Persons Unknown (Adventures in Grammar #4)

Raindrops pelted Elysia’s cloche hat and dark curls as she alighted from the cab, luggage in hand. Nightfall was an hour off, but the dreary March weather had felt like twilight all day, and a broken engagement hadn’t helped.

Elysia was supposed to board a late train for her wedding trip tonight, but her would-be husband’s cheating had turned it into a solo holiday. She should have known better than to trust a bootlegger.

The cabbie leaned out, and rain pecked his flat cap. “You sure this is the place, miss?”

“It is.” Elysia held out her fare. “Thank you.”

“Suit yourself.” The cab rolled off with a smoky backfire, leaving Elysia to the company of a few city rats and ne’er-do-wells. She gripped her beaded purse with one hand and the pistol in her coat pocket with the other. A female private eye had to have the confidence of Al Jolson and the stealth of Eliot Ness.

Keeping her gaze straight ahead, she strode through the tobacco-scented alley, up to an unmarked door, and knocked on it. The door cracked open.

A small voice slipped out: “A book whose sale’s forbidden all will rush to see.”

Elysia leaned in. “And prohibition turns one reader into three.”

The door opened, revealing Elysia’s mousy cousin Maisie.

“Thanks for coming right away. We open in an hour. If you can’t solve this robbery, I’m done for.”

Elysia stepped through the blank doorway into the Blind Tiger, one of the finest speakeasies in town and Maisie’s thankless place of employment. Patrons knew the Blind Tiger for its high-quality liquor, but few of them knew Maisie as its woman-of-all-work. Now, as always, the place was spotless, from the sparkling glassware behind the bar to the gleaming wood floors. Elysia set her valise next to a shabby case that had been left on the rack by the door.

Maisie twisted her apron in her hands. “I know you’ve got a train to catch, cousin… I’m sorry about how things ended up with Tommy.”

His name stung, but Elysia waved a dismissive hand. “It’s for the best. And my train doesn’t leave for a while yet.” She perched on a stool, set her purse on the bar, and pulled out a notepad and pencil. She wrote Theft by Persons Unknown at the top. “Just tell me what happened.”

Maisie nodded. “I had just given the floors and the bar a once-over, like always, when two men with guns burst through the door and demanded our latest liquor shipment. They must’ve known our schedule—the bootleggers had just delivered the liquor. We haven’t even paid for it yet.”

“Hmm…” Elysia frowned and jotted a few more notes. Their motive? Their opportunity?

Maisie’s voice shook. “Carl will have my hide. He owes the mob already, and now with this shipment gone…”

“Don’t worry about him.” Elysia added Talk to Carl to her notes. He was the Blind Tiger’s boozy, boorish owner, and he deserved to be robbed for all he had put Maisie through. “What happened next?”

“The short one carried out our crates as the tall one kept his gun on me. He moved so quickly that I thought—”

“Sorry, which one moved quickly?”

“Oh—the short one. I thought he could have been some kind of wrestler or athlete. He hustled back and forth out the door until he’d taken everything. And they were heavy—”

“They?”

“The crates. Heavy as anything. I can’t even push one, let alone lift it. As soon as they left—the men, I mean, not the crates—I rang you up.”

“Who else was here?”

“No one.”

“Are you usually in here alone?”

Maisie looked around. “Yes, I’m here alone from noon until Carl decides to show up with the barkeeps, about twenty minutes before opening. We close at midnight, and I usually make it home by two.”

Maisie’s eyes were already weary. The night, full of sloppy, handsy patrons, hadn’t even started yet. And Carl would lay into her like an absolute beast for the lost liquor.

It was all so unfair. While Elysia’s father had saved and carefully invested in automobiles over the years, his cousin, Maisie’s father, had played ponies by the dozen. With his inheritance squandered but his self-absorption intact, Maisie’s father had sent her to work at the Blind Tiger and kept himself afloat by skimming off her wages.

Elysia slid a thoughtful hand around her lacy collar, along the fine beading of her purse, and over her newly vacated ring finger. Then, she looked over her paper—Their motive? Their opportunity? —and rose from her seat.

Elysia embraced Maisie. “My dear cousin,” she whispered. “I know what happened. And I know why you called me here.”

Maisie stiffened. “You do?”

Letting her go, Elysia nodded. “It was so you could steal my train ticket for tonight, right? After selling off the liquor shipment, you need to skip town before Carl or his creditors catch up?”

Maisie wobbled where she stood, as if her legs might give way under her. “I… How—”

“The floors, to start,” Elysia said gently. “Maisie, you keep this place pristine, and you rang me up not half an hour ago. If two men had just stomped through tonight’s weather, in and out with crates of liquor, there would still be mud and rainwater dripped all over. And if you were alone in the bar all afternoon, you would have had the best opportunity of anyone to undercut Carl and sell off his contraband to, say… a rival club?”

