There’s a difference between understanding what a sentence means and understanding why it means that. Sentences are complicated: a subject, a verb, some adjectives to make the noun more specific, some adverbs to do the same for the verb. Some of them, like “The cat sat,” are brief and easy to parse. Others, like Kant’s sprawling, “All thought must, directly or indirectly, by way of certain characters, relate ultimately to intuitions, and therefore, with us, to sensibility, because in no other way can an object be given to us,” require much more effort to understand. Most couldn’t diagram that sentence, but with a few readings and some context, we know what that it means, and that’s the important part.
Sometimes, though, we can miss the important part — understanding — because we don’t grasp the grammar. Take the sentence “Sit down.” Technically, it’s a complete sentence, but it has an invisible subject — an implied “you.” All imperative sentences not otherwise specified have this invisible “you” as the subject, meaning that we’re supposed to understand common imperative sentences, like “Hand me that,” and “Come here,” as “You hand me that,” and “You come here.”
That “you” is thought to be so easily assumed that we don’t go to the trouble of writing it or saying it or thinking it. It sounds strange even, to hear it at the front of a sentence.
Maybe, though, we should try to remember it, just for ourselves. Sometimes we need to hear it, explicitly. When the American Red Cross gives CPR and First Aid training, one of the most interesting pieces of advice they give for handling a crisis is to say, “You call 911,” and to point at one person, rather than to just say, “Call 911.” If no one person is specified, everyone will assume someone else did it, and no one will call. But when one individual hears this “you,” they have a clarified responsibility.
We live in a community at Yale that relies on us to remember that we are just one of many people who walk on the sidewalk, take the shuttles and study in the libraries, and to act accordingly, following the direction of sentences like “Ride bicycles on the road only,” “Stay seated while the vehicle is in motion” and “Don’t eat in this area.” It can be hard to remember the invisible, silent “you” in front of all those sentences, especially when we’re caught up in our own lives — after all, we’re only going a block on our bikes, eager to stretch our legs and get off the shuttle, hungry and just wanting to eat a granola bar.
When we partake in these seemingly small actions, we make ourselves exceptions to the rules that these little sentences, with their implied “yous” give to us. We don’t do this because we’re selfish or think we’re above rules. We do it because we are, in terms of our consciousness, fundamentally different than every other person. There are 7.6 billion people on earth, and we each live and perceive as individuals. It’s only natural to feel like an exception. The issue is that everyone feels this way — and so everyone forgets to read that “you” sometimes.
Things don’t work if that happens too much. Rules exist for good reason. As tame and institutional as that message seems, it’s real and important. In order to enjoy the things we get to enjoy at Yale, we have to follow the limits set — and there are many limits to collective living. We can’t have toasters in dorm rooms, or be loud after 11 p.m. on weeknights or leave the library without having our bags checked. Yet because of this, we don’t have to worry about our dorms catching fire or being kept up the night before an exam, and we get to use and touch books older than the nation itself.
Sometimes, we need that clarified responsibility that the Red Cross teaches — that direct “you” and pointed hand to remember what exactly is expected from us. That can come from us if we take a second to acknowledge the implied “you” for the many things we hear.
Abigail Grimes is a first-year in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .