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Élite Politesse

The New Yorker style as content-generation machine

When, in 2012, the copy editor Mary Norris took to The New Yorker’s website to defend its comma usage against the charge that it was “nutty,” a new era in the history of the magazine’s style was inaugurated. Norris was suddenly impossible to escape, extemporizing on everything from semicolons to bespoke pencil sharpening to National Punctuation Day. Soon enough she was cast as the strict-but-fair “comma queen,” holding forth sententiously on usage in a series of instructional videos. Her rising stature proved a boon to the whole department, as, in the run-up to last year’s election, the copy chief Andrew Boynton became a familiar personality, gruffly reprimanding Donald Trump for his abuses of the English language.

This transformation of The New Yorker’s style from a topic of niche interest to a content-generation machine is marketing of the most calculating sort. The magazine’s paper subscription slips have long carried a tagline: “The best writing, anywhere.” It follows that the source of the best writing, anywhere, must also be the finest available authority on grammar, usage, and punctuation. But regular readers know that The New Yorker’s signature is not standard usage, but its opposite. Nowhere else will you find an accent aigu on “élite” or a diaeresis on “reëmerge.” And the commas—goodness, the commas! These peculiarities are as intrinsic to the magazine’s brand as the foppish Eustace Tilley, and, in the digital age, brand determines content. But the rise of the magazine’s copy desk has done more for The New Yorker than simply generate clicks. It has bolstered the reputation of the magazine as a peerless institution, a class above the Vanity Fairs and Economists of the world, even if the reporting and prose in those publications is on par with (if not often better than) what fills the pages of The New Yorker.

Not everyone, blessedly, is seduced by the magazine’s self-mythologizing. When, last month, it ran an item titled “Donald Trump, Jr.,’s Love for Russian Dirt,” the comedy writer Michael Colton tweeted, “Unfortunate side effect of the scandal is this period-comma-apostrophe bullshit from The New Yorker.” Boynton, ever the scold, responded that said bullshit was simply a case of a “collision of conventions,” and noted that Colton’s reaction “is not surprising; it is also not new.”

Nowhere else will you find an accent aigu on “élite” or a diaeresis on “reëmerge.” And the commas—goodness, the commas!

Such a defense—these are simply the conventions, what other options do we have but to follow them?—is typical of a copy editor (even if Boynton’s testiness is not). But style, unlike usage, has no widely agreed upon correct answers. It is useful only insofar as it enforces consistency. Style makes unimportant decisions so that writers don’t have to—about whether to spell the element “sulfur” or “sulphur,” or if it’s best to italicize the names of films or put them in quotes. It is not meant to be noticed: it is meant to remove the possibility of an inconsistency distracting the reader from experiencing the text as the writer intends.

For The New Yorker though, style takes precedence, and its rarefied status carries with it a whiff of the mystical. Take that notorious diaeresis, a diacritical mark (notated like an umlaut) used to denote a change of syllable between adjacent vowels. The use of the diaeresis is as archaic as it gets (especially given that the mark wasn’t even universally applied during the early twentieth century heyday of print), but what’s curious is the arbitrary decisions The New Yorker makes in applying it. They have enough common sense to leave “poem” alone, but oddly choose to leave “dais,” a kissing cousin to “naïve,” un-besmirched. Perhaps the irregular application is to do with what Norris has labeled “The Curse of the Diaeresis.” The story goes that once the magazine’s founding style editor, Hobie Weekes, had finally been prevailed upon to drop the dots, he died before he could send the necessary memo. “This was in 1978,” Norris writes. “No one has had the nerve to raise the subject since.”

Such fabulism is patently ridiculous, but Norris’s bemused recounting of it is telling of the outsized influence such stories have on the culture of the magazine. The responsibilities of the copy department there, it seems, go far beyond those of any ordinary publication. Take the fifty-four minute video Boynton recorded last February marking up Donald Trump’s Black History Month address. Boynton introduces the project by stating he is “just going to be copy editing for spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation—occasionally tone and taste, which sometimes he has a problem with. But I’m not really commenting on the content at all.” Such a wide purview raises the question of where the limits between tone, taste, and content lie—aren’t all three, after all, intrinsically intertwined?

“He often overuses words like ‘tremendous,’ and ‘splendid,’ and ‘incredible,’” Boynton notes, “So we can cut those out.” Then, in stumbling over Trump’s notorious praise of Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job,” Boynton tsk-tsks that “‘An amazing job’ is something you’d say about somebody who’s completed a project for your company.” That Trump is incapable of expanding his professional vocabulary from real estatese to something better befitting the supposed leader of the free world is, for the schoolmarmish Boynton, simply a problem of “taste and tone” that can be struck away with red pencil.

What purpose does such a video serve? While Trump’s real statement stands as a testament to his unfamiliarity with and ambivalence about African American history, Boynton’s revision is a forgettable parade of boilerplate politesse. One version is more presidential than the other, but the transformation of the words of a man who is in actuality president into the language preferred of presidents by the ne plus ultra of American magazines is telling. For the elite represented by The New Yorker, what makes Trump’s presidency objectionable is not his undermining of democratic norms, his persecution of immigrants, or his war-mongering: it is his style. The content, remember, is totally out of bounds.

This attitude should not be mistaken for one borne of respect. For The New Yorker, a copy editor’s responsibility to avoid altering the substance of a writer’s prose is twisted into an utter disinterest in content writ large. In an excerpt from Norris’s memoir that appeared in the magazine in 2015, she writes that rather than punctuation serving to mark how a sentence might be said aloud (with commas and periods standing in for varying amounts of breath), she believes it is necessary instead to “clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure.” Such an explanation is important to keep in mind when trying to fathom why the following line ran the way it did in a recent profile of George Strait:

Strait prefers to give his audience as few distractions as possible: he likes to play on a stage in the center of the arena floor, with four microphones arranged like compass points; every two songs, he moves, counterclockwise, to the next microphone, so that people in each quadrant of the crowd can feel as if he were singing just to them.

These peculiarities are as intrinsic to the magazine’s brand as the foppish Eustace Tilley, and, in the digital age, brand determines content.

There are five commas there, doing everything from cordoning off dependent and independent clauses to ensuring the adjective “counterclockwise” is understood as an aside. A version of the sentence that cut every one of them would be equally legible— and equally correct. The five commas are included arbitrarily; if Norris is to be believed, they are critical. In the excerpt, Norris addresses a reader who once wrote in to complain about a similarly comma-bloated sentence: “The commas are marking a thoughtful subordination of information. I really don’t see how any of them could be done without.”

Content must be subordinated—thoughtfully, of course!—to the grammatical superstructure applied to it. Not only does this attitude treat the reader as somewhat dim, it allows the copy editor to establish a position of privilege over the writer. Later in the same excerpt, Norris frets over whether or not some of James Salter’s signature descriptive formulations (a “stunning, wide smile,” a “thin, burgundy dress”) rely on misused commas. When she solicits an explanation, he answers, “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas. . . Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences.”

Norris begrudgingly accepts this defense, but apparently only because a writer of no lesser stature than Salter is making it. Even in defeat, Norris, as the tribune of The New Yorker’s style, is cast as a grammatical arbiter that must be appealed to by even the most legendary writers. The magazine’s stature is such that many of those authors end up writing for it anyway (and for the kind of rates that make fielding the copy desk’s smug queries worth the irritation). But even Zadie Smith and John McPhee are diminished by those occurrences of “coöperate,” “focussing,” and “per cent.” They are reminders that no matter the talent of the writer, her prose comes secondary to ensuring The New Yorker’s brand remains supreme.