Speaking to Our Hearts: Grammar, Psychology, and Sheldon


I’ve said it before: there is an odd attraction between Aspies and grammar. Very few other folks really give such credence to the use of well versus good, the placement of a preposition, to an irregular plural, or to the correct indication of an appositive (heck, most folks probably don’t even remember what an appositive IS!).  And like I’ve written, there are probably lots of reasons for why grammar matters so much to so many of us.


I guess like so many other “has-to-be-correct” life rules, grammar helps those of us on the spectrum make sense of a confusing, chaotic world. It gives predictable, translatable form and function to vague expression. Even those of us who are “really good with words” often find actual person-to-person communication to be incredibly tricky, and even heartbreaking.

Clear, reliable grammar helps keep us afloat in the rapid, spontaneous current of conversations, emails, texts, and phone calls….what seem like casual conversations are often like vain attempts to catch running water in our hands…everything goes so fast that we simply can’t keep up.


And though grammatical rules are meant to be universal (per language), when we insist upon them (for our own protection!), what often comes across is self-righteous, academic arrogance — rather than absolute need for the only verbal roadmap we carry.

But today we’re not talking about the crazy distraction of a misplaced apostrophe.

Today, I’m here to teach you how grammar and the human heart are inextricably linked. 

Some time ago – and I wish I remember where it was – I heard the story of a man who was born in Vietnam, but raised in America. In 1975, as word had spread of the American forces’ impending withdrawal, his family, like so very many others, quickly packed everything they could carry upon their backs, gathered the children and the elderly, and set out to escape.
At the time, the man was only a very confused, very frightened three-or-four-year-old boy. When, after some journeying, his family arrived at a bus stop where they might find transportation away from the violence, for some reason, the little child began to cry — hysterically. This many years hence, he can’t remember precisely what set him off, but whatever the catalyst, this was a Richter-scale onslaught of screaming tears that no amount of “shushing” would quiet.
Of course, the other refugees were terrified of what his crying might bring to bear. They weren’t cold or heartless; they just knew that such noise would likely draw army attention, which meant more focus upon their own loved ones, and less chance of safety for their children.
The boy’s family huddled together on the side of the road, calming him, and eventually decided to wait for the next bus. Little could anyone have known what a difference that decision would make. Not one hundred feet after it drove off, the bus they had intended to take hit a roadside bomb and exploded, killing every person aboard.
Years later, the family had emigrated to the United States, and the same young man enrolled in university. His original intention had been to study medicine, but he soon discovered the sciences were not his true passion. Instead, his heart flew to linguistics and ancient history. How, though, could he tell his family? Such a drastic change, he was certain, would disappoint and shame his parents; so, he dropped out of college for an entire semester, before finally gaining the courage to go to his father and share the story.
He recalls that his father was quiet for a moment or two, and then asked, in broken English, “You no like science so much? No make you happy?”
The young man respectfully, quietly replied, “No, father.”
“Okay,” the older man replied. “So you do what make you happy!” And like that, he had accepted, without question, a complete change in major life plans. The father’s only question was, “What make you happy?”
In retrospect, the same young man – now a professor of linguistics – remembers family gatherings from his own childhood in California. There, he recalls having asked his aunts, uncles, and grandparents about what would’ve happened if they’d caught that first bus in Vietnam? What might have been? Yet time and time and time again, the bewildered answers were the same: “What you mean, what would have happened? It not happen. What happened, happened, and here we are.”
Only after this young man began his university level study of linguistics did he realize the impact that grammar had on his family’s psychology. It all had to do with the “subjunctive” verb tense.
Now, perhaps you don’t remember the term subjunctive when it comes to languages. Perhaps you didn’t even realize our English language contains subjunctives. I thought I knew all of my parts of speech — all of my gerunds and participles and permutations and combinations thereof  — until I started learning a foreign language. Only then did I realize there was an entire verb tense of which I have never ever heard (in Spanish as WELL as in English!). 
Sheldon On Bongos & The Subjunctive (Click to Watch!)

Sheldon On Bongos & The Subjunctive (Click to Watch!)

Subjunctives are about longing…imagination….wonder…and sometimes, regret. They are the “could haves,” the “would haves,” and the “might haves” that did not or have not occurred. The “were” instead of the “was.”
Well, here’s the kicker: there is no subjunctive in Vietnamese. The refugee child-turned-linguist realized that his father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and extended family members could not conceive of a reality that might have been because their very language didn’t allow for the possibility…and therefore, neither could their thoughts.
What was, was. What is, is, and that is all there is.  So you see, not only does language — constructed by grammar — express what we think, it also affects how we think, how we live, and how we love.


