This morning’s Washington Post carries one of those local-news bits that make you wonder why columnists get paid. It’s wry, confident, and breezy in the style that’s dominated feature journalism since Norman Mailer forgot he was a novelist, a style quite naturally embraced by writers whose glasses were frequently snapped by bullies in 5th grade. As so often in matters determined to be of “human interest,” the piece has no discernible news hook. This establishes the writer as a thinker of high order, because who else at the Washington Post has time to address the small corruptions that nibble at the rustproof-undercoat of life as we know it–in this case, the decline of the apostrophe.
The writer, one John Kelly, conveys both sourcing and sophistication with a deft appositive: “when I rang him up the other day.” All together, the clause signals diligence; the verb phrase telegraphs that “him” hails from Britain: the founder of an Apostrophe Protection Society, which might’ve been a hook had it not been organized eight years ago.
Kelly is an editorial dualist. As if to let us know he knows all stories have two sides, he denotatively fakes friendship, yet stakes out connotative distance, by calling his informant, one John Richards, “John.” As is journalistic custom, he not only quotes his own questions but conveys their perspicacity by–in his case alone, not in his sources’–eschewing what John Richards might call inverted commas. So he’s smart. He brooks no bullshit. He’s on our side.
I used to work that scam. But somewhere along the line I got thinking that things matter. Details matter. Intentions matter, but so does execution, so do words. Common courtesy matters, not only in respect for your sources but also, if not especially, in the commonest instruments of communication; and irony is a scalpel (my dermatologist pronounces it “scalPEL”) best kept under lock and key, lest its wee sharp blade graze a Guernica or a Wheatfield With Crows of the heart and rip–for example, in a graphic convention that’s written language’s equivalent of not talking with your mouth full–a wee but unstitchable slit, an insult tiny and potent as an apostrophe.