Mary Norris

The nit-picking glory of The New Yorker's Comma Queen

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0:12

I have spent the past 38 years trying to be invisible. I'm a copy editor. I work at The New Yorker, and copyediting for The New Yorker is like playing shortstop for a Major League Baseball team: every little movement gets picked over by the critics — God forbid you should commit an error.

0:36

Just to clarify: copy editors don't choose what goes into the magazine. We work at the level of the sentence, maybe the paragraph, the words, the punctuation. Our business is in the details. We put the diaeresis, the double dot, over the "i" in "naïve." We impose house style. Every publication has a house style. The New Yorker's is particularly distinctive. We sometimes get teased for our style. Imagine — we still spell "teen-ager" with a hyphen, as if that word had just been coined. But you see that hyphen in "teen-age" and that diaeresis over "coöperate," and you know you're reading The New Yorker.

1:22

Copyediting at The New Yorker is a mechanical process. There is a related role called query proofreading, or page-OK'ing. Whereas copyediting is mechanical, query proofreading is interpretive. We make suggestions to the author through the editor to improve the emphasis of a sentence or point out unintentional repetitions and supply compelling alternatives. Our purpose is to make the author look good.

1:54

Note that we give our proofs not directly to the author, but to the editor. This often creates a good cop/bad cop dynamic in which the copy editor — I'll use that as an umbrella term — is invariably the bad cop. If we do our job well, we're invisible, but as soon as we make a mistake, we copy editors become glaringly visible. Here is the most recent mistake that was laid at my door.

2:24

[Last Tuesday, Sarah Palin, the pre-Trump embodiment of populist no-nothingism in the Republican Party, endorsed Trump.]

2:33

"Where were The New Yorker's fabled copy editors?" a reader wrote. "Didn't the writer mean 'know-nothingism'?"

2:41

Ouch. There's no excuse for this mistake. But I like it: "no-nothingism." It might be American vernacular for "nihilism."

2:52

(Laughter)

2:56

Here, another reader quotes a passage from the magazine:

2:59

[Ruby was seventy-six, but she retained her authoritative bearing; only her unsteady gait belied her age.]

3:07

He added: "Surely, someone at The New Yorker knows the meaning of 'belied,' and that it is the opposite of how it is used in this sentence. Come on! Get it together."

3:17

Belie: to give a false impression. It should have been "betrayed."

3:24

E.B. White once wrote of commas in The New Yorker: "They fall with the precision of knives outlining a body."

3:32

(Laughter)

3:33

And it's true — we get a lot of complaints about commas. "Are there really two commas in 'Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard'?" There may not be on the sign, but yes, that is New Yorker style for "Jr." One wag wrote:

3:49

["Please, could you expel, or, at least, restrain, the comma-maniac, on your editorial staff?"]

3:55

(Laughter)

3:57

Ah, well. In this case, those commas are well-placed, except that there should not be one between "maniac" and "on."

4:04

(Laughter)

4:05

Also, if we must have commas around "at least," we might change it up by using dashes around that phrase: "... — or, at least, restrain —" Perfect.

4:18

(Applause)

4:20

Then there's this: "Love you, love your magazine, but can you please stop writing massive numbers as text?"

4:28

[two and a half million ...]

4:29

No.

4:30

(Laughter)

4:33

One last cri de coeur from a spelling stickler:

4:36

["Those long stringy things are vocal cords, not chords."]

4:41

The outraged reader added, "I'm sure I'm not the first to write regarding this egregious proofreading error, but I'm equally sure I won't be the last. Fie!"

4:52

(Laughter)

4:54

I used to like getting mail.

4:58

There is a pact between writers and editors. The editor never sells out the writer, never goes public about bad jokes that had to be cut or stories that went on too long. A great editor saves a writer from her excesses. Copy editors, too, have a code; we don't advertise our oversights. I feel disloyal divulging them here, so let's have look at what we do right.

