Review: "Comma Queen" Mary Norris Talks Semi-Colons, Word Nerds, and Her New Book


Review: Mary Norris, Comma Queen.

mary Norris, AKA,, "The Comma Queen', tAlks about her nEw book; and the Imp0rtance of Proper spelllling and punctuation.?

At one point during Sunday afternoon’s 90 minute talk at Ann Arbor’s downtown library, Mary Norris, an author and a copyeditor for The New Yorker, said, “I’m with my people.”

As if to paint this as a vast understatement, an audience member (and fellow copywriter), during the Q&A portion of the program, held up a box of Palamino Blackwing pencils – which Norris had just noted as her copyediting instrument of choice – and proclaimed, “Blackwing 602s rock!”

More than 100 people showed up to hear from Norris about her new book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, and ask questions about semi-colons, non-gendered singular pronouns, “insure” vs. “ensure,” and more.

Norris began her talk by talking about her seventh grade English teacher, in Brooklyn, Ohio, who taught students how to diagram sentences, but didn’t like the way spelling was taught in school.

“He had a brainstorm about having us write a story every week that would incorporate words from our spelling list,” said Norris, who noted her book’s first chapter focuses on spelling, “My approach was, I wrote what I wanted and just inserted the spelling words where I could.”

Norris told the AADL crowd that her teacher, Mr. Smith, had them read their stories to the class each Thursday, and this consequently became her favorite day of the week. Another boy in her class, known for telling funny stories, had gained notoriety, and according to Norris, Smith said one day, “It looks like we have two writers in our midst.”

“That was more than an encouragement,” Norris said. “It was a blessing.”

Norris started her career at The New Yorker as an editorial librarian, and when she caught a misspelling in a Christmas food shopping list in the magazine – a “flower” that should have been “flour” – she earned the editors’ thanks and attention.

Of the semicolon, Norris said, “I make fun of it. … I say it’s unnecessary, but that’s probably because I got all the way through college without knowing how to use it. … People who love it find it thrilling. When they use one correctly, they feel like there’s nothing like it. When it’s misused, it betrays that you don’t know anything about language.”

Though Norris is clearly deeply invested in language and grammar, she admitted that before she became a blogger for The New Yorker, she was more interested in writing about other topics, like her transgender sister. But when a short essay she wrote, titled “In Defense of ‘Nutty’ Commas,” went viral, her fate was sealed, and she ventured into posting grammar-oriented videos.

“The fact that the book was coming out made me more agreeable to doing videos, but it’s like the Peter Principle, where you get farther and farther from the things you do best,” said Norris. “It’s like, ‘Oh, she can write! Let’s have her do videos.’ I’m glad people like them, but I can’t watch them.”

Norris finally spoke of being part of the last generation to use typewriters in college. “You give yourself away when you leave two spaces after the period,” Norris said, noting that there’s an organization dedicated to preserving this particular practice, “I was denounced by the Wide Spacing Society on Twitter.”

But given the turnout and enthusiastic reception Norris received in Ann Arbor on Sunday, my guess is that despite this splinter group's shunning, she will long continue her reign as Comma Queen of the word nerd kingdom.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.