Column: A Word, Please: New Yorker’s style choices can drive a copy editor crazy


I’ve never laid eyes on the New Yorker’s in-house style guide, but I’m pretty sure it contains just one sentence: Annoy June.

The magazine’s excessive use of commas, to set off prepositional phrases, like the last one, and like this one, and especially ones that start with “to,” “in” or “on,” serves no real purpose other than to thumb their regal noses at rank-and-file copy editors like me.

Also, as I’ve written here before, the magazine doubles consonants in “fuelled,” “traveller,” “focussed” and similar terms — a policy embraced by exactly zero other American publishers.

The New Yorker’s official reason: That’s what some long-gone editors said to do decades ago, for reasons unknown, and heaven forbid they update their rules the way other publications do.

The New Yorker also has a longtime policy of using the diaeresis, an umlaut-looking pair of dots above one of the o’s in “cooperate” and one of the e’s in “reelect.”

But just when I thought their in-your-face defiance of us hoi polloi wordsmiths could go no further, the New Yorker begins writing about Donald Trump, Jr., in the possessive. Here’s how: Jr.,’s.

Note the order of that punctuation: period, comma, apostrophe, then S. The apostrophe comes immediately after the comma.

That’s just obnoxious. Not wrong, necessarily. But definitely obnoxious.

Punctuation rules are far from comprehensive. They tell you to form a possessive of a singular noun by adding an apostrophe plus S.

But you’d be hard pressed to find a punctuation book that tells you how to make a possessive out of something that you’ve already decided must be followed by a comma.

The comma is the heart of the problem. Jr., Sr. and terms like Inc. and Esq. can be set off with commas, or not. You can write “Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race” or “Dale Earnhardt, Jr., won the race.”

Both are acceptable. The only thing you can’t do is omit the second comma. “Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the race” is a considered an error because the “Jr.” is parenthetical to the name. The commas work like parentheses.

The New Yorker’s policy is to set off “Jr.” and “Sr.” with commas. A fine choice. But from there, the editors’ logic goes downhill. In the rare cases when a Jr. must be made possessive, they treat the comma as an immovable object: Jr.,’s.

“With ‘Jr.’ occurring in the middle of a line, where else is the possessive indicator supposed to go?” asked New Yorker copy editor Andrew Boynton in a recent blog post.

I’ll answer that question with a question: What do you do when a Jr. appears at the end of a sentence? Do you write: The race was won by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.,.”? Of course not.

You drop the comma after Jr. and let its period serve as terminal punctuation for the sentence. “The race was won by Dale Earnhardt., Jr.”

And that’s not the only instance in which you can drop an otherwise necessary punctuation mark.

Imagine you want to talk about parking spaces that belong to your local Macy’s. Are they Macy’s’s parking spaces? Nope. They’re Macy’s parking spaces.

What if you want to insert a question into a question? For example: Did you know that Alfred E. Neuman’s catchphrase is “What, me worry?”

That sentence has two questions that, if they stood alone, would each get its own question mark. But the final one is dropped because the sentence is easier on the eyes than it would be if it ended with “worry?”?

You see, one of the goals of editing is to make the information as easy to digest as possible. That means avoiding eyesores that serve as visual speed bumps, distracting the reader from the information.

Of course, that only applies if your goal is to aid the reader. If your goal is to annoy June, by all means use Jr.,’s.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at