Canadian by birth, expatriate by climate, David Madison is a fabulous writer. But if you’ve read this novel grammar, you already know that. Each of the 330 tales illustrating a rule is written in the manner of a fable, “a short narrative making an edifying or cautionary point, often employing as characters animals that speak and act like humans.” He is a permanent resident of Belize, which, being situated below Mexico on the Caribbean Sea, is fabulous in its own right. But one look at a map will undeceive you: it is nowhere near as fabulous as he is. When he’s not being fabulous, in one sense, he spends the remainder of his waking hours answering the question What qualifies you to write a grammar book? His ready answer, marvelous for its concision, is that he has some five more years of school learning than Mark Twain, and far fewer cats. While those seeming disqualifications are sinking in, he is quick to emphasize that he correctly said far fewer, not far less cats.
How did Ms. Spinster come about?
. Why don't you make yourself comfortable? Bear with me while I rummage back a number of years. . . . Okay, here it is: It was a typically rough, overcast day, and Ms. Spinster, in the gloom of life, was all at sea in her two-masted fore-and-aft-rigged "Ketch" with its mizzenmast stepped aft of its taller mainmast, but forward of the rudder. As usual, she was plying the perpetually cold and lonely Straits of Spinsterhood, on her same old tack, beating hard north into a headwind on a broad reach for the safety, shelter, and dreamy love that awaited her in the mythic harbor of Matrimony. Hope sprang eternal in her breast. Today, at long last, she would discover, and sail blissfully into it. Suddenly, as if she’d conjured it, off the port bow, her heart leapt into her throat on catching a fleeting glimpse above the waves of the fabled harbor's narrow entrance. There was no mistaking it, suffused as it was by the most heavenly roseate glow. In less than a heartbeat she thrust the tiller hard to starboard, ducking quickly as the boom of the mizzenmast flew over her head in the opposite direction, the sails filled, and she rapidly came about—on a joyously different tack. Yet, at the same time, longing more than ever to tie the connubial knot, she found herself on the same old tack. Woebetide! She missed the harbor's entrance by a knottical mile, brought up on a shoal with no hope of ever floating free, and once more rapidly came about—to tears. The ill-christened Ketch failed her of the one she had been dreaming of her life long.
That's the short story, though I guess some would argue it's something of a stretch. The longer one—why don't you kick back and put your feet up?—is this: Ms. Spinster came about as a joke, or rather a joke came about as Ms. Spinster:
To gaze upon her now in all her grammatical novelty, you might think she sprang to life fully fleshed. Not even close. Just as you and I began as a twinkle in our father’s and mother’s eyes, so Ms. Spinster began in mine, as a play on words based on a rule of grammar, which I worked up into this little chestnut:
A convict, upon being released, said ever so politely to his jailer, “Now, officer, if you’ll just be so kind as to open this gate, I’ll walk out of here a free and wiser man—and I promise you you’ll never see the likes of me here again! What do you say, officer?” he said jocularly, elated about his imminent freedom. “Would you be so gracious as to accept my proposition?”
No sooner did he utter these fateful words than a shrill alarm sounded, guards pounced on him, he was beaten senseless, and thrown headlong into solitary confinement—for life! In his joy the hapless reformed man had unwittingly forgotten the strict penal institution’s No. 1 rule: Never end a sentence with a proposition.
Well, that’s a tasty enough morsel for the Borscht Belt, I thought with some complacency; but being a lifelong versifier, I plowed it under, and up came:
Rule No. 1 2 Not End Sentence With
Time served, a convict, getting out of stir, Elatedly effused, “Good officer, If you’ll now kindly open up this gate, I’ll air-walk out of here in joyful state, A free and wiser man—and you’ve my word I’ll never more be seen in here or heard! What say you, kindly turnkey, would you be, In opening this gate, releasing me, So gracious—oh, the rapture! readmission: LIFE!—as to accept my proposition?”
