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Wednesday, April 30, 2008 01:39 am

Grammar and the governor

Language to make Illinois better

Untitled Document Punctuation and grammar, used well, can not only make us communicate better, and look better for having done so, they can also make us feel better. Commas and colons and active-voice sentences can even make us be better persons, argues Lawrence A. Weinstein in his new book, Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change (Quest Books, 2008). Can the grammatical medicine he prescribes for the state of the soul be applied equally well to the state of Illinois? He writes: “I have come to view the realm of grammar as a rarefied gymnasium, where — instead of weights, a treadmill, mats, and a balance beam — one finds active verbs, passive verbs, periods, apostrophes, dashes, and a thousand other pieces of linguistic equipment, each of which, properly deployed, can provide exercise for the spirit like that which gym apparatus provides the body. Grammar can become a place to get in spiritual shape.”
The use of colons, for example, gives to the writer a “sense of agency,” a feeling of being in command. The timid who learn to use phrases such as “Here’s where things stand:” will take charge of their lives soon after. So I say that Illinoisans need more colons. When Gov. Rod Blagojevich whines, as he did at a prayer breakfast last week, that “they don’t have a school for new governors,” we might collectively reply, “Here’s your homework: Grow up.”
Likewise, active-voice sentences convey not only agency but honesty as well. Presidents are famous for such passive-voice weasel words as “Mistakes were made,” but we want to know who made them. Rather, we want the president to admit he made them. The passive-voice sentence I’d like to ban from newspapers is “The governor has not been accused of any wrongdoing.” What it means is “A grand jury has not yet formally indicted the governor” — because plenty of people have accused Blago of wrongdoing, Ali Ata being only the latest pay-to-playmate to do so. Of course, there are times when the passive voice can make us feel better. We might want to stick with “Blagojevich was elected twice by wide margins” rather than admitting that it was we who made the mistakes that were made. There are times when neither active voice nor passive is fully appropriate. We neither do the thing entirely nor have it done to us; many things that happen are a blend of our work and that of powers beyond our control. “Unfortunately,” writes Weinstein, “English is sorely lacking in grammatical constructions that do justice to the hybrid state of mind involved in pulling off most real deeds on earth.” An exception, he says, is the formula that begins with the subjunctive “may.” The result is a blessing, as in “May the road rise up to meet you.” Here we might say, “May Illinois be spared another two-and-a-half years of this character. May the authorities accept a reasonable plea bargain. May Blagojevich have a long and happy life outside of public office.”
In his chapter on “Generosity,” Weinstein explains that semicolons, properly used, gift readers with explanation and amplification rarely seen in common writing. “A grammatical device with even more expansive potential for the heart is the cumulative sentence,” he says. Each dependent clause adds to the main clause, expanding, explaining, and helping the reader to a better understanding. Journalists are trained away from such constructions; simple is the rule because cumulatives are easily botched and readers are impatient. But let me try one for practice: When the Blagojevich era has ended and the jokes have turned to sadness, Illinois will eventually realize that what went wrong wasn’t just this person but its politics — failing to groom purposeful leaders, allowing a cynical opportunist to fill the vacuum, and cheating history of an opportunity for greatness once again.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at
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