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The Interrobang

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Mary Norris and Jane Caro: Why does ‘i’ come before ‘e’, except after ‘c’?

Listen to Mary Norris and Jane Caro: Why does ‘i’ come before ‘e’, except after ‘c’?

In the hierarchy of improbable things, a grammatical error in the pages of the New Yorker must certainly sit close to the top – and as copy editor at the notoriously fastidious literary institution, Mary Norris has been at the frontline of the fight against errant apostrophes for several decades. 

Mary Norris and Jane Caro (Connor Tomas O'Brien)

In conversation with Jane Caro at The Interrobang, Norris shared the story of her ascendance to the throne of the comma queen. Beginning her working life as a ‘foot-checker’ at a public pool in Cleveland, Norris noted that her life has followed a classic ‘foot-checker to fact-checker/from toes to prose’ trajectory.

Contrary to popular belief, Norris admitted during the conversation, errors do slip into the pages of the New Yorker. Her first? Erroneously rendering ‘chaise longue’ as ‘chaise lounge’. An easy mistake to make, but it was an error that wasn’t readily overlooked. ‘Are the glory years of the New Yorker gone forever?’ asked a reader, in a typewritten letter that an elder copy editor made sure to circulate around the office. (‘They certainly are!’, the copy editor had made sure to scribble underneath.)

The New Yorker’s style guide is famously opinionated, sometimes obstinately so. ‘The Democrats coöperate to reëlect the President,’ Norris has offered, as an example of a sentence that could be found in no other magazine. Still, she told Caro, ‘When writers complain about the New Yorker style, I think, “You’re writing for the New Yorker; shut up”.’ 

Listen to the full discussion – featuring digressions into the battle between editors and writers in driving linguistic change, the dire need for a second person plural, the stylistic flexibility of the dash, and a meta-discussion on the interrobang. Bow down to the comma queen!

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