Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change

Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change

Lawrence A. Weinstein
Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2008. Hardcover, $16.95, 361 pages.

With his recently published book Grammar for the Soul, Lawrence Weinstein has perhaps created a new sub-category of self-help books: language as a means of personal transformation. When we visit the "self-help" section of our local bookstore, we generally find an assortment of books on yoga, meditation, positive thinking, visualization, and stress management techniques. Now we can add grammar to the list.

"I have come to view the realm of grammar," says Weinstein, "as a kind of 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."

This reviewer found the title of the book intriguing, if for no other reason than that the subject of grammar is often associated with the caricature of punctilious professors of English inflicting their inscrutable "rules" of writing on a class of confused and slightly bored students. In the minds of many people, contemplating the rules of grammar has to rank right up there with thinking about going to the dentist or preparing one's taxes for the IRS.

The good news is that Grammar for the Soul is a delightful and creative approach to self-development. For anyone who spends any amount of time writing—whether letters, casual notes, e-mail to friends, or even writing done on a professional basis—this is a book well worth reading. Although Weinstein has taught at Harvard University (he now teaches at Bentley College), do not let his academic credentials scare you. His is not a book filled with esoteric canons for professional wordsmiths, but one that will be easily read by the layperson, although some of the subtleties may escape the reader the first time through. Weinstein's prose is both lucid and pointed; his style is suggestive but non-dogmatic. Far from being the arcane subject that has been reluctantly endured by generations of school children, Weinstein's approach to grammar is filled with humor, personal anecdotes, and colorful illustrations. It is reminisvent of the following passage from The Story of My Life, in which Helen Keller jubilantly acclaims, "The mystery of language was revealed to me . . . That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, joy, set it free!" I believe it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that reading Weinstein's book possibly will generate a similar excitement and renewal of interest in the process of writing, especially as it relates to the development of our soul, or, shall we say, character?

Language not only allows us to express ourselves and communicate with others, but it "helps determine what one thinks and feels in the first place." We are molded and conditioned, perhaps in quite imperceptible ways, by our choice of words and syntax. To paraphrase the biblical passage in Matthew 15:11, "It is that which comes out of the mouth that shapes the person."

A couple of examples based on the techniques found in Grammar for the Soul will give the reader a clearer idea of the way grammar can impact our psychological state. In the compound sentence, "I've applied for several jobs, but no one has hired me," the key word is the conjunction "but" which acts as a fulcrum between the two clauses. Now, witness the effect of reversing the position of the two clauses: "No one has hired me, but I continue to apply for jobs." The first example sets a decidedly pessimistic tone, while the second is upbeat and optimistic. Weinstein explains, "By filling in the 'but' clause, we exercise our right to declare which one is the more important, more salient, or useful of the truths."

Another interesting part of the book is the section on creative passivity. In Strunk and White's classic book The Elements of Style, first published in 1959, the authors strongly recommend the use of the active voice when writing, because "the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive." This has since become such an accepted dogma that when writing today in Word documents, the spell-check feature automatically highlights any passive construction with a recommendation to use the active voice instead. Weinstein, however, gives an excellent illustration of where it would be more appropriate and edifying for the writer (or speaker) to use the passive mode. Rather than reveal his specific illustration, I would offer a similar example based on the following fact: the recipient for the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize was the 14th Dalai Lama. If the Dalai Lama were to say, "I won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize" he would be using the active mode. But if his Holiness were to say, "I was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize" he would be using the passive voice. Both statements are true, but when considered from a spiritual vantage point, one suggests humility while the other suggests preoccupation with the personal self. Had the Dalai Lama actually made such a statement, is there any doubt as to which mode of expression His Holiness would have used? Also, anyone who receives a major award is often assisted and helped by numerous supporters and collaborators working behind the scenes. To use the active voice, as in the above example, may be correct from a legalistic point of view, but articulating it that way ignores the valuable contributions and dedication of others who worked beneath the radar screen of public scrutiny to help make such an achievement possible. In other words—using the above example—the active voice is all about "me," whereas the passive voice implies an element of humility and selflessness.

There are many other nuggets of wisdom in Grammar for the Soul, but rather than reveal too much, this reviewer feels that they are best left for interested readers to joyfully discover on their own.

David P. Bruce

This reviewer is a long-time member of the Theosophical Society, and after a twenty-five year career in the industrial electronics distribution field, joined the staff at Olcott where he works full time as the Director of Education.