Mary Norris: One of three "specialist copy editors" at The New Yorker . . .
The New Yorker
. . . a lady after my own editorial heart!
Ms. Norris looks not only for errors that have slipped through the many layers of security, but also for subtle dissonances in sense and style - words that are slightly off, imprecise or muddy phrases, anachronistic colloquialisms, technically correct commas that might make a sentence sound better if omitted, or vice versa.I'd prefer Remnick had said, "She's like those mechanics who work only on cars that go 200 miles an hour . . . . They can see every precise little thing that can go wrong that might get you killed." Just four minor changes, and those two sentences sound better to me, though I'm not quite sure about the word "precise." Anyway, let's read on:
"It's like those mechanics that only work on cars that go 200 miles an hour," said David Remnick, The New Yorker's editor. "They can see every little precise thing that can go wrong that might get you killed."
You might think this sort of person would be prissy, persnickety, overly regimented, or whatever fits your image of an annoying pedant wielding a red pencil or, in this case, a microscopically fine-toothed comb. On the contrary. Ms. Norris, who has a dirty laugh that evokes late nights and Scotch, is more like the worldly aunt who pulls you aside at Thanksgiving and whispers that it is all right to occasionally flout the rules.That's exactly what I do, namely, sometimes take the comma out and sometimes put it back in . . . like Oscar Wilde! My friend Kevin Kim detests this use of the comma:
Take the comma. The New Yorker is fond of commas. "We get a lot of letters from people who think we use too many commas," Ms. Norris said. In the book she uses an example of what she calls "a discretionary comma" in the following sentence: "It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective."
In such cases, "I always think: 'The writer likes that comma. That comma is doing something,'" she said. "And sometimes I take it out, and sometimes I leave it in." (Sarah Lyall, "Mary Norris Muses on a Lifetime of Literary Vigilance in 'Between You and Me,'" The New York Times, March 31, 2015)
An error, spotted in this awesome article on a revolutionary new 3D-printing device:This is one of those few cases where I part from Kevin, and allow what I call a stylistic comma (Ms. Norris's discretionary one), whereas Kevin - clad in his rock-ribbed armor of grammatical rectitude and armed with his double-edged sword of regulation that penetrates even to the dividing of shoe sole from street spit - never allows such a comma. I, however, want the freedom to judge if my sentence requires a comma, or not! Such such is important to me. I don't know exactly why.
To save your life, a surgeon will first insert a tube, and carefully guide it through the clog.
If you guessed that the error was the second comma, you'd be right. The rule is: don't use a comma in a compound predicate. Some people blithely believe you can put a comma just about anywhere because "a comma marks a pause," which is an odious - and often erroneous - intuition, given its dangerous fuzziness (as when people alter sentences because something "doesn't sound right"). (Kevin Kim, "la faute," March 19, 2015)
By the way, I'm tempted to add a couple of commas in one of Ms. Norris's remarks. To wit: "And sometimes, I take it out, and sometimes, I leave it in." But that seems excessive - too many commas. Maybe reconstruct the remark? "And I sometimes take it out, and I sometimes leave it in." Hmm . . . not quite there. Perhaps: "I sometimes take it out, and I sometimes leave it in." Better, but not quite. Let's try this: "I sometimes take it out and sometimes leave it in." Almost, but no cigar. How about: "I sometimes take it out, and sometimes leave it in." That's it, precisely!
Kevin? Your thoughts?