“New Yorker” Magazine’s Mary Norris on Comma Usage . . .

Last spring, on CBC radio’s “Sunday Edition,” veteran journalist Michael Enright IMG_0080interviewed Mary Norris, copy editor of “New Yorker” Magazine, on the publication of her first book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015). You can listen to the 34 minute interview here. The book is in part a memoir of the more than three decades Norris has spent in the magazine’s copy department, but is more fully a meditation and handbook on language usage. I recommend it as a fun and insightful read. It will sharpen or refresh your writing skills and allow you to read Norris’ stories from inside the work of professional editing.

She gives many pointers, drawing on her 30 years as an editor and proofreader, drawing upon several sources, like Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage. She analyzes spelling, grammar and punctuation use–including dashes, semi-colons, colons, apostrophes and even on using expletives, in formal text.

Norris describes editing copy many years ago for the Christmas shopping lists of the “New Yorker.” There she would find strings of adjectives would be joined together (e.g. “a floor length cardigan coat in leaf-patterned black silk jacquard”). She says that she’d “get lost in all the throngs of adjectives” of those seasonal listings. And she ably demonstrates for readers the rules governing comma use between adjectives that precede nouns.

Norris tells us that usage guides say that if you can substitute “and” for the comma in a list of adjectives without losing meaning then the comma belongs there. So Norris cites the author James Salter for making that error: “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach” (104, emphasis added). Here, Norris notes that “thin and burgundy” does not make sense, because the two adjectives are “not coordinate. They do not belong to the same order,” because “burgundy” modifies “dress” more “tenaciously” than “thin” does.

Bryan Garner, as Norris notes, also recommends testing for comma use by reversing the order of the adjectives in such a descriptive list: the adjectives should still make sense if the comma is to stay. “Burgundy and thin” do not make sense, in Salter’s example, above, so that he should not have used the comma. (My first year university example is “deep blue eyes,” which would not make sense as “blue deep eyes,” and therefore should have no comma between the adjectives.)

Exploring this particular application of the comma, Norris illuminates and vivifies a frequently misunderstood case. There’s no surprise that the internet is chock-full of sentences that misuse commas in lists of adjectives.

Her book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, would have been all the more useful if she had delved into more subjective (and difficult) aspects of comma usage, instead of this one application. However, Norris does go on to discuss other vexed applications of punctuation in greater detail. And she manages to maintain the irreverent  storytelling throughout the book. Between You and Me (and not “you and I”),  is worth signing out from the library. . . if not actually buying it, for a good summer read. (And note that that last phrase has no comma in it . . . .).

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