Sunday, April 05, 2015

Mary Norris: One of three "specialist copy editors" at The New Yorker . . .

Mary Norris
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.

"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."
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:
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.

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)
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:
An error, spotted in this awesome article on a revolutionary new 3D-printing device:

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)
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.

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?

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At 3:33 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

You may be part of the "A comma marks a pause" school of thought. I'll consider such usage incorrect, but I won't grumble too much about it.

When I was editing Young Chun's book, I saw that he was constantly dropping (i.e., omitting, not carpet-bombing) commas before coordinating conjunctions in compound sentences, so on the PDF of his ms, I kept appending the comment, "Add comma. Add comma. Add comma." Probably did that a couple hundred times over the course of 200-some pages. After receiving my proof, Young talked to me about how he had been trying to convey a sense of rushed thoughts tumbling one upon the other, i.e., the omission of those commas had been deliberate—a stylistic choice. I made a face, but told him that, in the end, it was his ms, and he could do with it as he pleased. While I still squirm a bit when passing over those spaces where commas should be in Young's story, I think, grudgingly, that his stylistic choice does make a certain aesthetic sense. I wonder that other pedants, more severe than I am, might think.

At 4:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, I'm quite strict about commas, but they can clutter up a sentence. When that happens, I get rid of them. But I don't simply take them out - that would be cheating! I take the comma-encumbered sentence to be a poorly constructed sentence, so I reconstruct it to reduce commas. That usually improves the style.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:21 AM, Blogger TheBigHenry said...

My wife, Trish, is a linguist. She tells me that I tend to overuse commas. But I am a devotee of the "A comma marks a pause" school of thought.

I am also a devotee of the "Parentheses enclose an aside" school of thought (especially for an aside within a longish sentence where it may be misunderstood without the parentheses).

What do you guys think about the "Parentheses ..." school of thought?

At 7:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I generally try to cut down on anything that impedes the flow of a sentence . . . but if one needs an aside, I think parentheses the way to go.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:40 AM, Blogger TheBigHenry said...

I also avoid anything that impedes the flow when writing an essay. But in online commentary, where the conversation style of writing is the norm (and one can easily be misunderstood), I concentrate more on clarity than on elegance.

At 8:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I try to keep my online writing as brief as possible. That's usually clear enough for me to get my notions across.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:45 AM, Blogger TheBigHenry said...

Perhaps it's because your notions have intrinsic clarity. Mine are sometimes convoluted, so I have to hammer away to get my point across, which even then I don't always succeed in doing.

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I admire smart guys like you, Malcolm, and Vallicella who not only see deeply into the nature of things but also know how to write well about it and even make the effort to do so.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:17 PM, Blogger TheBigHenry said...

High praise indeed, Jeffery, coming from a scholar.

At 8:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, it's true.

Jeffery Hodges

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