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Fiction #395
(published August 14, 2008)
A Brief Primer on the Grammar of Office
(a Poor Mojo's Classic)
by Margaret Lazarus Dean
[As August 2008 marks the close of our seventh year of weekly publication, we shall spend this month enjoying "the blast from the past" with selections from Poor Mojo's Almanac(k): Year One. Please, enjoy! — Your Giant Squid, Editor-in-Chief, PMjA]

[originally published in issue #24]

The existence of a structure which defines ranges of possible Office behaviors has long been posited. Early theorists envisioned a physics (or quantum mechanics) of office behavior, a topology of office behavior, or a genomic map of coded office instructions. Only recently has the existence of such a governing structure been proven. In 1998, advancements in the detection of deep-rooted aspects of office culture led to a revelation: that there are orderly arrangements of office-related elements. Though an advanced calculus is still being developed to properly describe these arrangements, it is possible to theorize about the grammatical structure which orders them.

Lexical Items
The most salient lexical items are those wearing ties. Although the interaction between grammars of gender and the Office grammar is highly contested, it is safe to say that non-tie-wearers (of either gender) will never enjoy the salience enjoyed by the tie-wearers. However, salience is not equal to (or even related to) actual importance.A taxonomy of the various types of lexical items is still in its preliminary stages. This taxonomy will be a breakthrough for ethnographers, who have heretofore been using broad and unreliable methods of classification based on systems of clothing (cf. Henderson et al).

Research innovations have led to a deeper understanding of the significance of non-clothing tokens used by Office lexical items. Recent studies have suggested that lexical items are enhanced by the presence of one or more of the following: crayoned drawings (especially those received by facsimile), humorous slogans, monitor frogs (and other plush toys), photos of babies and/or children, and lucite boxes containing fish. The lucite boxes are proving more troublesome on a grammaticalization basis, due largely to the unaccountable fact that administrative assistants (never tie-wearers) tend to stroke the lucite boxes with lacquered fingernails.

The domain of possible lexical items for the Office grammar is not known, but the first dictionaries are rumored to become available in the spring at the close of the next fiscal year.

The Office grammar prescribes ranges of diction for office behaviors by lexical items, including (but not limited to) telephone-whispering, notepad-doodling, photocopying, humorous e-mail forwarding, restroom-stall-reading, keyboarding, coffee-modification, desk-crying, filing, office-supply-hoarding or -stealing, currying of favor from superiors, avoiding sexually interesting co-workers, and the full constellation of sycophantic smiling, winking, laughing, flirting, and gestures of deferral. (One will notice that many of these can be classified as speech acts). The Office grammar deals with appropriate syntax for individuals (also known as lexical items) in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of non-standard expressions such as wandering, crying, gossiping, nitpicking, requesting unreasonable vacations or raises, using highlighters of inappropriate colors, despairing and/or playing Microsoft Solitaire. This is accomplished not by legislating against these acts, but through cultural implication that these acts are completely outside the range of acts which are possible at all.

It may be helpful to think of all possible non-biological verbs of doing as falling under the domain of the Office grammar, including acts of despondence, acts of violence, and all speech acts. It is a matter of some controversy whether thought and other mind acts are governed by the grammar.

Although not directly attributable to Office grammar, Office spirituality demands that voice mail be checked no fewer than ten times per day. Research has found (cf. Langenscheidt and Smith) that even if voice mail is checked while the lexical item in question has not been away from his or her desk at all, there will be new messages left by important lexical items speaking urgently of needs which can't possibly be met.

Violations of Office syntax can have grave implications upon the influx and outflow of approval, which can in turn be interpreted as revenue. More specifically, the influx and outflow of revenue can become monochromatic, which can have dangerous implications for the continued health of financial systems.

This is perhaps best understood through examples. Severe breakdowns in Office grammar can result in desk-cryers outperforming telephone-shouters. Other early symptoms of abnormality: keyboarding using the Dvorak layout (undermining unspoken QWERTY dominance); inappropriate use of Post-it notes (e.g. for composition of complete sentences as opposed to notes toward those sentences); removal of shoes (exacerbated by failure to replace shoes before venturing to other parts of physical office); composition of non-business-related poetry; and squandering resources of any kind, including mind resources. Of course, this is only a partial list.

Enforcement varies from manifestation to manifestation. A good rule of thumb: the lexical item who wears a red tie never meets the eyes of any other, unless that lexical item has committed or is committing noticeable violations of the Grammar. It is widely rumored that each Office environment (or Domain) requires such an enforcer. If the enforcer retires, moves, is laid off or otherwise fails to uphold his/her duties, another enforcer is quickly nominated in his/her place using criteria that we have yet to understand.

An example: In a domain found in a suburb of Indianapolis, an associate who wears red ties fails to meet the eyes of some lexical items who interact with his administrative assistant, who carries before her daily a six-month fetus. Through study of the red-tie-wearer's eye movements graphed over time, it has been found to be a salient violation of Office grammar to address this fetus, either with special fetus names (e.g. Harry, Big Guy, Tomato) or with fetal honorifics.

Issues of Dialect
Office grammar can vary from manifestation to manifestation severely enough as to preclude the possibility of a national or global Office grammar per se. Aspects of Office grammar are subject to change over space and time and almost no aspect is immune from this variance.

In general, this is another way of saying that the entire scope of reality can be mapped in terms of isoglosses between dialects of Office grammar. For instance, an isogloss between real cream usage and non-dairy creamer usage runs down the Rockies. Another isogloss between acceptability of non-yellow post-it notes runs along the San Andreas fault, although reports of pink post-it notes have been received from as far east as St. Louis. When dialect contact does occur, what results is usually unimportant in terms of pidgin and creole study (lexical absorption does not occur), but fascinating in terms of dialect leveling: the offending behavior or behavior cluster becomes something of a physical object for examination: adherents to each dialect will eye each other, smiling falsely, while fingering the offending item. No one will move.

Appendix: Preliminary Glossary
Although we are decades away from a complete glossary, it has been established that grammaticalizations sometimes occur as a result of inappropriate lexical items. Some of these have been documented and will be included in lexicons of the future. The following are a few examples.

To brian: to give an impression of IT competence through bustling and jargon. To fritz: to solve a problem by inventing the existence of new genres within which to classify the problem. To lee: to plan a vacation and continue to appear at work throughout the vacation wearing slightly more casual clothes. (2) to send series of urgent voicemail directives in sets of two, which, when taken as a set, cancel each other out. To lisa: to defer to tie-wearing lexical items all kudos for work done by the lisa herself. To margaret: to photocopy brief fictions when not squandering aspects of the world wide web. (2) In times of printer error, network failure, or hard disk corruption to calm, to helpdesk, or to reinstall. To stanley: to ogle the breasts of pregnant administrative assistants. To tracey: to cry in bathroom stalls more than twice a day, emerging refreshed with bright lipstick and a renewed dedication to the work at hand.

[UPDATE 2008: Margaret Lazarus Dean published her first novel, The Time it Takes to Fall, in 2008.]

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