Before I begin to share with you, dear readers, a taste of what it was like to laugh out loud as author Mary Norris spoke cheerfully and with candor on December 1 at the Mattapoisett Public Library about her highly celebrated book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, I offer my confession – I was terrified to write this story.
Norris, a grammarian of the first order, was charming in her delivery of all things written and spoken in the English language. But there I sat thinking, “I am out of my depth here.”
By this morning with a moderately rested brain and a desire to get this assignment done while Norris’ comments were still fresh in my mind, I realized something profound – well, profound for me at any rate: copy editing is not my job.
My job is to write the story to the best of my ability, writing something that is worthy (I hope) of a reader’s time. The job of ensuring that my writing is grammatically correct, free of spelling errors yet possessing my ‘style’ is, after all, someone else’s problem.
Thus, I give you my guilt-free take on spending an hour laughing and learning in the presence of one very funny and intelligent woman.
Norris spent decades (1978-2017) reading other authors’ writings for The New Yorker as a copy editor. Her dream, however, was to be the writer, not the copy editor.
So when she was asked to write a rebuttal piece to an article that had appeared in The New York Times online blog authored by Ben Yagoda, a piece that was discussing the then recently published best selling book by Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Norris laid down her No. 1 extra soft Ticonderoga pencil and got to work.
Before sharing snippets of her years wielding her pencils or studying the punctuation heavy works of Melville and Dickens, she asked the audience to write down a sentence:
“Outside a cemetery in Mattapoisett sat a harassed cobbler and embarrassed peddler gnawing on a desiccated potato and gazing on the symmetry of a lady’s ankle in unparalleled ecstasy.”
Although the group was not tasked with writing the sentence using correct punctuation but instead to test spelling skills, Norris’ engaging manner and wit eased their confusion. Even those gifted with excellent vocabulary skills can get hung up on a word like ‘desiccated’.
Norris’ book, first published in 2015 and now out in paperback, shares with the reader her love of the English language. Clearly she enjoys speaking and writing with a discipline honed from many years of correcting other people’s stuff. Yet she comes across as kind, and appreciates that writers have ‘styles’ and that, at times, rules must be broken in order to convey a thought or emotion that mere punctuation might otherwise ruin.
Norris is clever, quick with a turn of phrase, and possesses a funny bone that was delightfully on display.
For instance, most are aware that the Greeks and the Romans had debated for centuries which came first – the Greeks’ impact on everything from language, architecture, and food, or, the Italians, I mean Romans. As it turns out, Norris said, the word “comma” comes from the Greeks, but it was made so much better by Italian Aldus Manutius in the late 1400s. Manutius, by the by, is also credited with inventing italics and semicolons, but that’s a story for another day.
Norris also shared from her book the following: “Commas are like nuns. They travel in pairs.” Or this dash of comedic insight, “I feel my hackles rise, however, when I hear people refer to the serial comma as the Oxford comma, why does Oxford get all the credit? … Why not the Harvard comma, or the Rutgers comma, or the Cornhusker comma? … The public relations department at Oxford doesn’t use it.”
Norris’ book is 200 pages of information beneficial to nearly anyone such as U.S. presidents, parents, teachers, students and, oh yes, writers from every genre. The material is presented in a manner that is not off-putting, even for those for whom the word ‘whom’ has never been used.
Norris’ appearance is part of the Purrington Lecture Series presented by the Mattapoisett Library Trust, a nonprofit organization that supports the Mattapoisett Free Public Library throughout the year by providing programs and other funds for needed equipment and furnishings.
By Marilou Newell