Chapter 1: The Worm in the Brain

There’s an outrageous but entertaining assertion about language and the human brain in Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden. It is possible, Sagan says, to damage the brain in precisely such a way that the victim will lose the ability to understand the passive or to devise prepositional phrases or something like that. No cases are cited, unfortunately–it would be fun to chat with some victim–but the whole idea is attractive, because if it were true it would explain many things. In fact, I can think of no better way to account for something that happened to a friend of mine–and probably to one of yours too.

He was an engaging chap, albeit serious. We did some work together–well, not exactly work, committee stuff–and he used to send me a note whenever there was to be a meeting. Something like this: “Let’s meet next Monday at two o’clock, OK?” I was always delighted to read such perfect prose.

Unbeknownst to us all, however, something was happening in that man’s brain. Who can say what? Perhaps a sleeping genetic defect was stirring, perhaps some tiny creature had entered in the porches of his ear and was gnawing out a home in his cranium. We’ll never know. Whatever it was, it had, little by little, two effects. At one and the same time, he discovered in himself the yearning to be an assistant dean pro tem, and he began to lose the power of his prose. Ordinary opinion, up to now, has always held that one of these things, either one, was the cause of the other. Now we can at last guess the full horror of the truth. Both are symptoms of serious trouble in the brain.

Like one of these Poe characters whose friends are all doomed, I watched, helpless, the inexorable progress of the disease. Gradually but inevitably my friend was being eaten from within. In the same week that saw his application for the newly created post of assistant dean pro tem, he sent me the following message: “This is to inform you that there’ll be a meeting next Monday at 2:00.” Even worse, much worse, was to come.

A week or so later it was noised about that he would indeed take up next semester a new career as a high-ranking assistant dean pro tem. I was actually writing him a note of congratulation when the campus mail brought me what was to be his last announcement of a meeting of our committee. Hereafter he would be frying fatter fish, but he wanted to finish the business at hand. His note read: “Please be informed that the Committee on Memorial Plaques will meet on Monday at 2:00.”

I walked slowly to the window, his note in my hand, and stared for a while at the quad. The oak trees there had been decimated not long before by a leak in an underground gas line. The seeping poison had killed their very roots, but they had at least ended up as free firewood for the faculty. Pangloss might have been right, after all, and, calamity that it was, this latest message spared me the trouble of writing the congratulatory note and even afforded me a glimpse of a remarkably attractive young lady straying dryad-fashion through the surviving oaks. Things balance out.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that the worm or whatever had at last done its work, that the poor fellow’s Hydification was complete and his destruction assured. No. It is a happy mercy that most of us cannot begin to imagine the full horror of these ravaging disorders. To this day that man still sends out little announcements and memos about this and that. They begin like this: “You are hereby informed . . .” Of what, I cannot say, since a combination of delicacy and my respect for his memory forbid that I read further.

It’s always a mistake to forget William of Occam and his razor. Look first for the simplest explanation that will handle the facts. I had always thought that perfectly normal human beings turned into bureaucrats and administrators and came to learn the language of that tribe through some exceedingly complicated combination of nature and nurture, through imitative osmosis and some flaw of character caused by inappropriate weaning. Piffle. These psychologists have captured our minds and led us into needless deviousness. The razor cuts to the heart of things and reveals the worm in the brain.

Admittedly, that may be a slight oversimplification. It may be that the decay of language and the desire to administrate are not merely concomitant symptoms of one and the same disease, but that one is a symptom and the other a symptom of the symptom. Let’s imagine what deans, who like to imitate government functionaries, who, in their turn, like to imitate businessmen, who themselves seem to like to imitate show-business types, would call a “scenario.”

There you sit, minding your own business and hurting no man. All at once, quite insensibly, the thing creeps into your brain. It might end up in the storage shelves of the subjunctive or the switchboard of the nonrestrictive clauses, of course, but in your case it heads for the cozy nook where the active and passive voices are balanced and adjusted. There it settles in and nibbles a bit here and a bit there. In our present state of knowledge, still dim, we have to guess that the active voice is tastier than the passive, since the destruction of the latter is very rare but of the former all too common.

