Based on Actual Events
The story is bad: to begin with. No doubt about that.
You’ve read a thousand and one stories off the slush pile today, and when you aren’t scanning the same line over and over again, you’re skipping lines altogether. You’re just not in the mood for it. Last night you went to bed late, against your better judgement; then you woke up at 4:30 a.m., because your body clock hates you; and walking through your office building this morning, you smacked into a big, bald guy you’d never seen before. He muttered something—you’re not sure what, but you’re sure it was nasty—and it put you in a rotten mood, a fuck-the-world sort of mood. You’ve left the stink of it on everyone you’ve spoken to since. And then you had to read a thousand and one stories off the slush pile. They’re all pretty bad, but this last one is as bad as a bingo room.
So, poised over the keyboard, you begin a note to be sent to the writer. The one-thousand-and-first such note you’ve written today. With this one you hardly need think what to write: the keys clack beneath your fingers almost of their own accord.
It’s very hard to read a story when punctuation marks like colons and semicolons are used randomly and incorrectly throughout.
Oh. God. How sweet that feels. All the knots in the muscles of your neck are untangled as you type. Your lower lip departs the upper, and out of your mouth issues a sound like the rushing vapor of a freshly popped champagne bottle. You wonder if you should include some colons or semicolons in the note, to demonstrate the proper usage. But best not to risk it.
With a click of your mouse the note is emailed to the submissions manager. Yet strangely the mouse-click does not sound very clickish: it gives a thunderous bang, and the great window above your desk rattles like a drawer of cutlery. After a moment’s silence, the mouse rattles your window again, this time without your intervention. Wherefore you begin to think it is the door and not the mouse.
A third knock gets you out of your desk chair, though you needn’t have bothered; with an evil, splitting crack the door swings open.
On the other side, arm politely raised, face drawn back guiltily, stands a ghost. “Oh gosh. So sorry.”
“Who are you?” you ask, who can always be counted upon to ask such things.
“Gosh!” cries the ghost. “Do you not recognize me?”
And now you marvel. “Mr. Parkes? My old tutor, is it really you?”
“Yes, child; yet I come with wicked tidings.” Mr. Parkes floats a quarter of a centimeter off the ground, cradling a heap of books in one arm. His hair—such glorious hair as only the dead may grow—rises in strands above his head, borne up as by the final few bubbles of champagne gone flat.
“You’d better come in, Mr. Parkes,” you say, being a deeply polite and hospitable person (when you are not giving feedback to untalented writers).
“We haven’t much time, child. I’m here to warn you. You’ve drawn their attention. The Ghosts of Grammar.”
Your heart falls, and with a little noise it lands on your pancreas. “Me? What? Why? Listen, I’m not really interested. Tell them to give someone else their attention.”
“Oh no!” cries Mr. Parkes. “I dursn’t tell them anything, lest I use a hyphen where an em dash ought to go. Or is it an hyphen? Oh no.”
“It’s a hyphen,” you say, and your opinion of yourself is embiggened accordingly.
“Oh, I hope so. As long as it isn’t both. I simply couldn’t bear it if it were both.” He shifts the great stack of books from one hand to the other. “I must away, and quickly. The first of them shall soon be here—”
“Will,” you say. “The first of them will soon be here.”
“Oh gosh!” He looks over his shoulder. “You’re right. I will leave by your window, I think—”
“Shall,” you say, feeling by now quite able to handle whatever these Ghosts of Grammar throw at you. “You shall leave by my window, you think.”
“So glad you understand,” he says, drifting thither, yet at the windowsill he pauses. “Poor souls,” he mutters, looking out.
And then you see them: hundreds of ghosts passing to and fro across the wintry sky. None flies unhindered: all are laden with books thick and dusty; and if no book is borne in the hand then it is chained to the ankle, to dig deep furrows in the earth underneath.
“Afterwards, you know,” says Mr. Parkes. “Afterwards we must carry all the knowledge we professed to have, and didn’t.”
Without looking back he turns in such a way as to squeeze between the window and the jamb. That’s when you see the chain around his ankle, and then with horror the bookcase at the end of it.
* * *
Enchanted as you are by the scene outside, you have a broken door frame to attend to—and let it never be said that you were in range of a broken door frame and did not fix it. Yet you are astonished to find it is fixed already. Testing the lubrication of its hinges is the oldest man you’ve ever had to look at. Atop his head are three hairs only: the rest have found better lodgings in his ears and nostrils. His hands, brown with liver spots, shake and tremor; and his back is bent beneath the slow-falling whip of osteoporosis.
