John McIntyre

"Grammar Never Takes a Holiday," the complete text

Part 1:  Trouble wears cheaters
On one of those gray afternoons when the coffee’s worn off and you begin to wonder why you ever got into the paragraph game, he tapped gently at the office door.
Swinging my feet off the desk and checking the bottom drawer to make sure the bottle of Tums was still there, I said, “Come in.”
He crept in, giving off the smell of trouble like the syntax of a freshman essay. He had an apologetic chin, cheaters with lenses a quarter-inch thick, a spoiled-salmon-colored polka-dot tie, and an off-green shirt. I made him for a copy editor.
I looked at him. Sometimes if you don’t talk, they blurt out what’s on their minds; and, even better, sometimes they just turn and walk out. This specimen blurted: “I’m in trouble. Can you help me?”
“Depends,” I said. “If your trouble is with dames or the ponies or nose candy, that’s not my territory. Grammar’s my game. Now if you got hold of a load of bum tropes, then maybe I could do you some good.”
He actually blushed. “No, not any of those things,” he said. “But I do have trouble.”
“Maybe you should sit down and unload.”
He sat. Looked at me for a long minute.
“I don’t know exactly how to tell you,” he stammered.
“Well, sunshine, sometimes it helps to start at the beginning.”
“I suppose,” he said, “it all began when I fell in with the wrong crowd.”
“Not used to fast living?”
“No, nothing like that. They seemed all right at first. Perfectly innocent, nothing sinister or alarming. But I got in deeper and deeper and began to see the fix I’d gotten myself into. And now I don’t know how to get out.”
“Maybe you could let me in on just what this wrong crowd was into.”
He looked over his shoulder, out the office door. “Can anyone hear us?”
“Bub, as far as I can tell, nobody in the past thirty-five years has paid any attention to anything I said. You’re safe as houses here.”
“All right,” he said. He licked his lips.
“C’mon. Give. What black art did they entangle you with? Satanism? Necromancy? Six Sigma?”
He leaned forward and whispered.
Next: Perfidious Albion
Part 2: Perfidious Albion
The chair creaked as I leaned back. I steepled my fingers and said, “Well, slick, maybe you could tell me more. For instance, you have a name?”
“Turner,” he said. “Paige Turner.”
I looked at him. He blushed again.
“Mother wanted a girl.”
“And what would Mother have thought about your mixing with the wrong crowd?”
He drew breath to speak.
“No, slappy, don’t answer; just tell me what your problem is.”
“Well, it started easy enough,” he said. “Crosswords, Scrabble—you know, gateway stuff. Then it led to Fictionary …” He trailed off.
“Yeah, so you got to hard core pretty quick. What then?”
“When they thought they could trust me, they let me in on the Plan.”
“They, plan, whatever. C’mon, what’s it all about? Spill it.”
“They’d all been recruited, too, by the Queen’s English Society.”
“Nobody pays attention to the QES these days. They’re all fogies and dodderers. They’re past it.”
“Not this group. They’re young. They all went to progressive schools, so this is the only way they know how to rebel.”
“So what’s this Plan?”
“They’ve infiltrated a dictionary publisher, one of the big ones.”  He whispered, “M-W.”
“Uh-huh. And?”
“Ten of them work there, ready to spring. They’re going to delete all the Americanisms and revert to British usage. The QES figures that once the Colonies are subdued, the rot transmitted to England will come to a stop.”
“That it?”
“Well, you know, then they figure the OED will be ripe.”
“All right, kid, we’re going to make a little trip, just you and me, to Merriam-Webster.”
He shrank back in his chair, like a writer being told that you’ve murdered his darlings. “No, I just couldn’t. I can’t leave Mother.”
“Then give me the skinny, and I’ll go by my lonesome.”
He started to talk. I made notes.
