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Mary Norris has been a copy editor for the American magazine The New Yorker for thirty years. A magazine copy editor is responsible for ensuring that all linguistic norms are adhered to, including grammar and spelling rules and word usage.

Passionate about spelling, grammar and the English language in general, Mary Norris is also the author of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (ed. W. W. Norton).
There are numerous spelling and grammar guides out there, in all languages, but her book is different in that it approaches the topic with humour and derision, and includes a wealth of advice on good punctuation, the use of ‘who’ vs. ‘whom’ and ‘that’ vs. ‘which’, homonyms, compound nouns, as well as gender-neutral and non-sexist language.

It talks about grammar, of course, but also covers the author’s life and work. And although she exposes numerous common errors, she is also indulgent about the spoken language and everyday writing. In an era of spellcheckers and predictive text, a gentle reminder is always welcome.

No pontificating, just highly instructive

Mary Norris claims that she tries never to bring her work home but even during her time off she cannot help spotting a punctuation error in a book, or a mispronounced word in a conversation. It causes her genuine anguish, like screeching in the ear of an opera singer.
She happily describes herself as the Comma Queen and dispenses advice wherever she can.

Her work on other people’s writing is not intended to disfigure it, rather to make it more fluent, readable and clear. Let’s take the example of the comma. The New Yorker likes commas, a fact which has drawn criticism from its readers. So if commas are justified in a sentence in terms of grammar and comprehension, and even if they are optional, Mary won’t delete them. Her role is to correct and improve, but not to alter the original text.

Another punctuation point she enjoys explaining is the use of the semicolon, invented during the Renaissance by Aldus Manutius, and which is required in only two situations:

  • In lists, when certain elements already contain a comma, e.g. ‘Whatever your requirements, we can offer you the most appropriate interpreting method: conference, or simultaneous, interpreting; liaison interpreting; or consecutive interpreting’.
  • Between two parts of a same sentence, when the second part provides supplementary information. In this case, each of the parts of the full sentence should be able to stand alone. For example, ‘Most people use the semicolon incorrectly; it is the most feared punctuation on earth’.

In summary, and to finish with a quote from Mary Norris herself, ‘Use the semicolon wisely, or don’t use it at all’.

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