Confessions of a Comma Queen

Back on April 4th, I posted about two language-related pieces in the New Yorker, the first a reminiscence by Mary Norris about jobs she had held, tracing her route to the copydesk at that magazine and her career as a “comma queen”. About that time the expansion of this essay into a book appeared: Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W. W. Norton). And now some reviews, including one by Patricia O’Conner in the NYT Book Review on April 19th, beginning:

Copy editors are a peculiar species (I’ve been one myself, and at the very publication you are now reading). But those at The New Yorker are something else entirely, a species nova that mutated into existence in 1925 and would hurl itself off a cliff rather than forsake the dieresis in “coöperate.”

O’Conner expands on this:

For the uninitiated, The New Yorker is a magazine that until 2003 spelled the word “deluxe” with a hyphen: “de-luxe.” It inserts periods into “I.B.M.,” though IBM itself dropped them long ago. It phonetically splits the word “England,” when it breaks at the end of a line, like this: “En-gland.” (One imagines a verb, “england,” meaning to provide with glands.)

A regular reader might be forgiven for wondering, “Are these people nuts?” In Mary Norris’s “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen,” we have our answer: They most certainly are. And their obsessions, typographical and otherwise, make hilarious reading.

[Digression on periodophilia. (I seem to have been the first to use this obvious term for a devotion to periods in initialistic abbreviations.) I wrote in Language Log on 10/30/08 about the NYT‘s (not the New Yorker‘s) addiction to such periods (without using the term periodophilia), taking off from a Wikipedia entry:

The New York Times is unique in having a consistent style by always abbreviating with periods: P.C. [personal computer], I.B.M., P.R. [public relations]. This is in contrast with the trend of British publications to completely make do without periods for convenience.

In my own voice:

The Times tolerates abbreviations with lots of periods in them: four in U.C.L.A. and L.I.R.R. (Long Island Rail Road), five in N.A.A.C.P., six in A.F.L.-C.I.O. (against the practice of these institutions and organizations themselves, which is clean and period-free).

I then detailed some exceptions and noted variation in the NYT‘s practice. On this blog, I’ve posted at least three times on the paper’s periodophilia: on 12/25/10 (J.F.K. for JFK airport), on 2/28/11 (on L.G.B.T., plus N.L.P. for natural language processing), and on 7/30/11 (stressing the paper’s disregard of the practices of people to whom the abbreviations apply).]

O’Conner continues:

“Between You & Me” is mostly a memoir, but it’s part usage guide, too. Norris shares her views on spelling, punctuation, dangling participles and troublesome pronouns, providing apt illustrations from an editing life.

… the grammar advice is less illuminating. Norris defends a friend of hers who actually said, while looking for her sunglasses, “Are those they?” Mary, drop the pencil and step away from the desk. Yes, one may use “It is I” if one wishes, but “It is me” is faultless English. The old prescription requiring the nominative case after the verb “to be” has long been discredited as a Latin construction mistakenly applied to English.

Another from Norris (p. 41), on that vs. which as restrictive relativizers (a topic that’s been endlessly covered on Language Log and this blog):

If people are nervous, they sometimes use “which” when “that” would do [presuming that “that” is the default alternative]. Politicians often say “which” instead of “that,” to sound important. A writer may say “which” instead of “that” — it’s no big deal. It would be much worse to say “that” instead of “which.” Apparently the British use “which” more and do not see anything wrong with it. Americans have agreed [we had a plebiscite?] to use “that” when the clause is restrictive and to use “which,” set off with commas, when the clause is nonrestrictive. It works pretty well.

As with nominative predicate pronouns, Norris is less familiar with the literature on grammar and usage than she should be. She uses Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the M-W online dictionary, but not the M-W Dictionary of English Usage.

One more example: from p. 52:

A lot of people are not bothered by danglers, and even good writers occasionally slip up.

… Once I objected to the sentence “Over tea in the greenhouse, her mood turned dark,” The editor said, testily, “Can’t we just leave it?” I insisted that her mood wasn’t hovering over the tea (well, maybe it was, but I was feeling literal-minded that day). The sentence became “As we drank tea in the greenhouse, her mood turned dark.”

Surely an unnecessary alteration. Initial framing PPs generally are not understood as having a missing subject that needs to be supplied; there is no dangling in her example. “In the summer, it gets very hot” and the like do not need fixing. (But then as I’ve pointed out again and again, the usage literature on dangling modifiers is so balled up that it has to be re-thought from the ground up.)

So I have reservations about Norris’s grammar advice, but for the most part the book is both charming and informative.

Bonus: back to nominative predicate pronouns. A letter in the NYT Book Review yesterday, from Jonathan Middlebrook of Redwood Valley CA, under the heading “Between Us”:

“ ‘It is me’ is faultless English,” Patricia T. O’Conner proclaims in her review of “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” (April 19). It may be grammatically correct, but it is faultless only to those with tin ears for English diction.

This is an expression of taste in language use, and like expressions of taste in general, it isn’t amenable to rational discussion. For Middlebrook, It is I is elegant, and It is me is coarse and graceless, while for me and Pat (if I may talk for her), It is I is unbearably pretentious (cue Hyacinth Bucket). For all I know, there are some British speakers left for whom mirror is vulgar, and only looking glass or glass will do.

(I’ve written far too much on nominative predicate pronouns. The short story is that, aside from a few fixed expressions in specific uses, they’re simply ungrammatical, and that, I think, is not a matter of taste.)

Taste is a slippery matter, in language as elsewhere. In his most recent book (Yes, I Could Care Less: How to be a Language Snob without Being a Jerk (2013)), Bill Walsh in effect elevates his personal taste in language choices to usage advice, as language advisers do in general, but for the most part he doesn’t try to rationalize his choices: some things (“Try to see if you can do it”) just sound better than others (“Try and see if you can do it”), and you should learn to listen to the language with his ears.

2 Responses to “Confessions of a Comma Queen”

  1. javava2012 Says:

    It would appear that either a change of thinking or a level of sloppiness has become commonplace at The New Yorker, which I usually read nearly cover-to-cover (after skipping the ‘Goings On About Town’ section, since I am neither there nor, much as I might like, am I likely to revisit the city in this lifetime. Spelling errors remain rare. Grammar ones crop up all too often. William Shawn would roll in his grave were he to know.
    Doug Harris

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      This comment would be more useful if you said what grammatical failures in the New Yorker you were complaining about, and what they have to do with Mary Norris’s book (or Pat O’Conner’s review).

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