MR Round Table With Mary Norris: The English Language in the Age of the Internet


For the uninitiated, the Man Repeller Round Table is a series in which we sit down with guests to discuss topics that beg for multiple points of view. We ask questions, we work through ideas that have been lingering in our own heads, and along with the learning that happens anytime a new opinion is put forth, our intent is to share the process with you.

For this week’s Round Table, we were joined by The New Yorker’s Mary Norris. (For the uninitiated, Norris, also known as the Comma Queen, has a web series that demonstrates her grammatical savvy. She recently wrote a book called, “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.“) The goal: to talk about the ever-changing English language as it evolves through the age of the Internet.

Leandra Medine: You’ve been at The New Yorker for a very long time.

Mary Norris, query proofreader at The New Yorker: Yes, longer than you can imagine. I started there in 1978 in the editorial library — it’s an entry level position — and was in the library for three years. I moved to a job called collating and from there, to the copy desk. I stayed on the copy desk from ’81 until ’89 and then I left.

I went to a start up called Wigwag that lasted two years. I freelanced for a couple of years following that, but since my freelance work was coming from The New Yorker, I went back as a query proofreader and have been at the magazine since.

Leandra: You’ve probably watched many different changes fall into motion since you’ve been there, specifically with language: trends, style, the way that colloquial speech has become so popular in written word. Does that bug you?

Mary: No, no! In fiction, we let people talk the way they talk. The narrator can pretty much say what she wants. Of course, when it’s journalism, when it’s a fact piece and it’s in The New Yorker, those things are styled. And our idea — it may be old fashioned, but it’s still our idea — is that we’re part of a long tradition and we’re continuing this tradition and throwing it into the future. We don’t know why certain things in The New Yorker’s style book are still in there. All the people who made up the original style book are gone.

Amelia: I was reading the part in your book [“Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen”] about dictionary authors and the difference between prescriptivists (“those who tell you what to do”) and descriptivists (“those who describe what people say without judging it”). We’re constantly navigating between writing the way people actually speak, which tends to make for a better read on Man Repeller, and the way people “should” write, with by-the-book grammar. A sentence may be more correct with “to whom,” but in certain contexts that might sound snooty on our site. A sentence that ends in a preposition may not be proper, but it can sound more natural.

The Internet has become very casual with language.

Leandra: Yeah, and Man Repeller is certainly not The New Yorker. Whenever new contributors start writing for Man Repeller, the first thing I say to them is, “Pretend the posts that you’re writing are like an email you are sending to your best friend.” It’s definitely a very different mode of operation.

Mary: You know, a good writing prompt is to start out as if you were writing a letter because that’s how you discover your natural voice.

There’s a tension, certainly, between print and the Internet. The Internet is more casual. The New Yorker’s website has a whole different staff, including a different staff of copy editors, and what we’re interested in — both print and web — is improving the Internet, bringing it closer to the standard of print.

The online staff don’t have the time to lavish on a piece as we do with one that goes into the magazine. We’re set up for it; we have a system. It’s like a well-oiled machine and we have time. That’s the big element. They don’t have that luxury on the web. There’s so much going up all the time that they can’t read everything eight times and sift it down to its purest essence, which is what we really do try to do in the print magazine. But they’re trying to improve the quality of it and I think they’re doing a really good job.

As far as using your ear goes and sounding in print the way that you sound in speech, that’s a good thing. I take it as far as I can grammatically, but I wouldn’t want to make a writer say something she would never say. Also, as long as you know the rules, it’s okay to ignore them sometimes for the sake of the voice. And the energy!

Amelia: This conversation reminds me about a Round Table we did on emojis. Someone asked, “Are emojis the end of the English language? Is this the demise?” (No.) Another argument was that emojis are a form of slang, and slang is reflective of culture. There has always been slang. It doesn’t ruin the language but it does change it. I guess that’s where we’re interested in playing with what’s considered “proper English.” Just because something’s not “correct” or “in the books” doesn’t mean — I mean, it’s wrong — but it doesn’t mean it’s not valued.

Mary: I think all of that Word of the Year stuff is kind of stupid, but it is telling that an emoji was chosen as Word of the Year instead of a word. I would have chosen “man bun” to be Word of the Year.

Amelia: I think we would have, too. Does it worry you that an emoji was chosen?

Mary: Emojis have a mystique about them. The one they chose for the Word of the Year — I always thought it meant “laugh until you cry?” I don’t know exactly how they translate it, but I don’t see it engraved on a gravestone. It does not worry me. I mean, everything that changes in the language brings energy to it and some of the things will last and some won’t. The slang of the twenties, right? I just read something that a friend of mine wrote about how her mother and father disapproved of her getting good grades in school. They wanted her to be attractive and marry well and they didn’t think she should be a show-off smarty-pants. Her mother said, “Nobody likes a greasy grind.” Ha! I guess that was slang for an “egg head” or something? I don’t even know. Is “egg head” also an old word?

Amelia: I think so. A nerd?

Mary: A nerd! A nerd will do. “Nobody likes a nerd,” or a “geek.”

