: a “Comma Queen”.

her first book

Norris’s first book is a fascinating memoir focused on her time at The New Yorker. In it, Norris combines anecdotes about the editorial team and episodes from her family life with practical guidance on grammar and punctuation. In fact, language and life are often closely intertwined; for example, in a section about pronouns, Norris talks about her transgender sister and why using little words like ‘she’ and ‘he’ correctly matters so much. 

ANCIENT GREEK WISDOM

In the little free time her work for The New Yorker left her, Norris became obsessed with all things Greek, and the language and culture of Greece soon permeated every aspect of her life. In her second book, Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen, she describes her personal journey into Greek culture: a journey that involves both comedy and tragedy. Greek mythology inspired Norris on a psychological level. Athena, the powerful, independent goddess, with flashing grey eyes, becomes a role model for Norris, helping her challenge childhood expectations about a woman’s place in the world.

impeccable standards

Norris spent her working life at The New Yorker proofreading and later writing too. This weekly magazine has a reputation for high standards in grammar and accuracy and, to maintain this, all articles have to pass through a rigorous series of checks before publication. Norris explains what her role in the process was. 

Mary Norris (American accent): I worked in the copy department. There’s also a fact-checking department. And these two departments are the ones who really try hard to make magazine perfect, to make sure there are no mistakes, and generally, to make the writing as good as we can without, of course, changing, the writer’s voice. We’re always trying to preserve the individuality of the writer’s voice, and many writers do have voices. Some reporters are mainly about providing the information and, in those cases, we just try to make things as clear as we can. Then there are writers who don’t like to be that clear, [laughs] and you just have to try to get them to cooperate as best you can!

ORIGINS OF A NAME

Since the success of her first book, Norris has become known as “the Comma Queen”. But how did that name originate?

Mary Norris: Well I never came up with the term “Comma Queen”, that was my agent and it’s worked very well. I finally realized it was a twist on “drama queen”, and The New Yorker is known for lots of commas, and it was a piece about commas that led to my writing the book, which would be about commas and many other things. People argue endlessly about things like the serial comma, and that’s the comma before ‘and’. Say “red, white, and blue”. It’s supposed to prevent ambiguity, it does prevent ambiguity... but not in that many cases.

ensuring clarity

Using punctuation—such as commas, semi-colons, and parentheses—to make a text crystal clear was a major part of Norris’s work at The New Yorker. So, no wonder she’s fascinated by the history of punctuation. She shares a few fun facts with us.

Mary Norris: When the Greeks developed writing, they developed the alphabet, and they had no clues for the reader at all where one word left off and the next began, where one sentence left off...  There were no comments, there were no spaces between words, and I think from the Renaissance, punctuation started developing, and what do we have now... emojis? Well, punctuation was the emojis of Victorian England, Charles Dickens used as many pieces of punctuation as he could, and now the tendency is more toward minimalism, use as few marks as you can.

THE SERIAL COMMA

Mary Norris has made a series of short, light-hearted videos for anyone (native-speakers included) who is not 100 per cent confident about English grammar. They include issues such as the difference between ‘fewer’ and ‘less’, ‘I’ and ‘me’, ‘who’ and ‘whom’, etc. Obviously, one of the topics she talks about in her videos is the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma; the comma before “and” in a series of three or more words. She gives a very clear example with the phrase: “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” If it were “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin”, then you could mistake JFK and Stalin for strippers.

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