Punctuation, grammar, and like that

Mary Norris

Anyone who comes to History in the Margins solely for historical tidbits may want to abandon ship today. Instead of committing my usual history-geekery, I intend to talk about the most appealing book I’ve ever read about the mechanics of writing.*

One of the things that instructors of writers say with some frequency is that before you break the rules of grammar (or story structure, or punctuation or physics) you need to know them. Mary Norris, the author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, knows the rules: she’s been a copy editor at The New Yorker for some thirty years. That’s a credential that would earn her book a place on my reference shelf alongside Fowler, Strunk and White, and the Chicago Manual of Style–or at least as close as the rules of alphabetizing allow. But credentials alone wouldn’t inspire me to read Between You and Me over meals instead of my current meal-time novel–or to bring it to the attention of the Marginites with evangelical zeal.

Norris is witty, irreverent, and a world-class storyteller. Between You and Me is as much memoir as it is grammar guide. There is plenty of practical information, presented with absolute clarity; in the future I’ll turn to Norris when uncertain about the correct use of my personal bête noir, the hyphen. But the grammatical advice is given almost as if it were the punchline to a personal story or the jumping-off point for an essay on a larger subject.** Along the way, Norris takes the reader on engaging side trips: Noah Webster and spelling reform, the invention of the comma in the Renaissance, the Paul A Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum (now on my road-trip list).

In short, Norris takes what is often the driest of subjects, written in the most pedantic style, and makes it sparkle. If writing is an important part of your life, you need this book.

*Those of you who read History in the Margins via e-mail may not realize it, but the subtitle reads “A blog about history, writing, and writing about history.” If you want to verify this, just click the header in your e-mail and it will take you to the History in the Margins site. This trick is useful to remember when I embed a video or a bit of music.

**I draw your attention to the chapter titled “The Problem of Heesh”–an extended consideration of the larger questions of gender in language and society that begins with the vexed problem of the third personal singular pronoun in English.


  1. Bart on May 7, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Punctuation and I have been wrestling since grade school. Thanks for a resource that I will be using as much as my keyboard.

    • pamela on May 7, 2015 at 7:46 pm


  2. HJ on May 8, 2015 at 7:09 pm

    Somewhere, I read an extract from this book and loved it! I must chase it down. Thank you for reminding me.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.