“It is as it was,” says he in a voice high and fluffy. He turns to look on you, and to get his eyebrows out the way he adopts an expression of weary surprise.
“Thanks,” you say, being exceedingly well-mannered. “Though I never caught your name.”
“Catched, I think you mean,” says the old man.
“I beg your pardon?”
He raises his voice and speaks very slowly. “You never catched my name. Properly it is catched. Caught came about by false analogy with taught. Funny little idea, I deem; catch and teach don’t even share a vowel.”
You feel something very small and very slimy slip off your pancreas. “You are a Ghost of Grammar.”
“I daresay that is for me to decide.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Let me see,” he mutters, and with trembling hands he searches his dusty waistcoat for a pair of spectacles and an ancient scrap of paper. “Ah! yes.” The paper crumbles to dust. “Come along now, little one. I will explain on the way.”
“Shall,” you say weakly. “You shall explain on the way.”
“No time for jokes, little one,” he says, hobbling over to your desk. “If we’re not quick we’ll miss it.”
He climbs the air to the windowsill, and with labored breath he says: “If you had waited but a few moments, you’d have spared yourself the trouble of asking.”
You are given no reason to follow save your own curiosity, which is always very slight, as befits one who knows as much about everything as you do. Yet near to the window is the wretched slush pile; and with that as the alternative, flying alongside a ghost through your office window seems positively supernatural.
Clambering gracefully on to your desk, you are drawn through the glass by the Ghost’s gentle hand. As you soar into the swirling mists outside, you’re put in mind of an airplane traveler breaking through a roof of cloud.
“All right, Grandpa,” you say endearingly, “what’s afoot?”
“I’ll tell you,” he calls over buffeting winds. “You read a story recently.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“You said colons and semicolons were used randomly and incorrectly throughout.”
Something small and wet reasserts itself atop your pancreas. It seems the Ghosts have identified you as grammatical paragon. Naturally, you are being recruited to act as their worldly agent.
“But hush now, little one: we are arrived.”
You wheel towards a warm little window, and through it without slowing. There a richly furnished room awaits, hung with thick curtains and lighted by a lamp’s oily fire. The tossing winds die immediately, and you and your guide are plonked rudely on the floor.
“Where are we?”
“Fifteenth century England.”
“Ah yes,” you say in a flat voice, for it would not do for someone of your distinction to ever be impressed with anything. “I can tell by the architecture.”
Fast beside you lies a desk, and hard by that reclines a man. Suddenly he mumbles: “And reduced it into Englysshe!” and chuckles to himself.
The Ghost stands beside him. “William Caxton introduced the printing press to England, and froze punctuation forever. This will be a worthy starting point, I deem.”
“The education of the ignorant.”
A warm feeling scatters through you.
“Come, look on his grammar. He is writing his preface to Le Morte Darthur.”
“He won’t mind?”
“He would not even if he were aware of us.”
Peering over Caxton’s shoulder you’re dismayed to find it’s written in another language.
“What am I looking for?” you ask.
“See if you can find a colon or a semicolon.”
“A co—” You look at the Ghost through squinted eyes. You’re beginning to think you’re about to be taught something. Well, let him try. “I see neither here, Grandpa. There are only slashes. Used randomly and incorrectly throughout.”
“Interesting, interesting,” says the Ghost. “Even the advent of print could not halt punctuation’s inexorable course. Well, happily I have with me a modern edition!” He produces a book from The Penguin English Library. “A bit more recent, yet published in 1969 and well within my domain.” He flips through it. “Pray, with which instances of the colon and the semicolon did you take umbrage?”
“I couldn’t tell you: the story was so forgettable,” you say, very funnily.
“Of course.” The Ghost reaches again into his waistcoat, and this time pulls out a bound manuscript. “Perhaps you will remember it if you see it.”
A moment’s hesitation seizes you—you’re not sure why. Then you snatch the papers from his hand. But straightaway you feel your bile rising: the prose is even worse than you remembered. “Here! On the very first page she has used a coordinating conjunction after a semicolon: semicolon, but. You can’t do that.”
You falter. Not because you don’t know why not, but because you don’t know how to put it so this idiot will understand. “It simply isn’t done.”
