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Grammarnoir 7: "The Corpus Had a Familiar Face," Complete

The Baltimore Sun

Grammarnoir 7: "The Corpus Had a Familiar Face," Complete

Note: Challenged on Twitter by Henry Fuhrmann of the Los Angeles Times to start another series with this title, I’ve set out again. 

 

Part 1: Grammar Day aborted

It was National Grammar Day Eve, and I had a rent-a-red-pencil gig to help handle the traffic. I didn’t much care for it, but there’s not much cabbage in the paragraph game any longer.

They’d issued me a 2003 Garner’s Modern American Usage—too chintzy to spring for Garner 3. I suppose I should be grateful for anything fresher than Wilson Follett.

Anyhow, just as I’d holstered Garner, a bruiser materialized at my office door. He had fists the size of Westphalian hams and the cold, dead eyes of a community press content coach.

“Gents’ is down the hall, bub,” I told him.

But he laid a thick forefinger on my chest and pushed me back toward my chair. “We gotta talk,” he said.

“Is this a time for airy persiflage?” I asked.

He gave me the dim, dazed look of a reporter who’s been asked why his story has only one source.

“OK, short words, then,” I said. “Don’t have time to talk. Places to go, people to see, grammar to fix.”

“You ain’t goin’ nowhere,” he multiply negated. “I got my orders.”

“Who says so?”

“The people I work for. You been interferin’, writin’ about shibbah—, shibbeh—”

“Shibboleths?”

“Yeah, them things.”

Well, then, you’d better take me to those people you work for.”

I started for the door, and in a moment he lumbered after me.

“This way,” he said.

Next: The Consortium

 

Part 2: The Consortium

I followed the bruiser down to the street, where a black limo the size of a columnist’s ego was waiting with the motor running.

As I stepped toward the door, he threw a bag over my head. I just had time to say, “What the hell …” when he brought down a cosh and everything went as dark as a newspaper’s future.

When I began to move toward the light again, my head pounding, my tongue feeling like I’d licked the composing room floor clean, I muttered, “Got to stay clear of that Tennessee whiskey,” opened my eyes, and saw …

A spectacle.

I was sitting in front of a glass wall looking out into an enormous atrium. Scores of people, casually dressed. People ascending a climbing wall at the far end. People drinking coffee and cocktails with little umbrellas. People doing laps in an Olympic pool. Half a dozen people seated around a hookah peering at tablets as they passed the hose from hand to hand. There were trapezes. A waterfall. I’m pretty sure the couple on the chaise longue was making out.

The bruiser loomed up beside me. “Where is this?” I asked.

“Shut up,” he said. “And stay put. You’re not allowed in the workplace.” He walked off.

Workplace? That was just odd. And something was peculiar about those people. Something off.

And then it hit me, like the nut graph at the end of a ten-paragraph anecdotal lead. They were all young. Fresh-faced. Glowing. Some looked barely old enough to vote. A head of gray hair would have been as out of place as a necktie in the sports department.

I was still trying to puzzle it all out when the bruiser returned, grabbed my arm and said, “This way.”

He led me down a hallway and through double doors into another big room, this one with a glass wall overlooking a formal garden. Around a large table sat half a dozen people: Jeans. T-shirts, mostly black. Bottles of imported water. Three-day stubble on every face. No women.

I stood before them. They looked at me. No one said anything. It was a still as a meeting at which the publisher invited questions.

Finally I said, “Who are you people?”

One of them stood up and said, “We are the Consortium. We are the future. You are not part of it.”

Next: A sinister plot

  

Part 3: A sinister plot

“Well, gents,” I said, “opinions are nice things to have, and I see you’re well supplied. But I’ve been written off more often than a publisher says that cutbacks will increase reader satisfaction. So, if you’ll be so kind as to ask this mug to hand me my hat, I’ll be on my way.”

“You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” the stentorian “we are the Consortium” type said.

“Chief, now that you bring that up, who the hell are you, and why should I care?”

“Did you see our staff? We are the future, the New Era, the end of your stale, used-up shell of journalism. We are …” he paused for effect, and then each of them started to chime in around the table.

“Unworthy!”

“Gawper!”

“Buzzbreed!”

“Daily Trawler!”

“Huff & Puff Post!”

I interrupted the roll call. “I see. I won’t believe what happens next after I’m captured by the Clickbait Caucus. What do you want with me?”

“You are insignificant. You have a minuscule audience of overly educated readers who don’t make enough to attract advertisers’ interest,” Unworthy said, “but you have been meddling in our affairs.”

“How so?”

“Your attacks on our grammar quizzes might begin to discourage the badly educated and socially insecure from coming to our sites. We depend on those quizzes to lure them in, and every time you expose some zombie rule or usage superstition, you, in your small way, potentially cut into our traffic. That will not be tolerated.”

“What do you think you can do to stop me, big boy?”

He had just opened his mouth to reply when there was a commotion at the door, and two familiar figures burst into the room and confronted the clickbaiters.

 Next: The Conditional Entente

 

Part 4: The Conditional Entente

“Who are these bozos?” Unworthy asked.

“Boys,” I said, “take off your caps. You are honored by the presence of Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, and Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.”

Huff & Puff Post said, “Doesn’t the first one pal around with Justice Scalia and the other one despise Strunk and White?”

“Full marks,” said Pullum.

“But wait,” said Huff & Puff Post, “you guys hate each other. You know, prescriptvist vs. descriptivist. We get a ton of hits whenever we set that one up. You should see the comments. They’re ready to take each other’s heads off.”

“Whatever our past differences,” Garner said, “Professor Pullum and I are in agreement about baseless crotchets and superstitions, the sort of shibboleths that your sites are perpetuating.”

“So we’ve come to an understanding,” said Pullum. “We’ve established a Conditional Entente to combat nonsense. And since this fellow you’ve dragged here has managed to come to a dim understanding of genuine English despite working as a newspaper copy editor, we insist that you let him go.”

You insist?” Unworthy said. “We do the insisting here.”

“Not any longer,” Garner said. “Comply, or we will be forced to take you down.”

“You will? How”

“We’ve engaged people, some of your former employees, who have produced a series of videos and gifs on sound English usage, which we’ll put up against yours.”

He pronounced it “jifs.”

Unworthy sneered. “We don’t have anything to fear from that.”

“My good fellow,” Pullum said, “they feature cats. They’re all cats. It’s cats all the way down.”

The blood drained from every face around the table.

“Come along,” Pullum said, taking my arm. “Our work here is done.”

We left, the door closing behind us on the big room in complete silence.

The End

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