My local high school district mailed out a flyer recently whose headline read Effectuating Collective Efficacy to Impact Student Learning. Not confident, apparently, that this assemblage of abstractions would immediately mean anything crisp and clear to the citizenry at large, the writer felt the need as early as the second sentence to acknowledge the riddle by asking, “What does this mean in basic terms: it’s when an organization creates conditions to support each of its members, in this case teachers and students, to be their best.” What in fact this means in basic terms is—exactly what?
Intelligent people are prone to this kind of unmeaning language because intelligent people like ideas. Ideas are abstractions, notions that arise in our mind when we pull our attention away from the common world of things to think more generally about what the actual things and events we encounter might mean. Some schools of philosophy maintain that this ability we humans have to abstract from the reality of our senses is what distinguishes us from other living things around us, but no school of writing would ever warrant such language exclusively, or encourage us to compose sentences so far from the common world we all share. Our known world, what is in our hands and before our eyes, is the very ground and source of our ideas. It is the only place from which abstractions arise, and good writers know that no matter how high their conceptions might soar, they must always keep the known world of recognizable images in view.
It seems too that the good school district has from its abstracted heights lost sight of a common and standard rule of grammar. To write it’s when in an attempt to define something (it’s when an organization creates conditions to support each of its members) is to forget that we are to keep subject and predicate parallel in grammatical construction when we are trying to say what something is. It’s, of course, is a contraction for it is, and the verb is intends to show the defining identity between the subject (it) and some other thing in the predicate. That means that the grammatical form of the predicate must be a noun of some sort, because that is the part of speech that names things.
But to write it’s when an organization creates conditions is to identify the subject it with an adverb, not a noun. The word when is a subordinating conjunction; it introduces a clause of time, and time is an adverbial idea. Adverbs show a relation between things, not an identity. They bring our attention to the circumstances in which things exists or events are happening; they don’t name or define the things themselves. We readers want to know what effectuating collective efficacy is, not when it happens, and so the writer’s adverbial clause should be changed to some kind of noun, perhaps an infinitive (it is to create conditions), a noun with an adjective phrase (it is an effort to create conditions), or arguably even a gerund (it is an organization’s creating conditions). Any of these will keep the subject and predicate grammatically parallel and thereby, more importantly, keep the logic clear.
All of this matters—and should particularly matter for educators—because language is a sign or symptom of our thinking. We are under an obligation to be clear-minded in ourselves and clear with one another. Thinking precisely does not come naturally to any of us, and the parts and procedures of the art of writing—subjects and predicates, nouns and adverbs, parallelism and abstraction—are meant to ensure that we are really saying what we really mean, and sometimes whether we are even saying anything at all. The American essayist Emerson said that “the language of the street is always strong.” The street is a place of life and action, and if we can remember to embody our ideas in the familiar images of life, we will be as honest as we can be with one another.