“It was done, in Le Morte Darthur,” says the Ghost, holding up a passage for you to read:
So then the kings and queens, princes and earls, barons and many bold knights, went unto meat; and well may ye wit there were all manner of meat plenteously, all manner revels and games, with all manner of minstrelsy that was used in those days.
Quoth the Ghost: “I would deign to say that the semicolon is used here to outrank the commas, so to speak; this is often done to suggest a break greater than that indicated by any extant commas, and lesser than that of a full stop. A very useful and beautiful function, I deem.”
“Yes, yes,” you mutter, turning back to the manuscript. Of course you knew that already. “Here! Page seven, a semicolon in a sentence without any commas.”
The Ghost follows your finger. “Erm. That is the common usage: to link together two related clauses.”
“Yes, yes,” you mutter, turning back to the manuscript.
“Perhaps you can find a colon to object to?” suggests the Ghost annoyingly. “While you look, I daresay it’s time for a change of scenery. Would you kindly step through the window?”
The winds thrash around you, rifling curtly through the manuscript. Not until your feet are once more on the ground do you raise your eyes. A bright room greets you, and a great window overlooking lawns that stretch on forever.
“Where are we now?”
Already the Ghost is standing beside a chubby man with an extravagant wig. “Eighteenth century Ireland, Jonathan Swift’s quarters.” He straightens. “Have you found the offending colon?”
“Of course.” You thrust the manuscript in his face. “Here, on the first page: a sentence with a bunch of clauses, and a colon thrown into the midst of them.”
“Ah yes,” says the Ghost gravely. “Swift is committing the same abomination even as we speak.”
You sigh. Beneath Swift’s pen in setting ink is written:
There were two Pockets which we could not enter: These he called his Fobs; they were two large Slits cut into the Top of his middle Cover, but squeezed close by the Pressure of his Belly.
“Oh dear,” remarks the Ghost. “I forgot they used to capitalize after a colon in these days. This may prove too confusing for you.”
“It won’t!” you say, very valiantly.
“Well, here the colon accomplishes several functions: first, it introduces some further explanation of the clause preceding it; and second, it enriches the hierarchy already mentioned, outranking the semicolon, and thus marking a greater gap than the semicolon but a lesser than the full stop.”
“Yes, yes,” you mutter, turning back to the manuscript. “Although I don’t put much stock in the usage of dead white males.”
“Another change of scenery, then?”
You’re nudged out through Swift’s window and into a glum sitting room, whose own window is lashed with rain. Within sit three women, all of them reading.
The Ghost claps his hands together. “We have found all of them at once! The dead white Brontës!” He shambles over to a book. “Jane Eyre!” he cries, and hurls it towards you.
I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.
He seizes another book. “Wuthering Heights!”
In play, she liked, exceedingly, to act the little mistress; using her hands freely, and commanding her companions: she did so to me, but I would not bear slapping, and ordering; and so I let her know.
“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall!”
We had not met since the evening of the tea party; but there was no visible emotion either of pleasure or pain, no attempt at pathos, no display of injured pride: she was cool in temper, civil in demeanor.
You emulate the coolness of the character described in the last passage.
“Need we visit Austen now?” asks the Ghost. “Or Hardy? Or Woolf? Or Faulkner? In the 1800s a duel was fought in Paris between two jurisconsults who could not decide whether to use a colon or a semicolon. That might be fun to watch!”
“Listen here, Grandpa,” you say, having reached the end of your boundless patience. “I said that random and incorrect usage of colons and semicolons made the story hard to read. And that same criticism may be levelled at the ancient passages with which you’ve assaulted me.”
“Is that so, little one?” says he. “Then why don’t you take the colons and the semicolons out? See if that makes them easier to read.”
This is not a very good point, though you can’t say why. Luckily, you know a clever trick for turning an opponent upon themself. “This sounds like a fallacy to me,” you say. You don’t know the names of any fallacies, of course; you have always been too busy doing very important things to learn them. But opponents are ever willing to demonstrate their own learning, even to their disadvantage.
“A genetic fallacy, you mean?” asks the Ghost.
“In language, a genetic fallacy is one that values diachronic meaning over synchronic meaning.”
You say nothing.
“What I mean is, to interpret something through its historical context rather than its present context is to commit a genetic fallacy.”
