“Let’s get one thing straight right from the beginning: I didn’t set out to be a comma queen.” In fact, Mary Norris explored quite a few interesting career paths before finding her calling as a copy editor at The New Yorker. Her work life began at the age of 15, checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland. She went on to drive a milk truck, package mozzarella at a cheese factory, and wash dishes (all the while managing to pursue a graduate degree in English).
Eventually, in 1978, Norris landed a job in the editorial library of The New Yorker. Her first day at work coincided with a snowstorm. While riding in the elevator with an editor, she remarked that he was wearing “the kind of boots we wore in the cheese factory.” The editor quipped, “So this is the next stop after the cheese factory?”
As it happens, it proved to be a very good stop, both for devotees of The New Yorker and readers of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Norris’ funny and entertaining new book about language and life (both in and out of the magazine’s offices).
After more than 35 years at The New Yorker, Norris has amassed considerable knowledge of the English language and how (not) to use it. In a chapter entitled “Spelling Is for Weirdos,” Norris discusses the history of dictionaries and why spellcheck isn’t enough, and recounts the story of her first big break at the magazine—discovering a typographical error everyone else had missed. We learn that Charles Dickens punctuated by ear, that the semicolon is an “upper-crust” punctuation mark best avoided and that the apostrophe will most definitely need our prayers if it is to survive.
While Norris may have a job as a “comma queen,” readers of Between You & Me will find that “prose goddess” is perhaps a more apt description of this delightful writer.