As an English major (which is my blasé way of saying “English fanatic / grammar nut / vocabulary whore / total and absolute geek”), I place a lot of importance on syntax in my everyday life. A few years ago I went on a crusade with my group of friends to encourage us all to switch from saying “I hate people who…” to “I hate it WHEN people…” – because for both grammatical and karmic reasons I didn’t think we should all go around saying how much we hate people all the time.
Thoughts like these have their own little dedicated corner of my brain, corralled there with other valuable ponderings – like whether dolphins have eardrums, or how different all our lives would be if Ellen DeGenerous hadn’t turned down the role of Phoebe in Friends.
…I imagine that if I were more intentional in doling out brain space, this mental real estate could be more functionally employed to solve world hunger, or remember to turn off the thermostat when I leave the house.
In any case, the art of crafting a sentence has always been one that intrigued me – and every so often a certain phrasing will tickle my ear, and I’ll have to spend a few minutes chewing on it before I can spit it back out again.
I find this happening particularly often when I hear somebody describing another person. For example, if they are in the midst of telling a story, and we come across a character that has not yet been introduced – the teller has to provide a split-second synopsis before they can move on. These knee-jerk descriptions absolutely baffle me for their infuriating brevity.
Once at a former job, a colleague of mine referenced a mutual coworker I hadn’t met yet. She said something like “Oh, you don’t know her? I love her! She’s the kind of person who wakes up every morning and says, ‘what’s up, life? Let’s get started.’”
I just stared at her. To quote Mark Twain, “I could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far.” I was so entirely perplexed by this nonchalant depiction, and from that moment on it roused a new perspective in me – a perpetual cognizance of this conversational phenomenon: Someone introduces you to this hypothetical third party, recognizes that you are unfamiliar, takes a few clipped sentences to brief you on their pertinent info, and then move on like nothing happened.
And to use such a grand statement as “She’s the kind of person who…” opened a proverbial can of worms in my mind. How do you know what kind of person she is?
I started noticing it everywhere, from daily conversations to literature. Take this 50-word description of minor character Linda, from the book “Eat, Pray, Love”:
“She’s one of my favorite travel companions, an unflappable and entertaining and surprisingly organized little pixie in tight red crushed-velvet pants. Linda is the owner of one of the world’s most in-tact psyches, with an incomprehension for depression and a self-esteem that has never even considered being anything but high.”
Elizabeth Gilbert then goes on casually to describe her Italian adventures with Linda, and I’m sure nobody else in their right mind thought twice about it. But while you’re all gallivanting through the rest of the chapter about purchasing a giant purple fur hat in Venice… I’m still over here three pages back, gawking at the single-paragraph description that so wholly and sufficiently summarized an entire human being.
There is more to Linda, I’m sure, than a pair of red velvet pants and a healthy ego. She has more to offer the world than a tiny footnote in a bestselling novel. She has a history, and a family, and hopes and dreams and a million life experiences outside her friendship and subsequent trip to Italy with Elizabeth Gilbert. And yet, in the interest of simplicity and a book that was not 40,000 pages long – most of this information about Linda was not included. Most of it, in fact, the author probably did not know herself.
Which bodes the question of HOW, in situations like these, authors and normal people alike are able to abbreviate a person’s entire existence this way. I can hardly wrap my head around this syntactic achievement.
It inevitably makes me wonder, if given the opportunity, how the various people in my life would summarize me. For that matter, if prompted, could I even come up with such a summary of myself?
Since I wouldn’t consider my self-esteem particularly high, nor do I frequently don red velvet… I can only hope that someday I’ll achieve something as unbelievably cool as “She’s the kind of person who wakes up every morning and says, ‘what’s up, life? Let’s get started.’”