‘A couple I’ll call Penny and Jeter come out to my bungalow in Rockaway and proceed to devour the cheries I’ve put out in a bowl on the table. Jeter says, “Don’t put a bowl of cherries in front of Penny and I.” I am not about to snatch the cherries away unless Jeter learns to say ’in front of Penny and me’ . . . but I do register unease at his locution, and I might think twice about buying cherries next time.’
I never expected a book about punctuation to make me laugh out loud, but that’s what Mary Norris’s Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen did.
Norris was a copy editor at the New Yorker for thirty years and her book is a mixture of memoir and grammar manual. I enjoyed her quest to find out who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick, her visit to the Pencil Sharpener Museum, and found myself taking sides in the serial comma debate.
A whole chapter is devoted to that endangered species, the apostrophe. Norris is an incisive and witty writer. She ends a long discussion of why there isn’t an apostophe in Kelleys Island, by remarking ‘it isn’t as if there weren’t legions of stray apostrophes camping out on the island. In front of a store . . . is a reader board with the letters arranged to say “UNC’L DIK’S.” There are so many things wrong with “UNC’L DIK’S.” that I don’t know where to begin, but at least the apostophe at the end is right.’ She guesses that Uncle Dick bought a set ‘with only one of each letter, so he decided to distribute the C and K equally between the elements of his name. He may have dropped the E in the lake, but he made up for it with an extra apostrophe.’
Norris comments: ‘When I finally made it to the copydesk, it was a long time before I could once again read for pleasure. I spontaneously copy-edited everything I laid eyes on”. I found myself doing this while I was reading her book. And did I spot any typos? Only one. I’d love to know if she did her own proof-reading.
It’s an attractive little book, beautifully produced, as is only fitting. I shall have to have my own copy, once I’m allowed to buy books again. (I got this one out of the London Library).