I clawed my way up from an entry position at The New Yorker to page o.k.'er.

I started in 1978 in the archive and have worked in many different departments, and under four editors-in-chief. So I've seen the evolution of publishing firsthand, from typewriter to desktop publishing.

And over the years, I've copy edited everyone from John McPhee to to Philip Roth to George Saunders.

My book started with a blog post about commas on NewYorker.com. And punctuation proved to be a HOT TOPIC.


Wrote about other things, and turned it into a book, "Between You & Me," which you can learn more about here.

My personal site is http://www.commaqueen.net

I'm here at reddit NYC with Victoria drinking coffee to answer your questions.


Update: Thank you all for your wonderful questions. I have to go now to MSNBC, where I'll be "The Cycle" at 3:40 PM EST. But I'll come back and take another look when I have a chance. In the meantime, I am doing a book tour (you can see details on http://www.commaqueen.net), you can follow me on twitter @MaryNorrisTNY, and I hope you enjoy the book.

Comments: 105 • Responses: 38  • Date: 

lmeaac5 karma

What is your biggest grammar pet peeve?

IamMaryNorris11 karma

When people don't know the difference between "masterly" and "masterful."

You'd have a "masterly" piece of writing, but a boxer in the ring would be "masterful."

I could go on about "lie" and "lay."

It's "lie," "lay," "lain," and "lay," "laid," and "laid."


I could add that "lie" is an intransitive verb meaning "to recline," and "lay" is a transitive verb meaning "to put something somewhere, to place or set."

SergioKindle4 karma

Hey, Mary! I really enjoyed your piece in the New Yorker a couple months ago.

TNY is kinda known for some of their quirky style choices; are there any others that you've suggested or any matters of style you're really fond of that the magazine doesn't employ?

(Dear God I hope using that semicolon after choices is correct)

IamMaryNorris7 karma


You know I think the magazine (and this sounds so loyal, I know) has achieved the perfect blend of print and art because of the cartoons.

I don't think I would change anything about it.

(You could have put a period where your semicolon is and started a new sentence. But it's okay).

disposable_radiator4 karma

What do you think of Cormac McCarthy's view/use of punctuation?

IamMaryNorris6 karma

I'm going to confess I've never read Cormac McCarthy.

But I understand he's a very good writer, and a minimalist at punctuation.

And it sounds to me like that suits his style.

It just seems to suit his subject matter.

Bungallo4 karma

Any thoughts on the much-maligned Oxford comma?

IamMaryNorris12 karma

I'm starting to think I don't like it, because it sounds so snobbish when you call it "the Oxford comma."

Can't we switch back to serial comma?

jaimelil4 karma

I'm a newbie copy editor in NYC—took on my first gig last August. In your eyes, what makes a copy editor stand out as someone who knows her stuff? What sets her apart from the rest? What makes her seem trustworthy and dependable?

IamMaryNorris7 karma

You have chosen an invisible profession.

A copy editor has got to be content to stay in the background and be helpful and not intrude.

The two qualities that make the best copy editors are high intelligence and low ego.


Good luck!

localgyro3 karma

I have a protocol or etiquette question for you -- what do you do when you run into a grammar error or typo in real life (for example, on an internet forum like this one)? Do you correct it? Do you ignore it? Do you figure you're not getting paid for it and so reserve your professional wisdom (but judge the writer in your secret heart)?

The morality of "grammar nazis" is a topic of frequent debate around here; it'd be nice to get a professional opinion!

IamMaryNorris4 karma


What I do is - I notice it, and I let it pass.

And that's about it.

localgyro3 karma

That's a somewhat unclear sigh reference. Are you sighing at the error, the people who feel they have to correct, or me for asking about it? ;)

Whichever way, you're awesome. I look forward to your book!

IamMaryNorris5 karma

VICTORIA NOTE: She just sighed, not in relation to any particular thing

amandabug3 karma

Emoticons vs. emoji vs. just plain writing out what you're feeling?

IamMaryNorris6 karma

I'm for just plain writing out what you're feeling.

I enjoy looking at emoji, but don't know how to find them on my phone.

