Grammar for the Soul
Using Language for Personal Change
By Lawrence A. Weinstein
Theosophical Publishing House Copyright © 2008 Lawrence A. Weinstein
All rights reserved.
BOOTSTRAP GRAMMAR—TAKING LIFE IN HAND
Free will may be hard to prove philosophically, but its psychological double, sometimes called "a sense of agency"—the enlivening impression that we're free and capable of taking action in this world—seems to be a hard-wired need. Human beings languish without it. Their states of mind deteriorate. At the near end of decline, they live what Thoreau terms "lives of quiet desperation" or indulge in indirect, passive-aggressive behavior to bring others down with them. At the far end of decline, as researchers like Martin Seligman and Ellen Langer have shown, they fall into depression, paralyzed—bedridden figuratively, if not literally—by feelings of hopelessness.
I think of the grammar in this section as linguistic means for getting out of bed and "taking charge" of one's life. That bold shift requires several basic habits of mind, each of which I address in a separate essay focused on a piece of grammar that fosters it. For example, one thing needed for taking life in hand is to practice believing (and insisting) that one has rights in this world—and that's where the colon comes in.
If I am not for myself, who will be?
Quite fittingly, in English the word a speaker uses to refer to himself is "I," a word indistinguishable in appearance from the Roman numeral for "one" or "first." My first step in meeting my needs in this world is to say "I"—that is, to announce my presence and get noticed. I can't usually afford to wait on the sidelines for unbidden champions to do my advocacy for me. No one has as much at stake in my well-being as I myself do. Nor is anyone better positioned than I to name my needs or to say whether a given response to my needs satisfies them. I am the person who will pay most dearly if I can't sleep because of an all-night party next door, and I'm the one best qualified to answer the considerate partygoer's question, "Have we turned the music down low enough yet?"
Unfortunately, though, simply speaking up doesn't always do the trick of winning others' ears. When it doesn't, my confidence plummets and I start to doubt I have the right to speak and to be heard—which brings me to the colon.
The essayist Lewis Thomas found colons—those vertically arranged dots that say "Listen up; here's what you should know"—"a lot less attractive" than semicolons. "Firstly," he writes, "they give you the feeling of ... having your nose pointed in a direction you might not be inclined to take it if left to yourself." But Strunk and White, the renowned authors of The Elements of Style, don't seem to have shared Thomas's aversion. In their own book, sometimes they use the colon to compel us to observe what can happen when a writer disregards one of their famous rules, an example being
Sentences violating Rule 7 are often ludicrous:
Elsewhere they employ it to oblige us to commit a rule to memory, as in
Punctuate as follows:
Those two dots have much the same riveting effect as the two loud clinks on a piece of fine glassware that announce a wedding toast—or the two decisive taps of a baton that call an orchestra to order just before a symphony begins.
According to E. B. White (the White of "Strunk and White"), Strunk "felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong." He had been White's teacher in college, and one day in class he had "leaned far forward, in ... the pose of a man about to impart a secret—and croaked, 'If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!'" Strunk's use of colons—like so much else in The Elements of Style—bares the unapologetic soul at the top of its form. It says, "I have standing in this place, so heed me."
Which way to punctuate—nay, which way to live: that of the quietly respectful Lewis Thomas or that of the assertive Strunk? Can we do without either of these modes as we address the sometimes thorny, sometimes delicate, now and then clearly urgent situations lying before us? The first two seem likely to benefit from Thomas's tact; the last, from Strunk's display of strength.
In the belief that to live fully requires a balance in capacities, I favor equal readiness both to use the colon of command and to avoid its use. The best way for a person to achieve such balance is, it seems to me, Aristotle's way—namely, calling into play the side which, until now, one has not sufficiently developed, even if it means erring on that side a bit.
There are, for example, people who would just as soon colonize a foreign nation as "colon-ize" a sentence. To them, that two-pointed mark is a double-barreled shotgun; they keep it locked away. They might stand across the counter from the most unhelpful member of the staff of a hotel, waiting to register and to receive a room key, and still not feel at liberty to capture the person's attention with the speech inflection that corresponds to a written colon, as in
Friend, here's where things stand: Every fifteen minutes for the past hour and a half, you have been telling us our rooms would be ready in fifteen minutes. As a result, we have less than half an hour left to clean up and drive to our niece's graduation.
It's the colon after "stand" that lays claim to the air time needed to say the rest.
My father used to say, "Don't let people step on you." In his business correspondence—with which, as a boy, I used to help him, since he was an immigrant who never fully mastered English usage—he would insert a colon frequently, each pair of dots a typographical fair warning to the reader (the customer who'd sent him three bouncing checks in a row, the boss who had spoiled some of his sales through ill-advised pricing decisions) that he'd better not ignore my father's forthcoming words. Though I'm a fairly gentle soul myself, I retain the colon in my repertoire, and I suggest that other meek or mild types do so, too. We must learn to insist that we have rights to attention. That assertive punctuation mark represents one safe way to begin.
