In Honor of National Grammar Day: What It Was Like to Copy-Edit Pauline Kael

In honor of National Grammar Day—a relatively recent addition to the holiday mix, established in 2008—we are celebrating the copy-editing of Mary Norris. Norris has spent more than three decades in The New Yorker’s copy department, and in a recent piece for the magazine she reflected on her life in grammar:

There were competent writers on interesting subjects who were just careless enough in their spelling and punctuation to keep a girl occupied. And there were writers whose prose came in so highly polished that I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to read them: John Updike, Pauline Kael, Mark Singer, Ian Frazier! In a way, these were the hardest, because the prose lulled me into complacency. They transcended the office of the copy editor. It was hard to stay alert for opportunities to meddle in an immaculate manuscript, yet if you missed something you couldn’t use that as an excuse. The only thing to do was style the spelling, and even that could be fraught. Oliver Sacks turned out to be attached to the spelling of “sulphur” and “sulphuric” that he remembered from his chemistry experiments as a boy. (The New Yorker spells it less romantically: “sulfur,” “sulfuric.”)

When Pauline Kael typed “prevert” instead of “pervert,” she meant “prevert” (unless she was reviewing something by Jacques Prévert). Luckily, she was kind, and if you changed it she would just change it back and stet it without upbraiding you. Kael revised up until closing, and though we lackeys resented writers who kept changing “doughnut” to “coffee cake” then back to “doughnut” and then “coffee cake” again, because it meant more work for us, Kael’s changes were always improvements. She approached me once with a proof in her hand. She couldn’t figure out how to fix something, and I was the only one around. She knew me from chatting in the ladies’ room on the eighteenth floor. I looked at the proof and made a suggestion, and she was delighted. “You helped me!” she gasped.

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