the art of that which is to be proclaimed

This post is about plot. But also grammar. The grammar of plots.

Stay with me!

Here is a lovely picture of Grammatica personified from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th century manuscript by the Abbess Herrad of Alsace, to endear the concept to you

Here is a lovely picture of Grammatica personified from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th century manuscript by the Abbess Herrad of Alsace, to endear the concept to you

So, I’m teaching my mother Latin. It’s an ambitious undertaking, sure, but she’s an eager student. And I’ve always believed that nothing deepens your own understanding of something like trying to explain it to someone else who has no idea what you’re talking about. Also, she gave me life, so the least I can impart in return is the best thing I’ve ever learned in that life.

Learning Latin requires swallowing a lot of abstract concepts. Like, for example, predicates. From the Latin praedico, meaning “I proclaim.” I know what a predicate is, but I cannot sum it up simply and succinctly for love or money (though my mother only pays me in the former). Regardless, here goes: In broadest terms, predication is all about relationship between the subject of a sentence and…the rest of the sentence (I’m sorry, I’m sorry; think Mad Libs-y thoughts.) And thinking about predication made me realize that it’s a beautiful way to think about the plots of stories.

Look, I get it: you do not like grammar. It is not only unsexy but also inflexible, and you need to bend things. You think sentence structure is boring and technical and you think that narrative structure, that glorious tapestry of self-expression, is the seat of the soul of writing. Rules are the opposite of creativity. Right?

To use a technical term: ish. Comprehension of grammar is not about learning to diagram sentences. It’s not about whinging when someone misuses an apostrophe. It’s about cultivating the purest, most efficient fluency of thought. So if you want to call yourself a writer, you’d damn well better get grammar. Got it?

So. A sentence is a microcosm of the narrative it builds. Understand the sentence and there is nothing more to know. Heaven may not dwell in wildflowers, William, but when a grain of sand is grammatical there is indeed a world within. It’s a beautiful specimen, and I want to slice it up on slides and peer down for a second at these predicate things.

The way a sentence’s string of words generates a gravitational pull towards sense is a perfect analogy for the way sentences eventually coalesce into a sensical, emotionally authentic story. A sentence makes grammatical sense when and only when it expresses a logical relationship between its subject and verb (plus whatever prepositional phrases or adverbs help set the scene). Once you’ve got your subject, the rest is predicate—the action! the drama! the good part! A subject tells you what is, a predicate tells you what happens.

A story’s the same way. The climax of your story will only compute well if it plays upon what was set up in the very beginning. If your plot hinges on a betrayal, the effectiveness of that betrayal is predicated on an establishment of trust in the beginning of the story. A story about redemption is predicated on an appreciation for the depth of the mistake. To be effective, the end of your story must take its singular significance and resonance from the circumstances of its beginning.

Maybe this is obvious. But I like that there’s a common back-and-forth between the place of story and the place of grammar. Bringing across, trans latio. And this is why I’m bothering to teach my mom. Translation is not about how different two languages are, like Latin and English; it’s about how similar two concepts can be, like predication and storytelling. And while I’m generally agnostic about theories of everything, I do think this: humans are nothing without stories, stories are nothing without language, and language is nothing without grammar.

Or, in other words, know grammar and know your soul. Sic transit gloria fabulae. Translate everything, because everything will translate.

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