Only the grammar

Hannah Cooper/Staff

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“You get to the point, eventually, that you see only the grammar.”

She says this as her eyes flit across the screen, processing dozens of words per second. Hundreds, more likely. Probably a few thousand.

I frown. I certainly don’t see only the grammar. I do see items that need tending to, yes; I consciously recognize when “that” should be “which,” when “—” should be “,” that “cancelled” should just be “canceled.” But there’s a good amount of emphasis on the conscious aspect of my editing: It is by no means second nature for me. Maybe fifth or sixth nature.

As I turn to my own work, I realize that I’m more miffed than I had thought about missing out on such a visceral experience. I furrow my brow as I glare at my own screen, willing the little black letters to jump out at me, to clamor for my attention, to race circles about the monitor in a chaotic cloud of clarity.

But they don’t. They are just little black letters on a screen that is far too bright for 1 a.m. on a weekday. My stomach grumbles. Instead of continuing my crusade for grammatical enlightenment, I opt to pull out my phone and order some paneer.

Wind snaps around me as I step into the night, my hands scrabbling at my light flannel in a vain attempt to bundle myself. The traffic light blinks a blasé blink, slow and indifferent.

“Only the grammar…” I mutter to myself as I shuffle across the street. Tell me: When do I get to become a superhuman editor? I want to see past the letters and to view with ease the overarching strands, the linguistic architecture binding together each word tightly, tightly, into its respective spot. I certainly don’t want to resign myself to the bland notion of simply juggling letters; no, I want something more.

Home. After a few seconds’ pause, I sprint across the foyer to the dining table, rip my laptop from its bag and heave it onto the flat surface with resolute force. The screen winks on immediately, nearly as enlivened as I am. I tap furiously until a document opens — and there are the letters. “Oh, haha, my friends,” I whisper (because it is really quite late, and I have roommates), “Your structure will elude me no longer.”

The structure eludes me longer. There’s something I’m missing, some small thing that’s holding me back. I can’t place it. I squint and bring my eyes much closer to the screen, the tip of my nose not quite brushing “Stevia extract.” But my efforts yield nothing; the little black letters gawk at me, the foreigner definitively invading their personal space. I withdraw my face from the screen and sigh. I should go to sleep.

As I swaddle myself in sheets, I can’t help but dwell on it further: “Only the grammar.” I read this book a while ago, I remember, about the idea that your brain structure physically alters in response to repeated stimuli. Maybe, just maybe, it could be — perhaps? — I could teach myself how to look through the little black letters, rewire my thought process, revamp my editing capabilities.

But what would I lose in the process? If I can only see the grammar, do I lose track of what the little black words are actually saying? I shiver as I ponder the thought. I was a reader first, then a writer, then an editor. Will I lose some integral part of myself, should I continue down this path?

“Wow, these are good questions, but it is 2 a.m.”

I roll over and go to sleep.