Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know of grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object being photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene:
It tells you.
You don’t tell it.
– Joan Didion
I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t ready any – any – Didion, but I’ve always loved this quote, and it makes me think I would love her too.
My brother is learning German and I am learning Finnish. He is much farther along in his learning than I am with mine, but we still had a wonderful long trans-Atlantic chat about language rules and different modes of instruction. I used to be upset that our mother stopped teaching us Finnish when I was young, but no longer. Now I get to luxuriate in the madness of the Finnish language. It’s strangely exhilarating.