Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Betwen (for Between)

I have been meaning to blog about Mary Norris for quite some time now. About a year ago, I went to hear her talk about her book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen—twice in one day, first at the University at Albany, and then later on at the New York State Museum. The book is a memoir of her many years as a copy editor at the New Yorker, mixed with friendly advice about grammar, punctuation, syntax, and style. I was thoroughly charmed by her (one of my favorite chapters concerned her undying love for #1 pencils, in particular the storied Blackwing), but one thing we disagreed about was the "singular they," or the pressing need, in English, for a "gender-neutral singular personal pronoun." Norris is against it for all the usual reasons, but it seems is just mainly gracious enough to let the boys have this one. And the woman is by no means anti-trans. In fact, the chapter addressing that issue is centered around her own reaction to her brother's transformation from "he" to "she." (Reader: she Mary'd him.) An interesting, if faintly inconvenient, fact in all of this is that the first person to promote the restriction of they to the work of a plural pronoun (effectively making it stand in for "he or she") was herself a woman. "If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage," says the New York Times, "it's Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher's popular guide, 'A New Grammar' (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it's believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes..." Not everything is a feminist or antifeminist plot; some things are simply common sense. That said, and in the end, though, every writer must do their own thing. And if they can do it as well as Mary Norris can, he should put it however she pleases! (And if you think that was fun, check out Lewis Carroll's mind-boggling nonsense verse "She's All My Fancy Painted Him," first published in the Comic Times in 1855.) There were 92 cases of today's typo in OhioLINK, and "too many records found for your search" in WorldCat.

(Photograph of author Mary Norris, by Josef Astor, used by permission.)

Carol Reid

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