Published by W. W. Norton Company on April 4th 2016
Genres: Nonfiction, Editing, Writing
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Mary Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker's copy department, maintaining its celebrated high standards. Now she brings her vast experience, good cheer, and finely sharpened pencils to help the rest of us in a boisterous language book as full of life as it is of practical advice.
Between You & Me features Norris's laugh-out-loud descriptions of some of the most common and vexing problems in spelling, punctuation, and usage—comma faults, danglers, "who" vs. "whom," "that" vs. "which," compound words, gender-neutral language—and her clear explanations of how to handle them. Down-to-earth and always open-minded, she draws on examples from Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and the Lord's Prayer, as well as from The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace, and Gillian Flynn. She takes us to see a copy of Noah Webster's groundbreaking Blue-Back Speller, on a quest to find out who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick, on a pilgrimage to the world's only pencil-sharpener museum, and inside the hallowed halls of The New Yorker and her work with such celebrated writers as Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders.
Readers—and writers—will find in Norris neither a scold nor a softie but a wise and witty new friend in love with language and alive to the glories of its use in America, even in the age of autocorrect and spell-check. As Norris writes, "The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can't let it push you around."
I suppose I liked this book. It didn’t start out great—there wasn’t enough distinction between anecdotal and educational content. They were interwoven too closely and that caused confusion. I wasn’t sure why she chose to talk about some things where she did, and others at other places…If I was hooked on a personal story, I didn’t want to digress into grammar history and usage, no matter how relevant. I would have loved to read it at another time. And some of the stories didn’t have enough context or closure, which is really important to me. A few did.
Eventually, after a few chapters of confusion, she separated her content a little better. There were entire chapters devoted to grammatical concepts, such as the gender-neutral pronoun, commas, apostrophes, etc. There were also chapters devoted to more personal stories, such as the one on expletives and the one on pencils. It became an easy read at this point. It was also enjoyable, even though I still felt like I wasn’t getting all the context/closure I would have liked. As for the overall collection of stories—they were quite varied. I’m not really sure why a chapter about her adventures with pencils, erasers, and sharpeners (apparently worthy of a chapter) needed to be included after diving into the depths of the dictionary’s history and how Moby-Dick got its hyphen. But she has certainly gathered a lot of knowledge and I suppose it makes sense to put them all under the umbrella of word- or editing-related things. Even though editing on paper is going the way of the dinosaurs, and I have never had to consider which pencil is best for marking proofs. (I was almost curious to try out No. 1 pencils, but I think I’ll stick to my trusty mechanical.)
So it’s interesting, a little entertaining, a little educational, and also a little boring. This book is a lot of things. But I’m still glad I read it. I got inspired to do some more research on things, like Noah Webster and his etymology-fabricating tendencies.
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