You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

A Stet in the Dark: A Grammar Noir Mystery, Part 1

The Baltimore Sun

This is the first part of a four-part serial, the thrilling conclusion of which will be posted on March 4, National Grammar Day.

 

Part 1: The man with pince-nez

After forty years of making subjects and verbs agree, changing which to that and that to which, and deleting ’tis the season leads, I had packed it in at the paragraph game—free at last to spend my days reading Gibbon and terrorizing a small Episcopal parish. (You have no idea how often the clergy have to be reminded to go around widdershins when censing the altar.)

I was walking to my car after divine service that Sunday, nothing more on my mind than a restorative pint of Smithwick’s—piety’s thirsty work—when a black limousine pulled up beside me. A gentleman with large ears, a thick neck, and a narrow forehead emerged and invited me to go for a ride.

I explained that my dance card was full that day, but he reached for my lapel with a fist the size of a canned ham and persuaded me.

After a short drive, the muscle escorted me into a dimly lit office where a thin man with gray hair, a dark gray suit, and pince-nez eyeglasses sat behind a large desk. I noticed a Webster’s Second open on a credenza.

His voice was thin and gray, too, low with a note of menace like an invitation to come to the managing editor’s office. “You are planning to attend the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society in St. Petersburg, Florida, this year, I believe.”

I allowed as much.

“You will hand over your airline ticket, registration, and other documentation to Sweeney here, who will be taking your place at the conference.”

“Apeneck Sweeney impersonating me?” I said, making no effort to disguise derision.

His cold gray eyes flickered momentarily at the Eliotan allusion before he resumed.

“A wig and a bow tie should prove an adequate disguise. Those attending are editors, thus nearsighted and introverted, many of them the worse for drink. Nothing elaborate will be required.”

“But why impersonate me?” I asked. “What’s to be gained?”

“It will not be you alone. I propose to pack the hall, and during the general meeting we will vote down the epicene they and restore the default masculine to its normative place in the English language. Too, there will be other reforms.”

“Like beginning sentences with too?”

His eyes narrowed. “This is not a moment for airy persiflage. Sweeney, bind him to his chair.”

 

Next: Albion Redux

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