So there you are with your active verbs being gnawed away. Little by little and only occasionally at first, you start saying things like: “I am told that . . .” and “This letter is being written because . . .” This habit has subtle effects. For one thing, since passives always require more words than actives, anything you may happen to write is longer than it would have been before the attack of the worm. You begin to suspect that you have a lot to say after all and that it’s probably rather important. The suspicion is all the stronger because what you write has begun to sound–well, sort of “official.” “Hmm,” you say to yourself, “Fate may have cast my lot a bit below my proper station,” or, more likely, “Hmm. My lot may have been cast by Fate a bit below my proper station.”

Furthermore, the very way you consider the world, or the very way in which the world is considered by you, is subtly altered. You used to see a world in which birds ate worms and men made decisions. Now it looks more like a world in which worms are eaten by birds and decisions are made by men. It’s almost a world in which victims are put forward as “doers” responsible for whatever may befall them and actions are almost unrelated to those who perform them. But only almost. The next step is not taken until you learn to see a world in which worms are eaten and decisions made and all responsible agency has disappeared. Now you are ready to be an administrator.

This is a condition necessary to successful administration of any sort and in any calling. Letters are written, reports are prepared, decisions made, actions taken, and consequences suffered. These things happen in the world where agents and doers, the responsible parties around whose throats we like our hands to be gotten, first retreat to the remoter portions of prepositional phrases and ultimately disappear entirely. A too-frequent use of the passive is not just a stylistic quirk; it is the outward and visible sign of a certain weltanschauung.

And now that it is your weltanschauung (remember the worm has been gnawing all this time), you discover that you are suited to the life of the administrator. You’ll fit right in.

Therefore, we may say that it is not the worm in the skull that causes deans and managers and vice presidents, at least not directly. The worm merely causes the atrophy of the active and the compensatory dominance of the passive. (Through a similar compensatory mechanism, three-legged dogs manage to walk, and the language of the typical administrator is not very different from the gait of the three-legged dog, come to think of it.) The dominance of the passive causes in the victim an alteration of philosophy, which alteration is itself the thing that both beckons him to and suits him for the work of administration. And there you have it. Thanks to Carl Sagan and a little help from William of Occam, we understand how administrators come to be.

You may want to object that a whole view of the world and its meanings can hardly be importantly altered by a silly grammatical form. If so, you’re just not thinking. Grammatical forms are exactly the things that make us understand the world the way we understand it. To understand the world, we make propositions about it, and those propositions are both formed and limited by the grammar of the language in which we propose.

To see how this works, let’s imagine an extreme case. Suppose there is after all a place in the brain that controls the making and understanding of prepositional phrases. Suppose that Doctor Fu Manchu has let loose in the world the virus that eats that very place, so that in widening circles from Wimbledon mankind loses the power to make and understand prepositional phrases. Now the virus has gotten you, and to you prepositional phrases no longer make sense. You can’t read them, you can’t write them, you can’t utter them, and when you hear them you can only ask “Wha?” Try it. Go read something, or look out the window and describe what you see. Tell the story of your day. Wait . . . you can’t exactly do that . . . tell, instead, your day-story. Recite how you went working . . . how morning you went . . . no . . . morning not you . . . morning went . . . how you morning went … The rest will be silence.

Only through unspeakable exertion and even ad hoc invention of new grammatical arrangements can we get along at all without the prepositional phrase, as trivial as that little thing seems to be. It’s more than that. Should we lose prepositional phrases, the loss of a certain arrangement of words would be only the visible sign of a stupendous unseen disorder. We would in fact have lost prepositionalism, so to speak, the whole concept of the kind of relationship that is signaled by the prepositional phrase. We’d probably be totally incapacitated.

Try now to imagine the history of mankind without the prepositional phrase, or, if you’re tired of that, the relative clause or the distinction between subject and object. It would be absurd to think that lacking those and other such things the appearance and growth of human culture would have been merely hindered. It would have been impossible. Everything that we have done would have been simply impossible. The world out there is made of its own stuff, but the world that we can understand and manipulate and predict is made of discourse, and discourse is ruled by grammar. Without even so elementary a device as the prepositional phrase we’d be wandering around in herds right now, but we wouldn’t know how to name what we were doing.

