My generation may well have been the last one to be taught to diagram sentences in school. Some of you may not even know what diagramming a sentence IS: a kind of exploratory surgery in which you open up a sentence to see how it works by finding out what grammatical function each word is serving. You identify the subject, the verb, and its object; then you put the adjectives with the nouns they are modifying, the prepositions with their objects. It was boring drudgery, and I never knew anybody who enjoyed doing it.
But those of us who learned diagramming do not go around writing headlines like
British Left Waffles on Falklands
Chester Morrill, 92, Was Fed Secretary
We expect sentences to follow normal English sentence structure: subject, verb, object. This means our initial reading of the first headline will be that British soldiers left their breakfast on the Falkland Islands--the writer also failed to take into account that "left" is a verb as well as noun, and "waffles" a noun as well as a verb. And since the Federal Reserve Board is not what first leaps to our minds when we see the word "fed," we end up with the rather macabre vision of Chester Morrill as inadvertent cannibal.
People who understand grammar are likely to use normal English sentence structure in their writing, which means that we always start by identifying WHO is performing the action. Think of it as the difference between political writing and sports writing. We don't use a collective anonymous "they" or "Congress" or "the White House" for the subjects of our sentences. We say "Sosa hit a towering three-run homer," and the Cubs won the game even though "Wood gave up four runs on nine hits and one walk." We don't say the Red Sox lost their last World Series because errors were made, we say "Buckner muffed a grounder. "
The "errors were made" statement is a passive voice construction that shrouds the author of the mistake in mystery. Did we not get a loan because our credit history has been lumped together with some deadbeat's credit history? The credit company says "A computer error occurred."
This is a sentence gives us no confidence that the company will find the error in the system and correct it. The sentence should read, "Somebody entered the wrong data," or better yet, "Somebody entered the wrong data, and we will find out how it happened and fix it." Computer errors will keep on occurring unless credit managers
- demand a high level of accuracy from data entry workers, routinely test for it, and reward people for it;
- root out mistakes as soon as they discover them;
- make sure every single worker understands that one simple careless data entry error can muck up an innocent person's entire life.
Not surprisingly, that passive construction is the usage favored by government and big business. "Toxic wastes were accidentally discharged into the river." "Confidential grand jury testimony was illegally leaked to reporters." The sentences leave unanswered the question "BY WHOM?"
Unfortunately that construction, and everything it stands for, has leaked into our standard news reporting. "It was learned today that..." is frequently the lead-in to a report on a story that appeared in another news source, based on the word of an unidentified source who heard about it from another unidentified source, and so on.
But there is one still worse thing that the passive voice does to us, especially when it rides side by side with its soulmate "euphemism." It permits us to sanitize horrendous actions and make them more acceptable. "Ethnic cleansing" sounds so much less brutal than "forcing people out of their homes, raping them, putting them in concentration camps, and murdering them." Some of you may remember that "the Jewish Question" was a freely debated intellectual issue in the twenties and thirties (and still a valid Library of Congress subject heading as late as 1978). The "Jewish Question," let us not forget, was whether Jews should be allowed to live. (Note the passive voice. By whom?)
If you follow this progression of statements, you will see how euphemism and the passive voice have helped give Holocaust denial an aura of intellectual respectability in the last few years. :If we understand how language works, we will recognize in words like these people whose goals are avoiding blame and turning people against each other.
- The Nazis systematically exterminated 6 million Jews and everybody else they considered defective.
- 6 Million Jews were killed during World War II.
- 6 Million Jews died during World War II.
- It is alleged that 6 million Jews died...
The other important, though less urgent, reason we must know how language works is that precise grammar makes our meaning clear even when all the words are not. "Jabberwocky," after all, is a piece of nonsense verse that makes perfect sense--the father warns his son against a fearful creature ("Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!"), it emerges from the wood (The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, Came whiffling through the tulgey wood), and the young hero slays it (He left it dead and with its head He went gallumphing back). How do we know this? Because the grammatical structure told us so.
But grammar is also what makes our meaning clear to ourselves. Since writing and mathematics are the best tools we humans have developed for making sense of our world, that matters.
No, this doesn't mean we need to doom another generation of schoolkids to months of diagramming sentences--though it wouldn't hurt to require it of those who want a degree in journalism. But we sure could afford to spend more time teaching students that words are not enough. By themselves they are like so many brightly colored bits of tile, pretty enough, but inconsequential. Put them together with the glue that is grammar, though, and we can make as many grand mosaics of meaning as there are minds to imagine.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
I'll write columns here whenever I really want to share an idea with you and can find time to write them . If you want to be notified when a new one is up, send me an e-mail and include "My Word's Worth" in the subject line.