"Grammar Never Takes a Holiday," the complete text

March 05, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

GRAMMARNOIR 6: GRAMMAR NEVER TAKES A HOLIDAY

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.

“Lexicography.”

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.

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