New Yorker cover showing New York skyscraper and yellow taxi through rain smeared windscreen

I can’t remember where, when or how I first fell in love with The New Yorker.

Maybe it was among the stacks of magazines in the doctor’s waiting room. Or at the dentist’s. Or that copy left behind by a friend on a flying visit from the States. Or …

But fall in love I did, with not only the essays and original fiction but also the reviews, the cartoons (OK, some of the cartoons), the covers (this one of a rainy-day New York is by German artist Christoph Niemann) and the elegant and distinctive design that’s still rooted in Art Deco after all these years.

House style

In this seductive mix, one ingredient is rarely noticed yet would be sorely missed if it weren’t there. It is absolutely essential, like the two drops of Worcester Sauce in a Bloody Mary, or the tiny splash of Cognac in a Marie Rose sauce: just enough to add a hint, a soupçon, a suspicion, just enough to bring all the ingredients together, yet not overpowering everything (like the gallon of sherry in our Auntie Peggy’s trifle).

To use another wonky simile, it’s a bit like the difference between (a) a perfect movie soundtrack that moves the drama along in a seamless synergy, with you barely conscious of it, and (b) a lousy soundtrack that draws attention to its clumsiness and unsuitability.

That special ingredient is the magazine’s quirky and distinctive house style – the rules and conventions for its text in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage and so on.

While The New Yorker is a North American magazine, some of this style seems to have drifted ashore from the other side of the Atlantic.  For example, its culture pages cover “the theatre”, never “theater”. Its writers talk of “travelling” instead of “traveling”, and they always remain firmly “focussed” not “focused”. I can go along with all that, but I trip myself up when they insist on “carrousel” instead of “carousel”.

New Yorker style also has a relatively heavy reliance on the diaeresis, which is probably mistaken for “just a skinny umlaut” and is almost extinct in written English. Not in The New Yorker though. They use it all over the gaff, not only in words such as “naïve” but also in – wait for it – “reëlect” and “coöperate”.

As for their hyphens, these are sense and sensibility personified. Often it’s simply about about avoiding obstacles and ambiguities for your readers (e.g. to avoid a cow among your co-workers).

Mary Norris, the Comma Queen

One of my favourite columnists on the mag is its “Comma Queen”, Mary Norris. She published a book recently about her life as a copy editor called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, and does regular videos on The New Yorker’s YouTube channel.

She comes across as a grammar geek in the very best sense, rather than an authoritarian Gauleiter. Check out the vids below: each short episode exudes fun and erudition as she untangles the confusions and controversies of the English language, and lets you into various elements of the magazine’s style.

The videos involve much sharpening of pencils, playful musical accompaniment and clickety-clackety typewriter sounds. She tackles topics such as:

  • The difference between “that” and “which”
  • How to make a bollix of reflexive pronouns (myself, himself, herself etc)
  • How to boldly split infinitives
  • The ellipsis, which I probably overuse for dialogue that trails off …
  • The perils of substituting “their” for a singular “his or her”
  • A “who” / “whom” for dummies
  • What happens when you don’t use the serial comma aka the Oxford comma (“we invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin”)
  • And the semicolon. Or is it semi-colon, with a hyphen?

She also discusses such pressing issues as how “awesome” has become the new “massive”. I am in awe.

(And if I’ve made a hames of any of the punctuation or have tons typos in this particular blog post, no doubt you’ll remind me of it in the comments below, you Grammar Nazis.)