Wrangling Commas, Wrangling Ideas: Copyediting at The New Yorker

In my past professional life, I was a translator. Instead of struggling to get my own ideas onto paper, I spent all day reading others’ ideas and crafting them into what (hopefully) sounded like a piece of text originally written in English. I searched for just the right word, just the right phrase, … just the right comma placement.

When this piece, written by Mary Norris — a “Comma Queen” at The New Yorker — came to me via Longreads, I felt I had met a kindred spirit. (Indeed, I used to fantasize about giving up translation and trying my hand at copyediting.) I still remember rereading my translations and questioning my own sanity:

It was enough to make me doubt my comma sense. Some days, “thin and burgundy” sounded just fine. At work, coming to the phrase “a stout, middle-aged woman,” I automatically started to pluck the comma out and then became unsure. “Stout and middle-aged”? I don’t think so. “Middle-aged and stout”? Definitely not. Wasn’t it the same as “a fat old lady”? “Fat and old”? “Old and fat”? An old fat lady? “An old fat lady” suggests that the fat lady in the circus is being hounded out of her job by an ambitious new fat lady, at which point she will become just another fat old lady. I was driving myself mad.

Read the full essay, “Holy Writ,” in The New Yorker.

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