5:26

Somehow, I've gotten a reputation for sternness. But I work with writers who know how to have their way with me. I've known Ian Frazier, or "Sandy," since the early 80s. And he's one of my favorites, even though he sometimes writes a sentence that gives a copy editor pause. Here is one from a story about Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy:

5:51

[A dock that had been broken in the middle and lost its other half sloped down toward the water, its support pipes and wires leaning forward like when you open a box of linguine and it slides out.]

6:05

(Laughter)

6:06

This would never have got past the grammarian in the days of yore. But what could I do? Technically, the "like" should be an "as," but it sounds ridiculous, as if the author were about to embark on an extended Homeric simile — "as when you open a box of linguine."

6:24

(Laughter)

6:25

I decided that the hurricane conferred poetic justice on Sandy and let the sentence stand.

6:32

(Laughter)

6:33

Generally, if I think something is wrong, I query it three times. I told Sandy that not long ago in a moment of indiscretion and he said,

6:40

"Only three?"

6:42

So, he has learned to hold out.

6:44

Recently, he wrote a story for "Talk of the Town," that's the section at the front of the magazine with short pieces on subjects ranging from Ricky Jay's exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum to the introduction of doggie bags in France. Sandy's story was about the return to the Bronx of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. There were three things in it that I had to challenge.

7:04

First, a grammar query. The justice was wearing black and Sandy wrote,

7:08

[Her face and hands stood out like in an old, mostly dark painting.]

7:14

Now, unlike with the hurricane, with this "like," the author didn't have the excuse of describing hurricane damage. "Like" in this sense is a preposition, and a preposition takes an object, which is a noun. This "like" had to be an "as." "As in an old, mostly dark painting."

7:31

Second, a spelling issue. The author was quoting someone who was assisting the justice:

7:36

["It will be just a minute. We are getting the justice mic'ed,"]

7:42

Mic'ed? The music industry spells it "mic" because that's how it's spelled on the equipment. I'd never seen it used as a verb with this spelling, and I was distraught to think that "mic'ed" would get into the magazine on my watch.

7:55

(Laughter)

7:56

New Yorker style for "microphone" in its abbreviated form is "mike."

8:01

Finally, there was a sticky grammar and usage issue in which the pronoun has to have the same grammatical number as its antecedent.

8:10

[everyone in the vicinity held their breath]

8:14

"Their" is plural and "everyone," its antecedent, is singular. You would never say, "Everyone were there." Everyone was there. Everyone is here. But people say things like, "Everyone held their breath" all the time. To give it legitimacy, copy editors call it "the singular 'their,'" as if calling it singular makes it no longer plural.

8:36

(Laughter)

8:38

It is my job when I see it in print to do my best to eliminate it. I couldn't make it, "Everyone held her breath," or "Everyone held his breath," or "Everyone held his or her breath." Whatever I suggested had to blend in. I asked, through the editor, if the author would consider changing it to "All in the vicinity held their breath," because "all" is plural. Nope.

9:03

I tried again: "All those present held their breath?" I thought this sounded vaguely judicial. But the editor pointed out that we could not have "present" and "presence" in the same sentence. When the final proof came back, the author had accepted "as" for "like," and "miked" for "mic'ed." But on "Everyone held their breath," he stood his ground. Two out of three isn't bad.

9:27

In the same issue, in that piece on doggie bags in France, there was the gratuitous use of the f-word by a Frenchman. I wonder, when the mail comes in, which will have offended the readers more.

9:40

(Laughter)

9:42

Thank you.

9:43

(Applause)

"Copy editing for The New Yorker is like playing shortstop for a Major League Baseball team — every little movement gets picked over by the critics," says Mary Norris, who has played the position for more than thirty years. In that time, she's gotten a reputation for sternness and for being a "comma maniac," but this is unfounded, she says. Above all, her work is aimed at one thing: making authors look good. Explore The New Yorker's distinctive style with the person who knows it best in this charming talk.

About the speaker
Mary Norris · Copy editor

As a copy editor for the New Yorker, Mary Norris enforces some of the most authoritative (some might say eccentric) style rules in publishing.

As a copy editor for the New Yorker, Mary Norris enforces some of the most authoritative (some might say eccentric) style rules in publishing.