And emoticons are a wonderful new use of the semicolon.

feelslikemagic3 karma

Hi Mary. Thanks for doing this. The New Yorker’s house style is well-known for its use of diaeresis marks. It's unusual but it makes sense. But why does the magazine continue to use unorthodox spellings — like "focussed" and "venders" — as standard?

IamMaryNorris4 karma

Well, we double those consonants in "focussed" and "travelling" because it's a legitimate choice.

At worst, it's kind of Anglophile.

And I don't know why we spell vendor with an "er" but we're not the only ones who do!

munkee19863 karma

When you communicate online or via text messages, do you always take time to punctuate and capitalize correctly?

IamMaryNorris5 karma

I cannot text with my phones. I hold the phone with my left hand and poke it with my right index finger. But I always switch screens for capitals, and punctuation, and apostrophes.

OliFranklin3 karma

Do prospective copy editors have to go under any kind of rigorous test before being accepted by the New Yorker? (And if so: can you make it available online?)

IamMaryNorris4 karma


We have a famous test, and I will not divulge any sentences from it.

The subject is "Nauru."

And I will say that the author was Calvin Trillin.

glitzyjan3 karma

Thank you for doing this AMA.

Are you able to read a book, such as 50 Shades of Grey, without flinching from how horrible it is both in content and editing?

IamMaryNorris9 karma



I can forgive typos and stuff. But I can't handle bad writing, no.

glitzyjan5 karma

I like you. I'll read your book.

IamMaryNorris5 karma


Christler5013 karma

What are you thoughts on the em-dash versus the parenthesis? I've noticed the former coming into far more play than it formerly did, and I wonder whether you have a personal rule on its use, or whether you put it down largely to the writers "style"?

IamMaryNorris6 karma

Parentheses should have a little more zing. Something in parentheses should be a little bit funny, to warrant their use. And dashes are often used for variety.

joetwopointo3 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA. I read The New Yorker quite often and admire its style. Never do I question its alleged "over-use" of the comma. To me, there is no such thing. Now for my question: I am an editor at Fordham University's paper of record, The Ram. I would assume we receive far more error-ridden content than you do at the New Yorker, given the lack of experience of college students, coupled with their tendency to procrastinate.

What advice would you give to young journalists who are looking to improve their writing? As a follow up: What tips do you have for submitting the least error-ridden copy possible?

IamMaryNorris3 karma

Well, the first is read good writing to see what it is.

And tips? It's pointless to try to tell college students to allow time to let something rest for a day, and read it again, because I know everybody does things at the last minute.

If you don't have an eye for detail, ask a friend who does to read your pieces before you submit them.

rossrey3 karma

How was the copy-editing process of your book? What did your copy editor have to say about it?

IamMaryNorris3 karma

My copy editor was not the least bit intimidated by working on the work of a copy editor.

Which was good.

I'm always glad to give a freelance copy editor work.

I only changed back a few things (he wanted to change the title to "Who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick?" to "Who put the hyphen into Moby-Dick?" and I changed it back).

bananalouise3 karma

Hi Mary! Can't wait to read your book.

I have several questions, which you're welcome to answer all, some or none of:

  • Are you sure it's "copy edit" and not "copyedit" or "copy-edit"? I can never decide.
  • Do you follow New Yorker style in your personal life?
  • What widely respected rule do you hate most? (Mine is "Never end a sentence with a preposition.")
  • Do you have any favorite clichés? Least favorite?
  • When I worked on the copy desk of my college paper, an editor told me that everyone secretly hates copy for making their lives more difficult in the middle of the night. This coincides pretty closely with the experience that led my mother to quit her newspaper copy editing job in a huff. In your experience, how do copy editors tend to be viewed by the rest of a publication's staff? How about the writers?

Thank you for this AMA!

IamMaryNorris6 karma

That's a long question.

It is "copy edit" as a verb. And we use "copy-editing" as a gerund. And "copy editor" is two words (this is all New Yorker style, Chicago does it differently, you decide - just be consistent).


I'm brainwashed! I can't help myself!

Not splitting infinitives. Do not split an infinitive.

I don't like it when someone uses "truth to tell" as a transition. It's clunky. It's probably not really true!