“Yes exactly!” You’ve got him now. “Just because these punctuation marks had this usage once, doesn’t mean they do any longer! Language changes, Grandpa.”
The Ghost lowers his brow. “Hmm. You will have to ask my colleagues about all that. Yet I wonder; even if you are right, which at this point I think is very unlikely, then cannot a writer who wishes to evoke the past adopt an older usage?”
You let out a sigh such as has never been let out before in the history of the human race.
“Come on, little one,” says the Ghost, lifting his brow again. “Let’s get you home.”
You scarcely feel the winds as they buffet you, as you leave the Brontë parlor for your office. The Ghost does not follow; and standing alone atop your desk, you wonder at the sad feeling inside you, till at last you realize your pancreas has been unbonneted once more.
* * *
Still clutched in your hand is the bound manuscript. Before you can stop yourself, you read a line, and retch. With a powerful groan you sling it to the ground, and in reply the ground begins rhythmically to thump. It’s several moments before you see that the thumper is a woman, wearing chic daywear and jogging on the very spot stricken by the manuscript.
“Hello, dumb-dumb,” she says.
“Oh no. Who are you?”
She plants both feet on the ground and thrusts out her hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m the Ghost of Grammar Pre—”
Her legs are yanked out from under her and she is dragged outside your office by an unseen force.
“Thank goodness for that,” you mutter, and climb from your desk. You look almost with gratitude upon the slush pile, until behind you the thumping returns.
“Sorry!” she says, dressed now in fashionable sportswear. “I was about to say present, you know; but the present’s, like, a moving target: pretty much impossible to keep up with. Let’s say I’m the Ghost of Grammar Recent Past and Near Future.” She reaches out a hand again. “Come on then!”
You stare at the hand. “I hope you’re not going to try and convince me I don’t know how to use colons and semicolons. An old man just did, and he failed very humiliatingly.”
“I’m afraid so, dumb-dumb.”
“He used a fallacy.”
“What sort of fallacy?”
“Ha!” you say. “That hardly needs explaining.”
“What, an appeal to authority?”
You nod sagely.
“How many dead writers did you visit?”
“Five,” you say, shuddering. “But he threatened more.”
“I think you’d have a case if he just appealed to one authority. But appealing to a bunch, I don’t know. I thought they called that research.” The Ghost brushes away a strand of hair dislodged by the jogging. “Maybe the word’s changed again. So hard to keep up with it all.”
“Yes, well,” you say, crossing your arms. “I just think it’s awfully sad that you’ve gone to all this effort to tell me this. I mean, it’s just pathetic. Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”
The Ghost rolls her eyes. “It’s sport, dumb-dumb. We like doing it. If it’s pathetic to have as much fun as we’re about to, then Pathos is my name.”
“All right, fine. What do I do?”
“Here, take my hand. Good. Now, run!”
The Ghost’s casual dogtrot explodes into rapid high knees, and you follow suit. Like the turning of a kaleidoscope the scene shifts before you: your office moves aside to reveal a messy bedroom behind it. The bed is unmade; clothes are strewn across the floor; and the blind is drawn as if in secret shame, to spare passers-by the grisly sight of a teenager’s bedroom.
Sitting at a desk with his laptop open is a boy in the mires of adolescence.
“Tom?” you remark, drawing near. “Why, it’s Tiny Tom, the boy I used to tutor.” You look to the Ghost. “He was the last of my tutees, and my favorite: of all the school children I tutored, he alone enjoyed The Great Gatsby.” You look back to the boy. “But what’s the matter with him? Why does he cry?”
Still jogging, her sportswear slightly updated, the Ghost says: “Poor Tom suffers from crippling indecision.”
It is only then you see the white field of open books upon his desk, and the twenty-seven tabs crowding the top of his internet browser.
“Poor Tom just wants to join his friends on Twitter, to express himself with a tweet,” says the Ghost. “But he can’t decide how to punctuate it.”
A little fire kindles in your throat. “That’s absurd.” You kneel beside him. “What does he want to say?”
There, on a creased scrap of paper stained with tears, are various renderings of the same utterance:
I love books: they make me happy.
I love books; they make me happy.
I love books. They make me happy.
“The last!” you say, rising to your feet. “He must go with the last. The full stop. It’s the safest.”
“Yeah, it’s safe,” says the Ghost. “But is it what he wants to say? The second clause would feel like an afterthought. The full stop is too big a gap.”
