“Grammar for a Full Life,” by Lawrence Weinstein


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.

“Grammar For a Full Life” is available from Amazon or, even better, an independent bookstore near you.

2 Comments. Leave new

  • LuEllen Huntley
    December 4, 2020 2:02 pm

    Stimulating review. Yay. The last book review I wrote centers on Dryer’s book, so loved it! Calling my independent bookstore today. Sounds like my kind of read. Thank you. LuEllen Huntley

  • I am definitely getting your book it is right up my alley. I started reading a portion of it on Facebook and it reminded me of a story I wrote a few years ago about the way I write.
    What else is inside of you

    Writing vs telling my stories (I have been asked to write this story to share with Wisdom Wednesdays on my journey as a writer.

    I have started writing stories a little over a year ago. I’m up to 170. They are all filed under-Write like you speak, not like you write. This is the way I write my stories. I think of myself more as a story teller and not so much a writer.
    One of my sons called last night and said, “you’ve been on my mind all week Mom.” “How come?” “Well you read me those stories last week and I have been telling anyone who will listen how much I enjoyed them.” “Wow Brett, thank you, that means a lot to me.” “But, I think that you need to read your stories because that is what brings them to life. You have grammar errors in looking at it but when you speak them it doesn’t matter, because that is the way you talk. You have a way of bringing the person right into the story.” Funny, that is the way I feel about them too.
    When I got off the phone (I had been wanting to ask this of my husband anyway) I told Don what Brett had said and then I said “why don’t you ever say anything about my stories? Do you not like them? You never make a comment after I read one.” He said “yes they are very good, but I am too critical. I would be correcting most of them and I said but then you would lose the way the story was meant to be told. He said yes, you tell, great stories.”
    So, I guess I am not a writer. I am a story teller. Now, I have to change my thinking as to what I want to do. Here I am 65 years old and I am still looking for what I want to be when I grow up. But—that is what life should be all about, continually wanting to grow and change. Who knew at this age the creative juices would start flowing and I could possibly, be starting a whole new career.
    Talked to my friend Jean, she is the one who I read all my stories to and she is a songwriter. I told her what Brett and Don had said. She agreed and said I had a wonderful way of telling a story but no they read well also. My forever, friend.
    Today she is sending the final draft of our song to the music arrangers. The arrangement is beautiful and as soon as we are finished with the final touches we will bring the singer into the studio who we have chosen to sing for our demo. It is titled: I’ll give you now, from my story I’ll give you now, what I couldn’t give you then. Our journey as partners, writing songs, begins.
    Jean feels like it’s a hit. I do too. Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, who knows. She has said that so many of my stories are songs, so we will have a lot of material to work with.
    Years ago, Jean had gone to a party and they had hired a psychic to read for the guests. She could only ask 1 question of him, so she asked, “am I ever going to be successful with my music?” He said, “yes, but not now. Someday you will meet a woman and you two will have a partnership and yes, you will be very successful. She believes that I am that woman, that she has been waiting for.


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