'Comma Queen' visits Mattapoisett Library

Dec 2, 2017

For most Mattapoisett residents, it’s probably been a while since they were asked to take a spelling test. But when Mary Norris, author and former editor at The New Yorker, stopped by Mattapoisett Library on Friday night, it was one of the first things she had the audience do.

She instructed the crowd to take out a pen and piece of paper and to write the following sentence: “Outside a cemetery in Mattapoisett sat a harassed cobbler and an embarrassed peddler, gnawing on a desiccated potato, and gazing on the symmetry of a lady’s ankle in unparalleled ecstasy.”

There were more than a few tricky words – for Norris included.

“I’ve been spelling Mattapoisett wrong since I first started telling people I was coming here,” she laughed.

Norris spoke to the group about her most recent book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

Before retiring last February, Norris had been at the The New Yorker since 1978. After years of using the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a reference, she decided to look into who Noah Webster was. It was her research into this topic and what she subsequently learned about language through Webster’s Colonial-era blue-backed speller books that inspired her.

“I learned that children in Colonial times made the same mistakes as kids do now,” Norris said. “I also learned about words that I’ve been mispronouncing.”

Norris then gave the room a choice: Did they want to hear about commas or hyphens? With commas winning out, Norris gave a brief history of the word (it came from the Greek word komma, meaning a segment) before delving into one of the more controversial grammar debates in recent memory – the serial, or Oxford, comma.

“Proponents of the serial comma say it prevents ambiguity” Norris said. “I hate when people call it the Oxford comma. Why not the Harvard comma? Or the Rutgers comma? Or the cornhuskers comma?”

Ultimately, it’s called the Oxford comma because the Oxford newspaper uses it. The Oxford University public relations department, however, does not.

Bringing in a coastal spin, and not forgetting hyphens all together, Norris mentioned a chapter in the book called “Who Put the Hyphen in Moby-Dick?”

“I’m not going to tell you because it’s hard to inject suspense into a book about punctuation,” she laughed. “It’s all I’ve got.”