Hired Gun

  Jerome Shea       February 17, 2007      Weekend Wonk

Were I to sidle up and whisper “grammar teacher” in your shell-like ear, I bet I know what your gut reaction (beyond screaming “PERVERT!”) would be. Grammar teacher. Not just pursed lips but a pursed face and probably a pursed soul. Stunted aspirations and reptilian mien and metabolism. Gleeful tormentor of schoolchildren. I know these things as well as the rest of you because I was once one of those schoolchildren. And now, yes, I am a grammar teacher. Worse, I revel in diagramming, the old Reed/Kellogg system that has been around since the turn of the century. A lost soul, surely, a drudge who deserves his drudgery.

But even grammarians have their day, and this one has a story to tell. Gather round, children.

One day about a year ago I came back from afternoon class to find an email from the department chairman. Could I stop by? He had a job that he thought would interest me. Turns out, a rather high-profile criminal case was getting underway in federal court. The grand jury had done its job and now defense and prosecution were in pre-trial maneuverings. Of the twenty-six indictments that had been handed down, the defense contended that two of them were so poorly worded that the grand jury could not have known just what they were passing judgment on. The judge, in a mood either irritable or mischievous, told both sides to return to court the next week prepared to diagram the offending sentence (the two indictments were syntactically identical, simplifying matters considerably). The defense, as you may have guessed, immediately got hold of the UNM English Department, and the chair got hold of me, whom he graciously described as “our senior grammarian.” I met with the defense and they liked the cut of my participles. The drudge—now an “expert witness”—was about to have his day.

Here, if you were wondering, is the offending indictment, with names and positions deleted because…well, it just seems a good idea:

On or about May 2, 2005, in the state and district of New Mexico, in Bernalillo County, the defendant xxxx did knowingly, willfully, and unlawfully affect and attempt to affect interstate commerce and the movement of articles and commodities in interstate commerce by extortion, in that the defendant xxxx obtained approximately $11,500 in funds not due him, nor due his office, namely, the xxxx, from xxxx, an investment advisor involved in the investment of State of New Mexico funds, with his consent, induced by wrongful use and threat of use of economic harm and under cover of official right, in return for business with the New Mexico xxxx.

The senior grammarian set to work. By the way, syntactically speaking (i.e., sentence structure), this march of legalese is not nearly the monster that it might seem at first blush. It is a complex sentence (i.e., composed of an independent clause and a subordinate, adverbial, clause) with a lot of prepositional hoohaa thrown in as garnish. One reporter said that my diagram resembled a city street map, which seems a fair description. I did one diagram in about an hour, but something was nagging at me. So I did another and saw that it was good. Two pages of good.

Comes the day. I’d like to say, “the courtroom was packed,” and in fact there were a fair number of reporters there because the local press were getting a giggle out of this non-story. Introductory matters droned for a while, and then the dueling diagrams were submitted. The prosecution had produced its own version. In house, as it were. Bad idea. I saw immediately that they had tried to modify a NOMINAL with an ADVERBIAL! With a leer, I hissed to the defense attorney, “They have delivered themselves into our hands!” (I’ve ALWAYS wanted to say that!)

The prosecution was not pleased at the sight of this hired gun, and certainly not pleased when I pointed out the glaring error. As I recall, I pointed it out two or three times and patiently explained, as I would to a backward freshman, why it would not work. At one point I was asked if I realized that the indictment was written in formulaic legal rhetoric, which has a long and honorable tradition. I smiled sweetly and said that my expertise went well beyond grammar. So, was I criticizing this tradition? With boyish charm I averred that I was loath to criticize legal rhetoric in a den of lawyers. The gallery giggled; the prosecutor didn’t. He was getting steamed. But I stood my ground.

You bet your boots I was having fun! The drudge was having his day!

The upshot is that the judge did indeed direct the prosecution to rewrite the offending indictments and resubmit them. The defense lawyer, grinning, slipped a nice check into my vest pocket (now the drudge could afford wine in a bottle instead of a box!). The defense had felt that the prosecution was getting too big for its britches, so I suspect that the stratagem was simply meant to annoy, to throw some tacks in the road. I am always happy to help bring someone down a notch or two if it seems deserved.

It does take a while to get down from a high like that. I remember, a couple of weeks later, my wife referring to a case involving some truly vicious bad guy whose alleged crimes beggared the imagination.

“I wish they was diagrams involved there,” I snarled. “I’d like to get me a piece of that sumbitch!”

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