Review: Between You & Me
Updated: Jun 29
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris (2015)
There were parts of this book that were quite interesting, funny, and clever... If I had to write a one-sentence review, that would be it. What's missing in that review is, ya know, all the stuff that kinda sucked.
1. As much as it purports to be a book about the English language, it's not. It's a book about one specific copy-editor-at-the-New-Yorker-magazine's relationship to the English language. Personal anecdotes and stories about her work at the New Yorker (with all its colorful characters) take center stage. That's not to say some of those stories aren't interesting - mostly in a quirky, grammar-nerdy, literary kind of way. It's just not what I thought I was getting into.
2. Oh, the ranting and raving and pedantry! When I say she harps on about certain topics, read: an entire chapter focused solely on the phrase "between you and me," complete with a long-winded and patronizing high school grammar lesson on verb types (intransitive, transitive, linking, passive), parts of speech (noun, pronoun, adjective, determiner, verb, adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection), cases (the right [nominative], the generic [genitive], the dative, the accusative, the vocative), and sentence diagramming... ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
3. "Chapter 3: The Problem of Heesh" is rough. Honestly, I suggest skipping it entirely.
Norris attempts to tackle the issue of gender in language, like how other languages have gendered nouns. For example, in Italian "il treno" - the train - is masculine, while "la bicicletta" - the bicycle - is feminine. In most Romance and Germanic languages, gendered nouns are the norm. So far so good. The problem arises when Norris wades into he/him she/her territory, proselytizing about the horrors of the singular their. "Rather than solve anything by blending in," she says, "the invented pronouns stand up and wave their arms around just when they should be disappearing."
Maybe people who use their don't want their pronouns to disappear. Maybe by disappearing their preferred pronouns, you're essentially disappearing them, which the world has done more than enough of already. Also, just call someone what they want to be called! Just respect another human being's choices about their own person.
(Yes, I'm also talking about the recent Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision)
And then there's the question of her trans sister. Norris misgenders her sister more times than I can count, and then complains as to why that could possibly matter. In the end, Norris seems to have had some sort of gender... epiphany is the wrong word, but at the very least a self-congratulatory insight into why she should respect her sister's wishes and stop saying "he." Anyway, it feels extremely dated. This book was published in 2015. I don't think seven years is long enough ago to chock this up to "she didn't know any better."
To close, here is one summary from a Goodreads reviewer about who should read this book:
Recommended for those with an interest in:
- the New Yorker
- feeling like you're in high school English again
- non-creative writing
- pencils (and other casualties of the technological era)
- name dropping
- tips on being a proper grammar Nazi
UP NEXT: Clap When You Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo