No sooner had I finished the final page of Mary Norris’s impeccably punctuated prose, I determined to begin Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, again. Norris, a copy editor at The New Yorker, is I decided, a psalmist and Between You and Me, her hymn to the glory of grammar. My mind was a whirl with syntax and semi-colons, captivated by the contrariness of the comma, and agog at the antics of the apostrophe in lackadaisical hands. In short, I was worried. Apparently, transgressing grammatical law has become, even among the well-educated, alarmingly common. Take for instance the solecism—a slip up in syntax—or think of it as a sin of commission. Despairingly the use of ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ is rife, with shoe salesmen to Academy Award winners caught in the act. And if Barack Obama—who Norris rates as the bright star of political articulateness in recent times—is also a regular transgressor, what hope is there for us ordinary folk. Not for nothing did Norris title her book, Between You and Me. Then there are failures to perform an action, these are sins of omission. And here the comma deserves special mention, not least because Norris’s employer, The New Yorker, in a monogamous relationship with punctuation for ninety-three years, is well known for its lashings of commas. That the magazines fondness for punctuation has endured, is due in large part to its enigmatic founder and editor, Harold Ross. As his successor, William Shawn explains, in Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill’s 1975 memoir, “Ross was devoted to clarity and stood in awe of grammar.” Under his auspices, punctuation was sacred and not to be trifled with, the net result of which, Gill says, often left staff writers’ feeling “restive under the literary mutilations ritually practiced upon us by Ross in the sacred name of accuracy.” It seems that writer disgruntlement prevailed crossing continents and editors’. From 1990 to 1995, under the editorships of Bob Gottlieb and Tina Brown, British journalist and novelist, Julian Barnes wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’. The preface to his 1995 book, Letters from London, leaves you in no doubt that writing for The New Yorker, is at once enviable and exasperating. His description of the editorial process in getting an article to print is akin to finding oneself in an authorial way station—a purgatorial domain—where one’s work undergoes grammatical and factual purification so that it may attain the accuracy necessary to enter hallowed pages of The New Yorker. Oh, Julian you poor dear. Well for what it’s worth, I think you’re perfect.
Undoubtedly the editorial assiduousness that Gill and Barnes recall survives, it is a habit and The New Yorker has donned its Sunday best—the vestments of grammatical decorum—for more than ninety years. Now, in the twenty-first century, replete with grammar-free textese, tweets and e-mails, we need the ceremony more than ever. And after spending time with Norris, it struck me that not only was she leading the ceremony, but reinvigorating it too. Whereas before, the copy editor loomed like a spectre over a writer’s sentences, Norris—the copy-editing equivalent of Vatican II—has flung open the editorial office door and invited, not only writer’s, but all worshippers in. I’m one of those enthusiastic worshippers at The New Yorker, figuring over the years, that careful, if somewhat irregular, study of the catechism might smarten up my prose. While tardy in reading Norris’s book, I’ve watched religiously, Norris’s Comma Queen videos that premiered on October 3, 2015.
I picked up a copy of The New Yorker that was lying on the coffee table. The date was February 23 & March 2, 2015, the ninetieth anniversary issue. I turned to the contents, of which the first, is a piece by Mary Norris: Holy Writ Learning to love the house style. A taster for Between You & Me prior to its publication in April. The copy editor was facing the congregation, now seen and heard, a spirited part of The New Yorker.