Sunday, March 1, 2015

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris is a random but amusing take on proofreading, commas, the use of the F word, pencils, and any number of other things that crossed the author’s mind while writing the book.

This is a book for people who love grammar and punctuation – who really love grammar and punctuation. There are long explanations of things like clauses and the accusative case. It also helps if you are a proofreader or ex-proofreader, even better if you proofread in the days of hot lead.

I did work as a proofreader in the days of hot lead, and enjoyed reminiscing about it as I read this book. In chapter 6, Who Put the Hyphen in Moby-Dick?, Norris talks about computers not knowing in the early days where to hyphenate words. One of my tasks when I worked for a publisher was to edit the online dictionary of hyphenated words. The author works at The New Yorker magazine, and it’s refreshing to know there are still publishers who pay proofreaders. I’ve seen many words with end-of-line hyphens in the wrong place in published works (not to mention typos).

The book does have chapters but doesn’t seem to have had an outline. The author muses on anything that pops into her head, following idle thoughts down whatever pathways they take her. This is a book that demands to be read slowly or not at all.

I agreed with her little rant about autocorrect and devices. I particularly liked this passage (p. 16 of the advance reading copy):

"Back in the twentieth century, we thought that robots would have taken over by this time, and, in a way, they have. But robots as a race have proved disappointing. Instead of getting to boss around underlings made of steel and plastic with circuitry and blinking lights and tank treads, like Rosie the maid on The Jetsons, we humans have outfitted ourselves with robotic external organs. Our iPods dictate what we listen to next, gadgets in our cars tell us which way to go, and smartphones finish our sentences for us. We have become our own robots."

Unfortunately, this book is more evidence that you cannot publish a book today without the F word in it. Seriously, why does this book need the F word? I always think the F word is for lazy people, and it makes me think this author is lazy. (I’m not talking about Chapter 9, F*ck This Sh*t, which muses on the casual use of profanity in English and has its place in the book, but “What the f* is a semicolon, anyway?” on page 140 of the advance reading copy. A semicolon doesn’t call for or deserve the F word.)

Between You & Me was not as much fun as Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss, but I did enjoy reading it. If you are looking for an amusing light read on the English language, I recommend it.

I read an advance reading copy of Between You & Me. It is scheduled to be published on April 6.

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