Pick of the Week

The Essence of Grammar

As a 9-year-old boy helping his immigrant father write business correspondence, Lawrence A. Weinstein learned that grammar can be used to help reshape our lives. His lesson began with the colon.

Weinstein recalls that his father used to say, "Don't let people step on you." The senior Weinstein used the colon to assert himself and put his addressee on warning.

"It's one thing to write, 'Mr. Johnson, the check you sent has now bounced.' And quite another to write, 'Mr. Johnson: The check you sent has now bounced.' The colon says, 'I demand your attention; I deserve it.' (My father used the colon) to make himself formidable," says Weinstein.

The younger Weinstein has continued to help others with writing. He taught expository writing at Harvard for 10 years and co-founded Harvard's Writing Center. He is currently the director of the Expository Writing Program at Bentley College in Massachusetts.

Through helping hundreds of students, Weinstein "saw my father wasn't the only one with a distinct grammatical profile. ... By making certain changes in grammar, one can ... eventually, to some extent, become a different person."

It is those beliefs that lead Weinstein to write the newly published Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change.

"This is a book about personal well-being. Most books on grammar are reference books and take a rhetoric stance. Mine is unusual. Grammar can be used to change our feelings."

Weinstein makes this point with a discussion about the word "but," saying that what we put before and after the word can influence our outlook.

He gives two examples: "I beat my best time in the 100-meter dash today, but I came in fourth." And "I came in fourth today, but I beat my best time in the 100-meter dash." In the second example, the positive thought lingers.

"The words after the clause are the part of the sentence we take away with us. It's remarkable how millions of people who have this power unconsciously put the bad news about themselves after the 'but,' where it does the most damage," says Weinstein.

While changing the order of words in a sentence may boost your self-esteem, Weinstein says the use of grammar can lead to other changes, such as "becoming more assertive, more mindful, more creative and more trusting."

The absence of trust is easily viewed in this sentence written by a job applicant: "What a great pleasure it was to meet you today!! The position sounds absolutely perfect for me!" Writers who employ an overuse of italics and exclamation points "may well be better-intentioned than the boy who cried wolf, but they share his fate: Their audience soon learns to discount their words generally, and even comes to resent them," writes Weinstein. In-your-face punctuation aside, there is also a point to be made about the proper (or helpful) use of voice.

"I try to make the point that overuse of the passive voice is demoralizing. The passive voice lulls us into thinking things just happen. We forget our own power to make change," says Weinstein.

He illustrates this point in reference to being kept on hold on the telephone.

"A woman who says, 'I am being kept on hold,' is less ready to terminate the call and get on with her day than the woman who says, 'I have been holding for 10 minutes now.' (The latter) remains conscious of her own role and power in that story."

While greater self-esteem, trust and power are some of the things we can change through the use of grammar, Weinstein reminds us that grammar is also a thing of beauty. He says grammar gives us a way to contribute to the world with language.

He writes: "Jimi Hendrix found potential for expressive beauty in feedback from his amp. ... Hip-hop artists found the same in the sound of a needle scratching vinyl. Should we expect less from a storehouse of effects as vast as grammar?"

Weinstein encourages teachers not to wield grammar like a stick and says to be sure that there is something on the paper that is worth punctuating. His desire for readers is that they change their view of grammar.

"My hope is that my readers would stop thinking about grammar as a chore to attend to and begin to see it as an array of ways available to us to reinvigorate and somewhat remake ourselves."

Lawrence A. Weinstein reads from Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change from noon to 1 p.m., Saturday, May 10, at the UA Bookstore, 1209 E. University Blvd. Call 621-2426 for information. Weinstein also conducts a book-signing the same day at 4 p.m., at Barnes and Noble, 5130 E. Broadway Blvd. Call 512-1166 for information. Both events are free.