Grammar and Climate Change

By Catherine Brewster

When I want to talk about syntax but don’t want to suck all the energy out of the room by admitting it, I often rely on “What’s wrong with this sentence?” prompts. Among the many rewards of my 2023–2024 sabbatical, as part of a remote writing gig, was this new example:

The purpose of the Energy Technology Board is to identify worthwhile and effective energy technologies to create energy, air quality, haze, or other environmental benefits for the State of Washington.

If I put this sentence on the board in Reasons for Writing or even English 9, I know that after a minute or two, someone will start laughing. It will take a lot longer for anyone to explain, “Haze isn’t an environmental benefit,” and some heavy lifting before that’s further articulated as “The four objects of the verb ‘create’ aren’t parallel and need to be.” Only a few students, I also know, will feel the same visceral thrill that I do at being able to describe the problem in those terms. But all of them, I hope, will go forth feeling a little more empowered to use the tools of grammar to tackle a sentence or a poem that doesn’t immediately yield up its meaning.

“Yeah, but,” one of my scrappier students might say. “It’s perfectly clear what this sentence is trying to say. We all know haze isn’t an environmental benefit. Who cares whether it’s grammatically perfect?” And “who cares” is an excellent question, because there’s evidence that no one does: in March 2024, this sentence appeared several dozen times on the website of the Centralia Coal Transition Grants. It was pasted into the boilerplate at the end of every news release announcing a project the Grants have funded. That funding amounts to $55 million over ten years, $25 million of it disbursed by the Energy Technology Board, as part of a deal with TransAlta, which operates the last coal-fired power plant in my native state of Washington. The power plant will fully shut down in 2025, and the money has gone to solar arrays and new HVAC systems for schools, apprenticeship programs, weatherization of low-income residents’ homes, and countless other decarbonization efforts.

“Come on, Ms. Brewster,” I can hear any number of my students saying. “Don’t the $55 million matter more than the faulty parallelism? Should you really be so upset that the people who wrote that didn’t go to Commonwealth and didn’t care?”

But what really bothers me is that while someone, or some group of people, wrote that sentence and at least a few people signed off on it, it might have taken years for anyone to really read it. Instead, they did something more like look at it and nod along, in the same way people’s eyes move across sentences like these, sent to me by a communications professional for a Northwest seaport:

We have consistently been observing a decline in our emissions.This positive trajectory reflects the equipment advancements and investment in flexible and adaptive maritime infrastructure we have executed over the past two decades.... Electrification is a viable path to achieve further and more dramatic improvements.

These sentences encourage looking rather than reading not so much because of the technical terms as because of the eye-glazing pileup of abstract nouns—“decline,” “trajectory,” “advancements”—the kind Joseph Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, a foundational text in Reasons for Writing, calls “nominalizations.” The Rocky Mountain Institute, which tirelessly quantifies the kind of actions the port refers to and their effects, has its own term for such language in decarbonization pledges: “empty ambition statements.” George Orwell, of course, in “Politics and the English Language” in 1948, said these euphonious phrases were “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” “The attraction of this kind of writing is that it is easy,” he went on: “you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”

In one of the New Yorkers I had time to read on my sabbatical, Merve Emre made a related complaint in a different context, in an essay on recent books she called “feminish”: “One starts to feel as if there is something a little hollow and shiftless about the ease with which phrases such as ‘white supremacist, homophobic, classist, ableist, xenophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, capitalist patriarchy’ are trotted out. We get the right words, strung together like marquee lights, but not the structural analysis that puts them in relation to one another.” In other words, if you’re either putting up the marquee lights or gazing at them—either reverently or in disgust—you’re not thinking about what, if anything, they mean.

Rising above this tendency is, whose writers on climate and energy all seem as well versed in the principles of Williams’ Style as anyone who went to Commonwealth. (And, yes, I am a sucker for headlines like “13 Ways of Looking at Biden’s New China Tariffs,” complete with link to the Wallace Stevens poem it riffs on.) They make people, rather than abstract nouns, the subjects of their verbs, as in this reporting on a CBS News/YouGov poll:

About 45 percent of respondents said climate change is a very important issue, but just 10 percent of those said they had heard or read “a lot” about Biden’s climate policies. And 42 percent said the administration hadn’t done enough on the issue. More than half of respondents said the outcome of the November election would have no effect on climate change.

This poll did not ask what the respondents had been reading, or not reading, or just looking at. I can’t prove that it’s because of nominalizations or faulty parallelism that even people who worry about climate change don’t think it matters whether Biden or Trump is president. But whether or not those survey respondents think about syntax in deciding what to read, I’ve looked at enough marquee-light sentences that I can see why they’d decide that there’s nothing else out there, that paying attention to climate policy is a matter of nodding along, not reading.

If so, they haven’t been reading Heatmap, or the Rocky Mountain Institute’s studies and reports, or the work of the Clean Energy Transition Institute in Seattle, for which I did the freelance writing that led me to the coal transition boards and the port. In response to the email about the “positive trajectory,” my job was to ask: How much of the cargo-handling equipment is electric, how much is still “clean diesel,” how clean is that, and how much more electrical capacity does the port need to add and where will the money come from? I tried, with Williams’ principles always in my ears, to turn the answers into sentences that people would not just look at, but read, expecting to understand something new to them.

“Nobody reads anymore,” I remember teachers grumbling when I was new to Commonwealth in 2000. As I get ready to meet this year’s ninth graders in September, and to teach seniors I last knew as ninth graders, I know they read, but that most will have to learn how to fight their way through Milton’s enormous similes (“As.... So....”) or Arturo Islas’ elegantly built restrictive clauses. Because of their science teachers, they will be able to identify “positive trajectory,” “improvements,” and so on as “hand-waving.” Because of their English and history teachers, I hope, they will come to see sentences not as decorative items but as tools for thinking.

Catherine Brewster has taught English at Commonwealth since 2000. This article originally appeared in the summer 2024 edition of CM, Commonwealth's alumni/ae magazine.

Learn More About Close Reading at Commonwealth