Ex Libris: Between You & Me

In the tradition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Woe Is I comes Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Norris is a veteran of The New Yorker copy department, having worked there since 1978. With her vast editorial experience, she certainly knows her who from her whom and her I from her me. However, books on usage that aim to be more novel than manual require a style similar to, say, Tina Fey rather than Strunk and White.

Between You & Me is part memoir, part history text, and part usage manual. Where Norris succeeds the most is in sharing her vast knowledge on the history of language. In the chapter entitled “The Problem of Heesh,” Norris details previous attempts at developing gender-neutral language. Who knew that in 1850 the words ne, nis, and nim were proposed to replace he/she, his/her, and him/her? Or that ip and ips were offered in 1884, ha, hez, and hem in 1927, shi, shis, and shim in 1934, and himorher in 1935? In the chapter on commas, we learn that the comma was “refined” by printer Aldo Manuzio in Venice in 1490. In the chapter on apostrophe, we learn that the word goes back to Greek drama and derives from “a rhetorical device in which the actor turns from the action and addresses someone or something who is not there.”

Norris also uses examples from classical literature to illustrate her points on usage. She discusses Charles Dickens’ style of punctuating by ear, which today seems not only overdone but also incorrect: “We know that Dickens got paid by the word (writers still do), a fact that is often used to explain his prodigious output, but I think he might have collected a bonus for punctuation.” She addresses the history of the hyphen in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “The holiest hyphen in literature is the hyphen in Moby-Dick.” She examines Emily Dickinson’s use of the hyphen, Henry James’ fondness for semicolons, and Gertrude Stein’s love of the apostrophe. All these literary details make for entertaining reading. Less effective are the stories from Norris’ personal life. She begins with her own history of working as a “key girl” at a public pool in Cleveland when she was 15 years old. She ends with a story about speaking at the funeral of her New Yorker colleague Lu Burke. Her stories are fine, but there’s nothing particularly compelling, revealing, or funny about them.

Between You & Me is enjoyable for anyone interested in spending some time contemplating spelling, punctuation, and general usage issues. Although Norris’ personal stories do not serve the book as well as her exploration of the history of language and the usage styles of famous literary figures, Between You & Me is a worthwhile read. Hey, we can’t all be Tina Fey, but there’s a lot to be said for Strunk and White.—Laura King, MA, ELS

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