The New Yorker’s readers demand the highest standards of copy, and Mary Norris has been of of those editors for the past three decades giving the readers what they demand. Having sharpened all her pencils, she now brings us her take on the newspaper business and the (American) English language. Working her way through the most common language issues, such as spelling, commas, when to swear, and when not to. She investigates the less common punctuation, extols the use of the hyphen – excessively perhaps and contemplates the genders. Drawing from classic works by Dickens and Melville and reasonably up to date works by Flynn and Wallace she aims to enlighten us in the ways and foibles of our language, from the Oxford comma to the apostrophe that wanders up and down the word depending on the profession.
This is not a bad read overall; it is fairly short, light hearted and informative and she writes with a gentle humour. Whilst she goes in to the minutiae of language with regards to punctuation, it is very much centred on the The New Yorker and her work there. There are some good parts, the chapter on profanity is quite amusing, her ventures into the historical reasons behind certain word uses and her penchant for a particular type of pencil. It is almost trying to do too much; is it a memoir of her work at the paper or a book on language? I’m still not sure. Worth reading, but if you are looking for a book on the delights of language, pop it back on the shelf.