It's hard to avoid cliches completely. "Keep your eye on the prize" is a good one.

I'm going to repeat myself. The best writers value the publication process. They like copy editors. And rely on them. Sometimes, a writer might be defensive. And that's okay too. You don't press them. The writers really ought to feel grateful for the loving attention.

journeyer883 karma

How was it working with an editor on your book? I'd imagine since you're qualified as an editor yourself, some styles could clash, etc.

I'm working with an agent now on my debut novel. Edits are daunting and it feels like the process will never end. How do you get through it? Please don't say coffee. I cannot drink any more coffee.

IamMaryNorris4 karma


This is an interesting one.

My editor and I clashed a lot at first, because I suffer from an occupational hazard. I'm really involved in detail, and I tend to go deeper and deeper into detail. It's a matter of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

NOTE: Go back and put that as a cliche that I like!

So the editor was able to see the whole shape, and give a shape to the whole book that I would have never been able to do.

So you want an editor who's good at something you're not good at.

So I worked on the microscopic level, and he was the big picture.

Have a smoothie, and take a nap.

Frajer3 karma

What's the worst or funniest typo you've ever had to fix ?

IamMaryNorris11 karma

Well, the one that snuck through - there was a woman named Mrs. Pensig, and in the magazine, it came out with a slight transposition so it came out as "Mrs. Penis G."

amandabug2 karma

If you're writing about a vehicle accident that takes place on a road that is under train tracks, is it considered an overpass or an underpass?

IamMaryNorris2 karma


I'd say it's an "underpass."

lawschooltalk2 karma

Which regular contributor to the New Yorker has the worst grammar?

IamMaryNorris13 karma

Ask me after I've retired.

ThunderSack2 karma

What is the biggest knock down, drag out argument you ever had over a suggested change?

IamMaryNorris9 karma

Somebody wanted to put something in the form of Mad Libs, and include a word in boldface type. And I balked at using boldface. We don't use boldface. And the writer said "Well, why not do something new and different once in a while?!"

And I thought You just don't understand The New Yorker.

But he got his way! We did the boldface.

It was the only time I ever threatened to change it behind his back. Muwahaha.

courtiebabe4202 karma

What was it like to have someone else edit your work, instead of editing the work of others for the book?

IamMaryNorris3 karma

It's wonderful.

My copy editor on the book had some tics, but... overall, his suggestions were really sharp, and I ended up taking most of them.

StuckInABook52 karma

Do you internally self-correct when speaking, or do you sort of turn off your inner correction pencil for conversation?

(Loved your book, by the way! Any book with an entire chapter about pencils is okay by me.)

IamMaryNorris3 karma

Ah, that's nice!

I turn it off, definitely.

"Funner" is one of my favorite words.

"The funner way to go."

darjans2 karma

What are your thoughts on the Oxford comma? Superfluous or needed for clarity?

IamMaryNorris8 karma

I like the Oxford comma, but I prefer to call it the serial comma.

I'm amazed at how much people care about whether to use it or not.

It's easier just to use it all the time (in my opinion). But I can't honestly say it's necessary.

zuckerkornz2 karma

Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist?

IamMaryNorris3 karma

I am a forgiving prescriptivist. Or a stern descriptivist.

A little of each.

Writers think I am a prescriptivist. But I'm under the delusion that I'm a descriptivist.

amandabug2 karma

Web vs. web (as in Internet)? (related - email vs. e-mail!?)

IamMaryNorris2 karma

The New Yorker capitalizes "Web." And we are just following the other Web - Webster!

We sometimes mix up the two webs. Haha!

Again, The New Yorker still puts the hyphen in "e-mail." Following Web.

(Why are people so interested in this?)

amandabug1 karma

I was an AP editor. When it changed these entries, I was very disappointed.

IamMaryNorris3 karma

I'm not a big fan of AP style. But it's an interesting gauge of where things are going.

At this copy editors convention I was at in Pittsburgh, ACES, I learned that AP now permits BLT on first reference.

What does that mean? That the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich has come into its own!

