Beth Deitchman

Reader, Writer, Knitter, Slayer

Category: Grammar

The Weight of Words

I devised my favorite teaching exercise just after the US went back to war in Iraq, taking my inspiration from a seemingly unlikely source: President George W. Bush. Though the forty-third president had a sometimes-tenuous command of words, he surrounded himself with masters of manipulating language. Remember when we used to call climate change global warming? Yeah, I do, too. That shift in nomenclature happened during Bush 2’s administration. It was a brilliant, though disturbing choice. Warming is a kind of change, so that much is accurate. And change is one of the few constants in our life, so naturally the climate will go through it, too, right? Maybe even all by itself. But as the science has made clear, the planet is warming at an alarming rate because of humans, particularly because we consume too much, especially fossil fuels. By stripping away the old label’s specificity, the new one adds the illusion of wiggle room to discussions about the environment—if it was going to change anyway, perhaps it’s still okay to drill, baby, drill. (It’s not okay. It’s so far from okay.)

Although I did point out this label shift to my students, the example that inspired my lesson plan works in the other direction, moving from abstract to specific. For months leading up to the war, we heard about weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration relied on these weapons’ putative existence to justify beginning a war that many of us believed was unjust. Every day we heard that phrase, often multiple times. But on the eve of that war, Bush claimed in his speech to the nation that the Iraqis had weapons of mass murder. It’s the only moment from that speech that I remember because it arrested me. I was caught between horror for the impending war and admiration for the rhetorical prowess of 43’s staff. It’s just one word, but it carries so much weight, and this moment offered a perfect example of diction’s power. So I asked my students to bring dictionaries to the next class where I wrote the two words—destruction, murder—on the board. After we listed the definitions beneath the words, I explained their context and we discussed the difference. I asked them why the President might change a phrase that had been in the public consciousness for so long, and my students saw how this rhetorical shift from an abstract idea to a concrete image appeared to heighten the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the world, thus making the war appear necessary.

In both of these examples the more specific a word’s meaning, the more weight it carries. Change can happen in many directions; warming is a particular kind of change. Destruction has many targets; murder is the intentional destruction of a human life by another human. All writers have seen advice about using fewer words that do more work to add power to their writing. Instead of “she ran quickly,” we could write “she raced,” “she sped,” fled, flew. All those words contain the notion of “running quickly,” but they also add a specific flavor to that quickness; they all do extra work. This is one of my favorite parts of writing—choosing my words carefully.

For eight years after President Bush left office, we had an articulate, eloquent president in Barack Obama, a man who chooses his words carefully. But now we have a president who proves his disdain for words and meaning every day. When he speaks, many of his words float, unanchored by meaning. The rest of his administration operates in much the same way. These are the people for whom news is fake and facts are alternative. Nouns become verbs—how does one “architect her life?” And when we hear the words “Believe me” coming from 45’s mouth, we’re wise to do just the opposite. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump prefers to improvise rather than rely upon prepared remarks. And in his improvisations he returns to the same words over and over: huge, tremendous, and of course, great. While huge and tremendous offer more specific meanings, great requires context. It can mean big, important, remarkable, above average; it can have both positive and negative connotations depending on the words around it: a great nation. A great idiot. It is a word, like this presidency, without much weight.

And then there is the word that so many pundits long to apply to the Oval Office’s current occupant, if for no other reason than to pretend that there is something normal about this president. So many people still look for a reason to call Donald J. Trump presidential. But in order to do that, we’d have to strip that word of all its weight and let it float as meaningless as every other Trumpian utterance. There are plenty of more accurate adjectives to apply to the forty-fifth president, adjectives that carry all the weight they need to describe him.

The Awesome Power of Grammar and Punctuation, Part One

I have many reasons to be thankful for my writing partner, Emily. I’ve written about some of them before, and one day I’ll compose a post about our evolving partnership. Or I’ll simply provide a link to the post she writes. We make a good team, or as Emily told me last week, we’re part of the same Ka-Tet whose mission is to write great books. Along with some complementary differences, we share a number of attributes, including a wonderfully nerdish devotion to grammar and her sister, punctuation. During our bi-monthly writing lunches (and on many other occasions), we conduct passionate discussions about the importance of clear punctuation or sentence structure variation. I find these conversations exhilarating, though I imagine some people might not share our enthusiasm.

