Author: Sloppy word use corrodes the soul

By Pamela H.  Sacks

Stop for a moment and consider what it means to say, “A mistake was made,” rather than “I made a mistake.”

Lawrence A. Weinstein has given it plenty of thought and in his view, the way we express ourselves has a profound effect on how we lead our lives.

Weinstein, the co-founder of Harvard’s Writing Center and the head of expository writing at Bentley College, has offered his perspective on the influence of language usage in his new book, “Grammar for the Soul” (Quest Books, $16.95). Weinstein maintains that we can change how we feel about ourselves and engage with the world through the grammatical constructions we use. Weinstein underscores his point at the top of each chapter with a quote such as this one: “To know how near or far each soul is from its goal, the indicator is speech.”

In a recent interview, Weinstein noted that great writers have campaigned for generations against the passive voice. George Orwell wanted to see it banned from use, particularly by those in government, because it absolves the user of responsibility.

“We don’t want the White House press secretary to say, `A decision has been reached to go to war.’ We want to know who decided,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein takes things a step further. He claims that retreating to the passive voice impairs a person’s ability to take action.

“I submit that the person, phone to her ear, who says, `I am being kept on hold’ is actually less ready to terminate the call and get on with the day than the person who says, `I have been holding for 10 minutes now,’” he said. “It keeps you conscious of your role in this story. We forget to what extent we are the masters of our fate.”

Weinstein developed a fascination with grammar when he was a boy helping his father, an immigrant, with business correspondence. His father would use a colon in his salutation to present a formidable image when, for instance, seeking payment of a debt.

Grammatical usage can leave an unsettling impression, as well. Weinstein’s mother had some confusion about punctuation. He recalled that when he went to college, she would write in her letters, “You know how much we `love’ you.” Weinstein said with a laugh that he was never sure what to make of it.

How information is presented can make a big difference to both the deliverer and the receiver. Weinstein pointed to the use of the conjunction “but.” The clause that follows “but” receives the emphasis.

“It’s our way of saying to others and ourselves what they should take away from the sentence,” Weinstein said. “It is completely at our discretion. Millions of people habitually put the bad news about themselves after the `but,’ where it does the most damage. They say, `I beat my own best time today, but I came in fourth,’ rather than, `I came in fourth, but I beat my own best time.’

“It’s a whole different trajectory,” Weinstein said.