“Pilots are so much better than everyone else,” thought a young boy once. As a grown man, I think we should all agree with the boy. A few years ago, I found a spare moment hidden in Iraq of all places. That moment contained irrefutable proof that pilots are better than everyone else. Pilots are better because they live many lifetimes, while other people only live one lifetime. Confusing? Maybe it’d help if I said that pilots are better because they live many mini-lifetimes. Any better? No? Allow me to explain.
A mini-lifetime is the term I use to capture the three-part event of flight: takeoff, flight, and landing. In order for the definition’s perfection to become perceivable, you must understand that a lifetime has three key parts: birth, life, and death. To critical readers, I confess that there certainly are other professions or human activities that contain just three parts; however, I’m convinced you’ll see there is a special genius in this metaphor’s specific use of pilots.
To begin the comparison, birth and takeoff share a foundational similarity. Both initiate a sequence of events that will only ever come to an end. Next, life and flight are that sequence. They are the continuation of birth and takeoff. Moreover, during life and flight, no matter how a person lives or how a person flies, a tragic end lingers at a moment’s distance. Finally, the death (near death, at least) and landing phases offer a unique ability to look back over the life and flight phases with the express purpose of forming judgments. For pilots, these judgments, of course, are not the end–but the beginning. The end is the application of the lessons learned. Note, that pilots repeat this three-chapter cycle almost daily. And while doing so, they become very proficient at improving their flying skills through the post-landing debriefs. Grounded folk, on the other hand, are not afforded these vantage points. They must make extreme efforts to be still, take inventory, determine lessons learned, and then apply the lessons as they resume living out their lifetime. Consequently, pilots living all these mini-lifetimes–do not discount the very real threat of death this metaphor demands–are in the habit of debriefing their own grounded lives each day, week, month, year, or whatever time period and applying the lessons learned to the next iteration. That is why they are better.
Whew! Glad you’re still with me, as I have great news. That was just the introduction. Let’s not kid ourselves, it was worth it. Next up, the part of the assignment you’ve been waiting for: more meta-for. (Yep, that’s my humor.)
The assignment was to write a(n interesting) paper relating grammar to some other system in life. Naturally, it follows that if my flying-life metaphor is so perfect, grammar being a part of life, then grammar should be able to be explained via flying. As Rafiki tells newly-mature Simba in the Disney classic, The Lion King, “Eet is time.” It is time to push the metaphor further.
Clear as day, the first requirement for grammar is words. Lady Luck, beauty that she is, smiled down on me as it became clear that flying also needs one thing more than anything else: pilots. So words must be pilots. Obviously, humans don’t have physiological wings, so we invented machines that could lift us into the air. Just as all humans are not pilots, all sounds humans emit are not words. Within the sounds that can be classified as words, there are subtle intonations and pauses. When creating written language, earlier man decided these subtle intonations and pauses required special written markings, different from alpha characters. Whatever name initially given, today we call them punctuation. Like a pilot’s aircraft, punctuation is a tool to help words achieve their God-given purpose. A pilot’s purpose is to accomplish a mission and he does so using an aircraft. A written word’s purpose is to accomplish communication and it does so using punctuation.
With words and punctuation under my belt, I pressed onward. What more could I synthesize? I knew that individual words and punctuation didn’t communicate as well as a group of words, a sentence, does. Equivalently, pilots and aircraft don’t accomplish missions in a single action–they need a group of actions. So a sentence, then, is the coordinated cycle of takeoff/flight/landing. Each takeoff is the capital letter and marks the beginning of an independent, complete thought. The flight is that thought. And the landing is the concluding punctuation. (This is pretend world. It’s okay if the punctuation is both the aircraft and the landing…think how a period can be both part of an ellipses and a period at the same time if you need to.)
But wait! Stop here, and consider a new revelation. Consider how an exclamation point has varied tones. I said consider how an exclamation point has varied tones, silly! Then consider how a perfect landing would be a soft, beautiful exclamation point as in, “Man, that landing was as sublime as an outdoor professional hockey game being graced by light falling snow!” While a crash landing would be a hard, abrupt exclamation point found in, “Bam!” At first daunting, the question mark still fits the metaphor. Can you picture a student pilot attempting to land a helicopter? Sometimes the student thinks he has landed just once, when the instructor knows it was at least twice. After all, there is no place to record number-of-times-student-bounced-the-helicopter-before-finally-landing, is there?
Next, while it is possible that a mission can be comprised of just one takeoff/fly/land iteration, most missions include several such iterations. Similarly, it is true that some sentences can be paragraphs themselves. A more elementary view is that sentences need other sentences in order to be a paragraph. A paragraph is usually a more effective method of communication than a sentence or word. This, then, is the same as how missions containing several iterations of takeoff/fly/land are usually more effective missions. Specifically, if a pilot flies to a destination to pick up someone, flies to a second destination to drop them off, and then flies back to the home airfield, that is more effective than just one of those three iterations. One effective mission composed of three total flights.
This metaphor becomes ever easier as we move away from the basics, into the more subjective parts of written language. Lexicon, or an individual’s dictionary, would be the capabilities of a particular pilot, whereas diction would be his or her style. Metadiscourse, or the words and phrases that help the reader understand the writer’s meaning, would be a pilot’s clothing. Is the pilot wearing a uniform, or just dressed in plain clothes? Just as a writer’s intentional metadiscourse helps the reader understand the writer, a pilot’s clothes conveys who the pilot works for, how good he or she is, how experienced he or she is, and what type of missions the pilot accomplishes (passenger transport, combat, reconnaissance, etc.).
In the end, this assignment is over before it begins. That grammar can be synthesized into any system shows that it can be synthesized into every system. That’s because grammar is a system. That’s the point, isn’t it? The real trouble for sticklers of grammar, however, is not that people don’t use the system; it’s that life goes on whether people use or ignore the system. This, just as life goes on whether or not human flight occurs. If there is any overarching lesson this metaphor can teach us, it is that grammar is not a solution to a problem. It is a tool to be used by those who care to use it. Just like flying.