Where Mary Norris places her commas

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article written by Mary Norris. 

I love reading about genesis of people’s careers — most especially, if they are writers or editors.

In a marvellous New Yorker article, headlined “Holy Writ: Learning to love the house style” Mary Norris not only reveals that her first job was as a “foot checker” at a Cleveland swimming pool (she had to look for athlete’s foot) she also describes, in delicious detail, her gradual absorption into the professional fold at The New Yorker magazine where she began working in 1978. There, she is still a query proofreader who is also known for her pieces on pencils and punctuation.

In this current piece she reflects thoughtfully on the comma:

The New Yorker practices a “close” style of punctuation. Or, as E. B. White once put it, “Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” If the sentence has an introductory clause (like this one), we separate it with a comma. But if the introductory clause follows a conjunction we don’t. 

As a bona fide word nerd, I’m eagerly anticipating Norris’s book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queenwhich is expected to be published in April. In the meantime, you might want to read her article to better understand the care and attention that goes into careful proofreading.

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