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When Mere almost met Mary
Written by Meredith Forrester — 23rd June 2016
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Mere and ‘Mary’ have a laugh. ‘Ah dear, hyphens as textual dashes! Bless their socks.’

In April last year, Mary Norris—New Yorker query proofreader and star of the mag’s Comma Queen video series—tweeted that she was ‘going to like Australia’. I immediately started typing out all the questions I was going to ask her when she got here, whenever that was going to be. I simultaneously started working myself up into a tizz. What should I open with? I hope I don’t get tongue-tied. Will she trust I have what it takes to pass The New Yorker’s famous copyediting test (and, by the way, was it really authored by Calvin Trillin)? When was the last time I interviewed someone? I’ll need to buy a new white shirt.

Of course I’d have finished reading Mary’s first book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by the time we sat down.(1) We’d talk about that, for sure. But I wanted more. I wanted a chat about the job, copyeditor (Macquarie) to copy editor (Merriam-Webster), amateur to New Yorker expert, hero, queen. I wanted to talk about English as a language in flux. Does Mary worry about the influence American English has on all the different Englishes, or does she get a thrill from it? I might have brought up an American usage that has crept into Australian English—say, that we tend to live in apartments, as Americans do, rather than in flats like Londoners. I’d definitely have cited an article I read (in The Atlantic, I think—I’d have looked it up) that wondered whether, by conforming to a standardised version of the language, we were losing the flourishes and idioms that make each type of English sing.

I also wanted to talk trade specifics. What does Mary do when she comes across a decision that isn’t in The New Yorker’s style guide (praise be to Thee)? I’d have mentioned that I riffle through my memories for similar past instances before checking how a credible source has dealt with the problem. But where do you look when you’re already working at that source, and you’re the one who has to make that call? I’d have asked Mary if she enjoys following her gut, with no established convention to back her up; I’d love to know how she rationalises it. What about her favourite style decision, in The New Yorker or elsewhere? One of mine is The Chicago Manual of Style’s ‘consistency and flexibility’ rule for numbers (9.7)—that is, when you’ve got a lot of numbers really close together and, to keep things consistent in the immediate context, you can either spell them all out or make them all numerals. So, even if you were generally spelling out numbers to nine and using numerals from 10, you could say the children were 5, 11 and 13. Context is key, don’t you agree?

We’d have been talking about The New Yorker’s style guide for a while by this point, so, purely for a bit of a giggle (because I think Mary would have appreciated a giggle), I’d have brought up that anecdote of hers involving the diaeresis(2) (these two dots, not to be mistaken for an umlaut: coöperate, naïve, reënter), her predecessor, and former New Yorker style editor Hobie Weekes—the one in which her predecessor pestered Hobie to give the diaeresis the heave-ho and then, shortly after he’d agreed while in a lift (Britain) or elevator (US and Canada), he died. Then, I might have asked Mary what her favourite punctuation mark is. To hyphen or not to hyphen? Textual dashes: their place in the parenthetical-mark hierarchy?

Can Mary read for fun? Can she switch off her brain and not stop at every word, every sentence, trying to determine whether it was the best choice for context and clarity? What about writing—does she also struggle with self-editing? If she were writing a piece of prose about one of her career heroes, would she second-guess each comma, each determiner, every time she used the subjunctive?

At some point, I’d have broached the subject of how Mary works with writers who are deliberately breaking convention for literary effect. Is her immediate responsibility towards the author, the editor, the New Yorker style guide? And then, setting aside writers’ styles, how does Mary approach querying grammar? Does her famous comma shaker(3) contain enough grammar-power to elicit agreeable responses to her suggestions the first time round? If not, I’d have asked how many times she attempts to make her point before caving in to the author’s or editor’s call. This would have, I hope, been one of those divine secret moments shared between two members of the copyediting sisterhood. Ya-Ya!

Somewhere near the end of the interview, I would have asked if she feels like she’s always learning—when she’s editing, when she’s writing, when she’s filming the latest instalment of her video series. I feel that. And I don’t want to lose it.

In October we found out Mary was coming to Melbourne for the Wheeler Centre’s Interrobang festival. I set up an interview, prepped my questions and panicked my way into some sort of confident calm. But then it fell through. I still went to see her speak, and I scribbled down pages of cracker Mary quotes by the light of my iPhone while she sat onstage all floodlit, regal and dear. She’s a character. We would have had a great chat.

An edited version of this article was published in The Good Copy Gazette issue three.

(1) Haven’t read it? Here’s an excerpt. Then go buy it.

(2) Mary talks all about the diaeresis in this Merriam-Webster guest post.

(3) Shake, shake, shake! Read all about it.