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Grammarnoir 5: The Shame of the Prose, complete

By John E. McIntyre

The Baltimore Sun

10:01 AM EDT, March 30, 2013

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By request, and because in a few days I will be at the American Copy Editors Society's national conference with several people who, by the uncanniest of coincidences, bear the same names as certain characters, here is the fifth Grammarnoir serial in one take.

 

GRAMMARNOIR 5: THE SHAME OF THE PROSE

“Grammarnoir 5: The Shame of the Prose” is a four-part serial, running on Mondays from February 11 until the thrilling conclusion on March 4, National Grammar Day.  Grammarnoir is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance of characters to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Part 1: See a Fellow About a Scam

He was a pudgy little man with a suit that might have fit him a couple of hundred Denny’s grand slams ago. His eyes wouldn’t stop roaming around the room, and he was beginning to sweat, even though the outfit I work for doesn’t throw around simoleons on heat for the help. He said his name was Charles Finch, and the smell of fear on him was like a newsroom on a buyout deadline day.

“Look,” I told him, “I’m not hanging up the green eyeshade, but I’ve got my hands full here with night content production. It’s a gig, regular paychecks and no heavy lifting, so I don’t go out on freelance errands of mercy any more.”

“But you’re the only one who can h-h-h-help me,” Finch said. Sweating and stammering. “Your blog,  your credentials, your fame and p-p-p-prestige among editors. They say you’re the one who got the AP Stylebook to c-c-c-cave on hopefully.”

“Ease up on the airy persiflage,” I said with a wave of my hand. “I caught them shaking down a bunch of college newspapers, got a little leverage on them.”

“But you know them, you know how they operate, you can talk to them. You can g-g-g-get them off my back.”

His was an old story, a twice-told tale. He ran a little operation, strictly small-time, and he was over his head, got himself into trouble with clients, fell short on the editing. So he went to the AP Stylebook, and they gave him a little free help on capitalization. Before he knew what had happened to him, he was in deep, too deep, choosing words or numerals for numbers, like that, the numbers game. When he tried to back out of the subscription, the AP sent a couple of goons around to throw a scare into him. You know, “Nice little article you got there. Be a shame if something should … happen … to it.”

It worked, and now he was sweating in my office.

“Oh all right,” I said. “Before you steam up my windows, we’ll go see a fellow.”

“A fellow?”

“Yeah, I think we should have a little parley with David Minthorn.”

“Minthorn?” His eyes bulged. “The AP Stylebook editor? The capo di tutti copy?”

“Yeah, Minthorn. I know him of old.”

 

NEXT:  The Capo

 

 

Part 2:  The Capo

I knew where to find David Minthorn. When the bottom fell out of the paragraph game, the AP Stylebook gave up its ritzy offices on West 33rd Street, and Minthorn wound up working out of the back room of a bar called Strunky White’s. 

We opened the door into Strunky White’s and got a punch in the face from the smell of stale beer and yellowing newsprint. A crowd of AP louts loafed around its dim recesses. A couple of them were playing Scrabble, but nobody seemed to have come up with a word of more than four letters.

“Afternoon, lads,” I said. “We’re here to drink tea with Mr. Minthorn.”

“Boss don’t need to see no stinking copy editors,” one of the punks snarled.

“Double negation aside,” I said, “I have to insist.” 

Four or five hoods pushed their chairs back and moved toward us, growling low in their throats, when a door in the back opened, and someone said, “All right, what’s the rhubarb?”

It was Darrell Christian, Minthorn’s sidekick. His eyes met mine, and he said, “Oh, you.  Stand aside, boys, and let the man through. He’s more damn trouble than he’s worth, so let’s find out what he wants and get him out of here.”

He led us into a back office. A man in his shirtsleeves was sitting behind a battered desk, rubbing his eyes. It was Minthorn. He looked up.

“You again,” he said. His voice lacked enthusiasm, like a slot editor’s at the sight of a first-day head on a second-day story. “You got a real bad habit of showing up where you’re not wanted, like the sports staff at an open bar.”

“No need to take up your valuable time,” I said. “Mr. Finch here is just small fry. Let him off the hook, catch and release, you know, and we’ll be on our way. You go back to figuring out how to transmit emoticons over the wire, or whatever game you’re up to now.”

“Drop it,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re messing with. Just drop it before you get your fingers burned.” 

I noticed that his fingers were trembling slightly. The words menaced, but the voice lacked force. Something wasn’t right.