Transitive Verbs in the Active Voice
Not long ago, I was sitting in our neighborhood café when a three-year-old boy at the next table—letting his legs swing happily under him—suddenly stopped blowing his food cool (which he did with unreal intensity) to declare, "I feel like eating out today. I could eat the whole w-o-o-o-r-l-d."
A deeply satisfying rush went through me at his eagerness; I must have smiled or blushed in appreciation of a kindred soul. If the truth be known, I myself periodically dip back into that birthright pool of restless energy. At such moments I, too, speak transitively; I feel like doing something to the unsuspecting world—rousing it, taking it by storm, or fixing it.
Can the world's necessary deeds be performed by people who've lost access to that well of voltage? I submit a pair of sentences:
Working conditions at the office got better when Ted's request for a transfer was granted.
In a single stroke, Anne improved conditions at the office: she granted Ted's request for a transfer.
To my ear, it is the second of these sentences which celebrates human agency. It reminds me that the individual—whether "Anne" or myself—still has agency. It does so partly by naming the agent, Anne. Also, though, it does so by replacing the intransitive verb "got better" (which is incapable of having a direct object: I can't take aim at a condition and "get better" it) with a transitive one, "improved," and by replacing a roundabout passive verb phrase, "Ted's request was granted," with its active counterpart, "granted Ted's request." "Anne improved conditions" has impact. "She granted Ted's request" has impact. Just reading those short strings of words, I can feel my blood sugar rise a bit. In writing them, I was energized twice as much.
Intransitive verbs such as "got better" and passive constructions like "was granted" don't oblige a speaker to say what or who is responsible for the act or situation described. The intransitive "The milk went bad" qualifies as a full, presentable sentence without ever saying what soured the milk. The intransitive "Max died" leaves unanswered the question "What—or who—killed Max?" Intransitive verbs as a class tend to reinforce the misunderstanding that things "just happen."
Passive constructions such as "was granted" do much the same: they produce a kind of throwing up of hands. In passive voice, the doer of the deed either makes no appearance in the sentence—as in "Ted was transferred"—or appears at the sentence's far end as an afterthought—as in "Ted was transferred by Anne."
One can spot such concealment of agency—or, in the lesser case, downplaying of agency—in much of the language issued by government offices (bureaus often known, ironically enough, as "agencies"). It sounds like this:
A secret shipment of arms to the insurgents was requested on March 19, approved on March 20, and carried out on March 21. [That's at least three different people who owe their anonymity to the passive voice.]
Undeniably, mistakes were made. [Yes, but who made them?]
In the world of medicine, concealment of agency sounds like the following excerpts from a note that a surgeon composed in 1961 at the request of the drugaddicted, dark comedian Lenny Bruce. It's a note written to assure "any peace officer observing fresh needle marks on Mr. Bruce's arm" that said marks had resulted from injections for medicinal purposes only.
Mr. Bruce suffers from episodes of severe depression and lethargy.... He has been instructed in the proper use of intravenous injections of Methedrine. [Who instructed Bruce? No one in particular?]
Methedrine in ampules of 1 cc. (20 mg.) together with disposable syringes, has been prescribed for intravenous use as needed. [Who wrote the prescription? The same person who wrote this note or someone else?]
I leave to others the ethical analysis of our verbal shirking of responsibility. At the moment, I want to consider how passive prose, which represents events as rudderless, affects the individual's morale. When I read or write such text, I am liable to feel powerless in relation to the situation being discussed, since I get no mental picture of a person engaged in doing something about it one way or another.
Put the examples above alongside this excerpt from a report to shareholders by the manager of a mutual fund in 2002, when stock values were plunging and he might have sought cover behind "forces beyond his control."
In hindsight, my biggest mistake was shifting from a conservative mentality to an aggressive mindset prematurely. Within finance, for example, I added to the fund's stakes in brokerage-type names such as Citicorp and Merrill Lynch, and I de-emphasized conservative areas such as regional banks.
How refreshing! Just in reading those words—"I added," "I de-emphasized"—I feel incrementally empowered. As a member of the same species to which their author belongs, I tell myself, "I must also be capable of taking action despite risks." If I had written those words, the writing act—as an exercise in agency—would have had an even more empowering effect. I'd have been affirming, "Right or wrong, win or lose, my destiny is in my hands." The shareholder report was imperfect, can-do America at its grammatical best. I almost didn't mind that the value of my Roth IRA had fallen again.
Psychologists Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper advocate a therapeutic use of transitive-active constructions. They counsel their readers away from intransitive sentences such as
My parents were the source of all my troubles and still are.