BrodyNoPants2 karma

Technology is advancing more quickly than style books. How or when do you decide that something needs to be changed or acknowledged as in the common vernacular? (Tweet, favorite, like, Google as verb) AP Style is notoriously slow to change.

IamMaryNorris4 karma

Well, AP style is changing faster than The New Yorker. And they also make public their changes.

I have been lowercasing google for a while, personally.

The Italian for "to google" is "googlare."

So I think that it's inevitable that these things will be lowercased eventually, as they came into vocabulary really fast and are being disseminated very fast.

For some reason, we don't rush it. I don't know why.

beernerd2 karma

What's your stance on commas and why is it such a hot topic?

IamMaryNorris4 karma

I am amazed at what a hot topic it is.

I was afraid that my section on gender in my book, called "The Problem of Heesh" (in which I describe my beloved sister's adolescence at forty years old) would get all kinds of prurient interest. But people have been far more interested in arguing about commas.

I think it must be just that commas are very personal.

BrodyNoPants2 karma

Thoughts on commas before "too" (at the end of a sentence) and after "So" (when it begins a sentence)?

IamMaryNorris4 karma

I like the comma before "too" anywhere in a sentence. You'd have one after it, too, if it was in the middle.

But I don't like the comma after "So" at the beginning of a sentence.

Unless it is necessary to prevent a misreading.

Spoonsy1 karma

What's the most glaring typo in modern pop culture that makes you want to grab a pen and lead an attack?

IamMaryNorris3 karma

The mistake of using "I" instead of "me" as exemplified by my title - it should be "Between You & Me" when it's in the objective case.

GMUSSTN1 karma

Firstly, I just got my first full-time job editing about 1.5 years ago, and let me just say it was a relief to find out that you also "gave up" reading for pleasure for a little while after getting your first gig at the New Yorker. About how long was it until you started reading again?

Also, my boss wants me to schedule some activities for our analysts to do to improve their writing. I know of some stuff for high school kids and younger, but I've never worked with more experienced writers, many of whom have PhDs. Know of any fun activities I could lead them through that would get them thinking more about their composition skills and how they can enhance their analyses?


IamMaryNorris3 karma

Probably about 2 years.

There are lots of books with exercises and writing prompts in them. I personally don't like them, hahaha!

These are the people you need to make a living off. These are the people who are going to pay your rent.

So give them a copy of my new book. Have them read McPhee. Somebody who writes well about science and geology. He writes very well about science.

And John Cassidy, read John Cassidy for financial analysis. James Surowiecki. And Atul Gowande.

GMUSSTN2 karma

Thanks! I was trying to avoid prompts...these people write all day, they last thing they need from me is "homework."

Big fan of yours - thanks for the response!

IamMaryNorris1 karma

Oh great!

iamthetallpaul1 karma

I've had an ongoing debate with my friends I'm hoping you can settle once and for all:

In the sentence: "I went to the store last week, and spent upwards of $100," did I spend more or less than $100?

IamMaryNorris3 karma


MarthaFarcuss1 karma

Hi, Mary. I have two questions:

1) How often do you utilise your impeccable copy editing skills? For example, would you ever correct a friend's spelling in a email or wedding invitation?

2) How do you respond to people who say that correct grammar and punctuation aren't that important, and that grammar and punctuation pedants should concentrate on more important things?

IamMaryNorris3 karma

1.) A wedding invitation? Yes, because that's important. But only if it had not been sent out already. Emails I don't correct. If it's not for publication, why worry?

2.) On the contrary, we are living in a punctuation renaissance! People who like these things are just having fun.

zuckerkornz1 karma

Would you ever copyedit a Prince song for fun?

IamMaryNorris2 karma

It would not have occurred to me.

Is someone paying?

BrodyNoPants1 karma

I love your Comma Queen videos! How did the idea to put you in front of the camera giving quick grammar lessons come about? Have you enjoyed it? Thank you!

IamMaryNorris2 karma

It started with my MOTH appearance, and it was the idea of the publicist at The New Yorker, Rhonda Sherman.

I have been very evasive about sitting down with the video crew, but they've been very persistent.

And as long as I don't have to watch the videos myself, what the hell?