Grammar: Between You and Me

Between you and I: Confessions of a Comma Queen

One of the  most enjoyable things I have done of late was to go to a talk, given by Mary Norris, at Dublin’s Italian Institute of Culture.

I am learning Italian and when you sign up for classes at the institute you automatically become a member. That’s good news because the institute hosts an excellent programme of talks and events, all of them free to members.

Mary Norris (aka The Comma Queen) is, in case you don’t know, a copy editor (sub-editor) at that bastion of fine writing: The New Yorker. She is also the author of a book, part memoir, part grammar manual, published in 2015, called “Between You and Me: the Confessions of a Comma Queen.” And she’s the presenter of a watchable series of language usage videos on The New Yorker website – see here.

Now, I am not a grammar nerd. I suspect to be one you need a pristine grasp of language, and of the rules governing its usage, plus an intimate knowledge of how to correctly punctuate a sentence so its meaning is crystal clear. I, on the other hand, am grammatically challenged. That’s borne witness to on the blog by: my failure to spot typos; my egregious use of the colon and the semi-colon; and a wanton disregard (because I don’t fully understand it) for the that/which rule.

I am also bad at correct comma usage. I used to think that didn’t matter. However consider this:  ‘Let’s eat grandma.’ And this: ‘Let’s eat, grandma.’ You can find the grandma thingy on language sites on the net and unsurprisingly the strap line is: ‘Commas save lives!’

I would like to improve: ergo I am a wannabe grammar nerd so I found Mary Norris’s erudite and amusing talk most useful. She was hyper generous with her time in answering a mountain of questions and gracious and patient when she signed copies of her book.  The talk didn’t, nay how could it, cover everything: so I am glad I have her book (and others) to refer to.

My main takeaway from her talk and from reading “Between you and Me”, is an understanding of why the book’s title is grammatical correct and why the phrase ‘between you and I’ is grammatically incorrect. You, dear reader, most likely knew that already. But I didn’t.

I gather it’s do with subject and object. ‘You and I went for a walk.’ is correct because ‘you and I’ are the subject of the sentence and I is a subject pronoun. However ‘The dog barked at you and I.’ is incorrect because ‘you and I’ are the object of the sentence: it should read ‘The dog barked at you and me.’ because me is an object pronoun. An easy way to test its correctness is to take away the ‘you’: you wouldn’t say – ‘The dog barked at I.’ I was clueless as to why ‘between you and me’ is correct but adding grist to my grammar mill Mary Norris explained that prepositions take the objective case so after a preposition such as ‘between’ you must use the objective ‘me’ rather than the subjective ‘I’.

Phew, I hope I got that vaguely right and is there anyone still reading! And what hope do I have of understanding Italian grammar given how I struggle with my native language.



Filed under Books

16 responses to “Grammar: Between You and Me

  1. Margaret

    I love this piece. However hard grammer may be for you & me think of the next generation who text & write in “text shorthand” …
    Grammer, an example you might enjoy:
    An English professor wrote on the board: A woman without her man is nothing.
    The class was then asked to punctuate the sentence.

    The men wrote:
    “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”

    The women wrote:
    “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

    A book you may enjoy
    “Eats, shoots &. Leaves”
    My Lynne Truss
    Best regards M.

    • Hello Margaret, and thank you for your comment. I love the example you give to illustrate the importance of punctuation. It’s clever and it made me laugh. Thank you for the book recommendation. I have a copy of Lynne Truss’s “Eats, shoots & Leaves and I am indebted to it for helping my overcome my apostrophe phobia. I agree about ‘text shorthand’ and how difficult it will likely make future understanding of the rules of grammar. But perhaps the future may bring an version of iPhone’s Siri who perfectly understands language usage and can do a simultaneous translation of text-speak into perfect English.

  2. Bernadette r

    Interesting article, will have a look at that book.

  3. Surreycousin

    Hello B.

    When I was working, my team knew that the surest way to incur my ire (and cause great pain) was comma abuse. I am talking inverted here. I have to restrain myself from intervening when passing many a vegetable stall and spying the message “potatoe’s 10p”. What can this be? Their eyes? Their handbags? Enough said. Carry on the good work. PS I love a good colon too; semi or otherwise. G.

    • Hello G and thank you for reading and for your comment. I don’t know if anyone has a done a count but I feel the apostrophe must top the list of misused punctuation mark. However given my own comma (inverted and otherwise) misuse I cannot chuck any stones. 😉

  4. That’s a book which I should read. I tried to watch the videos but they wouldn’t work for me. I’ll try again later.

  5. Margaret

    One for “google translate” – which I have no doubt you are using, with caution, for your Italian studies. I am currently studying French but I ebb & flow with frustration at my lack of progress. M

  6. What a fun learning adventure B! I love hearing about the many classes and events that you attend. I must admit that I probably need a remedial course in grammar myself. It’s never been one of my strong suits 😉

  7. One of the great things about city life is access to cultural events. That said, I am incredibly lazy now that dark nights are here. I digress, perhaps hoping to take the spotlight off my flipperty gibbet use of ‘apostrophe s’. 🙂 🙂

    • I agree city life is great for access to events and exhibitions. Like you I am lazy now that darker and colder nights are here. It’s so much easier and cosier to stay in watching logs burn than bundle up in layers of clothes and sally forth into the cold. 😉

  8. I enjoyed this post. I also struggle with usage when I write and have a few books about it and this one looks as if it should be added to my collection. It is great that you are taking courses is Italian and i am going to tune in to the new Yorker videos as soon as possible.

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