Leandra: Do you text?

Mary: I do text. And I hardly ever use abbreviations.

Leandra: I was going to ask. You’re not a short-hander.

Mary: No.

Leandra: Why is that?

Mary: I’m glad to learn that word, “short-hander.” I just feel silly. When I type “k” instead of “okay,” I feel like I’m trying to — as with emojis — be younger than I actually am. As if I were trying to fit in.

Leandra: I’m not sure “short-hander” actually is a word… What’s funny is that when people abbreviate on text message, it can sound kind of curt and cold, like they’re upset with you.

Mary: Really?

Leandra: Yeah. “K” means you’re mad.

Amelia: If you end a sentence with a period, you’re psychopath-mad.

Leandra: You’re a serial killer.

Mary: I read that. I was really surprised to read that. “Thanks.” So you just do nothing? Or you put three dots?

Amelia: I think an ellipsis is like, vague, but friendly.

Leandra: It’s passive aggressive.

Amelia: True. “Okay…” reads like, “Ooooookayy.”

Mary: I see. There’s some doubt in there.

Amelia: I think that’s where emojis help us, though. Because if you’re busy and can only send a “K,” you can just add…

Leandra: A smiley.

The problem is that they’re also kind of place holders, right? They give you something to say when you’re too busy to think, but would it be so bad if you just stopped for a minute and thought about it? That was my argument when we had the emoji conversation.

What about “goals,” Mary? Have you heard of this? For example, “Gigi Hadid is ‘goals.'”

Mary: Is “goals?”

Amelia: It’s Instagram-speak.

Leandra: Yeah, it’s Instagram-speak. If you see someone wearing an outfit that you really like, you say, “That outfit is goals.”

Mary: Ah, right. It’s like “fail.”

Leandra: Yes, it’s exactly like “fail.” How do you think this kind of Instagram-speak affects kids who are still in school, who are using text messages and Instagram as their primary mode of communication?

Mary:  Well, we’ll see what happens. I mean my generation is — we’re not done yet — but I’m thinking of the proofreaders at The New Yorker. There is a generation approaching retirement age and when we go, the next generation will move in. Maybe they will revamp the style book, maybe they will get rid of some stuff. This is a document that dates back to returning soldiers from the Second World War who decided that they were going to codify it. It has all kinds of references to bomb squadrons and those types of things!

But we don’t have any control over what sifts down to the younger generation, or what becomes standard.  I think text message-speak is still something that might make it into fiction — it probably has made it into fiction — but I don’t see it being very literary.

Amelia: News correspondents won’t be like, “Kk,” on air.

Mary: It’s not that it can’t be serious, but my feeling about it is that it’s fine for what it is used for now: for casual communication among peers. I think it would be boring to read it at length.

Amelia: I just watched your Comma Queen episode about the singular “their” replacing “his” or “hers” as a gender pronoun. As the world begins to accept the idea of gender fluidity — that being male or female is no longer black or white, traditional gender pronouns are going to become trickier to use. If someone asks that you use “they/their” as their pronouns, it’s wrong not to.

But what about the verb? Do you use “is” or “are”? Traditionally, “are” would go with “they,” but in this case “they” is one person…from a grammatical standpoint, how do you navigate that?

Mary: It comes from the usage. It comes from the people. Organizations are making noise about proper usage. I’m all for doing what needs to be done in order to make people feel fully human and respected. Since I made the video, I’ve decided that you’re just going to have to use a plural verb — are — and context is going to have to help you decide what it means. There could be confusing times in person as there could be confusing times in print. But usually there will be some kind of clue in the context. It’ll take some adjusting.

Amelia: It’s just so interesting to me that language does adjust. It’s easy to forget that it adjusts with each generation. It’s a moving organism, I guess.

Mary: It sure is. That’s one of the things that’s fun about it. People expect that The New Yorker style is like a united front, that the copy editors all think the same thing, but you know, while we don’t have knock down, drag out fights, we do disagree about things.

Amelia: In that same episode, you brought up an instance where you were editing a short story by George Saunders. He wrote, “Everyone would do what they liked.” You suggested that Saunders replace “they” with “he or she,” because “everyone” is singular. He ended up replacing “everyone” with just “he,” and you were happy with the change. You said that sometimes the conservative use of the masculine to cover the feminine and the masculine doesn’t do any harm. Could it have been “she” instead of “he”?

Mary: Yes, I support that completely. I say this as a copy editor, not as a person who is a feminist: “He” is the conventional solution. I like to use “she” sometimes in my own writing, but I cannot force that onto another writer. That’s the writer’s decision.

Leandra: Separate from The New Yorker, do you get frustrated when you see typos?

Mary: No, I don’t get frustrated. There were a whole bunch of mistakes in my book. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. I had a great editor, Matt Weiland, and we are going to do another book together. Working with an editor who is not a copy editor but a line editor and a shaper of a book was very exciting for me.

