A lecture about grammar can be funny and touching. If you don’t believe so, watch a TED lecture about emotion and the power of the subjunctive, the mood in the English language that concerns possibilities and hypotheses and things that might have been, if other things had been different. (I just used subjunctive mood a couple of times without even trying.) The TED speaker, a linguist, explains that English employs three moods and offered examples: indicative (I’m speaking at the TED conference); subjunctive (I might shit my pants); and imperative (Bring me a change of clothes).
He grew up in a family who came to America from Vietnam, speaking a language at home that has no subjunctive mood and therefore doesn’t allow a speaker to consider the possibilities in “if” or “might” or “should.” The speaker was a little boy when his large family left Vietnam. They were about to board a bus leaving for the airport on their way to America, but the boy screamed and cried so much that they decided to wait. As the bus they had intended to board pulled away, artillery demolished it. Despite the family’s shock, their language did not enable them to talk about what might have happened.
The linguist carried the name Phuc Tran, which sounds like something different in English than it does in Vietnamese; what a razzing he must have suffered when he told his fourth-grade bullying classmates that he was changing his name to Peter. Hating the art and English classes he had expected to love in college, he signed up for ancient Greek and liked it so much that he studied Sanskrit, too, a language even harder than Greek. He went on to Latin and then to German immersion, so now, fluent in six languages, he understands grammar from the inside out, the outside in, and every which way besides.
What would a non-native speaker make of “every which way,” an expression common in 1940s Kalamazoo, when and where I grew up? My family also said, “I can’t hardly believe it.” A welder once told me that the bosses and the metallurgists spoke a different language among their peers than they did with the workers, while he knew only one; he had come to college, he said, in the hope of speaking more than one way. This principle of rhetoric is decorum, suiting the language to the situation. Knowing how to say both “I can’t hardly believe it” and “I can hardly believe it,” gives me latitude that I didn’t have back home.
RickiThompson‘s son, who speaks Japanese, told me that the seventy-odd English prepositions perplex Japanese people, whose language has only seven. How do we know whether to say He put the baby on the bed or in the bed; He put the baby to bed or into bed? Do we hang the painting atop the bed or over the bed or above the bed or above the head of the bed? Might above the bed mean on the ceiling? What does She’s lying under a tree mean; a non-native speaker might think that the sentence means the woman is buried there. Which is closer: She’s sitting by the tree, next to the tree, or beside the tree? Usage of prepositions is not so tricky for people who were born into families who speak English, but few of us can explain the subjunctive mood with much confidence that a non-native speaker could understand how to use it. The British use subjunctive more often than Americans do, one reason they sound funny to us. Unless we’ve studied languages, we know most of what we know about them by ear.
Grammar serves us, rather than our serving grammar. We nevertheless do better as writers if we know how the language works. We can create effects only to the extent that we’ve mastered the language. If we don’t know when to employ past perfect verb tense in an English sentence (She had put the baby to bed), we can’t show the chronology of actions merely by adjusting verbs. The Sapir-Whorf proposition holds that the grammar of a language affects the way people conceptualize the world and themselves in it. English allows me to say, If the weather weren’t so cold, we might have had a picnic and to think about what we missed. For a Vietnamese speaker whose native language lacks the hypothetical subjunctive mood, if and might statements, and consequently thinks entirely in facts, that sentence is just ridiculous.
Observers will find glitches and broken rules in this essay. For example, I’ve shifted willy-nilly from second-person to third-person to first-person-singular to first-plural. We need editors to catch our typos and other mistakes, but our goal is to write with purpose. I admired the lovely simplicity of Ron Koertge’s style in his recent Inkpot piece about horse racing. That simplicity was chosen—intentional and purposeful. E.B. White never used two clauses or three syllables if one would do. The average length of sentences in the novels of Saul Bellow is said to be eleven words. These and other successful writers’ rhetoric and style are not accidental.
A writer without knowledge of grammar and rhetoric and usage is like a carpenter who can’t drive a nail. We can live under leaves in a lean-to, grunting to each other, or we can choose to be carpenters. If we intend to be cabinet makers, though, working sometimes in knotty pine but sometimes in rosewood and ebony, with skills beyond those of rough carpenters who knock together two-by-fours for laying concrete, we need more than a casual grasp of our tools.
The words on the page are all that we have.