I believe it was Joan who prompted me to get myself in the library hold queue for Between You and Me by Mary Norris and I am glad I did! Norris has spent over thirty years as a copy editor for The New Yorker. She has stories! She also knows her grammar. Although she frequently recognizes that New Yorker style and the grammar everyone else uses don’t always align. And yes, she reports people being afraid her at parties, worried they are going to say something incorrect and that she will judge them. Norris insists she has no time or inclination for that malarky yet however reassuring she tries to be, there are some who can’t believe she isn’t silently ripping them to shreds.
A pity too because if she is anything in person like she is in her book, she has a great sense of humor. Though as a grammar geek she does have issues as anyone who is geeky about something will. Like the time she read Light Years by James Salter. She had been hearing about how good he is for a long time and finally decided to read one of his books. She loved it but was pulled up by one sentence, particularly a comma in that one sentence, that seemed to her unnecessary. It bugged her so much she wrote him a letter asking about it. Salter kindly wrote back to her and explained why he used a comma where he did and Norris was completely satisfied with his answer. How many of us would write an author about a comma?
The book is part memoir, part grammar lesson, and sprinkled with the occasional hint of annoyance over all the mistakes people make on a daily basis. There is an entire chapter on “you and I” versus “you and me” and why most of the time “you and me” is the correct usage. Another chapter discusses the problem of there being no gender non-specific pronoun in English that accounts for he and she, him and her, forcing people into terrible grammar contortions and even prompting many to suggest such near atrocities as “ne, nis, nim” or “shi, shis, shim” or “mef” or “hu.” She acknowledges most people have thrown in the towel and settled for “they” and “their” and while she can manage to not be too upset by “they,” “their” is completely unacceptable in her book.
Other things we learn are the correct usage of “which” and “that.” While I was reading it I felt I would never forget the rules but if you ask me right now I will mumble something about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses and oh, I’m sorry, I have to go take this phone call. I know I get these mixed up all the time but it is hard to make myself care. Should I?
One of my favorite chapters is on dashes, semicolons, and colons. I love dashes and once, long ago, after reading all of Emily Dickinson’s poems over the course of a month, I became a dash maniac. I have since tempered my usage but —oh! — I love them so. I used to be terrified of semicolons and would do my best to avoid any sentence that might need one. But a few years ago I read something, I can’t remember what, that gave me the confidence to start using them. And once I began I decided I really like semicolons even if I am never actually certain whether I am using them correctly. In her chapter Norris does a marvelous analysis on how Henry James uses semicolons. You will not be surprised to know he is absolutely brilliant at it. I am shy about colons and will probably always remain so. I had a writing teacher once drill into my head that a colon was like a big neon sign and that if I ever used one, what came after it had better be good. I guess you could say my shyness of colons stems from a fear that I could never say anything good enough to justify a neon sign. Norris is more reassuring on the matter but I believe I have been scarred for life.
At times I felt like Norris comes across a teeny bit condescending and know-it-all. Perhaps given her position at the New Yorker she really does know it all, but no one likes that especially when it comes to grammar. She has a light, breezy style and is witty and funny, but sometimes her jokes fell flat with me, particularly in her chapter about profanity. However, Between You and Me is overall a fun and enjoyable book that includes some of the most pleasant grammar lessons I have ever had. I highly recommend it should you ever need something to fill an empty spot in your TBR pile.