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The rule you don't break

Continued from ""The Fat Man chuckles"

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. 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.”

“And?”

“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.”

“What?”

“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

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 AM | | Comments (11)
        

Comments

"The words strain and crack; sometimes they break under the burden, the tension. They slip and slide and perish — won’t stay still."

This one quote makes the whole series.

I like it too. Wish I had thought of it first myself.

Bravo! I've quite enjoyed this little serial. You should do it more often.

Stealing from Eliot again, are we, McIntyre? The poor man isn't even alive to defend himself from your encroachments.

And I happily add my voice to those requesting a production of the series in its entirety.

Beautiful. Congratulations, and Happy Grammar Day.

By the way, am I to understand that psychologist Pinker is not a consigliere?

I've not been admitted to the inner circles, but I assume that Pinker is a capo.

Very funny! I took a crack at book-reviewer noir in Booklist's Mystery Showcase last year—I found your piece after a colleague pointed out the similarity. I guess I'm not the only desk-bound book nerd who secretly longs to have a gun at his hip instead of a pencil behind his ear . . . .

Here's a link to "Reading Is My Business."

Glad I found your blog!

"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."

Great lines! The same could be said for composition instructors. Enjoyed this series; thanks.

If this were back in the 1970s at a concert in the Civic Center, we'd all be holding up Bic lighters wanting an encore.

Thoroughly enjoyed the story, Mr. McIntyre.

"I guess I'm not the only desk-bound book nerd who secretly longs to have a gun at his hip instead of a pencil behind his ear . . . ."

Perhaps Prof. McIntyre could have some cards printed up:

Have blue pencil
Will edit

Wire McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun

This is well known that cash makes people autonomous. But how to act if one has no money? The only one way is to get the loan or just secured loan.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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