“The second, then! The second.”
The Ghost’s thumping severs her sigh into a series of sighs. “The semicolon would be grammatical, but it doesn’t convey what he feels in his deep heart’s core: the ruminative pause between one clause and the other, the sweet breath one takes while writing lyrics to the hidden music of the universe.”
You take up a style guide from his desk. “One of these must bear the answer.”
“You bet,” says the Ghost. “Not all agree, but there’s plenty to support his usage.”
“Yes! Here! John Seely says a colon may be used to ‘separate two parts of a sentence where the first leads on to the second’!”
You cast the book aside and tear open another.
“Steven Pinker says to use a colon ‘when one is tempted to say that is, in other words, which is to say, for example, here’s what I have in mind, or Voilà!’!”
Throwing the book over your shoulder you check the web page he has open.
“Even here! The Oxford English Dictionary says the colon indicates ‘a discontinuity of grammatical construction greater than that marked by the semicolon, but less than that marked by the period.’”
You whirl around to face the Ghost. “All of this authenticates his usage! What’s the problem?”
“When he was younger,” she says, “a person he looked up to corrected his colon usage in ignorance; but he admired this person so much that he’s never had the courage to use a colon publicly again, no matter how much evidence he finds to support him.”
“What? I would never correct someone’s usage in ignorance!”
The Ghost raises an eyebrow. “What about the feedback you gave at the beginning of this adventure?”
After chewing your bottom lip you say: “That was regarding colons used before direct speech.”
“Condoned by John Seely; sort of condoned by Strunk and White; condoned very much by The Lord of the Rings, voted Britain’s best novel of all time—”
“Fine!” you yell. “Fine. I can’t believe you would manufacture rhetoric from this poor boy’s sorrow.” Guiltily you look on Tiny Tom, who has opened Twitter to watch the cursor bar blink. “I’ve had enough, Spirit. Take me home.”
“One more stop, dumb-dumb.” She grabs your hand. “Start running.”
With shaking breath you wrench your knees high above your waist, the swifter to be free of Tiny Tom’s tiny sobs. The kaleidoscope turns, and into your view steps a great chamber of pearly walls, mustard curtains, and many flags. An unassuming desk rises beneath your feet. From your vantage you cannot see the face of the man whose desk it is, but his hair is spun from the spinneret glands of a golden spider. He is slapping his thumbs against the screen of his phone and chuckling throatily to himself.
“Are we where I think we are?” you ask.
“To see,” quoth the Ghost, “that when you police expression lightly, you empower those who don’t care, and enfeeble those who do.”
The desk suffers regular jolts from the thudding of her feet. You look out the window, where a weak wind is stirring, and without another word you spurn the desk as well. The kaleidoscope turns a final time, and behind the oval office awaits your own rhomboid one.
* * *
You rub the heels of your hands against your eyes. Can it not be over now? What if you repent? Will that spare you the final Ghost? You wake up your computer and begin an email to the story’s writer.
But then you spot the manuscript where you left it on the floor. For half a breath you hesitate. And then you dive to the ground. Tearing through page after page you whisper: “There must be a colon or semicolon here that is uncontroversially incorrect!”
Two black boots strike the floor right at your nose. “Even if there were,” rasps a dreadful voice, “you said they were incorrect throughout.”
Craning your neck you see a hard woman in military uniform. From her mouth hangs a tobacco pipe with an enormous bowl, and about her head floats a cloud of smoke.
You pound the manuscript with a fist, whereat the Ghost laughs, or coughs, and offers you her hand. “Where are we going this time?” you ask, on your feet once more.
“Here will do.” She sits in your chair and sets her heavy boots on your desk. “Take a seat. Time’s on its way.”
You claim the spare chair as the Ghost empties ashes on to your floor. She takes a tobacco pouch from her breast pocket and exchanges its contents for those of the pipe.
Meanwhile with the jittery motion of a time lapse, your office ceiling bounds upward and your walls outward. Some distance away rises a desk mighty, long, and curved. Two dozen seats spring up behind it, all pointed at the middle of the hall, where sits a great pile of books. Your little work desk is still here, though it has taken on a spectral quality and seems less here than all the other things.
“What’s happened?” you ask. “Where is this place?”
The Ghost draws the flame of a match through her pipe bowl. “Your magazine.” She grunts. “Calls itself an academy nowadays.”
