Tag Archives: Mary Norris

Still Reading

Last night I read one of the best novels I’ve come across in a long time: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I was up until 1:30 this morning finishing it.

Big Little Lies is an unusual murder mystery because you don’t find out who the victim was until close to the end of the novel. But that’s not why I enjoyed the book so much. What was really special is that I was so interested in the characters that I really didn’t care about waiting for the murder to happen – in fact it would have been a terrific book without the underlying mystery.

But there’s a flaw in the book, and it’s the kind of problem I often discuss with my writing group. The book starts off strong with a warning that something dire has happened. And then the pace slows to a crawl as several mommies head to kindergarten orientation with their offspring. One mommy falls and injures her ankle. The accident sets up an important relationship between several important women in the novel – but it is slow and dull.

I would have stopped reading except that a friend recommended the book and told me not to be put off by the slow start. She was right. But a good editor should have intervened before the book was published and figured out a way to keep the book moving.

I’ve also been reading Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. She is one of the most entertaining writers I’ve ever read. Her descriptions of working in the dairy industry are delightful. And she’s a Honeymooners fan!

But she also exemplifies an approach to writing that I dislike: Abstract theory and confusing terminology. For example, her explanation of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses assumes that you’ve never spoken English. She wants you to work your way through a lot of tedious reasoning to discover where the commas go.

None of that torture is necessary. We all learned about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses in childhood by imitating the speech patterns of adults. All that an English teacher has to say is this: “Read your sentences aloud. When you change your voice, use a pair of commas.” I used to bring a clip of the opening of the old Adventures of Superman show (with George Reeves) to teach the commas to my classes, and my students never had trouble with them after that.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Read these two sentences aloud. Where do you change your voice?

The personnel director asked me for a list of officers who will retire next year.

Your mission should you choose to accept it is to unravel the enemy plot to take over the airport.

The answer is that you wouldn’t change your voice at all in the first sentence, which doesn’t require any commas. The second sentence does require a pair of commas, like this:

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to unravel the enemy plot to take over the airport.  CORRECT

But Norris’s book is still a delight to read, and I’ve learned a lot. The section on hyphens alone is worth reading and rereading. (Hyphens used to intimidate me, and I’m still a little scared of them.)

But my real point today isn’t about how to write a novel or insert commas and hyphens. It’s about reading. Spending hours and hours with a pile of good books can feel decadent because a) it’s so enjoyable and b) there are usually so many other tasks waiting to be done.

It’s important to pause now and then to remind ourselves that reading is the royal road to writing. When we can read thoughtfully, notice the author’s strategies, and evaluate them, we’re creating circuits in our brain that will be ready to help us with our own writing tasks.

Mission Impossible



The Comma Queen

The New Yorker magazine (which features writing so good that it sometimes gives me chills) has a new video feature: Veteran copyeditor Mary Norris, aka the Comma Queen, is offering insights into the thinking processes she uses when she works on a New Yorker article. You can view the kick-off video at this link: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-comma-queen-series-premiere

Sigh. The video full of grammatical jargon. Why? Why? Why? After more than 30 years as an English professor, I can tell you that most students never really get a handle on what subjects and predicates are. They have no idea what an independent clause is. Mind you, I’m not complaining about my students. What I’m complaining about are English teachers and editors who can’t find a more straightforward way of talking about language.

Here’s an example from the video. Mary’s question: Is the comma after sixteen necessary?

Her mother, Rachel Faucette, the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Frenchman, inherited her father’s Nevis plantation at sixteen, and was married off, very young, to Johann Michael Lavien, an older Danish man with aspirations to be a planter.

In the video, Norris patiently explains that inherited…and was married off is a compound predicate and therefore should not be interrupted with a comma.

That’s great if you’re an English major and can instantly identify a compound predicate. But what if it’s been, say, 40 years since you sat in an English class and you can’t remember?

Here’s how I would talk about this sentence: Zoom in on the word and. Ask yourself if there’s a new sentence right after it. (It’s easy to tell: See if it starts with a person, place, or thing.)

and was married off

Is there a sentence after and? Nope. (If it read she was married off you’d have a sentence and need the comma.)

Quick. Simple.

While we’re at it…I started this post by praising the writing in The New Yorker. But I don’t like the sentence we’re talking about today: There’s too much information.

Rachel Faucette:

  • was someone’s mother
  • was the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Frenchman
  • inherited his Nevis plantation when she was sixteen
  • married Johann Michael Lavien
  • was young when she married

Oh, and there are three more pieces of information: Her husband was older and Danish, and he aspired to be a planter.

You’re going to cram all of that into one sentence? Why? Why? Why?

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