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

Clause and Effect: A Grammarnoir serial in one installment

The Baltimore Sun
  1. You Can’t Escape

The sun came up slowly on National Grammar Day, like a feature writer resisting her editor’s changes. Sitting in my rocking chair on the front porch of the Old Editors’ Home, I was not impressed. I’d seen it before.

A black sedan came to an uncertain stop at the curb, and a woman got out. She wore a cloche hat. I stirred from my chair to duck inside but was too slow. She spotted me.

“You’re the eponymous Old Editor!” she chirped. I’d been insisting for forty years that said suffices, but, great Fowler’s ghost, she chirped.

I owned the soft impeachment.

“I’m Lexy Cahn,” she said. “You don’t know me, but I’ve read every one of your amazing blog posts, and I just know that you are the only person who can save National Grammar Day.”

“Sister,” I said, “I’ve hung up the green eyeshade. I’ve written -30-. I’ve got a bed here, three squares, and a bottle of Maker’s Mark the staff doesn’t know about. I don’t go out on jaunts any longer.”

“But you must,” she said. “Everything depends on you. It’s my uncle, Jonathon Owen. He was supposed to deliver the Grammar Oration, but he’s been kidnapped by a gang of thugs.”

“@ArrantPedantry taken? How?”

“They just burst into the house, chanting “There! They’re! Their!” They flung a bag over his head and carried him away before anyone could do anything about it.”

“Stickler droogs,” I muttered.

“Huh?” she entreated.

“No, stick to said,” I told her. “Come on to your car. I know where to find them.”

 

 

  1. Bookworms Gone Bad

“How do you know these people?” Lexy asked as we drove toward the university.

“I was an English major myself,” I said. “I’ve seen them go bad. They get good grades, think they’re important because they talk like a book, imagine that they have status. Then then find out that nobody cares. They wind up teaching freshman composition and take to day drinking. Most of them are harmless enough …”

“But others?”

“Some of them bear a grudge against linguists, figuring they’re responsible for collapsing all the standards. Permissive. They find out even Bryan Garner consults corpora for usage, and it gets ugly. And now that the AP Stylebook has gone soft on singular they, they hate all the copy editors, too. What was your uncle going to orate on?”

“ ‘At the Coal-Face of Standardization’ : Uncovering the Role of Copy Editors in Standardizing the English Language”

“Bishop Lowth’s miter! He was asking for it.”

 

 

  1. The Mean Streets

We cruised the shabby back streets near the university.

“There,” I said, pointing to a house with a graffito, “[sic],” on the side wall.

“What do we do?”

“Park the car around the corner. You’re going to go up to the door, ring the bell, and tell them exactly what I say …”

Five minutes later, I was standing in the shadow at the corner of the house. Lexy strode up the walk, rang the bell, and when the door was opened said, “There’s a man in the next block holding up a sign that says “is comprised of” is acceptable grammar.”

They stormed out of the house and pounded down the street, baying like the sports department when free pizza is delivered. I ran up and pulled Lexy into the house.

We found Owen tied to a kitchen chair. As Lexy fumbled at the knots, I asked him, “You have the oration?”

“On the table,” He said. “They were going to burn it.”

“Not the worst idea,” I said. “Come on, out the back door and quick. We’ve got fifteen minutes to get you to the Atheneum.”

 

 

  1. The End of the Day

And so all the familiar marks of the holiday were there: the cheers of the crowds lining the streets at the parade, the hourly cannon fire salute from the Citadel, the Te Deum sung at the Cathedral, the torchlight procession and laying of a wreath at the Cenotaph of the Unknown Copy Editor, the fireworks display, the Semicolon Ball at the Ducal Palace, the governor’s clemency in releasing the peeververein from the stockade at midnight.

Grammar rules.

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