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Confessions of a Comma Queen

Every few years or so—more like every decade, and therefore not nearly as frequently as I would like—someone writes a delightful account of the need for upholding grammatical standards: especially punctuation but, tangentially, spelling and sentence structure. Those of us (editors but also teachers, writers, and journalists) who have edited other people’s work understand the need for clarity and, therefore, the need for punctuating correctly. My wife (an English professor) and my daughter (a copy editor and a journalist) have a daily laugh at “the dangling modifier of the day,” mostly in The Washington Post and to a lesser extent The New York Times—that is, in print. If they reported their findings from sites on the Internet, they’d have to quit their jobs, which is only to say that sloppy writing by Americans is threatening to undermine the entire practice of conciseness (apparently no longer taught in the schools).

The problem is that most people have no idea what a dangling modifier is, and I’m certainly not going to tell you here. I leave that to Mary Morris is her utterly delightful romp through punctuation in Between You & Me, only to say here that that is the correct construction. You are not supposed to say (or write) “between you and I.” Morris knows of what she speaks, having served for many years as a copy editor at The New Yorker, and, thank God, still serving in that position. The New Yorker is the most carefully edited publication in the United States, in American history I dare say, but I can remember the first time I discovered a typo in the magazine—years ago—and I nearly had a heart attack. I had to point it out to my wife immediately, that surprising was my discovery. So, yes, perhaps in fifty plus years of reading the magazine I’ve discovered a few typos and grammatical errors. I say a few, probably no more than five. But I digress.

Officially, Morris is “a page OK’er,” a term that she explains exists only at The New Yorker: “you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go to press,” which explains why you will find errorsnorrismary in my writing for CounterPunch, because few publications have the luxury of so many people checking the writing for errors. Still, we try, but one of the biggest obstacles on on-line journalism is that it tends to be fast breaking, hastily written, and therefore subject to errors. So you ask me: OK, Larson, since your book reviews are not fast breaking, why so many errors? And I answer that it’s much easier to catch the errors in someone else’s writing than your own because you know what you intended to say even if you haven’t said it (correctly). Probably every “page OK’er” would agree with that statement, though as I’ve already told you there aren’t that many.

Morris’s book is fabulous (a gem, in fact) because of the she explains things, clarifies them. Hence, an early statement proclaims: “The English language is full of words that are just waiting to be misspelled,” and then she provides plenty of examples (largely by referencing the spelling of words in other languages). And then, bless her, she provides a statement like this one, endearing her to me forever: “Spelling is the clothing of words, their outward visible sign, and even those who favor sweatpants in everyday life like to make a bella figura, as the Italians say—a good impression—in their prose.” And if that doesn’t move you, consider the sentence that immediately follows: “A misspelling undermines your authority.” Reading that last sentence, you might conclude that there is no authority anywhere. Anymore. But I’d just as soon skip the debate that that sentence may provoke.

Obviously, many of Morris’s examples are drawn from her years of editing at The New Yorker and, consequently, she mentions a number of the magazine’s most celebrated writers with whom she has worked. My favorite is Morris’s fear that changing something in Philip Roth’s writing would result in his wrath, since many writers are touchy, don’t want their sacred words altered by others. So what message does Roth send to her supervisors after she has changed his writing? “Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?” Others have not been so gracious and Morris explains, “I am not trying to fit anyone into a linguistic straitjacket.” She simply regards grammar as a “plumbing system,” and you wouldn’t want to plug that up. She does confess, however, that she’s “a comma apostate.”

Mostly, it is Morris’s gentle wit that makes grammar delightful. Thus, she says regarding the argument about grammar’s fluidity—and specifically whether to use who or whom—“‘Whom’ may be on the way out, but so is Venice, and we still like to go there.” There’s a delightful passage that identifies Aldo Manuzio as the inventor of the comma, circa 1490. She admits that The New Yorker still uses more commas than just about any other publication but demonstrates repeatedly how they are needed for clarity. Then she remarks, “The editors of Webster’s Third saved eighty pages by cutting down on commas.” In a chapter titled “Who Put the Hyphen in Moby-Dick?” she calls Herman Melville a “literary Gauguin,” a brilliant way of praising him. In a chapter titled “A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk in to a Bar,” Morris states, “There is no mark of punctuation so upper-crust as the semicolon.” In all instances, she explains how to use these punctuation marks correctly. In the last instance, she does that after asking rather bluntly, “What the fuck is a semicolon, anyway?”
The obscenity permits her to segue to the issue of four-letter words and their proper use in writing. There are delightful anecdotes (and obscenities) throughout the entire book. England has an “Apostrophe Protection Society,” for example. As an editor she uses Number 1 pencils—never Number 2 pencils—and explains the difficulty often locating them. (She prefers the softness of the lead in the former). She even visits the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum, in Morgan, Ohio, a museum with 3441 pencil sharpeners, only one of them electric.

In short, Mary Morris is one queen who makes me reconsider the question of royalty.

And now, dear Reader, time for a quick quiz. After you have read this paragraph, the gramatical errors should be counted. Tell me how many you have discovered. You needn’t list them individually, send me a number instead, sighting the number you identify. If you believe that Mary Morris’s book will tell you something about grammar that you need to know, the email need be no longer than one word: spelled out or written simply as a digit. Once you have rushed out and purchased Between you and Me, Mary Morris will bless you silently, I’m certain, though I have no way of sending the results of this little quiz on to her. Its’ simply a test of your smarts. Alright?

Mary Morris: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
Norton, 240 pp., $24.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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