It’s only a matter of time before the Oxford English Dictionary heaves a giant sigh of suffering and accepts the word into its hallowed pages of English correctness, but this entire week has been one huge “meh”.
I wouldn’t even have minded if I’d had an extremely full week; indeed, I’d been planning for it, and getting stuff done is always sort of exciting (ok shut up you know it is). But after the programming assignment got postponed – again, because what idiot posts an FAQ three days before the thing is due? – and I had a very interesting visit to the clinic, all I can think of is sleeping a lot.
When I started this blog, it was with the resolution that nothing in it would be very personal. Intellectually personal, yes, but not emotionally so. But a badly mangled assignment, and the sleeplessness that came with it, and some bad news earlier on in the week, made yesterday far less bearable than others. So I’m trying a little writing catharsis. It’s one of those times where you think anything in the world, even failing spectacularly, is better than fumbling along in a mediocre fashion. It’s not making me feel fantastic about myself and I’m not sure at all that I deserve to have fun this weekend.
Unfortunately, my way of resolving this is (since it’s Thursday night and we all know what day Friday is!) to edit the living daylights out of some upcoming articles. It’s like purging, really – ridding the world of comma criminals! – but I’m afraid I’m going to lose it any second now and start writing pointed, nasty comments at the end of the article.
When we got the call, it was already one in the morning, and all Sam and I could think of was going back to our respective empty apartments and sleeping until three. The night duty officer took one look at our faces and transferred the complaint back downstairs, where some poor cadet could take a crack at it.
I sank back in my chair as Sam rattled around the room making hot chocolate, and made the mistake of looking up at the blank white ceiling of the office. A swarm of words threatened to obscure my vision, and I groaned and put my head in my hands.
“Here,” said Sam brusquely, plunking a mug down in front of me and handling me a pair of chunky visualizers. After spending five hours tracing through fifteen volumes of the Encyclopedia, the word blitz could be unbelievable. I drank my hot chocolate while staring blankly at an African savanna; the sound was getting worse every day, and I finally took off the contraption.
And then I nearly dropped my mug when the phone rang off the hook.
Sam poked his head out of the door. “We’re done, Arthur!” he roared in the direction of the duty officer.
“They want a comma crack team!” Arthur yelled back. I gave Sam a black look and picked up the receiver.
Two minutes later, we were re-shouldering the holo-lexicons and running out the door.
Language, as one of the greatest lexicographers put it, is sacred. Its rules are not immutable, it is true, but they are always in the service of clarity. Which was why, descending from philosophy to pragmatism, contextual grammar checkers, or CGCs, cost thousands of dollars. And which was why, when they began to run amok, CGCs were the most dangerous things in the world of language.
The University’s Department of Rhetoric employed one of the biggest CGCs around, a beast of a computer that took up an entire room of the mammoth building and hummed quietly through the year, day in and day out. It was one of the finest pieces of technology the University owned – so it was with considerable urgency that the Dean of Rhetoric had called a squad in to investigate a malfunctioning CGC.
It was a gruesome scene, after a fashion. When Sam and I arrived, breathlessly tumbling out of a squad hovercraft, Dr. Ffothering-Smith was sitting in a table with his skull cradled in his palms*. Standing grimly in front of him was Dean Smelt, gingerly flipped through a one inch-high stack of papers. The more pages he turned, the more his face – curdled, I suppose, would be the right word. By the time we ran over to his side, he was ashen.
I snapped on a pair of gloves while Sam cordoned off the area, and picked up the first sheet of paper. “On the Appropriateness, of Neurologically Induced Linguistic Correction” read the title, a timestamp below it proclaiming that “This paper has been checked for contextual grammatical accuracy by UDeptRhet CGC Module A”.
Then I read the title again, bile rising in my throat.
I heard Sam only vaguely in the background, my eyes scanning the page in front of me. Though, previous results of the neural scans revealed, a diminishing…
“And you’ve got a maintenance team that takes the system offline, Module by Module, once every month. Correct?” said Sam.
Smelt was speaking. “… clean her out religiously, officer. Access is restricted to a handful of Linguisticians and L-mechanics. And myself, of course.”
Several subjects, drawn from a previous study were seated in a room of…
“And there were no anomalies in the work being produced two hours earlier?” Sam again.
“Absolutely not. We opened her up to check a small comma-before-and issue…”
… exercise, their right to basic medical treatment. I’d read enough. I slapped the pages down on the table, trying to keep my face from twisting in distaste. “Sam,” I said quietly. “What does this remind you of?”
Sam flipped through the rest of the manuscript, and looked up grimly.
The high security Follett Corrective Facility was a dreary maze of blank-faced officers. As we reached the sub-secondary basement, the lights grew sharper, the smell of disinfectant masking some other evil scent in the air.
Sam sat in the booth, separated from one of the most dangerous men in the city by a three inch-thick pane of projector glass. I would not, in ten million years, admit to being nervous, but I stood stoically behind Sam while I waited for the criminal in chains to shuffle to the window.
“Get a lot of friends, do you?” said Sam. I watched as the words appeared on the glass, the crim’s eyes following every letter and punctuation mark. When he spoke, the little shaft embedded on his shaved head seemed to pulse.
“Look like I have a lot of friends COMMA do I?” he rasped. I nearly flinched at the volume of the corrective device. He must have been acting up lately – this was the solitary area of the facility, to boot.
“You tell me,” Sam shot back. “We went out on call just now, Phil. Saw a bunch of papers. You know what was on them?” He leaned in, and I fought the urge to pull him back. “Comma splices. Misplaced commas. Missing commas. Commas where no other comma’s ever gone before. Made us sick to look at it.”
Phil’s eyes flickered briefly over to me. “Oh COMMA really? Well COMMA I’m sorry for your misfortune. In case you hadn’t noticed COMMA I’m sitting here in this damn corrective facility COMMA hah COMMA not out there splicing your damn commas. Can I get back to bed now COMMA please?”
“Not until you tell us who your protege is,” growled Sam.
And Phil’s eyes grew wider just for a second. I could have sworn it. He was, as we in the Linguistics Force put it, creatively re-interpreting reality. He was lying.
* You get the chocolate of your choice if you tell me how many times Dan Brown uses the phrase “cradled the skull in his palms” in The Lost Symbol.