People Note:
Ayn Rand and God
28 April 2015

Yesterday, I got my hands on Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. It’s funny and curious by turns, as books about English as she is spoke usually are. A long-time copy editor at The New Yorker, Norris has long since replaced her white blood cells with parts of speech, and is capable of some very sly moves. My favorite:

Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of the New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas. (35)

(I do hope that no regular reader will ask what’s so delicious about that.) The curiosity of the book lies in its painstaking (but wiseacre) lessons about common solecisms, such as the pronominal goof that her title is meant to correct. Earlier on, there’s a long riff on the difference between that and which clauses; I agreed with every word but tried in vain to imagine a reader who might be interested in the discussion and yet unsure of the usage. More interesting was Norris’s take on dangling modifiers: sometimes, there is no way around them. She cites a sentence by Edward St Aubyn, that paragon of perfection, that, like so many danglers, begins with the word “walking.” Walking always seems to invite dangling. Walking down the lane, the house looked warm and inviting beneath the stars. St Aubyn’s sentence is more complicated, and Norris’s diligent efforts to fix it convince her that the confusion inherent in danglers is the essence of what St Aubyn means to convey.

Between You & Me is — so far, at least; I’m about two-thirds in — a highly selective memoir. Norris has no intention of laying out the course of her life or her career, and there is very little tittle-tattle about the magazine. But, grammar lessons notwithstanding, Between You & Me is a book by and about a woman who is professionally committed to clear language. Clear language, in my view, conveys an intended meaning without calling attention to itself. (The occasional felicity is allowed, so long as it is not too obtrusive.) It is not necessarily simple language, and it might not be entirely straightforward, either. We do not speak as engineers, even if engineering has been the ideal human activity, beyond which lies only sublime and ineffable poetry, since the Enlightenment. By now we have learned that the human condition is not an engineering problem. Our language must accommodate ambivalence and ambiguity. But it must never introduce either for no reason. It is Mary Norris’s job to police the border. Style books may be handy, but in the end, what’s called for is the humane judgment of an endless series of unique cases.

One unique case is that of the author’s younger brother, Dee. As Norris puts it, referring to the first sentence that she framed while taking an Italian class, Mio fratello vuole essere mia sorella: Dee “announced that he was transgender.” Norris relays the agonizing maladroitness that accompanied her efforts to rejigger a lifetime of referring to a certain person as him. Dee is presented as a living emodiment of the “gender problem,” which most speakers rather thoughtlessly resolve by falling back on the third person plural (thus giving rise to what The New Yorker’s grammar dragon, Eleanor Gould, called “number trouble”): Does everybody have their ticket? I don’t care how common this usage is; I refuse to resort to it. In practice, it doesn’t come up. I suspect that the horror of short-circuiting a sentence with number trouble has conditioned me to avoid beginning sentences with constructions that might lead to such a regrettable outcome. And I’ve learned from the French to consider replacing possessive pronouns with articles. In French, you don’t brush your hair, but the hair; ditto the teeth. That might sound a bit alienated in English, but it does suggest the possibility of saying that everyone bears a measure of sorrow. Dee’s gender shift has, however, simplified things: Each sibling has her own way of applying lipstick.

There is a long discussion of the serial comma, complete with three hilarious examples of of the unintended humor that neglect of this comma, which precedes “and” in a series of nouns or attributes, can cause. I noticed that all three shared a common characteristic. The first term in the series is a collective noun; the second and third are proper names, whose bearers might well be members of the collective. Whether or not you decide to make use of the serial comma as a rule, a simple test will highlight rare cases of true ambiguity. Simply replace the comma (for there is always a first comma for the serial comma to follow) with a colon. If the sentence makes semantic sense, no matter how absurd its implication, then it needs the serial comma.

At the zoo, we saw lions, tigers and elephants. Lions: tigers and elephants — this does not compute. The serial comma (after tigers) is optional.

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God. My parents: Ayn Rand and God. Oops! A serial comma is required. (Also required: a more principled publisher.)

In a passage that has been cited by at least one reviewer, because of its relation to novelist Philip Roth, Norris remarks that she is “still available.” (37) That is the extent of love-life talk in Between You & Me, so far, at least. I always say that New York (Manhattan) is a terrible place for meeting a long-term partner, especially across the heterosexual divide. There is too much stress, and too little occasion for hanging out with a crowd of friends. Hanging out with a crowd of friends is vital because it provides the only glimpse of a prospective companion’s sociability. This is important not because couples need to be sociable in the same way (although it helps) but because when the magic spell of new romance wears off, as it must, it is replaced by a little society of two. How a man or a woman acts with friends and acquaintances is a strong indicator of how he or she will (eventually) treat a lover. Romance in New York is all foreground, no background.

No sooner do I say that than I remember Kate Bolick, who moved to New York with her adorable boyfriend from Boston, where they met while working in the same office. She knew who he was, I think; it was she who was the mystery. You can turn it around, of course, and point out that R, the boyfriend, wasn’t really paying attention. He doesn’t seem to have picked up on Bolick’s ambivalence about marriage and rest. She claims, guiltily, that she concealed it from him. But this ought not to have been possible.

So, anyway, I’m a little curious about Mary Norris at home, as it were. Not that I fault her discretion for a moment! I’m curious only because I’m thinking about love and marriage a lot. There used to be nothing to think about. Love and marriage could not have been more standardized; the only problem was to fit the mold. Now, of course, there is no mold, or not much of one. This is liberating but also bewildering, and potentially damaging — just as is our engineering prowess, which has given us the benefit of healthier lives but also the risk of destroying life on the planet. (No wonder men like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz are so popular!) But there is no going back, and speaking clearly has never been so important.

More anon.