Scholars Talk Writing: Hyphens, Oxford Commas, and Pronoun Preferences

Full vitae mary norris credit josef astor web

Image: Josef Astor

While in a master’s program in English, Mary Norris started reading The New Yorker and realized that academe was not for her. She jumped off the academic hamster wheel and entered an alt-ac career well before we had a name for that.

For 30 years, Norris led a quiet, behind-the-scenes life as a copy editor at the publication known for its punctilious standards. Then, at 63, she published her first book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, a big-hearted, hilarious, smart, and sassy personal account of her vocation as a word nerd. If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat.

And, since it turns out that in person Mary is exactly who she presents herself as on the page, it was a real pleasure to get to spend time with her recently for the Scholars Talk Writing series and ask her some questions about writing, copy-editing, and punctuation. Her next book, Greek to Me, will be out in April from Norton.

Do you ever wish you’d stayed on to get a Ph.D. and become an academic?

Norris: Only twice have I ever considered going back to school for a Ph.D. The first time, decades ago, I was inspired by visiting Trinity College in Dublin, where Samuel Beckett studied — it made me want to get a degree in classics. And once while I was on the copy desk at The New Yorker I felt an urge to go back to school, but all it meant was that I was deeply unhappy. I took courses, mainly in foreign languages, but returning to school as a candidate for a Ph.D., having to fulfill requirements and write an academic dissertation, would have taken the joy out of it.

Any thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of academic prose?

Norris: As long as the academic writing is engaging and communicates passion, I am happy to read about a subject I am interested in. I’m no good at scholarship myself — too many hoops to jump through — and there is always that worry that you have to know everything everyone else has said before you can join the chorus. (Perhaps that’s a misconception?) It always seemed to me that to say anything original you had to narrow your topic to a tiny sliver.

I don’t like any writing that is pompous, and academics can be snarky. But recently a friend sent me a section of a commentary written by two classicists, David Raeburn and Oliver Thomas, on the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, describing the way the manuscript came down to us in fragments. It was fascinating and informative and rich — actually, kind of sexy! Much academic writing is strictly for information and not for style. This had both.

How do you approach a manuscript?

Norris: I try to be conservative as a copy editor and cast things in the form of questions and suggestions. And I keep my personal response out of it — if I don’t like a writer, I will avoid copy-editing him or her, if possible, and if it can’t be avoided I’ll be ultra-conservative. My motto is "First, do no harm."

In the course of researching Between You and Me, I came across a thin volume by Jacques Barzun, a prolific academic who taught at Columbia, in which he complained bitterly about copy editors, for whom he had nothing but contempt. It infuriated me. I tried to write about it, but I realized that sometimes, as a writer, I feel the same way. Writers don’t like surprises, even tiny ones.

The important thing is that the decisions rest with the writer. The copy editor has to suppress her ego. But the writer doesn’t have to be an ass. In general, the better the writer, the more open he or she is to being copy-edited. The best writers need the least copy-editing and are also the most open to being copy-edited.

What are some common problems that even good writers have? I know I suffer from hyphenation hesitation.

Norris: The New Yorker always hyphenates compounds used as adjectives before nouns, partly because it’s easier: If you use the hyphen in compounds as a matter of style, then you don’t have to stop and think whether a compound actually needs a hyphen or not.

Subject-verb agreement comes up a lot: When there is an extra phrase or clause between the subject and the verb, the verb sometimes agrees (mistakenly) with the noun closest to it rather than with the subject of the sentence.

I used to wonder why some writers never learned to spell certain words ("annihilate" has two "n"s), but then I realized that if writers were perfect I’d be out of a job.

When I worked at Oxford University Press in the 80s I never once heard anyone refer to an "Oxford comma." What’s up with that?

Norris: I first heard the serial comma referred to as the "Oxford comma" shortly after David Remnick became editor in chief of The New Yorker, in 1998. An editorial assistant made a reference to it, and the head of the copy department and I were surprised to learn that the serial comma had acquired an alias. There is a riff in my book on calling it the Oxford comma, as if that gave it class.

