Feeling Meaning

One great benefit of studying grammar can be (or should be) a more subtle awareness of how rich and robust can be the meaning of common perceptions. We look to writers, and perhaps aspire ourselves to be such writers, to see more deeply into things, to bring before us more colorful pictures than the gray black-and-whites we live in from day to day. Good writers can come with a trove of such ways of seeing the world, and their effects can be all the greater if we have some idea of how good writers use language.

If grammar is the bony structure, or skeleton, of a particular language, logic is the way that structure is organized into a functioning organism. Grammar says, this is how you say something in this language, and logic replies, this is how you say something that makes sense. But saying something that only makes sense keeps us at the level of computer or robot, and so the traditional study of language has included a third study called rhetoric, or style, whose worry it is to combine sense with sentiment, recognizing the need we have as humans, not robots, to feel and not merely react to our perceptions.

Now there is a great difference between feeling something and emotionalizing it, and psychologists and philosophers alike have much to say about this. Writers can sensationalize a moment with bold language that describes the big features of a scene, and we readers will rise to the obvious word pictures they want us to react to. But betters writers will present us with a richer color scheme, a world of deeper implication, by using our common language in an uncommon way, compelling us to discover something we didn’t even suspect was there. The study of rhetoric is concerned with figures of speech, the many different configurations we can contrive for our words and phrases and clauses in an appeal to our feeling, our sentiment. Some figures, called schemes, have to do with the effects that result from where we place those elements; others, called tropes, have to do with the multiple meanings that a word or phrase can carry.

Take, for example, this single sentence from a short story by the American author O. Henry. It comes from his The Last Leaf, and I quote it here from James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories, Dover, 2015. The scene is a doctor about to speak to the close friend of a patient he has just examined for pneumonia: “One morning the busy doctor invited Sue into the hallway with a shaggy, gray eyebrow.” The moment is a serious one, a doctor giving news to a caring friend, and our attention is held and the moment heightened when our natural expectation of the grammatical layout of the sentence is upset. To speak of someone inviting someone else into a hallway is a scene whose meaning would lead us to expect that the preposition with will point to another independent something that will accompany the two into the hallway, with another doctor, perhaps, or worse, with some papers to sign. This idea of accompaniment is the most common meaning of the preposition with.

Instead, though, the author has given the preposition with a most unexpected object, a shaggy, gray eyebrow, and in doing so, he has changed the meaning of that preposition from accompaniment to manner. An eyebrow that is shaggy and gray is by suggestion one that has been weathered with time and experience, and experience and time sometimes signal authority and wise judgment. Such qualities, however, do not exist on their own, so they cannot properly be said to accompany two people into a hallway. They do exist, however, in the very manner of the doctor, and so being a part of him, they are to be seen, the author suggests, in his very gestures and bearing. The way, the manner, in which the doctor comports himself has been isolated in the unforeseen image of a shaggy, gray eyebrow—unforeseen and therefore suddenly revealing of a richer meaning to the scene.

This kind of subtle but skillful and commanding change in the meaning of words is the very pilothouse of rhetoric. If the art of writing intends to capture the movement of life for a moment so that we can see the common life about us more subtly, then it is the work of rhetoric to tend the resources of grammar and logic, its two allied disciplines, toward the earth, the place of concrete realities that ultimately generate our feelings. For our deepest satisfaction as human beings seems to lie at once in thinking and feeling something meaningful.

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