Working with a copy editor is different. Sometimes the copy editor in that kind of situation will be intimidated into thinking, “Well, I am not going to find anything. This is a professional copy editor, they’ve gone over it.” And I had gone over it, but you’re blind to your own mistakes; there’s only so much you can see. The fact is that after all of that, there were still typos.

So do typos bother me? In my own work — yes! But in other people’s work, if it’s my job to correct, great. I fix it. And if I am just reading for pleasure and I see I typo, I think, “A typo.” I don’t think, “Why, this jerk…”

You’ve heard of Muphry’s Law, right? When you’re writing about language you’re sure to make a mistake. There’s sure to be a typo!

Leandra: If you were to teach basic tenets of good grammar to someone, what are some things they need to know?

Mary: It’s impossible for me to boil all of usage and grammar and spelling into a few things. The main thing is to read good stuff.

And read it twice: once for content, and then again to detach yourself from the content to see how it’s done.

Also, subjects and verbs should agree.

Studying a foreign language is the best way to learn grammar, if it’s in a book. I studied German in college and that’s how I learned the difference between the nominative and the accusative.

Leandra: I have spent my life escaping the word “whom.”

Mary: Good for you! It is exactly the same as a personal pronoun, it’s just a relative pronoun. So if you can recast a sentence and see which form is appropriate, say “he” or “him,” then “he” is “who” and “him” is “whom.” But, always err on the side of using “who.”

Amelia: I just read an article about the overuse of “whom” because writers think it sounds fancier, but it’s often used incorrectly or unnecessarily.  It’s like putting on a top hat. Or a monocle.

Mary: If someone used “whom” incorrectly in a cover letter or application for The New Yorker, you’d be out the door.

Leandra: Do you find that people are not respecting the art the way they used to?

Mary: In my office, no. What’s worrying me at the office now is the other use of “their” as in, “everyone took their seat.” Not the gender issue, but the number issue. That bothers my ear. Yet it is common usage and it’s becoming accepted. And my worry at work is that editors are going to start accepting it. We go through editors or proof readers to get a writer to change something and if an editor decides, “You know, I am going to start using the singular ‘their,'” then we’re in trouble.

What we do is avoid it. We’ll re-cast a sentence slightly different so that we can avoid the problem.

But you know, I am talking about a literary magazine. I am not talking about speech. I am not talking about blogs. There’s good stuff online. No question about it.

Amelia: Do you have a favorite word?

Leandra: My new favorite word is “uxorious.” According to your book, it is not actually pronounced “yoox-or-e-us,” it’s pronounced, “uhx-or-i-uhs.” It’s a great word, especially if you have a husband who is incredibly accommodating.

Mary:  That’s what you want to put in your dating profile: “Looking for someone really uxorious.” My favorite word right now is “man bun.” It’s just so funny.

Leandra: See, you should get on Instagram. You could follow accounts dedicated to man buns.

Amelia: Mary, do you think I currently have a man bun or a lady bun? We tried to take back the man bun once.

Mary: I’d call it a chignon.

Amelia: Oh, a chignon. That sounds like the “whom” of buns.

Mary: My all time favorite word is Italian. It’s “aperto,” which means, “open.” That’s my favorite word because I was traveling in Italy, driving near the coast, looking for a place, a bar, on the beach. And it was really early spring, seasonally early, and we saw this place with a sign out that said, “aperto,” and it was open! We could go in and eat there. I just thought that was a beautiful word.

Amelia: Oh, I love that.

Leandra: If I were applying for a job at The New Yorker and I wanted to work in your department — or if I were applying to a similar copy editing-type job at a publication independent of The New Yorker, how would you recommend that I present myself?

Mary:  Of course, you don’t want any typos in your cover letter or in your resume. You know, I had no experience when I got my first job at The New Yorker and had to learn on the job, so that would be my advice: take what you can get and see if it turns into something and learn as much as you can in that capacity.

Again, if you want to be a good copy writer, or you want to be a good editor, the first thing you have to do is read a bunch of good stuff so that you develop a sense of what is good prose. And people takes courses  — there are professional schools for copy editors. NYU has a branch.

The mistake that people make most often during an editing test [when they’re applying for a job as a copy editor] is doing too much. They try to re-write sentences when what they should be doing is noticing that there’s a big ass typo in one of the words. And that’s when you’re not going to get the job. It wouldn’t even be so bad to miss the typo, but if you compound that with changing something that was not necessary because there was nothing wrong to begin with, that’s what would fail to impress somebody.

Leandra: What do you consider to be the most rewarding part of your job?

Mary: What’s the most rewarding part of my job? Feeling trusted. You know, there aren’t that many times in life when you feel that somebody really relies on you. I once said something to an editor like, “As long as you can trust me to do it…,” and he said, “You’ve never let me down before.” I thought, “Well, I guess, I haven’t!”

Mary Norris began working at The New Yorker in 1978 and has been a query proofreader at the magazine since 1993. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she lives in New York. “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” is her first book. It comes out in paperback on April 4. Follow Mary Norris on Twitter @MaryNorrisTNY and check out her website here. Follow The New Yorker on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.


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