David Remnick made an attempt to change New Yorker style on the serial comma — to get rid of it — because he was used to the style of The Washington Post, but he backed down. The New Yorker is a solid bastion of close punctuation, of which the serial comma is the most obvious, easily recognized instance. David got used to it.

How about the use of "they" as a singular personal pronoun in cases where a person doesn’t identify as exclusively masculine or feminine?

Norris: I do my best to call people what they want to be called, which means respecting the use of "they" as the pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as male or female. At first, subject-verb agreement seemed like a problem, but it soon became clear to me that, although the antecedent is singular, the pronoun still calls for a verb in the third-person plural.

The New Yorker uses it when the subject insists. It takes some getting used to. At the first use of a pronoun in, say, a piece about a poet who prefers "they," you might experience momentary confusion and look around for a plural antecedent, but then you remember that this is a new choice for people. I accept it, and I think it will get easier.

It helps me to think of "they" not as genderless but as genderful, containing both the masculine and the feminine, and therefore conceptually plural.

Strunk and White? Yay or nay?

Norris: Yay. I think people discount the value of the shortness of Strunk and White. Also, although it has a few grammar and usage tips in it (I consult it whenever I get confused about the difference between "farther" and "further"), it’s about writing, not grammar. Its writing advice is sound ("Omit needless words"), though it may seem outdated to anyone who has embraced the New Journalism ("Use all the damn words you want"). E.B. White’s own writing is still a good model — graceful and understated — if you like that sort of thing, which I do. There’s also a place for the exuberance of, say, David Foster Wallace.

But I don’t understand why people like to shoot down Strunk and White. I think it has done far more good than harm.

Do you think you would have been as confident and generous a writer if you’d started publishing earlier in your life?

Norris: I think being a copy editor for so long, tending other writers’ prose and not having much luck getting published myself, was formative in that I was thrilled to finally get a book contract, and ready and eager to be edited. I don’t feel particularly confident or generous. I had this horrible insight about myself: It is possible for someone who lacks confidence not to gain it as she gets older but to feel herself ever more lacking.

As for generosity, I suspect that if I had been successful earlier, I would be trying to protect my territory. Now I think there’s room for everyone. I enjoy other people’s success. My mantra is: Who is luckier?

What did working at The New Yorker do for your own writing?

Norris: One of the best ways of learning how to write (and copy-edit) is to read good writing, and I got paid to read the likes of John McPhee, Ian Frazier, John Updike, Philip Roth, Janet Malcolm, Pauline Kael, and many others. I think my day job helped form a sense of what constitutes a good sentence. I love to play with word order, to get the emphasis just right and keep a balance between sad and funny. And I’m sure that comes from reading lots and lots of well-written sentences.

I probably learned persistence, too. Even the pedestrian writers were admirable in that they knew how to sit in a chair and crank it out.

You write in Between You & M e of copy-editing John McPhee, who had written of some seismic studies that they were "new, and far between." You wanted to change it to "few, and far between." But then you realized it was McPhee and you knew he had written what he’d meant. Other than him, who else sent in copy so clean you had to second-guess every word you might have wanted to change?

Norris: The main example of that would be George Saunders. In fiction, his narrator is often unsophisticated, and it would be a sacrilege to tinker with that voice. His editor routes his stories around the copy desk, where there might be a danger of something getting changed (per New Yorker style) that the author would then have to spot and change back.

At the query-proofreading stage, you can give the writer the chance to accept or reject a change — it’s not a fait accompli. Sometimes a great writer, someone like Updike, is so smooth and attentive to detail that you are lulled into complacency and risk missing something. Roger Angell is another example of a terrific writer who has a reason for everything he does. He has also been an editor, and he likes being edited.

But you have to be very careful: There is a thin line between demonstrating your interest and showing how smart you are.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.