“I’m afraid I have to insist,” I said.

“Insist, do you, you grubby little proof-monger? Insist? It’s time you had a little lesson.” 

He looked toward the door, where a couple of bangers stood at the ready.

“Take the gent to Colleen.”

 

NEXT:  Cocktails with Colleen

 

 

Part 3: Cocktails with Colleen

Colleen Newvine was the Stylebook’s hotsy-totsy enforcer. You saw the long hair, the deftly applied makeup, the tasteful clothes, you figured she was just another skirt that wandered into journalism, wised up, got an M.B.A., and went upscale.

Then you’d see her smile. If a moray eel could smile, it would almost look like that. I’ve seen managing editors scream and fall to their knees when she turned that smile on them.  And now she was smiling at us.

Finch looked like he might pass out.

“Let him be, Blue Eyes,” I said. “This is between us.”

“It is indeed,” she purred. “But he’s involved, too. Hasn’t he told you?”

“Told me what?”

“This is rich. Your client hasn’t told you? That while he was subscribing to us, he’s been in bed with Chicago.”

Pieces started to fall into place.

AP and the Chicago Manual of Style had had their informal territories, AP the newspapers, Chicago the books. They split up the magazines, except for mavericks like The New Yorker, with that weird diaeresis policy Harold Ross dreamed up one day when he was hung over. They were supposed to have divided everything up formally at the big conference at Apalachin, until the feds busted that up. There'd been talk on the street lately of a ruction between them.

“But you’re right,” she said. “We’re not interested in him. Since this is between us, see him out.” 

I showed Finch the door. He shuddered as he walked down the hall, staggering a little.

I turned back to Colleen, who said, “Care for a little bracer?” She held up a cocktail shaker, condensation beaded on in like the sweat on a rewrite man’s forehead at deadline.

“Sure.  What’s the poison?”

“It’s a Muckraker: rye, applejack, arrack, wormwood, bitters, and regret for lost hope.”

“Pour me one. Make it a double. I don’t measure out my life with coffee spoons, babe.”

She served me a glass and took one for herself. We sat on her sofa, and as she crossed her legs genteelly, I said, “So, saucy wench, what’s this kerfuffle between AP and Chicago all about?”

“Oh,” she said, “you’ll know all about it. Sooner than you’ll want to.”

Just about then the lights went out.

 

NEXT: The Syndicate

 

 

Part 4: The Syndicate

When I came to, I was as groggy as if I had sat through a daily/Sunday news meeting show-and-tell. Bringing my eyes into focus, I looked at the group sitting around a table.

Colleen Newvine was flanked by Darrell Christian and David Minthorn, and there, at the center, was a diminutive gray-haired figure who looked like somebody’s mother.

It was Carol Saller. The iron fist in the Chicago Manual of Style’s velvet glove.

Hoods, punks, and yeggs of various descriptions lined the walls.

“Well, this is sweet,” I said. “Everybody thinks that AP and Chicago have gone to the mattresses, and here you all are, quite the happy family.”

“You have twigged to it, Mr. McIntyre,” Saller said in a quiet, level, precise voice. A chill went up my spine at that metallic voice. It sounded as if it should be reading a company memo telling how quality would be undiminished after the buyouts.

“It was useful for others to think that,” she said. “We did have to liquidate a number of copy editors, for verisimilitude. Actually, so many had been sacrificed already that we weren’t entirely certain that the casualties would register.”

“Noticed by who?”

Saller winced. “I would have expected a whom from you, Mr. McIntyre. Noticed by entities that we are about to absorb. The MLA, lulled into a false sense of security; the APA, where we have been placing moles in key positions for years; the Government Printing Office, where our people await my signal. Once our friends here at the AP were persuaded to, let’s call it an accommodation, there was nobody to stop us.”

“Stop you from what?”

“A universal stylebook, enforced inflexibly across the professions, publications, and disciplines.”

She raised her voice: “ONE BOOK TO RULE THEM ALL.”

“Nifty,” I said. “But I have a question.”

“What is it?”

“What happens with the Oxford comma?”

“Chicago style, of course,” Saller said.

“Wait a minute,” said Christian. He stood up fast. “That wasn’t our deal.”

“Are you welshing on us?” Minthorn yelled. 

When I saw Colleen reach for her purse, I hit the floor, rolled, and sprinted faster than a reporter to the buffet table.

I was down the hall and through the door to the stairs when the first shot rang out.

 

The End