Friday, January 15, 2010

Blast from the past

It is probably not too soon to steel yourself for National Grammar Day on March 4. By way of preparation, and to respond to readers disappointed that the You Don’t Say posts at are no longer accessible, I am reproducing here all four installments of last year’s Grammarnoir serial. (I’m undecided about what to do this year.)


I. Down those mean sentences I walk alone

I was sitting at my desk in the old Intelligencer-Argus building the day she walked in. It was late afternoon on a rainy day, and my hand had strayed more than once toward the dictionary in the bottom desk drawer. I heard footsteps approaching, and when I looked up, there she was. She was — lissome.

“Mr. McIntyre?” she said.

“Take a load off, lady,” I said pushing a chair, the one with the loose armrest, toward her. Cheapskate publishers. “What can I do for you?”

“Mr. McIntyre, my name is Martha Brockenbrough, and I need your help.”

“What’s the problem, sis?”

“Well, a dear friend of mine is married to a man — he’s a hard worker and a good provider, I don’t mean to say anything against him — but he’s so rigid.”

“What’s his game?” I asked, with a suspicion dawning like the morning sun over the penitentiary down the street.

“He’s a writer.”

“I know the type.”

“No, you don’t,” she said, lifting her stubborn little chin. “He’s a good writer. Well, most of the time, anyway. It’s just that he’s fallen into some bad ways.”

“Tell me about them, doll,” I said.

“He positively insists that none can be used only as a singular.“


“And once he threatened to strike a grocery clerk in the ‘10 items or less’ aisle.”


“He got so angry once over my … my friend’s placement of only in a sentence that she was afraid she would have to call the police.”

“Baby, I’ve met a million of ’em. This place used to crawl with ’em before the bottom fell out of the paragraph game. But why are you coming to me about this bozo?”

“Well, I heard, Mr. McIntyre, that you’re a highly professional copy editor.”

“I’ve nailed the errant adverb in my time.”

“I thought you could talk him, work with him, help him somehow.”

“Toots, I’ve got it soft here. Twenty an hour, and I don’t have to furnish my own pencil. I don’t need the aggravation.”

“But Mr. McIntyre, National Grammar Day is almost here. It’s March 4, and I’m so afraid for him, and for my friend, that if he isn’t turned around by then, something terrible might happen.” She sobbed softly into a dainty little lace thing she’d plucked from her purse.

It was the tears that got to me, against my better judgment. I should’ve known better. I did know better. Always a sucker for any sweet dame.

“All right, Ms. Brockenbrough, you’ve got yourself a green eyeshade. Let’s have his name and address.”

“Oh,” she said. “There’s a problem.”

To be continued …

II. “What are we going to do now?” she asked

Martha zipped off in some little Italian two-seater that she’d bought with the proceeds of Things That Make Us [Sic], and I lumbered along in my wheezing General Motors product. Maybe I should write a book.

Her house — yeah, she was the “friend” with the problem, to your astonishment and mine, I’m sure — was a modest bungalow. Guess the royalties hadn’t spread wide enough to upgrade the house, too. Even the rain couldn’t disguise that it could have used coat of paint.

She shivered a little at the front door, and her hand was unsteady as she tried to get the key into the lock.

I grabbed her by the elbow. “You going to tell me what your problem is?” I asked.

“Soon enough.” And she went in.

There wasn’t a light on in the place. It was as cold as a publisher’s heart, and nearly as black. She switched on a lamp. It had one of those little fluorescent bulbs, so the light just limped out a couple of feet and died.

“Well?” I said.

“Mr. McIntyre, I’m afraid that I didn’t tell you everything back at your office.”

“Sugar, I’m a copy editor. Nobody ever tells me the whole story.”

“All right, would you please just follow me.”

She walked across the room to a closed door and paused with her hand on the knob.

“It’s in here.”

I stepped through the door as she switched on an overhead light.

There he was. A man of middle years, slumped over a desk. There was a flier for National Grammar Day on March 4 clutched in his fist.

