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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I have to thank my mentor for sending me this book as a Christmas gift, because she clearly knows me well. As an avid reader and former English tutor, I've had a reputation as a Grammar Nazi for most of my life, but Between You and Me showed me that "Comma Queen" is a much better label.

This memoir/writing style guide was written by Mary Norris, who has worked in the copy department at the New Yorker since 1978. She details her professional experiences of what it has been like to work at this major publication for decades, watching as English spelling and grammar changed before her very eyes.

At the practical level, this book is an excellent refresher of those lessons you may have forgotten since your school days. She explains how to use commas and when to use who vs. whom. English majors will love all the literary references, such as Emily Dickinson's penchant for hyphens in her poetry. However, these lessons become more frequent as the book goes on, and I felt that Norris could have included more confessions instead.

Case in point: my favorite parts of the story were those that added a personal touch. I enjoyed her adorkable obsessions with pencil sharpeners, which eventually led to her visiting a whole museum full of them. I also appreciated that she explained the societal need for gender-neutral pronouns by revealing that her sister is transgender:

“Nothing makes it clearer how intimately and deeply pronouns are embedded in our lives than having to alter them to refer to someone you’ve known all your life.”

So, yes, while this book can get a bit pedantic at times, Norris has a wonderful sense of humor and is not nearly as judgmental about copyediting as you might think. Experience and wisdom has softened her, and she continually recognizes even her own ignorance.

“Nobody knows everything—one of the pleasures of language is that there is always something new to learn—and everybody makes mistakes.”

Although I wished that Between You and Me contained more anecdotes, I thought it was an amusing look into one copyeditor's point of view. Everyone knows a Comma Queen, so treat them to this book like I was!