Editor at The New Yorker Reveals How the Internet Has Changed the English Language

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Answers by Mary Norris, author of Between You & Me, copy editor at The New Yorker, on Quora.

A: There are a lot more abbreviations than there used to be, many of them fresh and entertaining. YOLO! Punctuation has been put to work in a more expressive way. E-mail (which probably shouldn't have a hyphen anymore) can be very flat, so people load it up with exclamation points!!!!! And of course we have a lot of new vocabulary for online forums and new devices, and we use lowercase "i" a lot (iPhone, iPad).

These are trivial observations. More important, things like spell-check and autocorrect are having a flattening effect on the language, ironing out idiosyncrasies. Who is making the decisions about standard spellings? I wish I knew.


A: I often take out a comma between the two parts of a sentence with a compound predicate. Sometimes writers like this comma and put it in for effect. (Sometimes writers like this comma, and put it in for effect.)

On a smaller scale, sometimes a writer sets up an either/or construction and lobs in an unnecessary comma: She should either rent an apartment or buy a house. (She should either rent an apartment, or buy a house.) To my ear, that "either" lets you know that an alternative is coming, and the comma is a hurdle.

And then there is the comma inserted automatically after an introductory phrase that is restrictive and does not want a comma. In cyberspace there is a lot of room. Read the sentence without the introductory phrase: "there is a lot of room." Does it mean anything? No. So "In cyberspace" is restrictive: it is essential to the meaning of the sentence, it provides context for the rest of the sentence. Unless such a phrase causes a sentence to misread, the comma is unnecessary.

I sound so stern! I break all these rules several times a week.


A: There is a great need for copy editors on the Internet. At The New Yorker, we have a separate department dedicated to copy-editing Web content. It's harder than the print operation, because there are so many pieces. The Web site gets updated several times a day--it can't be static. So the copy editors don't have the leisure to read something several times over, and they don't necessarily have backup. (On the print side, we always have a second reader.) But they do want to learn and apply house style. We are trying to think of ways to make that a more active process. I learned by osmosis, which is time-consuming.

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