John McIntyre, a truly old-school copy editor (the man wears a bow tie, for God’s sake), has a delightful hard-boiled detective story celebrating National Grammar Day, Pulp Diction. To whet your appetite, here’s a bit from Chapter 2, “The last copy editor”:

At the old Sun building on Calvert Street the front door yielded with a rusty creak. Dust lay thick on the guard’s desk, and small birds flew through broken windows. Bundled stacks of the last print edition displayed the headline: SEE US ON THE WEB.

Windows were out on the second floor, too, and scurrying and skittering sounds preceded me as I rounded the corner into the main room. Row on row of cubicles stretched out, each with a computer terminal like a headstone, each with a sad little collection of photos, figurines, long-dead plants. It was like walking the deck of the Mary Celeste.

On a bulletin board near the old copy desk, dangling from a single push pin, a yellowed memo listed a set of banned holiday cliches. The office next to the bulletin board was empty except for a Webster’s New World College Dictionary missing its cover.
A quavering voice asked, “Who’s there?”

A stooped figure, brandishing a red stapler, rose from one of the copy desk work stations where he had been dozing on an improvised pallet of final-edition bundles. His hair was white, his beard untrimmed, his gaze wary. He wore a green eyeshade, and I recognized my quarry: the last copy editor.

He spends his time “writing in a small, crabbed hand” in a beat-up copy of the Associated Press Stylebook, “fixing all the stuff those arrogant fools got wrong for years.” It’s a terrifying glimpse at what I might have become if I hadn’t been rescued by the love of a good woman.


  1. 🙂 Here’s to good women and love!

  2. ignoramus says

    Evolution, devolution,convolution and no solution.

  3. Is a bow tie a copy editor thing? How about a green visor?

  4. Oh, sod it. I wrote that before I read the piece.

  5. …and metal armbands (what are they really called, those springy things?) on his shirtsleeves.
    Wonderful, I must read it, if just for the crack at the AP stylebook.

  6. …at the AP stylebook, which I am never conscious of having read in 18 years at the AP. As I recall, we never even had a copy on the newsdesk, and never missed it.

  7. You amaze me! What on earth is it for, then?

  8. J. Del Col says

    Those metal ‘springy things’ are sleeve garters.
    They were also made of elastic ribbon. Their purpose was to keep one’s shirt cuffs and sleeves out of the ink by holding the sleeves at a preferred length.

  9. LH: I suppose the Style book is/was much used by the editors in NY and other hub bureaus, and by rookies around the country, but anyone abroad had a fair bit of experience and presumably had absorbed the vast majority of the edicts by osmosis.
    We always had a set of clipboards on the desk, one of which would have kept the latest individual style edicts which would have come as all-points messages. But we certainly didn’t have the book itself. Maybe it was under lock and key in the bureau chief’s office, as per Pulp Diction.
    I had already worked for UPI for many years before I joined AP and there wouldn’t have been much difference in style.
    Probably if I had a style query, I’d simply address the room and ask: “How do we write XXX?” and expect and get an answer from someone in the office. If it was wrong, the NY desk would correct it – using the style book, of course….

  10. marie-lucie says

    In even older times, people writing with pen and ink wore a kind of half-sleeve (une manchette in French – I am not sure of the translation) on each arm from the wrist to the elbow, in order to protect their actual sleeves. I remember wearing some myself as a small child, but probably only at home. In school we wore long-sleeved smocks (?), changing into different ones at home, and later lab coats (this was before washing machines became common in France).

  11. This week, on television, I saw part of a program on traditional working practices in some Asian country (Japan, China, Korea ?). A man in a kind of superior smock was wearing blue manchettes with a black stretch band at each end. He showed how they were taken off and put on. He explained that they allowed him to work in the fields and then come home to dinner without having to change clothes. He only had to remove the manchettes.

  12. The “stooped figure, brandishing a red stapler“, must be a nod to the geek cult classic film Office Space and the Milton Waddams character (“a meek, fixated collator“). “Milton had actually been laid off years earlier; nobody told him, and he continued to come in to work and get paid due to a system glitch.”

  13. at the AP stylebook, which I am never conscious of having read in 18 years at the AP
    I got a good laugh from this… I’ve written for several clients who said they wanted me to follow AP guidelines. But nobody ever cared that I didn’t have the book. Or that I didn’t know the actual guidelines. One editor just told me to fake it and another seemed to want me to leave something for the proofreader to do.

  14. Pray tell us, LH, what exactly did the love of a good woman save you from? Sartorial inelegance? The stoop? The untrimmed beard? The green eyeshade? The crabbed hand? The obsession with trivialities?

  15. The whole catastrophe.

  16. Hopefully not the obsession with so-called “trivialities”, which are after all what makes life worth living for us OCs.

  17. True, true.

  18. Too funny Bathrobe, and I’m flashing on the beard in Hat’s metafilter profile, but of course “saved by the love of a good woman” is the perfect genre cliche, and only adds another gooey layer to the legend of Hat and Misses Hat. The triteness is so heartwarming, it’s almost enough to inspire me to go hang out at Grand Central Station in the hope that I too might meet someone who can spell that I can rescue from a life without proper bookshelves.

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