Supposedly, Martin Luther King Jr. began his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on bits of toilet paper—the only paper he could get in confinement. His need to express his position on peaceful protest, like the need to use the bathroom, was that urgent. This was a personal statement, impeccable in its grammar, that risked his personhood in order to stand up for non-violent resistance as a radical act of love. This mission was why he was alive, and also why he would not be alive for very long.
Part of what made King so desperate to write his letter was a dangerous idea that was circulating at the time: the idea, popular with the white moderate, that people of color should just “wait” a little longer for equal treatment under law. One tour-du-force sentence, in particular, demonstrates precisely how he feels about this suggestion. It is over a page long, and it is composed of eight dependent temporal “when” clauses. (See the Letter in excerpt form, and be prepared to crave immediate read of the rest of the letter.)
This allows us readers to feel (albeit in dragged-out readerly time) how bitterly long King’s people have already “waited” for freedom. King stretches his grammar to its breaking point—as the souls of his people have been stretched—and like a rubber band, the tension threatens to snap. If it weren’t for his paced eloquence and rhetorical control, the reader too would be weary of waiting. But as it is, as my students noted, you hardly even notice you have made your way through a single page-long sentence, but you know that the main clause, when it comes, will be a serious whomp. And whomp it is.
Grammar In Service
Our grammar, like King’s, must always SERVE the larger purpose of a document. And you, commando and writing ninja, must make it serve, not treat it as a grumpy task, an after-thought, or an obligatory comma-sprinkling endeavor. King’s language was intended and deftly engineered to open doors of perception and destiny. Oppression would no longer suffice, thanks, and particularly not the subtler forms that came with patiently, politely abiding an unjust status quo. There is no reason to think your grammar, in service to your words, cannot do the same.