The nit-picking glory of The New Yorker’s Comma Queen, by Mary Norris

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Introduction

Today’s lesson will be a little different from usual. We normally do a lot of listening exercises, but I’d like you all to appreciate and enjoy this very funny and informative video. So, instead of doing dozens of questions about it, we’ll just do a few and I’ll encourage you to learn about grammar and punctuation from a true master: Mary Norris of The New Yorker. Her TED talk is called “The nit-picking glory of The New Yorker’s Comma Queen” and it manages to make grammar funny. There is a lot to learn here – even for native speakers.

The questions I have prepared below are also intended to train your ear for situational listening, rather than actual IELTS-style questions. I have also put together some unusual questions to help you correct sentence errors by listening to the talk.

Vocabulary

Let’s start by looking at some useful vocabulary from the video.

Copy editor n. – a person who checks written material for errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation

Emphasis n. – stress, prominence, or importance given to something

Compelling adj. – fascinating or highly interesting

Fabled adj. – very significant, almost legendary, as in having come from a fable (classical story)

Vernacular n. – the language or dialect spoken by ordinary people in a country or region

Pact n. – an agreement

Indiscretion n. – lacking secretiveness, being too obvious and open

Gratuitous adj. – indecent, without good reason

Vocab Test

Use the above vocabulary to fill in the blanks. (Answers are at the bottom of this page.)

  1. I enjoyed the novel because it told a ________________ tale of heartbreak.
  2. The movie was criticized for featuring _________________ violence.
  3. As __________________ it is my job to remove mistakes from a printed text.
  4. In a moment of _________________ he let slip his girlfriend’s secret.
  5. The teacher placed _____________ upon the practical application, rather than theory.
  6. They made a _____________ to get married at thirty, if they were both single at that age.
  7. Williams’ poems were written in American _______________, which set them apart from other work of that period.
  8. She was desperate to find the _______________ treasure before anyone else.

Listening Practice

Meaning from Context

It is important to be able to discern a word’s meaning from the context in which it is used. This listening passage is filled with technical words relating to copy editing, or just used in the magazine, but in each case the speaker alludes to its meaning. Sometimes this is quite clear, and other times you need to listen and think carefully. You should be able to guess the meaning of each of the following words. Make a note of them and check your answers at the bottom of the page.

  1. shortstop
  2. diaeresis
  3. umbrella term
  4. nihilism
  5. belied
  6. expel
  7. cri de couer (this is French, not English – but sometimes used by English speakers)
  8. egregious
  9. legitimacy
  10. f-word

Listening for Spelling and Grammar

In this passage, Mary Norris explained some grammar rules. Listen again and try to correct the following, according to the speaker’s suggestions:

  1. Last Tuesday, Sarah Palin, the pre-Trump embodiment of populist no-nothingism in the Republican Party, endorsed Trump.
  2. Ruby was seventy-six, but she retained her authoritative bearing; only her unsteady gait belied her age.
  3. Please, could you expel, or, at least, restrain, the comma-maniac, on your editorial staff?
  4. Vocal chords.
  5. Her face and hands stood out like in an old, mostly dark painting.
  6. It will be just a minute. We are getting the justice mic’ed.
  7. …everyone in the vicinity held their breath…

Writing

Check your Work

As you can see from the TED talk, even native speakers make mistakes in their writing – and even with a team of professional editors, copy editors, and proofreaders, mistakes can get printed. Yet, in the IELTS Writing Exam, as with all other forms of academic writing, you need to keep your own errors to a minimum. Always leave time to check your work for errors at the end of the exam, or before you submit an essay.

Know the Rules

As English is your second language, you will need to study and practice your grammar. Everyone makes mistakes, but vigilance and practice keep these mistakes to a minimum. If you are confident of how to use complex and compound sentences, then use them. If you want to get fancy and try to use a compound-complex sentence, be absolutely sure that you know how it is used. In the IELTS Writing Exam you are allowed only three grammar mistakes at Band 7.

Punctuate Properly

One of the biggest mistakes IELTS students make is incorrect punctuation. Learn where and when to use periods, commas, and semi-colons. The rules are not that difficult, and they can make the difference between a Band 4 and a Band 6. If you don’t know where to end a sentence, your Writing score will be very poor.

The Oxford Comma

The Oxford Comma is used because it makes writing clear and easy to understand. It is also easy to learn how it is used, so make the effort. It will take you less than an hour, and make your writing far better! Study my lesson on parallelism for IELTS writing and then remember to use the Oxford Comma while following my instructions. It really will improve your IELTS score.

Oxford Comma cartoonLet's eat, Grandpa Oxford comma cartoon

Answers

Vocab test

  1. compelling
  2. gratuitous
  3. copy editor
  4. indiscretion
  5. emphasis
  6. pact
  7. vernacular
  8. fabled

 

Meaning from Context

  1. a position in baseball which draws much attention
  2. the double dot over the letter “I” in words like “naïve”
  3. a word or phrase under which several or many ideas can be categorized
  4. it technically means to “believe in nothing” but here it is used as “knowing nothing”
  5. to have given a false impression
  6. to get rid of someone – for example, a naughty child may be expelled from school
  7. a passionate complaint
  8. inexcusable and very obvious (always used negatively)
  9. to make it proper, formal, or recognized
  10. this is a polite way of saying a bad word (“fuck”) when you don’t want to actually say it

Listening for Spelling and Grammar

  1. Last Tuesday, Sarah Palin, the pre-Trump embodiment of populist know-nothingism in the Republican Party, endorsed Trump. (No-> know)
  2. Ruby was seventy-six, but she retained her authoritative bearing; only her unsteady gait betrayed her age. (Belied-> betrayed)
  3. Please, could you expel — or, at least, restrain — the comma-maniac on your editorial staff? (Dashes have been added around “or, at least, restrain,” and the comma after “maniac” has been deleted.)
  4. Vocal cords. (chords-> cords)
  5. Her face and hands stood out as in an old, mostly dark painting. (like-> as)
  6. It will be just a minute. We are getting the justice miked. (mic’ed-> miked)
  7. (She was unable to make the change; however, she felt that “their” needed to be changed somehow.)

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and the founder/editor of Beatdom literary journal. He lives and works in rural China, and loves to travel.

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