Book Review: Between You and Me, Confessions of a Comma Queen

non-fiction by Mary Norris 

A fun, informative read for the writer dweebs, written by New York Times copy editor Mary Norris who’s spent 30 years in the trenches of the English language. If, like me, your brain falls into a coma when the rules of grammar are described, this book is an antidote. You’ll learn that somewhere along the way we all became worried about sounding like uneducated boors and adopted the You and I reflex. But here’s the lowdown: that is incorrect, it’s perfectly correct to say You and me. Norris’s helpful rule: “Maybe it would help if people practiced, like singers vocalizing: Between you and mi-mi-mi-mi-mi.”

Norris puts to rest those nagging doubts about the who/whom divide. “‘Whom’” may indeed be on the way out but so is Venice and we still like to go there.”

In Chapter 5 you’ll learn all about the history of the comma’s invention and historical usage. In Dickens’ time, when novels were read aloud, the comma merely indicated it was time for the reader to take a breath. About its modern usage, she writes, “The New Yorker isn’t asking you to pause and gasp for breath at every comma. That’s not what close punctuation is about. The commas are marking a thoughtful subordination of information…The punctuation is almost like Braille, providing a kind of bas-relief, accentuating the topography of the sentence.” About lingering rancour over the Oxford comma debate: “The British get to have it both ways: they deride us Americans for our allegiance to a comma that they named and then rejected as pretentious.”

Who knew there was such a thing as Copulative Verbs? Not me, and unfortunately we’re not talking about the copulating verbs, which would be interesting. A few narrative stretches with long descriptions of grammar’s nominative and accusative are like a sedative but luckily Chapter 9, F*ck This Sh*t, roused me out of my stupour. Also Chapter 10 about pencil junkies. Who knew there were pencil junkies? Here’s one piece of obscure Canadian literary trivia gleaned from that chapter: In Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece, Blind Assassin, some of the plot takes place in the fictional town of Ticonderoga, which happens to be the brand name of a pencil which is no longer made.