Grammarnoir 5: The Shame of the Prose, complete

March 30, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

By request, and because in a few days I will be at the American Copy Editors Society's national conference with several people who, by the uncanniest of coincidences, bear the same names as certain characters, here is the fifth Grammarnoir serial in one take.


“Grammarnoir 5: The Shame of the Prose” is a four-part serial, running on Mondays from February 11 until the thrilling conclusion on March 4, National Grammar Day.  Grammarnoir is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance of characters to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Part 1: See a Fellow About a Scam

He was a pudgy little man with a suit that might have fit him a couple of hundred Denny’s grand slams ago. His eyes wouldn’t stop roaming around the room, and he was beginning to sweat, even though the outfit I work for doesn’t throw around simoleons on heat for the help. He said his name was Charles Finch, and the smell of fear on him was like a newsroom on a buyout deadline day.

“Look,” I told him, “I’m not hanging up the green eyeshade, but I’ve got my hands full here with night content production. It’s a gig, regular paychecks and no heavy lifting, so I don’t go out on freelance errands of mercy any more.”

“But you’re the only one who can h-h-h-help me,” Finch said. Sweating and stammering. “Your blog,  your credentials, your fame and p-p-p-prestige among editors. They say you’re the one who got the AP Stylebook to c-c-c-cave on hopefully.”

“Ease up on the airy persiflage,” I said with a wave of my hand. “I caught them shaking down a bunch of college newspapers, got a little leverage on them.”

“But you know them, you know how they operate, you can talk to them. You can g-g-g-get them off my back.”

His was an old story, a twice-told tale. He ran a little operation, strictly small-time, and he was over his head, got himself into trouble with clients, fell short on the editing. So he went to the AP Stylebook, and they gave him a little free help on capitalization. Before he knew what had happened to him, he was in deep, too deep, choosing words or numerals for numbers, like that, the numbers game. When he tried to back out of the subscription, the AP sent a couple of goons around to throw a scare into him. You know, “Nice little article you got there. Be a shame if something should … happen … to it.”

It worked, and now he was sweating in my office.

“Oh all right,” I said. “Before you steam up my windows, we’ll go see a fellow.”

“A fellow?”

“Yeah, I think we should have a little parley with David Minthorn.”

“Minthorn?” His eyes bulged. “The AP Stylebook editor? The capo di tutti copy?”

“Yeah, Minthorn. I know him of old.”

NEXT:  The Capo

Part 2:  The Capo

I knew where to find David Minthorn. When the bottom fell out of the paragraph game, the AP Stylebook gave up its ritzy offices on West 33rd Street, and Minthorn wound up working out of the back room of a bar called Strunky White’s. 

We opened the door into Strunky White’s and got a punch in the face from the smell of stale beer and yellowing newsprint. A crowd of AP louts loafed around its dim recesses. A couple of them were playing Scrabble, but nobody seemed to have come up with a word of more than four letters.

“Afternoon, lads,” I said. “We’re here to drink tea with Mr. Minthorn.”

“Boss don’t need to see no stinking copy editors,” one of the punks snarled.

“Double negation aside,” I said, “I have to insist.” 

Four or five hoods pushed their chairs back and moved toward us, growling low in their throats, when a door in the back opened, and someone said, “All right, what’s the rhubarb?”

It was Darrell Christian, Minthorn’s sidekick. His eyes met mine, and he said, “Oh, you.  Stand aside, boys, and let the man through. He’s more damn trouble than he’s worth, so let’s find out what he wants and get him out of here.”

He led us into a back office. A man in his shirtsleeves was sitting behind a battered desk, rubbing his eyes. It was Minthorn. He looked up.

“You again,” he said. His voice lacked enthusiasm, like a slot editor’s at the sight of a first-day head on a second-day story. “You got a real bad habit of showing up where you’re not wanted, like the sports staff at an open bar.”

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