Grammar for a Full Life:  How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us, by Lawrence Weinstein

So what in the world do the rules of grammar have to do with living your best life?  This is likely not something you have ever asked yourself.  At first thought it seems like one of those “What does ___ have in common with ___?” jokes.  I was therefore surprised and delighted by Lawrence Weinstein’s ability to marry the two, resulting in a thoroughly engaging, enlightening read.

Needless to say, this book is unlike any I have read in the past.  As a mindful librarian who enjoys writing I have done my fair share of grammar study.  I have also read extensively on philosophy, mindfulness, wellness, and personal development.  But seriously, enlightenment through the lens of English grammatical rules?

In Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us, Lawrence Weinstein, Cofounder of the Harvard University Writing Center, ingeniously works magic.  The book is not a mere refresher in formal grammar.   It illustrates how certain rules of grammar mirror the rules of life, AND how subtle changes in the ways we express ourselves verbally can evoke confidence, intention, mindfulness, camaraderie, defense, and even self-esteem.

Let’s consider the future tense and the auxiliary verb “will” as in, “I WILL write one blog entry a week; I WILL write an Academy Award winning screenplay; I WILL keep dust bunnies from forming colonies under my bed,” and so on.  According to Weinstein, such speech can propel us forward and keep us hopeful, but it can also curb  our ability to be in the moment.  In addition, by using such definitive speech we commit ourselves to actions that may never come to pass, resulting in potential disappointment and regret.  Huh…  Observe the subtle yet powerful impact of replacing “I will” with “I intend to.”  

Another nugget of wisdom that struck a chord with me is the replacement of present tense verbs when describing ourselves so we don’t become our actions.  “Since the actual present can’t be rendered in words,” and is “out of date by the time we read the first syllable.”  When I speak of myself by making statements like, “I have trouble with directions,” or, “I am bad at math,” I become a directionally and numerically challenged person.  I can replace this with, “Once I had trouble calculating the tip,” or, “Occasionally I get lost” (true and true, by the way).

Grammar for a Full Life also challenged me to take a close look at the way I personally express myself, not just verbally and in self descriptions, but in writing. This was not only enlightening, but also amusing and a little… ehem… embarrassing.  For example, my overuse of the ellipses…  which can on the one hand create a sense of camaraderie between writer and reader as the symbol represents further shared thought (I never really gave this conscious thought before.).  I also tend to practice something Weinstein refers to as, “typographical overkill” like the excessive, and sometimes offputting use of “italics, exclamation marks, intensifiers, and superlatives.”  Apparently, these can prevent a writer from being taken seriously.  (REALLY?!?!?  Crap…)

Thankfully though, in an early chapter titled, No Effort Without Error (which I personally would have saved till the end of the book), Weinstein draws a comparison of grammar as a whole to all of life in a way that relaxed me a little.  His advice to the reader is,  “…Make a point of prizing your mistakes.  Try seeing all false starts for what they are: indispensable events in a life that gets anywhere.”  I love this.

Although the title of this book might give the impression that it is niche, I assure you, the insights into life and language, brought to light through the author’s honest conveyance of personal experience and introspection (like the loss of his wife, being an outcast, aging), make this a great read for all, (not just hardcore grammarians).  I give this book an overly enthusiastic, all-caps, and excessively punctuated TWO THUMBS UP!!

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