In some ways, not having the concept of “would have or should have” produces a great sense of peace, an absence of regret, and a focus on the present. Without the subjunctive, we would be free of so much longing, and so much guilt.
Yet without the subjunctive, we couldn’t imagine what might be; we couldn’t  conceive of a brighter, broader, different future, something that “might be” better than the present. 
We’re not just talking nouns and pronouns, adjectives and adverbs. Grammar is a clear way in which we express ideas, and also the intrinsic way by which those ideas are conceived, constructed, and understood by our own minds. 
In other words, this is big stuff. So, I’d like to share a few important points on the way grammar impacts your relationships with every person you meet on any portion of the human spectrum. And I promise: not a single one will correct your use of well or good, or they’re or there, or….
I Statements: (PS – There’s a great, EASY explanation of this in The Asperkid’s [Secret] Book of Social Rules!)
An “I Statement” is nothing more than a simple formula for clear communication, in which someone says:
“I feel _(emotion)_ when you _(action)_. I would like/prefer _(state your need)_.”
What’s so powerful about this particular layout?
“I” is the subject — not “you” — which means this isn’t an attack or an accusation. You’re talking about your own reaction, not about the listener’s actions. How? Snazzy, smart grammar, baby.
Just by making yourself the subject of the sentence, you take the heat off of the other person. Oh yes, you’re clearly identifying what action(s) affected you. But neither the listener nor his/her actions are the centerpiece of what you’ve said. Your feelings are. So, the other person hears the results of what’s happened without feeling under attack.
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Furthermore no one can argue with your feelings. You own them! I can’t tell you that you aren’t sad or frustrated or disappointed or energized or befuddled. I can’t do that because I am not inside your mind. I have absolutely no authority — under any circumstances — to contradict what it is that you say you are feeling.
“I feel that” is not an “I feel” statement, nor is “I’m sorry that you” or “I think that you” or “I believe that” or “It seems to me that.” Why?
Feelings are adjectives (describing words): delighted, overjoyed, ecstatic, raged, impassioned, angry, hopeless, confused, silly, perplexed.
But “I feel that,” etc. are all followed up with an idea or opinion – which are nouns, things that can be debated and argued and disregarded.
Maybe “I feel that it is cold today.” You could just as easily disagree. It’s subjective: there’s no absolute definitive of cold. “I think that you’re being mean.” Other people may disagree, and everyone has the right to his or her opinion. No one can argue the validity of feelings; anyone can argue the validity of an opinion. 

What Now?

If you receive an “I statement,” your grammar choice STILL matters a lot!
(It’s called “reflective listening – it’s REALLY important – and it’s ALSO in the “Rule” Book.)d6cfcfd9f6825e90fb1f13a035049a4d
Try something like…..
“I hear that you feel _____ when I ____. Is that right?”
Then, “I’m so sorry that I made you feel that way.” (NOTICE THE BOLD!) And, ONLY THEN, if you have some facts to add to help clarify a mix-up, go with: “Let me give you some extra information that may make you feel better.”
And to finish it up? Conjunctions. Remember, “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?”
Conjunctions are just little words that stick ideas together like super glue. However (hey! that’s one!), they can do it very, very differently…so be careful!
For example there is a huge difference between saying:
“I hear that you feel sad when I do this. I’m sorry that you feel that way,but I really think that you’ve got it wrong.”
“I hear that you feel sad when I do this, and I’m sorry. It’s not what I meant to have happen. May I share some information that might make you feel better?”
Some words minimize feelings (but, however, except); others show respect (and) even if you don’t agree on the facts. And it’s all based in grammar.
Last one. Ready?
“I am sorry that you” or “I am sorry if you” is the precursor to no apology whatsoever.  It’s a way to placate without ever actually taking responsibility. 
For examples:
I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.
I’m sorry if you’re offended.
I’m sorry if you didn’t get the joke.
I’m sorry if you were disturbed.
I’m sorry if you’re upset by what I said.
All of these mean that you’re not really sorry for what you did. Instead, what really bothers you is how inconveniently upset someone else has gotten. Really, saying, “I’m sorry that you got upset,” is a backhanded way of complaining about the other person’s reaction.
In other words, it’s not an apology at all. It’s a complaint.
Let’s imagine a kid-version game of driveway bowling. Say one child very, very carefully sets a group of bowling pins, and then – without warning –  another child rolls the ball. Boom! Pins fly and one kiddo is really s’mad (that’s sad + mad).
Now mom comes upon the scene. She will probably – and kindly – say how sorry she is that the pins fell (as is compassion, not responsibility).  She may even say, “I’m so sorry that you’re so upset!” Mom was not the culprit; her actions didn’t cause the harm, so she doesn’t need to apologize. She’s just being nice.
However, the child who did roll the ball needs to apologize, even if the harm was unintentional. After all, if I step on your foot by accident, I’ll still say that I’m sorry! If I rolled the ball – if I did whatever caused the upset feelings, I have to own it. I have to apologize for what control — my own actions. “I’m so sorry that I knocked the pins down, Billy! I thought you were ready. I apologize for upsetting you.”
Grammar is a big deal. Like it. Don’t like it. It doesn’t really matter….
Maybe diagramming sentences doesn’t make your heart sing. That’s OK, I still like you. But whether or not you care about the Oxford comma (or even know what it is), trust me: grammar matters A LOT – especially when communication is a challenge.
The correct words — used correctly — help ALL of us (especially Aspies) to be assertive without being aggressive, recognize other perspectives, and find the words to share how very hard we’re trying…all the time. (For more on avoiding ‘WORDY’ mistakes, read this.)




  1. says

    You nailed this one, Jennifer. My daughter adores grammar and the written word. It is embarrassing to say that she corrects most of my written work. She is 12 and I am a 55 year old teacher! It is one of those super hero traits that I would never ever want to change. Your article appeared at the most opportune time. It appeared the day that we mainstreamed our daughter back into a regular class. She was allowed to pick one class to attend this quarter and it was….Latin! Thanks for all you do for us parents, guardians, and teachers. We learn so much from you!

  2. says

    My thoughts kept shooting, “Yes! Yes!” as I read this post. (The more I read, the more I’m convinced my boy inherited his Aspie-ness from me.)

    Now, tell me if this is an Aspie thing: when email was fairly new, a trusted friend (and IT professional) told me my quite formal “voice” was off-putting. Beginning then, I made it my mission to copy his no-capitals-little-punctuation-colloquial-style writing in causal correspondence. When I first began texting, it took me sooo long to replace all the automatically capitalized letters. I have never admitted that to anyone before… :)


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