Book Review: Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Image via Amazon

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I have to thank my mentor for sending me this book as a Christmas gift, because she clearly knows me well. As an avid reader and former English tutor, I’ve had a reputation as a Grammar Nazi for most of my life, but Between You and Me showed me that “Comma Queen” is a much better label.

This memoir/writing style guide was written by Mary Norris, who has worked in the copy department at the New Yorker since 1978. She details her professional experiences of what it has been like to work at this major publication for decades, watching as English spelling and grammar changed before her very eyes.

At the practical level, this book is an excellent refresher of those lessons you may have forgotten since your school days. She explains how to use commas and when to use who vs. whom. English majors will love all the literary references, such as Emily Dickinson’s penchant for hyphens in her poetry. However, these lessons become more frequent as the book goes on, and I felt that Norris could have included more confessions instead.

Case in point: my favorite parts of the story were those that added a personal touch. I enjoyed her adorkable obsessions with pencil sharpeners, which eventually led to her visiting a whole museum full of them. I also appreciated that she explained the societal need for gender-neutral pronouns by revealing that her sister is transgender:

“Nothing makes it clearer how intimately and deeply pronouns are embedded in our lives than having to alter them to refer to someone you’ve known all your life.”

So, yes, while this book can get a bit pedantic at times, Norris has a wonderful sense of humor and is not nearly as judgmental about copyediting as you might think. Experience and wisdom has softened her, and she continually recognizes even her own ignorance.

“Nobody knows everything—one of the pleasures of language is that there is always something new to learn—and everybody makes mistakes.”

Although I wished that Between You and Me contained more anecdotes, I thought it was an amusing look into one copyeditor’s point of view. Everyone knows a Comma Queen, so treat them to this book like I was!

When Grammar Nazis Attack!

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If there’s one type of story that makes waves in the literary world, it’s one about someone who has done J.K. Rowling wrong. The beloved author of the Harry Potter series is like Beyoncé: everybody just bows down in her presence.

Or should I say, almost everybody. There have been a few misguided souls who have attempted sticking it to Rowling, like that writer who was just jealous her spotlight was being ‘stolen.’

This week it was James Cook, contributing editor of The Daily Dot, an online publication. When Rowling asked her Twitter followers to “re-tweet” her support for Scotland’s rugby team in exchange for Pottermore content, Cook took the opportunity to tell her, “It’s ‘retweet’.”

Cue the outrage of Dumbledore’s Army! Due that unnecessary comment, Cook was harassed by many fans and felt obligated to offer a half-assed apology on The Daily Dot. Because it was categorized under “LOL” and featured condescending comments like, “For some unknown reason, Harry Potter is still a very big deal in France,” it’s obvious that Cook enjoyed his temporary infamy and seemed smug that he could gain his 15 minutes over a hyphen.

It’s jerks like Cook who give grammarians a bad name. I joke about being a ‘Grammar Nazi,’ but I would never in a million years correct a stranger over something as insignificant as hyphen usage. We all knew what Rowling meant, and if we’re getting technical here, either form can be correct.

Who cares if it’s e-mail or email? Cybersecurity or cyber-security? Sure, there are rules when the prefix affects meaning (release versus re-lease, for example), but I’m not about to get my panties in a twist over a personal punctuation preference.

Would Cook have been justified if Rowling used ‘your’ when she meant ‘you’re?’ I guess, but when his victim is a famous billionaire, then he better decide whether the backlash is worth the effort.

So while I’ve never attempted to take on someone of that scale, I have corrected people’s grammar on social media. Most notably, several years ago I told an acquaintance on Facebook that she was ‘lactose intolerant,’ not ‘lactose and tolerant,’ like she stated. Turns out her friends were just as clueless and commented their surprise. After what probably felt like humiliation to her, she promptly unfriended me.

Probably not what she meant 😉

Was I wrong to correct her? My tone was definitely lighthearted rather than vicious, but one could certainly argue that it wasn’t my place. It’s pretty clear that she wasn’t a close friend due to her response, so maybe I should have let it slide. But honestly, if you’re going to start deleting online relationships over silly mistakes like that, then maybe you should develop a thicker skin.

I’m not perfect, and my loved ones revel when they can catch me making grammatical mistakes during a conversation. Do I get butt-hurt? Nope, I brush it off and learn from it. Trust me, I bet that girl never labeled herself as ‘lactose and tolerant’ ever again, but if nobody pointed it out to her, she–and her friends–would sound like idiots for the rest of their lives.