The tall desk is beshadowed. Of the people seated there you can see only vague expressions, all pinched with grave responsibility. You seek for your own face among them but cannot find it in the dark.
From amidst these shady figures comes a cold, drawling voice. “Send in the next lay reader.”
The heavy clunk of two doors opening throws your attention to the hall’s far end. In scurries a little woman like a rabbit. She looks sorrowfully on the pile of books as she passes it, but she doesn’t slow till she stands before the bench.
“Your name,” speaks the voice.
The little woman takes her hat into her hands. “Helen, milord.”
“Fine, fine. And what are you here to defend?”
“The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu.”
“Fine. Let’s see here.” There is the sound of pages turning. “Ah yes. The work was pulled for its filter words.”
“But, milord,” she says, twisting and stretching her hat. “Milord, there really aren’t so many as all that.”
“Oh, please. According to our records the word realize occurs twenty-seven times. And you don’t want to know how often think occurs.” A gavel strikes its block. “Denied!”
“Milord!” squeaks the little woman. “The filter words focalize the action!”
“Indeed. They also cripple the imagery, dilute the literary tension, generate repetitive sentence structure…” The gavel strikes once more. “Denied! Get out of here.”
The little woman pulls the hat low over her eyes. She departs sniffling.
“Next lay reader.”
They stream through the hall’s grand double doors. One argues for Forster’s Maurice, which has been shorn of all its sentences that told rather than showed; another argues for Anna Karenina, exorcised of its love triangle cliché; another argues for A Christmas Carol, the colons of which were random and incorrect.
“This is absurd, Spirit,” you whisper. “How could something like this happen?”
“How could the ignorant come into power?”
“Oh, please. Stop pretending power is a swear word. And stop saying I have any!”
“To us Ghosts it seems that to change past works in the future for silly reasons is not much different to changing future works in the present for silly reasons.”
You’re given a few moments to process. “Are you saying there ought to be no criticism at all?”
“I’m showing you what’s to come, not what ought to be,” says the Ghost. “But no, criticism’s too much fun to be gotten rid of. Especially if it’s done by someone with influence, and in ignorance.”
The double doors slam open. In walks a lay reader who, were it not for the fists he made of his hands and the scowl he made of his face, might be perfectly at ease.
“Name?” speaks the drawling voice.
“And what are you here to defend?”
“The Great Gatsby.”
Murmurs break along the bench.
“Quiet!” A smile creeps into the voice. “This your favorite novel?”
“I can no longer say for sure what my favorite book is, so long have I tried to like the books I should like, or to like the books I do for the reasons others tell me.”
It’s then that you very nearly fall from your chair. “Tom! I used to tutor that boy. When he was a boy, I mean. It’s Tiny Tom!”
Your voice goes unheard, yet your cry is echoed by a member of the academy. One of the shady figures has stood to look down with horror on the lay reader. It’s you. You’ve aged. But it’s you.
“You know this reader, Councilor Colon?” asks the voice.
“I do,” says the councilor.
The voice laughs drawlingly. “That is regrettable. Take your seat, councilor. You, reader. Do you wish to contest every change made to The Great Gatsby?”
Tom shakes his head. “Just one.”
“Which?” asks the voice.
“The ending. It’s been changed to:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, which bore the boats back into the past.”
Your gag reflex is engaged. What have they done to it?
Says a member of the academy: “An inoffensive line.”
Tom’s knuckles whiten. “The original final clause—‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’—is more elegant to my ears. And it accepts ‘we’ and ‘boats’ as its subject, binding fast the metaphor. And ‘we’ remains the focal point, rather than ‘the current’.”
Yet his arguments are drowned beneath a wave of objections. “An adverb!” “By Jove!” “How dare he in this hallowed place utter the suffix -ly?”
“Quiet, quiet,” speaks the drawling voice. “The adverb had to go, reader.”
“I don’t dispute the adverb. I only mean—”
“And as to the rest: the clause you purport to prefer is in the passive voice. The relative pronoun and the auxiliary verb are ellipted, true, yet the past participle of the verb in the final clause is the smoking gun.” The gavel falls. “Denied.”
“Sir!” cries Tom. “The word borne is here an adjective! Not a verb.”
Silence descends from on high over all the court.
“Guards, remove this man,” commands the voice.
Figures in uniform emerge from nowhere.
“Unless,” drawls the voice. “Councilor Colon? Will you intervene?”
