LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. We are honored today to speak with a woman who is at the pinnacle of her profession. She is a copy editor at The New Yorker, a magazine justly famous for the care it takes with all its words. Mary Norris has been at the magazine since 1978. The work of very famous authors has felt the authoritative pressure of her No. 1 pencil. And after a lifetime of improving the words of others, she has written her own book "Between You & Me" with a great subtitle, "Confessions Of A Comma Queen." Your grace, welcome to our program.
MARY NORRIS: Oh, thank you.
WERTHEIMER: I want to confess right at the beginning that we, in radio, do not punctuate.
NORRIS: Oh, that is interesting. You don't even have commas in radio?
WERTHEIMER: No we don't have commas in radio. We don't have apostrophes, we barely have periods. I'm very interested though in the title of your book, which points us at a common, and I must say upsetting mistake for me. In the book you call it barbaric.
NORRIS: Well, the mistake is using I instead of me in phrases such as between you and me, after any proposition or as the object of a verb. And the way you can tell that it's wrong to say I is by putting I first. You would - you might make a mistake, I hope not, and say between you and I, but you would never make the mistake of saying between I and you.
WERTHEIMER: Here at NPR back in the day, we used to hear regularly by postcard usually, from a particular lady who corrected us on the fine points of English usage. Judging from her handwriting, I assume she is no longer with us, but she pointed out several times that I used that when I should've used which. Now I have never understood that one and you turn to Dylan Thomas to explain it.
NORRIS: The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, that that following the force indicates that what follows is a phrase or a clause that is essential to the meaning of the line. In American English, in printed American English, we use that for what we call a restrictive phrase, that is, it restricts the meaning. Which force? The force that through the green fuse drives the flower. If we left that phrase out, that clause out, that through the green fuse drives the flower, we wouldn't have much of a sentence left. I think the line goes on, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age. So all that would be left is the force drives my green age. And what sense would that make?
WERTHEIMER: Certainly it wouldn't be a poem.
NORRIS: No, that's for sure. (Laughter).
WERTHEIMER: Well, moving right along, your career, reading about it in this, what I have to say is a very funny book, was fraught with all kinds of danger. You had ferocious copy editors who edited your edits. You had famous men and women of letters who didn't especially like being corrected by you. And you had, of course, the great god of the written language, Mr. Shawn heading up the magazine who was sitting at the very top of the heap and could read your material and correct it if he wanted to.
NORRIS: Well, I was terrified for about a year on the copy desk when I first started there. But the great thing there was in those days you - on the copy desk you saw manuscripts that had been worked on by William Shawn and by all the other editors, so you saw what they did. And it was just masterly, some of the things he would cut. You know, he would delete a sentence and the whole paragraph would close up behind that cut sentence as if you were putting a dart in a dress. It just made it fit better.
WERTHEIMER: Some of these people must have been very fussy and half nasty when you presented your edits. But some of them, I gather from the book, hardly needed to be touched. Who was easiest?
NORRIS: Well, I think one of the easiest ones was John Updike. John Updike was very careful in his prose and very attuned to details. The only danger there was that it was so slick, your pencil would slide off the page. It was really beautifully done.
WERTHEIMER: What do you think is the best way to become a good and correct user of English?
NORRIS: Well, a person should read and read and read - preferably good things. I might suggest The New Yorker, for instance.
WERTHEIMER: (Laughter). I thought you were going to say Henry James who is one of the people...
NORRIS: Oh, well...
WERTHEIMER: ...One of the people that you cite in the book as having a grasp of punctuation second to none.
NORRIS: Oh he is a wizard, the master. Yes, they don't call him the master for nothing.
WERTHEIMER: Mary Norris has written and carefully punctuated a presumably perfect book called "Between You & Me: Confessions Of A Comma Queen." Mary Norris, thank you very much.
NORRIS: Oh, thank you.
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