No sooner did he sound these fateful words Than shrill alarm screamed (undiminished thirds), Ten guards pounced on him, beat him sanguinary, Threw him, bloody, into solitary “Yes, the ‘hole’—for LIFE—con!” The reformed Releasee, once more prison-uniformed, Had, in his joyful, jocular locutions, Forgotten the strict penal institution’s No. 1 Rule: Never (“LIFE Punition!”) End a sentence with a proposition.
It had a certain je ne say kwaw charm, as the Italians say, and I thought, If I can get 10 such verses based on a rule of grammar, it would make an amusing interlude in a book of verse. Well, I got 10 and thought, could I get 25? I did, but then I reasoned, it won’t answer merely to state the rule. I must go on to explain the rule and give examples in a continuation of the storyline in prose, making a concise one-page fable-like tale; a fabulous tale. When I had done that, it occurred to me that it would be that much more captivating if, instead of nameless, faceless persons, I were to have glamorous celebrities illustrate the rules in the course of their fascinating lives, each chosen to illuminate a particular rule for their unique star qualities. So singer Con E. Francis became the con above, and so on.
(to be continued)
How did Ms. Spinster come about? continued
. That was all well and good, and I wondered, could I get another 25? When, after some protracted head scratching I did, I had the temerity to think: could I possibly get 101, which could be a book unto itself—with its own cover—on many a shelf? You might have guessed that, casting aside all doubts, I rose to the challenge, and in time was equal to it. I might have stopped there (a reasonable person would have), and basked in the warm glow of accomplishment. But ever a sucker for punishment, I couldn’t keep myself from masochistically thinking, what about the rules of punctuation, typography (italics, capitals, abbreviations, and numbers), and spelling? Could I possibly get another 101 of those, such as “Use bullets sparingly,” in like hair-loss manner. With the passage of time (wars were fought in less), I succeeded; and with scarcely a thought of taking refuge in complacency, I thought, what about the rules of style, such as “Avoid cliches like the plague?” Could I scrabble together a further 101? With a span of time I could have fit Noah’s Ark in, and still have room for a boatload of cerebration, I did. It was done! and so was I, or so I thought for as much as an instant. In for a penny, in for a pounding, I always say, and I found myself thinking, what about those so-called “rules” of thumb that aren’t really rules at all, and which thumb of us love to thumb our knowses at with impunity, such as “Never end a sentence with a preposition,” which breaks its own rule by ending with “a preposition”? Could I get a goodly number of those, which would be the most cherished of all? Conducting a further “raid upon the inarticulate,” I was cheerily victorious in thumbing my knows at 27 such counterfeit commandments, making in all 330 Novel Rules. Done! But no sooner did I entertain that merciful notion than I found myself thinking, I surely need some latter-day Aesop, or Mother Goose–like character to cobble all these fabulous tales together into a most novel form. So, after much auditioning, and many thumbs down, Ms. Spinster, the frustrated embodiment of a schoolmarm in gingham dress and high lace boots was born; and there was no denying that her grammar was novel. And I thought, “Well I’ll be! Damned if Ms. Spinster’s Novel Grammar isn’t a fait a compli! And, sure enough, I soon was: I straightway entertained that some few colorful illustrations would gussy the whole up nicely. But before I could jump in and save myself, it struck me that it would hardly be fair, or satisfying, and, more to the point, would be dangerous in the extreme, to give face to some celebrities, and not the others. At the same time, I realized, with sinking heart, that I couldn’t afford an illustrator, much less a dozen. There was nothing for it but that I must purchase Photoshop and learn how to use it. A year and a half later I could, in all truthfulness, and fairness in advertising, pronounce it “fully illustrated” with more than 350 novel photos, 836, laugh-and-learn pages. The most novel grammar you’ll ever READ.
That's how Ms. Spinster came about: about fourteen years from the twinkle of conception.
330 Novel Rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, style—each one truly fabulous (in the manner of a fable), “a short narrative making an edifying or cautionary point, often employing as characters animals that speak and act like humans.”
500 celebrities glamorously bringing the rules to light and to life.
350 mirth-inducing photoshops, as colorfully novel as the celebrities they make light of.