I punctuate by instinct. Sometimes I am right. Most often I add too many commas or don’t actually understand the relationships between clauses. I did not learn how to diagram a sentence in elementary school, or even components of language beyond noun, adjective and verb. I read—a lot—and began consciously studying grammar and punctuation as a college student reading my copy of “The Elements of Style” until the covers fell off. I have found that instinct is different from training—more fun perhaps, and still valid—but we must know the rules before breaking them.
Mary Norris makes punctuation and grammar entertaining. “Between You & Me” is much more than a grammarian’s guide. Norris offer’s a humorous, insightful memoir of the life of a logodaedalus (lover of language).
What are the ground rules for a logophile? According to Mary Norris, copy editor at “The New Yorker” and Comma Queen, I is not the formal version of you, “a hyphen is not a moral issue,” and you “cannot legislate language.” You can break language apart however, look under the hood (to borrow a metaphor Norris frequently returns to) and determine how each piece functions.
She wrestles with restrictive and nonrestictive clauses, with copulative and transitive verbs, with commas, semicolons, and apostrophes. Why should Oxford get the credit for a serial comma, she rages. She deciphers who and whom. (The former stands in for he, she, they, I, and we. The latter stands in for him, her, them, me, and us.) She explains iridescent derives from the Greek Iris, goddess of the rainbow, and claims no one will forget the spelling of iridescent once they understand the etymology. (She is right. I probably won’t.)
Great writers break these rules: Norris cites the cadence-inducing commas of Dickens, the “buoyant” commas of Melville, and the “kinky punctuation” of James Saltzer. Writers use punctuation “almost like Braille, providing a kind of bas-relief, accentuating the topography of a sentence.” Copy editors have no desire to correct these topographies, only to ensure they are intentional—copy editing requires “anti-ultracrepidationism” (staying inside a designated province).
Spelling, according to Norris, “is the clothing of words, their outward visible sign, and even those who favor sweatpants in every day life like to…make a good impression.” Copy editors hone these impressions: They make sure that “the tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up.”
Spelling is the clothing of words, but “pronouns turn out to be in our marrow.”
The difference between gender and sex came to life for Norris as she wrangled Italian nouns into male and female: her younger brother, Dee, announced that he was a transsexual. Norris shared her struggles as she adjusted to referring to Dee with an appropriate pronoun. Her entire life she thought of Dee as “he.” Now Dee was “she” and Norris struggled to switch pronouns.
Norris is honest about her own shortcomings, her own resistance and feelings of betrayal. Norris loves Dee, wants to support Dee, but the English language does not withstand such an assault our limited world view: we have no common-sex singular person pronouns.
“The idea that gender in language is decorative, a way of dressing up words, can be applied to the human body: things that identify us outwardly as male or female—breasts, hips, bulges—are decorative as well as essential to the survival of the species. Lipstick and high heels are inflections, tokens of the feminine: lures, sex apps. Those extra letters dangling at the ends of words are the genitalia of grammar. And the pronouns turn out to be in our marrow.”
Norris examines the past, present and future of the English language (is whom becoming irrelevant?), but more than that she provides framework for discussing the impacts of language on the human psyche. English, Norris says, “carries a secret burden of gender,” one we absorb from infancy, practically through our mother’s milk. “If I had been given Latin to play with as a child I’d have had an easier time with the concept of gender later in life,” Norris declares. Language is a building block of communication, a symptom of—and factor affecting—culturalization. Common-sex singular pronouns failed historically, but maybe, just between you and me, we should give our toddlers Latin blocks to play with instead of alphabet blocks.