John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pulp Diction 4: The dark tower



The Amtrak from Baltimore to New York was only ninety minutes late to Penn Station, and the sun was setting as Fogarty and I crept up on AP Stylebook Headquarters.

“We’re in luck,” I whispered. “They haven’t lowered the portcullis yet.”

“But there’s a guard,” she said.

“Maybe you could distract that slab of brawn while I slip past.”

“Leave it to me.” She loosened two buttons on her blouse and walked up to the muscle. His head turned; I slipped past. A minute later, after a dull thud and a splash, Fogarty was beside me.

“This place is a damn labyrinth,” I swore. Corridors, dimly lit by flaring torches, stretched in all directions, and there was no sound but the dripping of water on the stone floors.

A rumbling came behind us. “Quick, in here,” I hissed, and we ducked through a doorway.

A cart rolled by, just an intern delivering a hamper of inconsistencies to the Numbers department.

“Safe,” I breathed, and then noticed that we were in a stairway leading upward. “Come this way.”

A door at the top opened into a turret room. As we stepped inside, the door slammed behind us, and a dry, thin voice said, “I’ve been expecting you, McIntyre, but I didn’t realize that the Grammar Magnate would be with you.”

“Wane Waly,” I said. He stood behind a desk, a wizened figure radiating malice like a corporate vice president purging people who actually work.

“Who?” Fogarty whispered.

“A failed copy editor who turned against the craft. I should have guessed he would be the cat’s paw for this conspiracy.”

“And you, McIntyre,” he said, “you were never more than a caricature, a fossil who needed to be swept out of the newsroom. Whereas I am one with the future.”

“What future are you talking about?” Fogarty asked.

“Anyone who reads Swift’s Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue can see how effectively language can be an instrument of social control. But the lexicographers and linguists went descriptive and democratic and frittered away their opportunity. Now, with the Peevers and the Mensans puffed up in their imagined superior intellects and on our side, and the AP Stylebook binding and distracting editors with trivia and idiotic restrictions, we can strike.”

“You’re mad,” Fogarty said.

“Cliche,” I murmured. 

“By sunset today, National Grammar Day,” he snickered, “all those smutty lexicographers — that McKean wretch with her crossword dress, and that radio blowhard Grant Barrett, and that upstart Ben Zimmer — they’ll all be clapped in irons. Along with that popinjay Sheidlower. Then,” his voice rising to a shriek, “the Illuminati will decree what people speak and write and thus how they think —”

With the thunder of many boots, a battering ram burst open the door. In strode Mark Liberman of Penn at the head of Language Log’s Modal Auxiliary Corps. Quickly seized and bound, Waly was borne away screaming, spittle flying from his contorted lips.

The room fell silent.

“How did you know we were here?” I asked Liberman.

“You’re not hard to tail,” he said.

“Is it all over?” Fogarty asked.

“The language is secure again, ma’am,” Liberman said in the clipped tones of command.

“Good for you,” I said. “I’ve got to get back to Baltimore. Safeway has a big coupon sale starting tomorrow, and all the bag boys have been called in.”


The End