Between You & Me by Mary Norris
My husband knows me well. I came back from a trip a week ago, and this book was waiting for me. I hadn’t heard of it, but if I had, I would have bought it myself. Ms. Norris works at The New Yorker, where since the mid-1970s she has copy-edited (copy edited? Shit. I should know this by now) many articles and features. Part how-to (and how-not-to), part history, this book gives the reader some insight into the challenges we face when trying to come up with the best ways to communicate in written English.
I’m still not sure how best to categorize this book. I’m sure it will be compared to Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but its tone isn’t nearly as scolding. I don’t get the sense that Ms. Norris is judging those of us who make improper use of punctuation; instead I think she is genuinely interested in helping people better understand punctuation so that they can communicate better.
The book provides some insight into work at The New Yorker, including some quirks of its style guide. For example, magazine staff makes use of the diaphoresis, that double-dot bit you see over words such as naïve, in words like cooperate. Staff members also use a double consonant when adding a suffix (travelling instead of traveling, for example). Fascinating. And really appealing to someone like me. This book isn’t for everyone, however. I think there are some folks (I’m thinking of Mary Roach) who can take a topic and make it interesting to literally everyone. I think that to enjoy this book, you need to have at least some passing interest in language. But it can be the slightest of interests. If you ever wonder whether to put a comma in a sentence, for example, you probably have sufficient interest to find this book enjoyable.
One chapter that initially gave me a slight bit of pause was the one on gender. She tackles the idea of gender in nouns in other languages, as well as the attempts to create gendered nouns (e.g. dominatrix) in English. She also talks about the frustrating fact that there is no agreed-upon third person generic; you have to say him or her, there is no singular ‘they’ that is gender neutral. She also dives into the topic of using the appropriate pronouns for someone, as she has experience with this directly: her sister was assigned the gender of male at birth, and later shared with the family that she was in fact a woman. Ms. Norris talks about the early challenges she had with using the correct pronoun. Other than a word choice that I wouldn’t make (she refers to her sister as transsexual instead of transgender; although perhaps that’s the word her sister requested she use), the section is thoughtful and I think really drives home the importance of using the correct pronouns.
I was hovering between a three-star and four-star rating when I turned to find this chapter title: “F*ck This Sh*t.” Come on. That’s unexpected. The book isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but you can tell that Ms. Norris has a sense of humor and is quite self-aware.