In a word

On this bright clear Sunday afternoon I sit in the center of the back yard, watching the dog standing stock still, her stubby tail trembling, as she in turn watches a grey squirrel perched on the bare branch of the neighbor’s maple tree.  The squirrel flips its feather-duster tail repeatedly, pausing a moment in its zealous spring cleaning.


Dog, tail, squirrel, tree: words that name, words that tell.


I think back to the letter I recently received, written by the daughter of my late undergraduate school writing teacher in response to my book that I had sent her with the piece about her mother.  “She and my father (also a college professor) loved the English language,” she wrote.  “Senility slowly encroached upon her memory, but she never lost the pleasure of going from one word to another and marveling at the intricacies of the lexicon.”


Those carefully selected words brought a picture to mind, that of my aged instructor diligently searching out the root meaning of a word in the dictionary gifted to her in her old age by her daughter.  True writers are lovers of words; like precious stones fortuitously discovered in sand by the sea, they turn them over in their palms, observing how they catch the light, marveling at the clarity of their brilliance.


Years later, in graduate school, another professor defended the enormous significance of words.  “They might not appear to be much,” he said, “but, in reality, they are all that we have.”  The course was titled Psychology of Community.  We were discussing the underpinnings of human relationships.  Words were the touchstone, those same exotic gems sparkling on the beach.


When Freud formulated his theory of the subconscious, he explained profound insights in simple terms:  das ich und das es, the “I” and the “it”, later translated as ego and id.  Buber explained his idea of intimate human relationships using similar terms:  ich und du, I and Thou.


Etymology traces modern language back to its roots:  in the case of English, the Indo-European tongue.  An excellent lexicon is an essential tool to mine derivations and root meanings.  Yet the lexicon has not been written which traces words back to the primordial word, that first word which must have been spoken at some point in the history of time, the word that continues to echo throughout the galaxies of the universe—the uni-verse, the one true verse—the first word that surely must have sounded as clearly as a clarion call at first light, breaking the profound silence of stillness for all time.


We have come a long way down through the eons, but words are still all that we have.


Copyright©2009 by Brian T. Maurer

The Anatomy of Love


“So, how did you meet your wife anyway?”


“She was my partner at anatomy lab in medical school.”


My friend—an orthopedic surgeon—and I compared notes during a recent undergraduate school reunion.  Three decades is a long time; we had some catching up to do, but we were in no hurry.


This is the second instance where I’ve heard a physician comment that he’d met his wife in the anatomy lab at medical school.  The other doctor—a psychiatrist—had morphed into a poet over the course of his career.  One of the pieces that he read from his book mentioned the initial meeting:  an anatomy of love, blossoming in the dissecting room.


No matter how scientific our bent, as humans we still gravitate toward our humanity.  We might not be looking for it at the time, but we find love in the most unexpected places.


Last fall I traveled to Montreal to speak at a conference hosted at the William Osler Library of the History of Medicine on the campus of McGill University.  That afternoon the librarian in residence escorted our small group into the inner sanctum of the complex:  the room which houses Osler’s personal medical library of 8,000 volumes and several of his personal effects, his ashes among them.


The librarian spoke about Osler’s life, offering a series of anecdotal tales of poignant turning points in the great physician’s career.  After completing his academic studies, Osler entered medical practice as both a clinician and teacher.  While serving on the medical faculty at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Osler began work on his massive text “The Principles and Practice of Medicine.”  During this time he also started a courtship with Grace Revere Gross, the widow of Dr. Samuel W. Gross.  Osler had known the Grosses during his former five-year sojourn at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.


Osler was keen to marry, but the widow Gross insisted that he finish his book first.  Osler labored long hours to prepare the work for publication.  He inscribed the first copy to the widow and placed it in her hands with a proposal of marriage.  True to her word, she accepted both the book and Osler’s offer.


This was one instance where a great man of medicine first wrote the book that defined clinical practice before moving on to study Gross anatomy:  the anatomy of love.  Only this time it was outside the confines of the dissecting room.

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice: a rebuttal

I take issue with the opinions expressed by Mr. Geoffrey K. Pullum in his article 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” which appears in the April 17, 2009 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Chronicle Review (Volume 55, Issue 32, Page B15).


Professor Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh, writes an acerbic critique of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as a standard text of English grammar, stating that the book was the primary vehicle through which grammar has been taught to American college students during the second half of the 20th century.  According to Pullum, this little book “provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get.”  In his view this is atrocious, because both its authors were “grammatical incompetents.”


Professor Pullum selects a number of rules and examples from the book and goes on to explain why they violate those of standard English grammar.  In summation, he describes the text as “a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.”


Here I must confess my ignorance of the English educational system:  I do not know at what point English grammar is introduced into the public school curriculum in Great Britain.  I can say that, as an American student, I received my first formal instruction in English grammar in the 7th grade, when I was 12 years of age.  Under the tutelage of Miss Kelshner, a veritable “old maid” then close to retirement, I learned grammatical terms and how these parts of speech were used to construct proper sentences.  In those days we spent hours diagramming sentences, breaking them down into elemental parts of speech.  The training was strict and rigorous; I never forgot it.