Maisie’s eyes darted around. Elysia stepped forward and gently laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Then, of course, there’s motive, and, well, I think even a nun would be desperate enough to steal to get away from Carl. Who could fault you for that?”

“Cousin, please…”

Elysia shook her head. “All this does leave one question, though: why would you call for me to solve a crime you had committed?”

Elysia pointed to the luggage by the door—her own fine valise and the dingy suitcase that looked forgotten. “Because you’re already packed to leave town. Leaving under someone else’s reserved ticket would keep the mob from tracing you.”

“I didn’t want to steal, especially not from you,” Maisie pleaded, “but you don’t understand—”

“I do.” Elysia picked up her purse. “It’s a good thing I still have Tommy’s train ticket, too. I wasn’t too keen on solo travel, anyway. Shall we?”

Maisie’s eyes spilled over. “What? Really?”

“Yes,” Elysia said firmly. “I’m all for justice, but you’ve put up with far more than your share from Carl and all the scoundrels that crawl in here. Whom are you harming by running? Him? Them? Sounds like justice to me.”

Maisie’s face darkened. She threw her arms around Elysia. “They deserve it. They really do.”

Elysia nodded. “And if anyone’s going to come after you, they’ll have to come after you and me.”

“Thank you,” Maisie whispered.

Elysia untied Maisie’s apron and helped her into her coat and hat. Then, she glanced back at the bar. “Say, is Carl’s bootlegger who I think it is?”

“Sure is,” Maisie said. “That louse Tommy’s going to have bigger problems than a cancelled wedding tonight.”

Elysia laughed. It wasn’t justice, but it was something close. She held the door open for Maisie. “Let’s get out of this town, doll. You and I have a train to catch.”

I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into a Roaring Twenties speakeasy as much as I! This decade provides so many scenic and stylish details that it is very fun to write about, and I’ve been looking forward to writing a mystery-themed post. That brings me to our next grammar topic: clarity in pronouns.

You might ask, what is a pronoun? It is a word that replaces something else.

You might also ask, why do we use them? Here’s why:

The desire to write a mystery-themed post brings the author to the grammar topic presently shared between the author and the readership.

Does that sentence sound more confusing, wordy, and clunky? You bet your gin and tonic! And it’s because it lacks the pronouns of, “That brings me to our next grammar topic.” Each pronoun stands in for another word, phrase, or concept to simplify the sentence.

Used correctly, pronouns allow language to flow more clearly and easily, like a well-made cocktail. However, when you use them incorrectly or ambiguously, they can muddle your meaning worse than an overly minty julep!

Pronouns comprise such a broad and deep topic that they could be the subject of a dozen blog posts. To spare us all, I’ve selected a few, commonly misunderstood topics to review here:

Subjective and objective case confusion, who versus whom, and ambiguity.

First, let’s talk about cases (of pronouns, not private detectives). The subjective case is used to replace subjects: the nouns taking action or direction through verbs. Subjective pronouns include I, you, he, she, they, it, one, and we. Here are a few examples:

  • “If you (Elysia) can’t solve this robbery, I (Maisie) am done for.”
  • She (Elysia) perched on a stool.
  • They (fictional robbers) must’ve known our schedule.”

 

Next, let’s deal with the objective case, which includes pronouns that take the place of objects: the nouns that are directly or indirectly acted upon. Objective pronouns include me, you, him, her, them, it, one, and us. Objective pronouns often follow prepositions. Examples:

  • “We haven’t even paid for it (the liquor) yet.”
  • “The tall one kept his gun on me (Maisie).”
  • “Who could fault you (Maisie) for that?”

 

Two issues often cause case confusion. The first is that several of the pronouns (you, it, and one) are the same in either case, which means our eyes and ears are less trained to catch errors in case when those pronouns are used. The other, more prevalent issue is compound subjects and objects. Do these sentences sound wrong?

  • Me and you have a train to catch.”
  • Her and Maisie have a train to catch.

The cases are mixed up! You can tell by reading each noun or pronoun on its own. “You have a train to catch” or “Maisie has a train to catch” is fine, but “Her has a train to catch” is a nonstarter, and “Me have a train to catch” only works for the Cookie Monster. This sentence requires “You and I” or “She and Maisie.”

 

The compound subject issue is one many of us learned to correct early on, with parents and teachers chastising our, “Can me and Katie go swimming?” with “Katie and I.” However, at some point this self-correction may have crossed into new error territory. Do these sound wrong?

  • “They’ll have to come after you and I.”
  • They’ll have to come after she and Maisie.

You wouldn’t say, “They’ll have to come after I,” or “They’ll have to come after she.” Even though we’ve been conditioned to auto-correct with “and I” or “she and,” these are compound objects that require objective pronouns, like “me” and “her.”

