The Comma Queen speaks at TED

Mary Norris presented at TED yesterday, and I can’t wait until video of her talk is available. Here’s a recap from the TED blog.

“Copy-editing for The New Yorker is like playing shortstop for a major league baseball team. Every movement gets picked over by the critics,” says Mary Norris, who has played this position for the past three decades. In that time, she’s gotten a reputation for “sternness” and for being a “comma maniac,” but this is unfounded, she says. Copy-editors work at the level of words and punctuation, and their goal is not just to prevent mistakes but to give each thought emphasis. She upholds the rules of grammar and style, but far above that, she aims to “make the author look good.” She shares a sentence written by Ian Frazier in a story about Hurricane Sandy and walks us through her decision whether to use “as,” which was technically correct, or “like,” which the writer had chosen and which, admittedly, sounded better. “I decided that Hurricane Sandy conferred poetic justice on the author,” she says, “and let the sentence stand.”

Seems to me that you could switch grammarian for copy-editor in that paragraph and get a pretty good idea of why the grammarian’s role is so important.

(I watched the first of the videos I’ve seen from this year’s conference—Shonda Rhimes on her Year of Yes—and think it’s really powerful. If I could clip out the few minutes at the beginning in which Shonda talks about the fear of public speaking, I’d try to play it for everybody who visits our club.)


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