I try to reinvent myself every few months. Call it trying to revive the spirit of New Year’s resolutions. I came up with a lengthy list of ways to improve my life: eat better, sleep more, call my mom, teach my boyfriend the word “mature,” etc. Better grammar didn’t make the cut, but Lawrence A. Weinstein says it should in his book Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change.
The book is “meant for people who . . . like to have their consciousness of life’s big questions refreshed,” says Weinstein. “In one sense . . . it is a spiritual inventory.” Or, as he writes in the introduction, “Grammar can become a place to get in spiritual shape.” So this is not just another book about love for the English language. You get a workout (and an uplift), as well.
To say the least, I was skeptical. I don’t go to the gym, never mind give my brain a workout. I write and edit all day; the last thing I expected to need was more grammar.
“Grammar can augment or support a person’s effort at self-improvement,” says Weinstein. Citing 35 individual grammatical elements (colons, commas, ellipses, dashes, future tense, active voice — you get the picture), he argues that, when properly applied, these things can “enlarge ourselves,” enabling us to “become more creative, more assertive, more generous, etc.”
Okay, but how? Well, for example, let’s take the colon. Two simple dots, one atop the other, can signify authority and reinforce assertiveness. Favored by E. B. White and William Strunk, the well-known authors of The Elements of Style, the colon demands attention and can provide valuable or useful information by summing up a situation for the listener. Look: I’m already exercising and building my confidence.
“Every attribute a person might desire to develop — from decisiveness in an emergency to trust and generosity and the ability to tolerate uncertainty — stands to benefit from changes in one’s verbal conduct,” writes Weinstein. It would also be helpful if you embrace that change.
How do you know you’re on the grammatical path to spiritual fulfillment? “The measure has to be internal,” says Weinstein. “Progress would mean feeling more fully realized as a human being, more nearly one’s ‘better self.’ ”
I certainly want to meet my better self, so for now, I’ll stick with becoming more assertive. Weinstein recommends thinking in the active voice. Instead of saying, “Work is where I’ll spend my time today,” I’ll say, “I’ve decided to contribute to the company and go to work today.” That sounds so much more positive; I feel pretty good about myself. Much more confident. Looks like I’m on my way. My boss can thank me later, perhaps with a raise.
Lawrence A. Weinstein will be reading from his book and signing autographs at the Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave, in Cambridge on Friday, May 2, at 7 pm, and at Borders, 6 Wayside Road, in Burlington on Saturday, May 3, at 2 pm. Both events are free.