 

Savvy readers might see what looks like an error at the beginning of this explanation: “I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into a Roaring Twenties speakeasy as much as I!” This sentence is, in fact, correct because the comparison is between how much you enjoyed the jaunt and how much I enjoyed the jaunt. Here’s why this distinction is important:

  • Carl’s wife loves gin more than he. [more than Carl does.]
  • Carl’s wife loves gin more than him. [this is very sad for Carl: his wife loves gin more than she loves him!]

 

Whew! That was a lot about cases. Here’s a quick explanation of who versus whom. Some people think that “whom” is simply the more formal version of “who,” but it isn’t.

“Who” behaves like a subjective pronoun, and “whom” acts like an objective pronoun. Note how they were used in the story:

  • Who could fault you for that?” [what person could]
  • Whom are you harming by running? Him? Them?” [harm occurring to someone]

I phrased that last quote so that “him” and “them” were used alongside “whom” for a reason: I think it helps to remember that the pronouns ending in -m do the same job of replacing objects. If you would fill in “them” in a sentence, then it’s time to use “whom.”

 

Finally, watch out for ambiguity in pronouns. Misuse of pronouns can create confusion instead of clarity. I tried to work in a few examples in the dialogue:

  • He moved so quickly” could refer to either of the men mentioned, which is why Elysia questions the statement.
  • Likewise, “They were heavy” could refer to men or crates until a clarification is made.

In Elysia’s notes, “their motive” and “their opportunity” are intentionally ambiguous. If I had said “her” from the outset, the reader would have known that Elysia suspected Maisie from the beginning, and our mystery would have been spoiled!

You were probably taught in school that “they/them/their” are third-person pronouns to be used in the plural only—when referring to two or more nouns, and that a singular person should be referred to as “he or she.” Historically, at least over the past few centuries, reserving “they” for plurals was largely considered correct.

However, numerous bastions of the English language, including the Oxford English Dictionary, have recently revised their official standards to accept “they/them/their” as singular third-person pronouns. The use of the singular “they” is seen as a practical modern adaptation, as well as a respectful way to ensure that people of all genders are included in our collective use of language. If you would like to learn more about the history and meaning of “they,” I suggest checking out this great, detailed article!

 

I hope today’s mystery and explanation have provided some food for thought about how we use pronouns. Remember, the goal in using them is clarity! If you’re unsure of which word to use, consider what it’s replacing.

What other questions about pronouns do you have? Let me know in the comments section, and check back on May 27 for our next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!

XOXO

Joy

 

 

Just A Chair

This is a chair.

Just a chair.

Its seat is made of straw.

Straw is not a strong material.

The first Little Pig built his house out of piled-up straw. He is presented as an example of recklessness and shortsightedness. For good reason—who would build a house with something so weak?

Each piece of straw in this chair could break with one quick pinch.

But this chair is one-hundred-and-forty-three years old.

So how is it still holding itself together?

The many pieces of straw are thatched, woven together, coming to the center from all different directions. They each had to bend in order to be put together. Each piece must continually do its part to bear the load.

Together the straw can bear the stress of a whole person’s weight.

I wasn’t around one-hundred-and-forty-three years ago, but I would guess that not all the straw came from the same plant. Doesn’t matter. When they’re all bound together, the pieces do more than they ever could alone.

Just a chair.

I bought this chair today, in a remarkable stroke of luck, at an estate sale south of Pittsburgh.

Its previous owners purchased it from a little place in London, England…

Image result for st. paul's cathedral london

This chair was delivered to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1874, where it served as a pew chair with four thousand of its straw-thatched brethren for almost a hundred years. When the chairs needed to be replaced with more modern seating, they were sold as a fundraising effort for the Cathedral.

In the course of those hundred years, this chair was used for the service for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the funeral service for Winston Churchill in 1965. In less ostentatious times, it was used by thousands of regular people sitting, reading, thinking, praying, talking, and listening. People seeking and finding their purpose.

This chair was nearly destroyed multiple times in the London Blitz during World War II. Most notable among them was September 12, 1940, when a time-delayed bomb landed in St. Paul’s. The bomb was powerful enough to level the Cathedral.

A bomb disposal unit managed to destroy it safely in a remote location. Many hands came together to protect the Cathedral, the heart of the city.

And the Cathedral stayed up.

Image result for st. paul's cathedral london blitz

This is a chair.

After one-hundred-and-forty-three years, multiple bombings, and a trip across the Atlantic, this thatched-straw-on-wood probably shouldn’t still be a chair.

But it improbably is.

Many fragile pieces, coming to the center from different directions, with the shared purpose of supporting something greater and more precious.

Just a chair.

And a chair is just a place to sit.

Or a place to read.


Or think.

Or pray.

Or plan.

Or talk.

Or listen.

Or all of the above.

Because straw piled up is weak, but straw woven together is strong enough to resist time, stress, and war.

Woven together, bending towards each other, bearing with each other, we can support something greater and more precious. And that’s not just a purpose.

That’s a just purpose.