A Thursday night. The boys finally in bed, after the fateful coffee-table-removal incident. 8:07 finds me unloading the dishwasher, having finished looking up “concussion – signs and symptoms” on the web. My cell rings, and I know it is my husband, calling to check in before the last few hours of his work day.
Except it is not. The name that comes up on my phone is the only other person I always answer for. I pick up the phone and skip over the formalities. “I have moved the coffee table onto the balcony.”
“Oh, no!” she says. “What happened?”
“Zachary gets his brother all riled up, then can’t understand why he gets hurt or Benjamin bites him. If that table is going to keep attacking Zach, it will need to stay outside.” She laughs. “What’s up?” I ask.
“I know it’s probably a bad time. I know you’re probably putting the boys to bed.”
“Nope. Boys are in bed, and Zach is already asleep, now that I have determined he has no signs of a concussion.”
“Oh, then good. Can I ask you a grammatical question?” This, you must understand, is mostly why people call me. I taught high school for three years, college for four. I have three advanced degrees in things like education and English. And I read a lot. Actually, I used to read a lot. Now I wipe poopy bottoms a lot and read on alternate Tuesdays when the moon is full. People seem to trust me when it comes to grammar.
“Sure. In fact, there is nothing I would like better tonight.” That may sound weird, but grammar makes me happy. It is my comfort zone. I know the answers here, and I can assert a certain order on the world that is pretty absent from the rest of life. After a tough day, straightening out someone’s sentences is oddly relaxing.
She is editing a document on U.S. torture methods at certain detention centers that will remain nameless so that this blog does not come up on someone’s search. She wanted to know whether the quotes in which the prisoners quoted the guards needed double and single quotes if there were no actual words of the prisoners included in the quote. In other words, if you are quoting a prisoner quoting a guard, but the guard’s quote is the only one included, do you still need single quotes?
She read me a quote as an example, and, knowing me, she chose one of the milder ones. “I’ll answer your question,” I responded. “But please don’t read me any more quotes from the report.”
As usual, her grammatical instincts were on target, and the single quotes were jettisoned. Unfortunately, someone had been pushing her to use single and double quotes, insisting that she would know this if she were familiar with a style guide. “Well,” I responded, “I am familiar with several style guides, and I can tell you that grammar tries to be streamlined whenever possible.”
We chatted for a few more minutes, talking about a bridal shower she would be attending that weekend, and then we hung up the phone. She returned to her report detailing the ways my government acts in my name to torture detainees. I settled in to peanut butter ice cream and some blog reading to recover from the coffee table catastrophe. No one sends me reports of international importance to edit; no one asks me to monitor elections; nothing I do gets dictatorial regimes to accept aid for their dying populace after a natural disaster. I am the girl who knows about apostrophes and never misuses the semi-colon.
Another day when my total contribution to the planet involved keeping my children alive, some carbon emissions, and the elimination of a couple of quotation marks.