We’re inclined to think of things like prepositional phrases as though they were optional extras in a language, something like whitewall tires. This is because we don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on them except when we study a language not our own. We study German, and here comes a lesson on the prepositional phrase. Great, now we can add something to our German. That’s the metaphor in our heads; we think–there is German, it exists, and when you get good at it you can add on the fancy stuff like prepositional phrases. All we have to do is memorize the prepositions and remember which ones take the dative and which ones take the accusative and which ones sometimes take the one and sometimes the other and when and why and which ones are the exceptions. Suddenly it becomes depressing. How about we forget the whole thing and settle for your stripped-down basic model German without any of the fancy stuff? If you do that, of course, you’ll never find the Bahnhof. You’ll be stymied in Stuttgart.

Like prepositional phrases, certain structural arrangements in English are much more important than the small bones of grammar in its most technical sense. It really wouldn’t matter much if we started dropping the s from our plurals. Lots of words get along without it anyway, and in most cases context would be enough to indicate number. Even the distinction between singular and plural verb forms is just as much a polite convention as an essential element of meaning. But the structures, things like passives and prepositional phrases, constitute, among other things, an implicit system of moral philosophy, a view of the world and its presumed meanings, and their misuse therefore often betrays an attitude or value that the user might like to disavow.

There’s an example from the works of a lady who may also have a worm in her brain. She is “the chair” of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It’s very short and seems, to those willing to overlook a “small” grammatical flaw, almost too trivial to be worthy of comment. She writes: “Instead of accepting charges indiscriminately and giving them docket numbers, charging parties are counseled immediately.”

“Charging parties” are probably faster than landing parties and larger than raiding parties, but no matter. She means, probably, people who are bringing charges of some sort, but there are many kinds of prose in which people become parties. It’s not really meant to sound convivial, though: it’s meant to sound “legal.” What’s important is that the structure of her sentence leads us to expect that the people (or parties) named first after that comma will also be the people (or parties) responsible for doing the “accepting.” We expect something like: “Instead of doing that, we now do this.” That’s not because of some rule; it’s just the way English works. It both reflects and generates the way the mind does its business in English. We, the readers, are disappointed and confused because somebody who ought to have shown up in this sentence has in fact not appeared. What has become of the accepting parties? Are they hanging around the water cooler? Do they refuse to accept? Are they at least hoping, that no one will remember that they are supposed to accept? We can guess, of course, that they are the same people who make up the counseling parties, who have also disappeared into a little passive. It’s as though we went charging down to the EEOC and found them all out to lunch.

Well, that could have been a slip of the mind, the mind of the chair, of course, but later we read: “Instead of dealing with charging parties and respondents through formalistic legal paper, the parties are called together within a few weeks. . .”

It’s the same arrangement. Who does that dealing, or, since that’s what they did before the “instead,” who did that dealing through “formalistic” paper? Wouldn’t they be the same parties who ought to do the calling together? Where have they all gone?

A schoolteacher would call those things examples of dangling modifiers and provide some rules about them, but that’s not important. What’s important is that those forms are evocations of that imagined world in which responsible agency is hardly ever visible, much to the comfort of responsible agency. Since that is the nature of the world already suggested by the passive voice, you would expect that this writer, or chair, would be addicted to the passive. You’d be right. Here are the bare skeletons of a few consecutive sentences:

. . . staff is assigned . . .
. . . cases are moved . . .
. . . parties are contacted . . .
. . . files are grouped . . . and prioritized . . .
. . . steps are delineated . . . and time frames established . . .
. . . discussions are encouraged . . .

You have to wonder how much of a discussion you could possibly have with these people. They’re never around.

Admittedly, it does these bureaucrats some credit that in their hearts they are ashamed to say that they actually do those things that they do. After all, who would want to tell the world that he, himself, in his very flesh, goes around grouping and prioritizing?