You look up into your aged face and you see the turmoil within. What would it say about your past assertions if you admitted here that the lay reader was right and the expert wrong?
Tiny Tom hangs in the steely grip of the guards, eyes fallen to his feet. Your heart, wherever it has fallen to, is rent in twain.
“Yes,” you say, rising from your chair. “I will intervene.” You stand between the bench and Tiny Tom. “He is right! Borne is here an adjective!” Your words are mighty and resonant in the hollow hall. “And even if it is not, and the sentence is in the passive voice, it is a beautiful sentence!” You thrust a finger at the bench. “This is guidance become law! Just as L’Académie française cannot halt linguistic innovation, neither shall you strain literature through your false ideas!”
Out of breath, you stare up at the dark faces. But none have taken heed of you. Your future self mutters a muted “No,” and hides once more in the dark behind the bench.
“Very good,” speaks the drawling voice. “Set fire to the books.”
Behind you Tiny Tom is dragged away past soldiers wielding flamethrowers.
“Spirit!” you call. “Assure me that these shadows may be changed!”
But the Ghost takes as much heed of you as the academy did. She is intent upon her pipe. The entire hall thickens with smoke.
You turn round just as Tiny Tom is about to disappear from sight. “Tom!” You wade ahead through the growing smog. A fire starts in the middle of the hall. “Tom, I was wrong about the colons, the semicolons, all of it!”
You’ve lost sight of him now, but the haze is clearing.
“I spoke in ignorance, Tom! I spoke thoughtlessly! Tom, I’m sorry!”
Yet you’re yelling in your office, and no one is there to hear you.
* * *
It’s done. The Ghosts of Grammar are gone. Tiny Tom is safe.
You collapse into your office chair and set your hand against your eyes. Yet ere they can weep, your eyes alight upon the slush pile. You peel away the topmost story; and then your eyes do weep, for the first line is without a doubt the most beautiful you have ever seen. That is, until you read the second, which is beautifuller still. And then the third usurps both in your esteem. You count three colons and five semicolons, and a shiver runs between your shoulder blades, and the flesh around your spine goes soft as tallow wax.
You set the story aside and take up another. It is better even than the first. You feel your heart make the long climb from the bottom of your feet to the top of your pancreas. You never dreamed that anything could give you so much happiness.
A knock at the door plucks you from the story. It is the big, bald man from this morning. He heaps into your arms a stack of papers: more slush for the pile.
“Oh! Gramercy,” you say, and dropping the manuscripts you embrace the intern or the postman or whatever he is.
He is blushing when you detach yourself.
“It means ‘thank-you’, and it takes a straight course to my lips from the very middle of my heart. Gramercy, sir!”
You sweep past him, over the stack of papers, and into the hallway. “Gramercy, Mr. Parkes, my old tutor,” you say aloud. “Gramercy, Tiny Tom, whom I shall visit soon. Gramercy, Ghosts of Grammar!”
You arrive at the office of the submissions manager.
“I beg your pardon, esteemed co-worker,” you say, “but I must retract some ill-given feedback I emailed you erewhile. I was wrong, you see. Wondrously wrong. I know nothing about punctuation, as it happens. Less than nothing, it may be. And I should look not a little bit foolish if the writer should come into that feedback. Which, as I say, is very wrong.”
“The one about the colons and the semicolons?” asks the submissions manager. “Sorry: I’ve already sent it.”
“Oh well,” you say. “I suppose nothing will come of it.”
Something very cold and very slimy tumbles off your pancreas.
Mario lives in Australia, where he tutors linguistics at the University of Adelaide.
The above story was inspired by a reader of unsolicited manuscripts who, deep down, probably knows an awful lot about grammar.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Gramercy”:
Aside from its appropriateness for this time of year, we appreciated the many-faceted aspects of author Mario Pilla’s well-composed and humorous piece. We liked he incorporated pieces of classic literature to illustrate the variability and changing face of a language’s grammar. And how many of you noted that it’s written in second person?
There are many lessons for writers (and editors) in here, and he comments on one of our favorite points: Never edit the original to match current and changed conventions of the language.
(Editor’s note: Because the original French spelling of the book title Le Morte Darthur did not have an apostrophe (D’Arthur), and since author Mario Pilla rendered it that way in his submitted manuscript, we felt it appropriate to leave it as written to maintain the voice and spirit of his story.)