It’s almost always enjoyable to me to read a well-written book on a topic I haven’t considered much authored by someone who has considered it a whole lot. Grammar for a Full Life is one of those books.
The first thing you should know is that it’s not really about grammar. In fact, he gives just one short chapter dedicated to the proper usage of grammar – buried in the middle – to appease those whose interest in grammar is rooted in their need for order and propriety. This is not a book about such small things. It’s a book about the biggest things.
I picked up this book because of my interest in language, wordplay, reflection and meditation, human behavior, and influence. My hope was to see things from a unique perspective (and as always) take some ideas that I can use in IRL Experience Designing. I figured I might find a few insights on how to word things to maximize impacts.
The author, Lawrence Weinstein spent ten years teaching at Harvard and cofounded and directed Harvard’s Writing Center. His book is filled with those novel insights that only come from spending a lot of time with the subject matter.
I’ll summarize some of his insights here. If these appeal to you, get this book. You’ll love it.
Passive vs Active Tense
Using the passive tense takes away your agency, or at a minimum, questions it. For example “I am being kept on hold with the credit card company” is passive.
Using the active tense takes your power back and reduces the victim-ness: “I’ve been holding for ten minutes now”.
The situation is the same in both. The power you own is very different.
Use What Works
In short, if you break the rules of things like comma placement and it helps you get your needed effect – do it. (This chapter comes early in the book, almost thumbing his nose at the grammar sticklers). But the idea he presents (like most of the ideas in the book) is an allegory to life.
Passive Voice to Avoid Blame.
“Mistakes were made” is far different than “We made some mistakes”. For the Eureka Room, I could use avoidance technique for unreliable narrators to humorously deny ownership of things that are clearly their fault.
Ellipsis: Assuming Your Audience Knows The Rest
The ellipsis essentially means, “it goes without saying”.
Other than the literal “…” there is the unspoken ellipsis. Things like “Even my sister came to the party” to someone that doesn’t know your sister still gives them an idea about the sister. And it makes them feel more connected to you and “in on it”. It’s like you even are bonded with the sister in some way.
In his words, “It is, to a large extent, the ellipsis which accounts for the joyful, bonding power inherent in the telling of a good joke” and “We can make rhythmically calculated use of silence to mark, revel in, and build upon, the good things that are gaining hold between us.”
One of my favorite go-to’s in humor of the crazy narrator of the Eureka Room is the narrator assuming this craziness is normal, then they pause and let the participants take it in and hopefully find a moment of bonding with the others in the room.
(This is D. David Bourland, Jr.’s invention). The idea is to strip the english language of the following words: be, been, am, are, is, was, and were.
These words are the verbal equivalent of the “=” sign. Removing them from the language removes false equations that get us into numerous problems, not the least of which is identity issues.
“I am a baker” becomes “I bake”.
“I am an idiot” becomes “I forgot about your birthday this year”.
Even better is to put e-prime in past tense. This is completely acceptable, since almost all instances of things we might talk about are in the past.
“But” cuts both ways
When I say “I want to go for a run but it’s raining” both things are true: I want to go for a run and it is raining.
But if I swap the two sides around the but and write the same two true things like this: “It’s raining, but I want to go for a run”, it takes on a different tone and implication.
Both of these are still true but somehow placing the positive part on the right changes a lot. It adds hope and a hint of determination in the face of adversity.
Consider how you tell two truths with a but.
Similar to the E-prime situation, you can drop the word “my” or “mine” and “our” and “ours” to get a different view of life. It’s all impermanent but we don’t like to think that way:
“My car” becomes “The car I drive”.
“My house” becomes “The house I live in”.
Sounds strange, right? Instead of extending your being into these objects, as if you might say “my leg” or “my hand”, you stand apart from them, being yourself without these false appendages.
The Word “Will”
When speaking of the future, the word “will” (as in “I will go to the store”) used to be more related to “willing something to be done”. As in using your own power.
Today we hear it mean “it’s as good as done”, but of course it is not. The future is not happened. We must apply our will to make it happen. If we are more mindful that the future happens under our will and is not foreordained.
Historically “will” was not a future tense verb. It was a declaration of intent to create a certain future.
A more mindful way to express “I will go to the store” would be “I intend to go to the store”. This way, intead of jetisoning the idea from our head with the attitude that is a sure-thing, we keep the idea in mind that it is up to us to go to the store and that it is not yet done until we do it.
When we keep the idea in our mind we will think about it more and it will actually happen.
Other great lines from the book
I’m not going to go into detail on all the other ideas in the book, but here’s a few ideas you’ll get to explore if you read Grammar For a Full Life.
- On knowing when and how to criticize: “Nobody should be cut off from the inner well of confidence required to get on in this world.” Use modeling. Use scaffolding. Yield the red-pen lightly.
- Socrates dictum: “If a person knew what was right to do, they would be doing it”.
- The semicolon reads “which is to say”.
- “admit it to the waiting room of future possibilities” (I just like the wording here)
- “civic minimalists” (another great phrase)
- “good thought often depends on more than intelligence: It depends on how long thinkers can endure not yet having reached a satisfactory endpoint to their inquiry.” (so true)