The dangling modifiers go well with the passives, and, in suggesting the nature of the world as seen by bureaucrats, they even add something new. The passives are sort of neutral, verbal shoulder-shrugs–these things happen–what can I tell you? The danglers go the next obvious and ominous step and suggest subtly that those charging parties have caused a heap of trouble and really ought to be handed the job of sorting things out for themselves, which, grammatically, is exactly what happens. In the first example the people who do the accepting and the counseling ought to appear right after the comma, but they don’t. In the second, the people who do the dealing and the calling ought to appear right after the comma, but they don’t. In both cases the people who do appear are the clients on whose behalf someone is supposed to accept, counsel, deal, and call. Does that mean something about the way in which those clients are regarded by this agency? They seem to have been put in some kind of grammatical double jeopardy, which is probably unconstitutional.

The poor lady, or chair, has inadvertently said what she probably meant. Working for the government would be so pleasant if it weren’t for those pesky citizens. A waspish psychiatrist might observe that she has taken those charging parties and has “put them in their place” with a twist of grammar, thus unconsciously expressing her wish that they ought to be responsible for all the tedious labor their charges will cost her and her friends. She herself, along with the whole blooming EEOC, has withdrawn behind a curtain of cloudy English from the clash of charging parties on the darkling plain. “Ach so, sehr interessant, nicht wahr, zat ze patzient ist immer py ze Wort ‘inshtead’ gonvused. Es gibt, vielleicht, a broplem of, how you zay, Inshteadness.” And indeed, the result of the dangling modifiers is to put the charging parties forth instead of someone else, as though the word had been chosen to stand out in front of the sentence as a symbol of the latent meaning.

Surely this lady, or chair, is an educated person, or chair, perfectly able to see and fix dangling modifiers of the sort they used to deal with in the early grades. After all, she has been hired as a chair, and for such a position we can assume some pretty high standards and stringent requirements. All right, so she doesn’t know the difference between “formal” and “formalistic”–big deal. When such a high-ranking official of our government apparatus makes a mistake in structure, and habitually at that, it’s not much to the point to underline it and put an exclamation mark in the margin. In a small child these would be mistakes; in a chair they are accidental revelations of a condition in the mind. To put the name of the thing modified as close as possible to the modifier is not a “rule” of English; it is a sign of something the mind does in English. When the English doesn’t do that thing, it’s because the mind hasn’t done it.

It would be fatuous for us to say that we don’t understand those sentences because of the disappearance of the people who are supposed to do all those things. It is a schoolteacher’s cheap trick to say that if you don’t get your grammar right people won’t understand you. It’s almost impossible to mangle grammar to that point where you won’t be understood. We understand those sentences. In fact, we understand them better than the writer; we understand both what she thought she was saying and something else that she didn’t think she was saying.

Many readers, of course, would “understand” those sentences without even thinking of the problem they present, and they might think these comments pedantic and contentious. Oh, come on, what’s all the fuss? A couple of little mistakes. What does it matter? We all know what she means, don’t we?

Such objections come from the erroneous idea that the point of language is merely to communicate, “to act your ideas across,” whatever that means. Furthermore, such objectors may think that they are defending a hardworking and well-meaning chair, but she is little likely to be grateful for their partisanship if she figures out what it means. They say, in effect, that her little mistakes are just that, little mistakes rather than inadvertent and revealing slips of the mind. In the latter case, however, we can conclude that she is merely a typical bureaucrat with an appropriately managerial twist in the brain; in the former we would simply have to conclude that she is not well enough educated to be allowed to write public documents. Which of these conclusions do you suppose she would prefer? It seems that we must choose one or the other. Those are either mistakes made in ignorance or mistakes made in something other than ignorance.

The mind, thinking in English, does indubitably push modifiers and things modified as close together as possible. Can there really be a place in the brain where that happens, a function that might be damaged or dulled? It doesn’t matter, of course, because there is surely a “place” in the mind analogous to the imagined place in the brain.

Whether by worms or world-views, it does seem sometimes to be invaded and eaten away. The malfunctions we can see in this chair and in my erstwhile friend, now an assistant dean pro tem, are small inklings of a whole galaxy of disorders that has coalesced out of the complicated history of language, of our language in particular, and out of the political history of language in general.

Chapter 2: The Two Tribes