But let me get your opinion: at what point does correcting someone’s grammar go from educational to annoying? Have you ever been the corrector or the corrected, and what happened? Do you stay silent in front of superiors or is nobody off-limits?

Share your stories in the comments!


Taking Grammar Nazi to a Whole New Level

Don’t sue me, I didn’t make it!

I’ve always wanted to talk about correcting people’s grammar on my blog, because I know how frustrating it can be to have a decently constructed conversation on the Internet. Several people have called me a “Grammar Nazi” in my life, which along with soup and feminists, is a pretty common subject to label “Nazi.”

However, I realize that approaching this topic may lead to my most controversial post to date, given the sensitivity surrounding the Holocaust. Thus, I would like to preface my statements:

By no means am I literally and legitimately comparing the despicable Nazi party to people who complain about comma usage.

As an Armenian-American whose culture has also been ravaged by genocide, I wholeheartedly empathize with the communities affected by the horrors of World War II. Please view this post as intended to be humorous and serve as a reminder that the freedom of speech is one of the many things we fought for 70 years ago.

Okie dokie? We’ll all play nice? Alrighty then, br1ng 0n t43 l0ls!

I actually don’t mind the phrase “Grammar Nazi;” in fact, it bothers me when people of relatively average knowledge of the English language are called it, because the term needs to be revised to discuss the degrees between the occasional hobbyist and the most nit-picky grammarians. Thus, I’ve created a hierarchy of complainers, so you can find out which category you fit into and discover how much better (or worse, depending on your perspective) it can get:

*Insert GIF with subtle use of Nazi salute*

Grammar Schindler

You know English pretty darn well and are considered an “insider,” but you never actually correct anyone and secretly don’t mind casual Internet talk with no capitalization or punctuation. You may even frequently misspell grammar on accident. You believe that aS lOnG aS pEoPlE DoNt TaLk LiKe ThIs, you won’t write them off. (Get it? “Schindler’s List?” Never mind, moving on…)

Only forgivable if you’re a baby!

Grammar SS

You’ve got the makings of a real Grammar Nazi, but you’re still just correcting the basics. You may know the difference between “your” and “you’re,” and “to, too, and two,” but let’s face it: so do 8-year-olds. You still can’t differentiate between “who” and “whom,” and you don’t understand why you shouldn’t (usually) end your sentences with prepositions. But you’re trying, and that’s what counts.

“Superman does good.” Perfect comeback!

Grammar Reichleiter

Now you’re getting somewhere! You not only correct people online, but you also correct people to their faces! No “Can I?,” “I could care less,” and “I’m doing good,” goes unnoticed. (Not even questionable double negatives, as seen in the previous sentence!) Best friend, total stranger, Nigerian princes in need of immediate money orders, there are no exceptions when it comes to making English better, one semi-colon at a time.

Superb grammar: Yet another reason I need to watch Dr. Who!

Grammar Hitler

The Der Führer of Grammar Nazis, you laugh at those who think themselves superior for knowing “fewer” from “less.” You possess supreme understanding of all phrases, clauses, idioms, modifiers, tenses, and voices. You get nauseated when people misuse “nauseous,” and disrespecting the predicative nominative will have you screaming, “Woe is I!” You probably took Latin in school, and if you’re a teacher, you relish in your multiple proofreading utensils of various colors (only amateurs limit themselves to red pens). You’ve corrected everyone so many times that they’re afraid to talk to you. But that’s okay, because you’d rather be feared than loved.

I’d have to say I’m between a Grammar Reichleiter and a Grammar Hitler. I had one classmate of mine unfriend me on Facebook after I pointed out that she was not “lactose and tolerant.” Just this week I replied to a marketing email from Red Robin restaurants, correcting them on their unfortunate subject line of “Being Royalty has it’s perks!”

And my favorite, I took a picture of this monstrosity two years ago:

I'm embarrassed for this valedictorian's friends, who clearly needed a few more semesters of English before graduating.

I’m embarrassed for this valedictorian’s friends, who clearly needed a few more semesters of English before graduating.

Thanks to the my favorite high school English teacher (a true Grammar Hitler) and my two years of studying Latin, my understanding of grammar has greatly improved. However, I understand that grammar is like a second language, and simply speaking English is not a good enough prerequisite. Thus, I try to bite my tongue, because I’ve quickly learned that people don’t like feeling dumb. But boy, do I love when people correct themselves in front of me before I do! Makes me feel like being a Grammar Nazi is worth it when people learn!

So controversial label aside, I love grammatical humor, which the Internet brings in abundance. For more fun, check out these wonderful websites:

And don’t forget to share your own grammatical pet peeves in the comments!