A coffee mug with the words that read: I am silently correcting your grammar.

Who can say what causes a reader to pause, in one moment, a line or passage she might zoom through at other times? Some sudden notice of the melody of language? Some echo of a forgotten conversation?

For me, last night, it was an amusing line about grammar found tucked on page 86 of “The Grammarians.” Natch, you’re thinking, a book called “The Grammarians” would have many lines about grammar. Yes, but only as they reveal the two main characters: identical twins who grow up with an obsession and uncanny talent for language — including a secret language of their own, that they spoke from the time they emerged from the womb, and maybe even before — and now, as adults, are growing apart.

And natch, wouldn’t a writer and editor be taken with lines about the building blocks of writing? I loved diagramming sentences when I was in school. It was like deciphering a code, or reading a map. (Whether or not you shared that geek love, check out “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog.” If nothing else, it’s fun to say, and an immediate inside joke among people who were taught by nuns.)

But I think my pause last night came from the thought of grammar as governance — a necessary and positive device to maintain social order. I had spent the day — frankly, most of the last two weeks — astonished by many of the arguments made at President Trump’s impeachment trial, and wondering about the future of this experiment that is American democracy. Perhaps a pause to consider the value of good government, and the dangers of its corruption, was inevitable.

Back to the specific sentence. Daphne, one of the twins, is working as a proofreader and copy editor at a weekly newspaper. She approaches the work with missionary zeal — at risk, according to her sister, of becoming a “pedant.” She is talking to Becky, the overburdened fact-checker, who couldn’t care less about grammar. Becky’s responses are non-responsive; she is focused on her failure to quit smoking and other less intellectual goals. Here is Daphne’s side of the conversation, about grammar, but much more. It’s also funny.

 “I love my work. … There is something fair and just in what we do,” she said to Becky one day. “Grammar is good. I mean ethically good. If you think of all these words just staggering around, grammar is their social order, their government.”

“Grammar makes you respect words, every individual word. You make sure it’s in the best place where it feels most comfortable and does its job.”

“Every part of speech is as deserving as every other part of speech.”

“Sometimes, okay, a word needs to be led. Or nudged. Or dragged. Or squeezed a little. To get it to the spot where it belongs.”

 

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