Book Review: Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us

By Sarah White

Who would believe that a book about grammar could be fun, delightful, and thought-provoking? Lawrence Weinstein’s Grammar for a Full Life is all that. Weinstein doesn’t just want to us straight about a number of English’s famously tricky grammatical points. He shows us how our writing reflects how we live, and how it can reveal ways to live better.

“A grammar book for enhancing human spirit? As any skeptic worth his salt would say, give me a break,” Weinstein, a professor and cofounder of Harvard University Writing Center, writes in his Introduction. And yet, he has truly delivered what he set out to achieve.

The book is organized into seven sections, or themes:

  • Grammar to Take Life in Hand
  • Grammar for Creative Passivity
  • Grammar for Belonging
  • Grammar for Freedom
  • Grammar for Morale
  • Grammar for Mindfulness
  • Grammar for The End

Not the usual organization by rules of usage or principles of composition!

Let me share a few examples of the meat you’ll find in this hearty stew.

In celebration of cross-outs, the signal of the drafting phase that helps nascent ideas mature, Weinstein quotes Kurt Vonnegut: “We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

Weinstein argues for the passive voice—something I’ve never seen a writing instructor attempt before—by pointing out the passive nature of receiving inspiration. Phrases like “I was inspired to” or “I took my lead from” abound. He mentions Michelangelo finding forms within stone slabs, and Rodin’s “The work of art is already in the marble. I just chop off the material that isn’t needed.”

In his section on Grammar for Belonging, Weinstein makes surprising connections. On voice: “In your writing, be that person who you are in the flesh.” In celebration of ellipses, “The ellipses shows us that, to some degree at least, communal bonds exist already, since certain facts pertaining to the speaker and/or listener ‘go without saying’ between them.” The semicolon and its role in cumulative sentences gets a tip of the hat for its ability to give a pleasant little feeling of expectancy—there is more to come; something will be expanded, exemplified, or made clear.

Weinstein welcomes the acceptance of “they” for the third person singular and the use of contractions even in formal writing.

In Grammar for Freedom, Weinstein takes on E-Prime, one of my favorite devices to clarify and strengthen the thinking behind our words. He calls it out for false equivalency: “All forms of the verb to be—such as am, is, are, was, were, has been, and will be—function like an equal sign,” he writes. And yet, we are rarely in a position of such authority that we can claim one thing equals another. “…’You are cowardly’—built around the verb are, a form of to be—is highly problematic. It is too simple, and it lacks respect for it’s subject’s variability; that fellow human being is unlikely either just to be a coward or to be one always.”

Grammar for Morale brings a celebration of “But”, that little fulcrum of a word that allows a sentence to reverse itself. Consider carefully the sequence, Weinstein advises: “Whatever goes last usually receives emphasis (called by grammarians end-focus).” Consider the difference in impact between “We fight, but the enemy defeats us” and “The enemy defeats us, but we fight on.” (this is the self-edit I make the most frequently.)

He praises the rhetorical devices that give sentences the power of poetry—sentence length and repetition, for example. “At its aesthetic best, a sentence’s grammar in some way mimics the content of what is being said.”

And finally, in Grammar for Mindfulness, Weinstein counsels us to avoid hype and fearfulness by restraining our use of exclamation marks, superlatives, italics, and other intensifiers. “….I’m likelier to buy a claim if the speaker making it doesn’t shriek at me and try to overwhelm me, effectively inserting a barrier of noise between me and…things of note.”

A favorite nugget of mine, for its mindfulness, is Weinstein’s distaste for possessive pronouns. “When we don’t take care, the possessive mindset–my, your, his, and so forth—casts a thick, misleading veil over all things.” He finds that when he replaces a possessive with a descriptive, he finds that he feels “a bit less encumbered, and a wee bit less invested in the concept—property—that associates myself with certain objects but blinds me both to them (in their truest nature) and to marvels on all sides.” Grammar for mindfulness leads us away from excited states of mind, the fiction of possession, and false certainty, Weinstein observes.

Pleasant stories from Weinstein’s life and teaching interleave all these gems. In these 200 pages plus comprehensive sources and endnotes, I felt like I was on a delightful walk through what I thought was familiar territory, made new by the wit and observations of my guide.

I’ve saved my highest praise for last. I had borrowed the book from the library—before I even finished it, I purchased a copy. This is a keeper for my writer’s bookshelf.

© 2022 Sarah White


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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