I walked over and touched the cold dead flesh of his neck. No pulse, of course. There was a small bruise at his right temple. I reached for his collar and pulled him upright in his chair.

An Eberhard Faber Col-erase number 1277 pencil, carmine red, protruded from his chest, just over the heart.

“Did that kill him?” she asked. Her voice quavered.

“Sweetheart, that’s for the M.E. to say, but I’d bet a first-edition Fowler’s that that pencil has been recently sharpened.”

“What are we going to do now?”

You, my lovely, are going to call the police and sit here waiting for them.”

“And what will you do?”

“I’m going to see the Fat Man.”

To be continued ...

III. The Fat Man chuckles

I stood in front of the Fat Man’s house and waited. Our reporters would have called it a manse, but it was grander than anything the Presbyterian clergy ever set foot inside. One light was on — the ground floor, the library.

I knew he would be there.

Only seconds after I rang the bell, the door opened a crack as narrow as a consultant’s brainpan. The Fat Man’s houseboy took my name, let me in and offered to take my battered fedora. “Just tell your boss I’m here,” I said.

“Very well, Mr. McIntyre,” he said. He was back almost immediately. “This way,” he said, and led me down the hall to the library.

“Ah, McIntyre, delighted to see you again,” the Fat Man wheezed as he heaved himself out of his armchair to greet me. “Come take a pew, while I try to do something about this vile chill,” he said, throwing another copy of Strunk and White onto the fire.

I’d known him for years. We’d been honor students together — teacher’s pets — and then he started his slide. It began innocently enough, with a little amateur lexicography. But then he fell in with that hard set at Language Log. He was pals with both the Geoffs — Pullum and Nunberg — Arnold Zwicky, the lot. Before you could say lexeme, he was too deep into descriptivism to ever come back. But, maybe because of our old school ties, we had always managed a gingerly balance.

“So, dear boy,” he said, “what brings you out in the rain and the dark?”

“I just came from the Brockenbrough house.”

“Nothing amiss with the charming Martha, I hope.”

“She’s OK. A little white around the gills. Somebody did in the Mister.”

“Oh. How?”

“Col-erase straight through the ticker.”

“Ah. Oddly appropriate, nil nisi bonum and all. That puts paid to his grand scheme, I suppose.”


“You really ought to get out of the newsroom more often, dear boy. Yes, a scheme, a cabal, a conspiracy, a plot as loony as Booth’s plan to decapitate the Union government in ’65. And the Mister was in the thick of it.”

I settled back in my chair. “Perhaps you can enlighten me.”

“You must have known that the Mister, despite dear little Martha’s charm, was as hard-edged a proponent of prescriptivist poppycock as any pedant who has ever bemoaned the decline of his language. I once saw him throw a hard roll at a waitress who had merely told him that hopefully his entree would be ready in a few minutes.”

“Go on.”

“Like Cassius, he insinuated himself into a company of like-minded mavens — John Simon, William Safire, James J. Kilpatrick, that lot — and inveigled them into a planning a crack-brained putsch. They were going to kidnap Jesse Sheidlower and storm the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary to ‘purify’ the language by force majeure. And they were going to pull this off —“

“On National Grammar Day. March 4,” I said. “So who would have wanted to snuff him?”

“You could assemble a cast of thousands for that task.” He paused. “But I wonder…”


“It’s just, dear boy,” he said with an evil little chuckle, “that I wouldn’t imagine that he alone could be stirred to wrath over the little niceties and false commandments of usage, or that he alone may have had plans for National Grammar Day.”

I saw then what I had to do.

To be continued …

IV. The rule you don’t break

The cold rain was coming down as hard and fast as layoff notices in a newsroom. As I hurried down the front walk of the Fat Man’s house, I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. Ducking around a corner, I stood behind a tree and waited. A figure in a dark raincoat came around, and I grabbed an arm and twisted.

“Hey! Take it easy, buster. Do you know who I am?”

A woman’s voice. I pulled her over to a streetlight for a look.