I understand why the topic could seem less than thrilling. For so many, the word grammar evokes memories of stern English teachers lecturing about the dangers of split infinitives, comma splices, and dangling modifiers. These infractions of grammar rules sound truly horrible—splitting, splicing, and dangling, oh my! It’s no wonder people cringe at the thought.

But our nerdy devotion allows Emily and me a different perspective on grammar and punctuation from that of the terrified high school student. We see those rules as tools for making meaning, both for the writer and the reader. A thorough grounding in grammar gives writers the freedom to make all kinds of choices for communicating their ideas and for telling their stories. And a keen understanding of grammar helps readers interpret what they read. Grammatical mistakes, however, cloud meaning, putting a barrier between the writer and the reader. For example, a misplaced comma can radically alter the sense of a sentence: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!” One tiny mark changes that statement from an enthusiastic invitation to a cannibalistic exhortation. That is some awesome power on display.

Other tiny marks bear the same power. Consider a sentence such as, “I like Tuesday’s.” That apostrophe combined with an s signals ownership, so as a reader I’m left wondering what it is belonging to Tuesday you like. Take out the apostrophe and you get “I like Tuesdays.” Aha. So do I. I like Tuesdays, too. My friend Tiffany Aldrich MacBain has a fabulous post on her blog about just this issue.

Grammatical errors have the same result—confusion. Take the ominously named dangling modifier in this example:

Walking to the back of the room, heads slowly turn to watch me as they perform the traditional inspection of each person who enters.

In this case, “walking to the back of the room” modifies—clarifies, defines, describes—something in the full sentence that follows the comma. As you can see, there is an (amusing) error, and the italicized phrase modifies “heads.” But that doesn’t make any sense. The mistake takes the reader out of the narrative, forcing her to try to figure out what is going on. Sure, I can guess what the writer means, but, as I used to tell my writing students, what if I get it wrong?

The writer well versed in grammar, however, can choose to break rules to create specific effects. Take the passive voice; anyone who works in Word knows that it prefers active voice, alerting us to our “mistakes” in green. It has a point. The passive voice doesn’t provide a lot of information—we can’t identify the subject of a sentence structure in passive voice. There is no actor, in other words, as this famous example demonstrates: “Mistakes were made.” Sure, but by whom, Mr. President? Yet the passive voice can be valuable if, for instance, you’d like to use sentence structure to highlight a people’s plight: Native Americans were forced from their land and made to walk across the country. Here, using passive voice underlines the powerlessness of the Native Americans—they did not choose to leave their lands. Of course, if you wanted to spotlight the perpetrators, you would make them the subject of the sentence: The US Government forced Native Americans from their land and drove them across the country.

Like the passive voice, the well-placed sentence fragment can do a lot of work for a writer: Derek couldn’t sleep. His mind kept turning and turning. All damn night. Those three syllables, so abrupt and technically ungrammatical, emphasize Derek’s insomnia. They also create a rhythm for the passage, a short little burst of words next to a longer clause. (Isn’t this freakin’ cool?)

My final example for this post: the run-on sentence, while generally something worth avoiding, has its uses:

“Mom told me to go outside and play but I said it was too cold then she did that thing where she rubs her head and says oh Jeffrey and then told me to put on a coat so I did and I found the tree stump and came here—” He drew a breath.

I took this passage from a flash fiction piece I wrote a few months ago. Jeffrey is only six, and I wanted to communicate his enthusiasm—the kind associated with children telling stories as though they have to get all their words out on one breath. I left out punctuation to achieve that affect. Correct punctuation would actually have failed me:

Mom told me to go outside and play, but I said it was too cold. Then she did that thing where she rubs her head and says, “Oh Jeffrey” and told me to put on a coat. So I did, and I found the tree stump and came here.

There are too many pauses breaking up the stream of Jeffrey’s breathless recitation of events. It’s an adult’s voice, not a child’s.

I’ll be doing more of these posts in the weeks to come because I’m a grammar nerd and want to share my love with other writers. In the meanwhile, here are some of my favorite sources for answering grammar and punctuation questions:

The Elements of Style (William Strunk)
Style: the Basics of Clarity and Grace (Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb)

Purdue Online Writing Lab: Grammar
Purdue Online Writing Lab: Punctuation
Grammar Girl

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