Perhaps because of unhappy memories from school, many of us tend to think of grammar books as dry-as-dust bore-a-thons obsessing about distinctions (“that” versus “which,” “affect” versus “effect”) that are hard to grasp and slip from our minds almost as soon as we’ve finished reading about them.
This is despite the welcome arrival of entertaining and accessible best-selling grammar books such as Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” and Benjamin Dryer’s “Dryer’s English.” We can now add to the list of entertaining and accessible books on grammar Lawrence Weinstein’s “Grammar for a Full Life.”
Weinstein taught writing at Harvard University from 1973 to 1983, during which time he co-founded Harvard’s Writing Center. He then joined the English Department of Bentley University, where he became the director of Bentley’s Expository Writing Program. He’s also a playwright who has had two full-length plays professionally produced. His personality comes through in his writing as warm, empathetic, and unusually curious about the effect that our words have on ourselves and others.
And that is where the concept of grammar for a full life comes in. I would describe Weinstein’s book’s topic as being, surprisingly enough, grammar and spirituality. More broadly it’s about language, and how it can help or hinder our abilities to live mindfully, to communicate kindly and empathetically, to have an appropriate sense of modesty, and to be free from the limitations that our own and others’ perceptions of us can impose.
This book is, as they say, right up my alley. I write books and articles, and how to use words to effectively persuade or move an audience is important to me. But even more importantly I often lead meditations, and when I’m doing that I have to be aware of whether or not my use of language helps people to relax and to be present, calm, and curious about what’s going on within them. “Grammar for a Full Life” is very much about those topics. How can our language help us to be more present, calm, and curious with regard to our lives? How can it help us communicate with others in a way that helps them feel truly heard and that helps them too to be more present, calm, and curious?
Weinstein’s book isn’t just about writing, but about speaking as well. In fact many of his examples refer to conversations rather than the written word. And beyond that, even, his book is about how different ways of thinking affect us. Much of our thinking, after all, is verbal, and so naturally involves grammar. Our thought, and the speech and writing that springs from it, can help us to be closed or curious. It can help us to be rigid or relaxed, “hyper” or calm, depressed or optimistic, aware of ourselves as fixed or as evolving.
So stimulating was “Grammar for a Full Life” that the moment I finished it I sat down and wrote an entire article (Love, Grammar, and Magic) based on ideas from just one chapter — “The Active-Passive Hybrid No. 1.” The title from the book might sound dry but the chapter itself is rich, fascinating, and even magical. I could probably several articles based on thoughts sparked off by each chapter. This is a rich book.
There are too many gems in the book for me to give you more than a very general sense of its contents, but one other example that stuck with me is a “grammatical stratagem” (as Weinstein calls it) for stripping away “second-hand thought” and getting in touch with a sense of how we really think and feel about something. Simply beginning a response with some form of words like “To be honest with you…” or “I have to say…” or “I wish I could agree with you, but…” we can dig down to find our own voice, and lose some of our fears of expressing ourselves authentically and of bucking convention.
This is a book I highly recommend. The chapters are short, accessible, and every one of them is thought-provoking. I enjoyed my first reading of it, and as soon as it was over I found myself wanting to go through it again. And I’m sure I will.