“Well, well, a little far from home, Ms. Freeman.” Jan Freeman, copy-editor-turned-moll for Language Log’s Boston family. First non-linguist to be named a consigliere. I let go.

Rubbing her arm, she said, “You’re out of your depth here, McIntyre. Go home.”

“No chance, sister. I’m not going to walk away and let you do Steven Pinker’s dirty work here. I know about the putsch, and what’s more, I figured out who killed the Mister.”

Her shoulders slumped. She shook her head and turned. She stopped and hissed at me: “You're just a two-bit grifter, and that's all you'll ever be.” Then she was gone.

I was pensive on the drive back to the Brockenbrough bungalow. Editing’s a mug’s game. The words strain and crack; sometimes they break under the burden, the tension. They slip and slide and perish — won’t stay still. You go out on a raid on the inarticulate, and not everybody comes back. The public doesn’t like to see it but wants it done. That leaves it to me.

Martha was sitting in the living room. The scientists had gone, taking the body.

“What did he say?” she asked.

“What I needed to know.”


“Let me ask you a question. Your book, Things That Make Us [Sic], doesn’t it have an entry on what Bryan Garner lists under ‘Superstitions’ and H.W. Fowler under ‘Fetishes,”?

“Yes. Sure. I called them “false commandments.’”

“Uh-huh. Got a copy handy?”

“There’s one in the study.”

“Come on.”

She led the way through the door to the library and over to the desk. There was a little blood on the blotter, and next to it, on top of a clipping of James J. Kilpatrick’s annual column on the placement of only — it figures — was Martha’s book. I picked it up and turned to page 223, “THE TEN FALSE COMMANDMENTS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.”

“Was this what you and he were arguing about?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t play games with me. I made a phone call on my way back, and the boys will be back. Once they match this dent in the buckram cover to that bruise on the Mister’s temple, it’s all over.”

Her face crumpled. “National Grammar Day was mine, mine, and he and his pack of cranks wanted to take it over. There were going to be uprisings of English teachers in all the major cities. He laughed at Chapter 10, ‘Rules That Never Were, Are No More, and Should Be Broken.’ He said that when the cabal made English the official language, all those rules would be written into the United States Code. He was mad and out of control, and I picked up my book and struck him.”

“And then?”

“He swore, said the cabal would have me locked up in Leavenworth. I reached for that red pencil and struck at him, and he groaned and slumped over the desk and was still.”

“It’s over. Oxford University Press has moved Jesse Sheidlower to a secure, undisclosed location. The flatfoots are rounding up the members of the cabal. The threat to National Grammar Day is over. I just want to know one thing.”


“Why’d you call me in?”

“You’re a professional copy editor. You fix things.”

“All but this. Sweetheart, you’re taking the fall. National Grammar Day will go on, but you’ll be spending it in a cell.”

Outside, a siren was growing louder.

The end


  1. BRILLIANT! Rusty Lang aka Wordwitch

  2. The funny thing about descriptivists, I've always found, is that they are like the Vichy French--ready fight for whomever and anybody, except the regime.

    Of course, they've got to eschew the rules, otherwise, of what use are they? You gotta have somebody around to tell you what rules not to follow, right? A guidebook doesn't have half the personality...

    They standardized spelling for a reason. Why is grammar any different?

  3. Ditto what Wordwitch said.

  4. How very clever and funny - the only trouble is I have no one I can share it with who will get it...I think I need some new friends!!

  5. Brilliant and wonderful, and I will indeed be sharing it with some folks who will adore it. Thanks thanks thanks.

  6. I found your blog from David Hobby's "Strobist" blog. This piece is superb. I'm a huge fan of Raymond Chandler and of language. I've also read the "Language Log" blog, though not recently. Having all these elements come together in one piece was a delight. Thank you.

  7. Bravo! Hilarious and beautifully done. You should keep it going, serialize it in Copyediting, use it to pry a couple of bucks from some coldhearted publisher's frigid fist.