Midway through a romantic novel, a Virginia housewife called in a panic. ''What's abstropolous?'' she queried anxiously.
Off to the dictionary went Donna Friedman. A minute or two later she rushed back to the phone with the answer: ''That word doesn't exist in any dictionary.'' She hung up, sat back in her armchair, and chuckled.
By now she is accustomed to her sometime role as the Ann Landers of the dictionary, dispensing advice as resident grammarian for Tidewater Community College's ''Grammar Hotline.''
She was paging through Webster's Third International when the woman called back a few hours later. ''I figured it out,'' she said. ''I think the word means 'wayward' because nothing else seems to fit the heroine.''
Before Ms. Friedman stopped puzzling over that call, she was back on the hot line ((804) 427-3070, ext. 232), putting out another grammatical fire. This time an elementary school principal in the Tidewater area called just to make sure she was right.
''Is there a contraction for 'I did'?'' the principal asked. One of the school's textbooks had asked students to list the contraction in a quiz.
''The book is wrong,'' Friedman, who is an English teacher, assured the principal. ''There is a contraction for 'I would' and for 'I had' '' - but definitely not ''I did.''
Now, 15 months after the humanities department at Tidewater Community College started its Grammar Hotline, the service has nearly 50 phone calls each week.
''Switchboard operators at the college used to shunt callers with all sorts of questions over to the humanities department,'' said Lindy Riley, also an English teacher, who directed the hot line before moving away several months ago. ''Finally we decided, 'Why not set up a hot line?' We thought we would get an occasional call, but the response was tremendous after the word got around. There is such a gap. Even the libraries started sending callers to us.''
Shortly after English scholar Riley started answering the hot line 30 hours a week, she realized something: Readers do question what they see in print. One day a caller phoned to ask her if it was permissible for a magazine to use ''fazed'' and ''phased'' interchangeably. No, Ms. Riley insisted, the magazine incorrectly said a program would be ''fazed out.''
''I even noticed 'phase' instead of 'faze' in a national comic strip the other day. It makes you wonder,'' she said.
By the time she left the Grammar Hotline last September, callers had started thinking of the hot line as the final word, the referee for everything from points of etiquette to the placement of punctuation.
One woman, recently divorced, called to ask how she should address her stationery to make it clear that she was ''no longer attached and quite available.'' (Answer: There isn't any form of address for this state of mind.) A secretary phoned to find out how she could ''repair the damage'' in a letter dictated by her boss by changing the punctuation. Subjects and verbs didn't agree, and the boss wouldn't let her change a word, even though he was wrong. (Answer: No amount of punctuation will save that letter.)
Occasionally, the Grammar Hotline - one of only a few in the country - receives desperate calls from as far away as New Jersey and Michigan. Usually, however, the calls are from Virginia. Most of them are from business people looking for a missing comma or students searching for a verb to agree with a subject.
Every so often she gets a bit frustrated with her job as grammar policewoman. One day she spotted a Virginia Beach store sign along the road reading ''Fireplace Idea's.'' She tried to convince a clerk behind the counter that the apostrophe was incorrect. The sign never changed.
There are other frustrations, too, problems beyond the realm of anyone well versed in grammar, punctuation, syntax, and pronunciation. Take the case of one caller, who sounded like a teen-ager. ''Define . . . 'slocinacinahilatilasickition,' '' the caller challenged.
''I couldn't even begin to deal with it,'' Friedman said. ''I attempted to find the word in several sources and I don't recall just how far I got. It was a prank. But you never know.''