The value of a light touch and other lessons from the Comma Queen

May 12, 2015 By Matthew Crowley Resources

Who goes there? The author, New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris writes, optimally followed by the copy editor, trailing noiselessly behind.

In “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen,” her terrific memoir-cum-usage guide, the longtime New Yorker copy editor describes all the good things editors can do with both activity (corralling commas, parsing punctuation, sorting syntax) and inactivity (leaving alone what needs leaving alone).

Restraint, though, may not be a recognized, or perceived, copy desk trait. She acknowledges the image of copy editors as grubby gotcha gangs, spraying commas, hammering errors and raining red ink on narratives.

“At worst,” Norris writes, “(a copy editor is) a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the career of other writers.”

But writers have a reason for doing what they do, she adds, and sometimes editors who try to take over aren’t helping. Top-drawer writers, the sort that get work published in The New Yorker, are usually the least defensive and the easiest to work with, she writes. The point of having something read by an editor, she argues, is making sure the writing doesn’t stick out like a tag on a shirt, unless it’s supposed to.

“If you change the work so much that it shows you’ve been in there,” she said in an interview, “that’s exactly what we don’t want to do.”

Norris, who began at The New Yorker in 1978, writes that she never planned to become a comma queen. She began her working life checking not syntax for smoothness but feet for fungus at the municipal pool in Cleveland. She also worked in a costume shop, drove a milk truck (crashing in on her first drive), and worked in a Vermont cheese factory. Meanwhile, she was earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and starting to read the magazine that would eventually employ her.

After graduate school, Norris moved to New York where her art student brother lived and knew the wife of The New Yorker’s board chairman. Norris also met the wife and then the chairman and landed in the magazine’s editorial library. Norris’ foot, and eventually her beloved No. 1 lead pencils, were in the door.

Copy editors will smile, laugh and nod knowingly at many passages in “Between You and Me.” She recalls her first catch, a here’s-not-looking-at-“u”-kid moment — she spotted a “flower” that was supposed to be “flour.” She delves into hyphenation, and the one that landed harpoonlike in the title of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” She describes headache-inducing apostrophes (how does anybody make a possessive of McDonald’s?). And, in a chapter on commas, she gives the “and” test — a comma can go into a string of adjectives if it stands for “and.”

This doesn’t always hold up, though. In one story that crossed Norris’ desk, James Salter wrote, “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach.” This comma failed the “and test,” but Salter argued that he sometimes used commas for poetry or emphasis and this particular comma stressed the dress’s thinness.

There are other mind-twisting conundrums. An “f” once threatened to bring Norris a weekend of anxiety. In “In Suspect Terrain,” John McPhee had written a passage on rock columns describing “new, and far between” seismic studies. The itchy copy editor was at the threshold, Norris writes, wanting to change “new” to “few.” But she wasn’t sure; if she changed it incorrectly, she’d introduce error and fret till Monday. She stayed her hand and let it be.

Dangling modifiers — sentences in which subjects don’t match their participles — can make you laugh (she writes that truck weigh station signs have her favorite danglers: “Trucks enter when flashing”) or writhe.

Good writers who are also stubborn, Norris writes, might cling to danglers, arguing that they wrote them on purpose and that even dangle-mangled sentences convey what they should.

And the better the writer, Norris writes, the twistier the dangler.

Take this one from Edward St. Aubyn: “Walking down the long, easily washed corridors of his grandmother’s nursing home, the squeak of the nurse’s rubber soles made his family’s silence seem more hysterical than it was.” (Who knew squeaks could walk?)

Fixing the dangler would require either trying an active verb in the participial phrase, “As the nurse walked down … the squeak of her rubber soles,” or changing the main clause so the participial phrase modifies the subject, “Walking down the long easily washed corridors … the nurse in her squeaky rubber shoes.”

“Nothing I could do would improve this sentence,” Norris writes. “If someone had pointed this out to the writer, he might have rewritten it or he might have said he didn’t see anything wrong with it.

“So it turns out there’s a third option, do nothing,” she writes. “Sometimes it’s easier to reconcile oneself to the dangler than to fix it.”

“Between You and Me” reminds copy editors about the power of mentors and the importance of learning from peers. In her interview, she said some learning was on paper; she described a “junk box” into which New Yorker editors put proofs after they’d marked them up. Norris would dip in and learn. (The electronic age has cut the paper proof pile drastically, she said, leaving less for younger editors to learn from.)

“There is still a junk box,” she said, “But not everything ends up in it. And those mentors are gone.”

Some learning was oral. In the book, Norris describes a particularly poetic metaphor for a copy editor’s methods shared between colleagues, Lu Burke to Alice Quinn.“First we get the rocks out, Alice. Then we get the pebbles out. Then we get the sand out, and the writer’s voice rises. No harm done.”

“What we have to do,” Norris said in her interview, “is develop an honest desire to be of service to the writer and to language, and not put ourselves forward. We just have to do the thing that in our heart of hearts we know will improve the piece.”

Norris admits to prescriptivism about language, both delivery and usage. In the interview, she said she still wants words on paper — she has eschewed space-saving e-readers and instead lugs armloads of paperbacks on plane trips. “What if the satellites go out?” she asked.

And she resists the movement to let the singular “he” or “she” take the plural pronoun “they.” Seeing it in print, she said, feels like a poke it the ribs, as if news outlets are trying to force the usage’s acceptance. She said her stance on this seemed to disappoint other conferencegoers at ACES’ March conference in Pittsburgh. (Read about Norris’ ACES session.)

The best copy editors, Norris said, possess a blend of high intelligence and low ego. They’re at peace in backgrounds, unnoticed and unsung. It would be nice if the writers we save were grateful, she said, but we shouldn’t come to expect it.

“We’re getting paid for what we do, shouldn’t be expected to be thanked,” she said. “But it’s really nice when someone shows gratitude.”

Matthew Crowley has been an ACES member since 2001. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter @copyjockey.

New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris signs her book, “Between You & Me,” at the ACES 2015 conference. (Taylor Carlier)

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