A Stet in the Dark: A Grammar Noir Mystery
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.”
Part 2: Albion Redux
“You’re crackers if you think you can pull this wacko scheme off,” I said. “It’s all over. Why, even Bryan Garner does corpus research. The Associated Press Stylebook’s online site is down to a single page that says ‘Whatever.’ And me, I’ve got no pull. They let me go when they discarded the print edition in favor of doing the news on Snapchat. I’m on the shelf. I’m out to pasture. I’m an extinct volcano.”
The gray man took off his pince-nez and rubbed the red indentations on the bridge of his nose, as red as a night rewrite man’s gin blossoms. “Do you think,” he said, “that you yourself have not contributed to this parlous state with your anything-goes blog posts and insufferably pompous videos? Everything that is good and true in the English language has been undermined by fifth-columnists like you, and we shall put an end to it.”
“Well, Chester,” I said, “it’s not up to me, or you, either. We’ve each got one vote in English, and we’re outnumbered. If enough of them mangle it for long enough, mangling goes into the grammar books. That’s how it’s been since Harold took one in the eye at Hastings. You’re not going to paddle against that tide with a crew of round-shouldered editors.”
“Oh,” he said, “we will not stop with your pathetic little professional organization. Previous efforts have been botched by bunglers. We are going to be more systematic, which is why we have neutralized you. After the editors, the librarians. When we have them, we shall remove the books by that quisling Garner, that degenerate Butterfield’s Fowler’s, and that equivocating Merriam-Webster screed. We shall replace them with Gwynne’s Grammar, that excellent treatise. After we gain control of the schools, we shall make Gwynne’s Grammar the standard book of instruction in English classes throughout the nation. And then the monkey-see, monkey-do lexicographers will have to follow suit.”
“Gwynne’s Grammar? You have given your wits an unlucky shake. It’s not just crackpot and retrograde, but British. If you think Americans will stand for it, that you are well and truly a few signatures short of a quarto. Or perhaps I should just say ‘daft.’ ”
“Impertinence will not serve you. One knows this American people, their plebeian propensity to bow and scrape whenever they hear Received Pronunciation. No, Gwynne’s Grammar will not itself be sufficient for the purpose. But once we have recruited sufficient British instructors, or instructed selected American pedagogues in British pronunciation, we shall be unstoppable.”
“Have you heard American actors attempt to sound like Brits?” I asked. “They’re as unconvincing as a publisher saying the job cuts will improve the product. Faux-Albion schoolmasters will be as ludicrous as trying to pass off apeneck Sweeney here as me.”
“Now you are merely tiresome,” the Gray Man said. “Sweeney, take him to the Chamber.”
Part 3: In the Chamber
The Chamber had a handful of bare desks and damaged chairs. The walls were a neutral yet muddy color, fluorescent lighting buzzed annoyingly overhead, and the air was as dry and stale as a business reporter’s vocabulary.
It was so much like a newsroom that a wave of nostalgia swept over me.
Sweeney seemed oddly solicitous, like a tyro reporter who imagines it’s possible to curry favor with a copy editor. “If you get bored,” he said, “we got a room full of books over there. We sold the shelves, but you can’t get anything for books and they want to charge you to haul them away.”
“Sweeney, old chum,” I said, “why so concerned about your prisoner? Is there something you want from me?”
He sighed with relief, like an intern whose headline has passed muster with the slot. “The Boss says I gots to go to this editor society thing wearing a bow tie.”
“I can’t tie one, and the Boss says no pre-tied.”
“Sweeney, my man, do you have a phone that gets internet sites?”
“Let me show you a video with an expert who explains how to do it.”
He more or less got it down by the tenth try.
“But it’s crooked,” he said.
“That’s how people can tell it’s real. Now, is there anything else?
“Well,” he mumbled, “ how am I supposed to talk to those people?”
“Easy. They’ve all been to college and they’re vain about their vocabularies. Just use some fancy words. Suppose you’re in a bar with them. Say you’re not adverse to a cocktail. Explain that the proof of the whiskey is a criteria of its quality. Tell them you always appreciate a fulsome pour. Like that.”
“Gee, you’re all right. I’ll see to it that you get an extra ladle in your swill tonight.”
After dinner—the swill was a grade or two above the prefab sandwiches in a newsroom vending machine—I helped Sweeney with a little more vocabulary-building.
The next morning he was off to St. Petersburg, and I settled down with a copy of The Kingdom and the Power that looked as if it had never been read to await the outcome of the Gray Man’s putsch.
Part 4: Waiting
You get used to waiting as an editor. Waiting for the writer to disgorge a text. Waiting for the writer to carp about your edits. Waiting for the sports desk to get the post-midnight results from a pinochle tournament in Upper Sandusky.
Waiting in the Chamber, I imagined the proceedings unfolding at ACES in St. Petersburg: people clustered around celebrity lexicographer Kory Stamper to get her autograph on Word by Word, basking in the glamour of Grammar Girl, hoping Carol Saller will spill the beans about dirty infighting at the Chicago Manual of Style, and afterward sipping a Manhattan on the veranda at the Vinoy.
My reverie was broken by a series of thumps and crashes outside until everything fell as silent as a publisher asked about raises for the staff.
Then Mark Allen flung open the door of the Chamber and strode purposefully into the room like a reporter ready to sign the buyout offer.
“@EditorMark! The Executive Committee dispatched its chief fixer to get me out of stir?”
“Well,” he said, “you used to be somebody.”
“So you’ve foiled the putsch? Sweeney didn’t deceive you?”
“He barely got there when he was spotted, exposed, neutralized.”
“What gave him away? Must have been that defective vocabulary I spent a day schooling him on.”
“Nothing at all like that. Someone at the registration desk saw that his suspenders were fastened with clips instead of buttons, made him as an imposter, and sounded the alarm.”
“Oh. Then I suppose he led you to the Gray Man and his team of infiltrators.
“Not what you would call much of a team—a half-dozen elderly crocks just like him. They can moan all they like about the decline of English while they sort homophones at the Society’s reeducation camp outside Pippa Passes, Kentucky.”
“So it all came to nothing?”
“It always comes to nothing with the peeververein, old swot. Now pull yourself together. The Society’s private jet is waiting, and we should arrive in St. Petersburg just in time for the cocktail hour at the Vinoy.”