As a freshman in college I was required to take a course in English composition.  This was not so much a course in grammar (indeed the subject was not formally discussed) as it was instruction on how to write well.  In my opinion Professor Pullum confuses the two.


Neither Will Strunk or E. B. White ever intended The Elements of Style to be a standard text of English grammar.  This is readily apparent in White’s introduction to the 1972 Macmillan edition, where he writes:  “In its original form, [the book] was a forty-three page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English….Seven rules of usage, eleven principles of composition, a few matters of form, and a list of words and expressions commonly misused—that was the sum and substance of Professor Strunk’s work.”  The Elements of Style was never designed to be a definitive text on English grammar like Professor Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.


First and foremost, The Elements of Style was written to instruct students on how to write well.  In White’s words, the book “does not pretend to survey the whole field.  Rather it proposes to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style.  It concentrates on fundamentals:  the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated.”  In practically the same breath, White also writes:  “even the established rules of grammar are open to challenge.”


Professor Pullum’s critiques of Strunk and White’s rules are like a bikini:  what they reveal is interesting, but what they hide is vital.


For example, Pullum uses considerable editorial space to decry the directive to “use the active voice.”  He goes on at great length to argue that use of the passive voice is not only justifiable but desirable.  According to my reading of the cited passage, Strunk and White agree:  “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” (p. 13)


As for the lines of text cited by Professor Pullum as being improper examples of the passive voice, I would point out that these four examples follow immediately on the heels of this statement:  “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.”  In short, the examples offered by Strunk and White are not served up as exemplary of the passive voice per se, but merely samples of how such writing can be made more vigorous and precise.


“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” Strunk and White advise.  “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight space.”  I would point out to Professor Pullum that the authors go on to say:  This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech.  (my italics)


On the subject of the split infinitive, Pullum states that “the split infinitive has always been grammatical and does not need to be avoided.”  Again, the authors are in agreement:  “Some infinitives improve on being splint, just as a stick of round stovewood does.” (p.70)  “There is precedent from the fourteenth century down for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive it governs, but the construction should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb.” (p. 52)


I could go on to address other arguments that Professor Pullum makes; but at this juncture, time and space constrain me.


Professor Pullum laments:  “Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write ‘however’ or ‘than me’ or ‘was’ or ‘which,’ but can’t tell you why.”  That may be the case.  But when I consider the dismal prose that is served up in countless scientific journals, stock prospectuses and educational reviews, I’ll take Strunk and White’s advice hands down—


Be concise.


Omit needless words.


Be clear.


Use definite, specific, concrete language.


And I stand with E. B. White when he wrote:  “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” (p. 77)

Humane Medicine: The Wing of a Prayer

This morning the mist hangs heavy outside. In its wake, last night’s thundershower left a detached coolness in the air, and with the coolness came the fog. Shrouded in mist, the maples in the backyard stand silhouetted in the early morning light.

I take another sip of coffee and recall the words of yesterday’s e-mail: “My father will be having heart surgery tomorrow morning to replace a damaged aortic valve and repair the mitral valve.”

Interested readers can now access my latest Humane Medicine column, An early morning mist and the wing of a prayer, recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Spring Peepers

Late last Friday afternoon I was still at work in the office, waiting for the 5 o’clock whistle to sound.


It turned out to be a lovely spring day.  Over lunch I had managed to slip out for a short visit to a local book store.


One of my patients had given me a voucher for a reading program that his school was sponsoring.  Over a three-day period the Barnes & Noble book store had agreed to contribute 10% of each purchase to this special program to send books to students in Uganda.  I ended up buying The Shack and Three Cups of Tea, both of which I’d been meaning to read for quite some time; and so contributed $3.20 toward the Uganda project.


As I sat in the back office by an open window, looking out over the expanse of wetland cloaked in bare white birches and young maples, a cacophony of spring peepers erupted.  Trebles from spring song birds periodically punctuated the frenzied crescendo.


Overhead, the sky provided a faultless blue canopy for the performance.  Although lingering patches of snow had disappeared over the course of the past two weeks, the woods still seemed to be wintering over:  bare trunks and grey branches, brown leaves, cinnamon sand.


Momentarily, the peepers died down to a few isolated chirps, then once again welled up into a feverish frenzy.  I sat back and closed my eyes, meditating on their orchestral orations.


I look forward to the appearance of these little frogs each year.  Their song ignites in me a certain undefined hope that heralds the coming of spring.

“Notes from a Healer” — Bananas

Many times in pediatric practice it’s a challenge to work with parents whose perceptions fall more than two standard deviations from the mean. You’ve got to look those pitches over carefully before deciding to swing at a curve ball….

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerBananas — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online clearinghouse for manuscripts dealing with the humanities and medicine.