That sort of sentence, they say,
serves as a cop-out for your past and present behavior. If you acknowledge, instead, "My parents kept criticizing me severely during my childhood, and I kept taking them too seriously and thereby kept upsetting myself ...," you strongly imply what you can do to interrupt and change your own self-downing tendencies.
We are not mere victims. Within certain, quite important limits (which I address in later sections of this book), we remain the masters of our own fate. Some verbs lull us and lead us to forget that fact; others keep it live in consciousness.
Vic quickly found the chickadee.
Ruthie got her way in the committee.
Lynn attracts friends of both sexes.
Though each of these sentences employs a transitive verb in the active voice—"found," "got," "attracts"—each one could still go further toward setting in full motion the writer's cerebral wheels of agency. They stop short of naming the means by which their respective actions are accomplished. It's as if each one started with that question-begging adverb "somehow." Somehow, Vic found the chickadee. Somehow, Ruthie got her way.
Sentences like these call to mind the drawings turned out by many four-year-olds in which people have no arms. The young artist may inform us that he's drawn a man flying a kite, but all we see is an armless figure and a shape in the sky above it—no string, and no body part that could be used for holding a string. In its blindness to how the deed is done, such a drawing suggests that the artist is simply in awe; the idea that he himself could achieve a result like the one he depicts—an airborne kite—is inconceivable to him.
Agency demands an eye for means. In the realm of art, it demands (eventually) visualizing upper limbs with hands. In writing, as in speaking, it demands adding the language of instrumentality. It demands adding either whole sentences devoted to the "how of it" or at least prepositional how-to phrases—adverbial strings of words beginning with "by" or "with" and naming the takeable steps or known, available devices that make the inconceivable feat quite conceivable, as in
By steadily pointing a finger toward the branch where he had observed it alight, Vic quickly found the chickadee again in his binoculars.
By patiently listening to each of her colleagues in turn—and by calmly then addressing their misgivings—Ruthie got her way in the committee.
Don't such phrases, which begin to break a new operation down into its parts, move that operation into closer range?
We can empower ourselves by adding limbs to our speech and writing, supplementing them with phrases of instrumentality whenever we recount acts worthy to be imitated. Any sentence that does no more about an act than to name it is a mere torso, not a heartening reminder of our wherewithal to undertake such acts ourselves, in good time.
Doing What Works
Anomalous Commas and Beyond
At times, the barrier to needful action is one's rigidity about rules. All states prohibit driving through a red light, and, normally, observing that prohibition has the effect intended: it prevents accidents. Occasionally, though, it can have the opposite effect. If the driver first in line at a traffic light that is stuck on red stubbornly refuses to adapt by advancing, one or more motorists behind him are likely to lose patience and move into the opposing lane in order to pass him. An unsafe situation rapidly becomes even less safe.
Likewise, schools have sufficient cause for their policies inhibiting teachers from touching students: a desire to prevent abuse. But taking these policies to their extreme—for example, by withholding a hug from the child in tears who has just been traumatized by a schoolyard bully—can look to the child like abandonment or even like complicity with her tormentor.
And if circumstance sometimes justifies violating laws and official policies, it can certainly excuse the occasional disregard of rules in the informal realm. I think of the custom not to wear white in winter. I think of people's reluctance to take silverware from a nearby unoccupied table in a restaurant even when their food is getting cold because their own table is forkless and knifeless. Rules and informal rules don't exist for their own sake; they're not sacred. Every so often, we must be ready to abandon a rule in favor of an act that would serve both ourselves and the world better. Because grammar is itself made up of rules—rules we sometimes need to violate to produce the right effect—it holds training value for us on this front. Going out on a limb with a low-stakes punctuation mark calls into play much the same dynamic that any judicious risk taking involves. In writing, as in life generally, it behooves us to override the normal settings at times.
Let's get specific, then. Circumstance will sometimes call for the insertion of a comma that the comma rules do not envision. We were taught to use commas to separate items in a series only when that series has at least three items in it, but that rule serves poorly in some cases. The following sentence adheres to that rule:
Wallace Stevens wrote memos on questions of the insurance business and poetry.
Since the series in the sentence consists of only two items, "memos on questions of the insurance business" and "poetry," no comma comes between them. But without a comma there, the sentence can be read to mean that Wallace Stevens' contribution to the world of poetry took the form of memos about it! (And reversing the order of the items hardly improves matters. Try it. The result is a sentence that can be read to mean Stevens' poetry dealt with issues in the insurance industry.) For communication's sake, we need
Wallace Stevens wrote memos on questions of the insurance business, and poetry. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Grammar for the Soul by Lawrence A. Weinstein. Copyright © 2008 Lawrence A. Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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