Next: The hotsy-totsy lexicographer
Part 3: The hotsy-totsy lexicographer
At Merriam-Webster, a pair of thugs walked me through the Scriptorium. Big room, coffered ceiling, bright light through Palladian windows, scores of lexicographers surrounded by reference books and notes, delicately picking at their noiseless keyboards. They wore coats and fingerless gloves, heat evidently supplied by Yankee thrift.
One goon stopped at a door and scratched at it with the nail of his little finger, like a flunky at the court of Louis Quatorze. We were granted admittance. It was a big room, with a marble fireplace and an ormolu clock on the mantel. Kory Stamper was seated at a large mahogany desk with stacks of citation slips covering the top.
“We brung this mope who wanted to see you, Miz Stamper,” one of the goons said.
She rose, sashayed over to a red velvet chaise longue, sat, gave me an appraising look, and said, “That’ll do, boys. Leave him here.”
They pushed me down onto a straight chair in front of the chaise and left.
After they closed the door, I said, “What do you need with a couple of yeggs like them?”
Yegg?” she said. “Seriously? Noun. Safecracker, robber. Origin unknown. First known use: 1903. Who do you think you are, Dashiell Hammet?”
“I didn’t come here to bandy words over usage,” I said.
“Then what did you come here for?”
“It wasn’t to measure out my life with coffee spoons, sister. I’ve got information.”
She took a cigarette from a glass box on a table at her side and lifted it to her lips. As I struck a match to light it, she steadied my hand with hers and looked at me with eyes that gave off a smoldering heat like the hellbox on a Linotype.
“Okeh,” I said. “Let’s try again. Why the thugs? They don’t seem your type.”
“They’re a legacy. After Webster’s Third came out, we needed protection. One night they found Dwight Macdonald out back with an improvised Molotov cocktail. All the old dear had was a bottle of gin, and he had set his necktie on fire, but still, it seemed a good idea to take precautions. We have people who … know people, and they’ve supplied us with protection ever since.”
“Well, they may have the doors and windows covered, but that doesn’t make you safe.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been infiltrated.”
She uttered a word that I don’t think used to be in the dictionary.
“By whom?”
Next: The test
Part 4: The test
Kory Stamper listened to what Turner had told me and frowned.
She went to the door and shouted into the Scriptorium: “Sokolowski, get over here! That gumshoe from Baltimore thinks he’s on to something.” A shudder swept through the room, as if someone had set off a cherry bomb among Trappists, and Peter Sokolowski scuttled over, worry as plain on him as the gin blossoms on a publisher’s nose.
I told him, “Your last ten hires are members of a Queen’s English Society sleeper cell. They’re waiting for the moment to strike and convert every American usage in your dictionaries back to British.”
Sokolowski gulped. “Then we go to the mattresses.”
“No,” I told him. “It’s early enough that you can get shut of them without damage, if you act. You need to get rid of them. Forthwith.”
“We can’t just sack them on your say-so. We have to have some kind of proof that they are implicated in the nefarious scheme you describe.”
“Implicated? Nefarious scheme? You spend too much time on the thesaurus or something? Never mind, I can prove it.”
“How?” Stamper asked.
“Like at the ford of the Jordan.” Stamper and Sokolowski looked at each other.
I said, “Round them up. Bring them in to me one by one. If they can’t pass my test, then you eighty-six them.”
“What’s the test?” Sokolowski asked.
“Uh-uh,” I said. “Bring them.” He scurried off.
They ushered in the first one.
I handed him an index card and said, “Pronounce this word.”
All the blood drained out of his face; his eyes bulged. He gulped and stammered and stared, and finally shook his head.
“You’re done.” I said. “Sokolowski, get him out fast. Don’t let him see or talk to the others.”
The remaining nine went through as quick as the sports department headed to a buffet.
As I was heading out the door, shrugging off Stamper and Sokolowski’s chorus of gratitude, they asked, “What was on the card?”
“Read it yourself.”
I handed it over, and they looked down to see:
The End