The Comma Queen’s confessions are a delight – both for those in the know and for those who haven’t yet experienced the split infinitives, spelling curiosities and Oxford commas that populate the copy-editor’s working life.
“One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.”
I’m putting this out there right now: I want Mary Norris’s job. Her description of moving to New York from Cleveland and rather unexpectedly joining the editorial staff of The New Yorker made me both happy and deeply envious. Between You and Me is a joyful romp through Mary’s career as page OK’er/copy-editor/prose goddess/Comma Queen (you take your pick) at the American weekly renowned for its editing and style.
This enjoyable story is served up alongside a wealth of detail about what copy-editors do, as well as helpful information on many of the thornier points of style, grammar and punctuation.
Can’t decide whether to use the serial (Oxford) comma or not? Mary can help:
“The bottom line is to choose one and be consistent and try not to make a moral issue out of it.”
This advice can be applied to a lot of other questions raised when copy-editing.
Confused about hyphens? She has a whole chapter on it and even recommends an entire book on hyphens, Meet Mr. Hyphen (And Put Him in His Place) by Edward N. Teall. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only person to have spent a good proportion of their career worrying about where to place the hyphen in a word that breaks over the end of a line (an issue that crops up with justified text in books and newspapers).
My favourite chapter though is ‘Ballad of a Pencil Junkie’ – I did grow up in Keswick, the home of the Pencil Museum, where pencils are very important, and like most proofreaders and copy-editors I am devoted to my stationery. I am now planning my next holiday to include a visit to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio.
For this post, I’ve spent even longer than usual checking that subject–verb agreement is correct and making sure my hyphens are in the right place, in Mary’s honour. If you’re looking for a highly entertaining insight into the life of copy-editor then make sure that Between You and Me is next on your reading list.