Incident in an Editing Office
On a hot afternoon many years ago, a trainee editor walked in with furrowed brow and deposited the following offending sentence in my lap: “Argon gas is usually passed through the outer tube, which creates a Venturi effect and sucks the liquid up through the inner capillary tube.” I read it through once, and looked at her quizzically.
“What sucks?” she asked.
I could see her point. Effects don’t suck. Could the outer tube suck? Do gases suck? I thought of waterspouts. The blue sea looked inviting …
“I’ll tell you something that SUCKS,” she said.
I came down to earth. The final word had almost been spat out as a nervous, high-pitched scream. She had not been quite the same person since I lectured her on the subtle shades of difference between the relative pronouns that and which a couple of days ago. She had listened with rapt attention, but her knuckles had turned white.
“What sucks?” I asked.
“This book,” she said.
The boss, probably thinking she had heard the dreaded “F” word, came to investigate. The last time she’d the heard the word said this loud, there had been fisticuffs over a disputed suspensive hyphen. Result: three editor-days lost, and blood on the new office carpet.
“We’re trying to find out who or what sucked a liquid of indeterminate composition. Care to help?”
“Find some other sucker.”
Right. She wasn’t the boss for nothing.
The trainee was looking at me expectantly. I can be the man of action when the mood is upon me. I swiveled around on my chair decisively, disturbing a couple of somnolent mosquitoes under the chair. It was the work of a moment to call up the Venturi effect on Wikipedia.
Ctrl_F, “suck,” and there it was. Hmmm … not very enlightening.
Out of the blue came a flash of insight. Since “sucking” is a strong verb and there is no active sucker — err, sucking agent or actor — in sight, the right thing to do is to switch the voice from active to passive. So, “Argon gas is usually passed through the outer tube, which creates a Venturi effect; as a result, the liquid is sucked up through the inner capillary tube.” The trainee brightened, and exited the room. I looked for my manuscript on the table — and froze.
There, on the brand-new Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition) lying open on the table, was a black blob. I took a closer look. Suspicion confirmed. A new blood meal. Mosquito too sated to move. Engorged. With my blood.
The bloodsucker! Wasn’t my job hard enough as it is?! My blood (what remained, that is) boiled, and I threw a sucker punch that landed unerringly on target.
Folks, you know what’s worse than blood on the new office carpet? Blood on the new Chicago Manual of Style, that’s what.
Afterword: The above is a blast from the distant past, an embellished version of a real-life incident. It was written soon after the event. (Today, I think it’s alright for argon—or even the Venturi effect, for that matter—to suck.)