"Grammar can’t heal broken hearts, but words and syntax do play their role in the emotional matrix of love and loss."Helen Grant for Varsity

It’s a commonplace of romance that certain things are difficult to say: “I can’t tell you how much I love you”, “I’m speechless” (for better or for worse). We get things wrong when it’s going wrong - “We need to talk” means something more like "I need to tell you something" – and play it safe when things are on track, resorting for a range of meanings to three words which are supposed to say it all. 

We recycle words and phrases from films and song lyrics, which mean, at once, everything and nothing: we’ll casually tell acquaintances that we love them, but agonise over the right time to say it in a relationship. Go-tos like “it’s just not working” skirt around real meanings. Empty as these clichés have become in themselves, they’re loaded in enough cultural context to tell us everything we need to know. 

Grammar can’t heal broken hearts, but words and syntax do play their role in the emotional matrix of love and loss.

This makes finding an alternative tricky, however desperate you are to be original. To resort to the film-line classics feels untrue to the reality of your emotion, but the familiar phrases have eliminated the competition with their monopoly on the market. Are they really the only remaining articulate players? Are clichés the best way to convey emotions which are too bewildering, or do we resurrect these dead metaphors because they will always best capture those universal feelings?

Let’s take the example of heartbreak. It feels so dramatic to say that your heart is broken, not to mention unoriginal. You want something more live and personal to express your individual experience, but anything else, like your heart being put through a shredder, ends up more dramatic or simply riffing on the same field of imagery. Heartbreak is somehow the only phrase which so neatly captures that specific brand of disappointment and pain. 

And the way we apply this inexplicably perfect term is important. Is heartbreak a state or an event? What’s the difference between a heart which is broken and one which was broken? And what about one which is breaking? It’s almost always used in the passive voice (“my heart was broken” rather than “you broke my heart”), which is a natural result of subjectivity. But it shows, too, our tendency to blame ourselves for disappointments, to feel that it’s something specific about our heart which made it brittle, susceptible, partially responsible. 

At a time when we're more likely to feel ourselves at a loss for words, it's worth thinking about what lies behind the familiar, clichéd language of love. 

This grammar also allows us to hide the perpetrator, to acknowledge our own hurt without accusing someone for what is more often an unintended, unfortunate consequence of their feelings. Sometimes, though, we want to render it active and intentional, in which case “you broke my heart” or “they broke my heart” - difficult, but powerful, things to say aloud - can provide linguistic catharsis.

Other verb choices matter, too. Love comes in the simple present tense“I love you”, and it’s difficult to pinpoint when (if) it moves into the past tense - "I loved you”. Isn’t love, sometimes, better rendered in the conditional: “I love you if/when…”? The same goes for “going through” (at what point have you been through a break-up?) and “breaking up”, when the break-up moment usually post-dates the relationship beginning to collapse.

Paying attention to these linguistic intricacies can seem like quibbling, making mountains out of molehills (since we’re in the territory of dead metaphors). Grammar can’t heal broken hearts, but words and syntax do play their role in the emotional matrix of love and loss. Saying you love someone is often less about making the statement than using the words to do the act of loving – otherwise, why say it more than once? 


Mountain View

Friendship breakups can be as hard as romantic ones. So where's the support?

We give weight to saying someone is your boyfriend or girlfriend, and being able to say, in turn, that someone is your ‘ex’ is a bigger step than just those two letters. Whether you’re putting on a brave face or articulating some newly felt progress, saying that you’re over something can move you forward faster. Alternatively, verbalising the present tense of ‘getting’ over it can help to cut yourself some slack, allowing a process rather than an end goal. 

Love going well and gone wrong can both be hard to talk about in a way which accurately communicates our individual encounter with general experience. At a time when we’re more likely to feel ourselves at a loss for words (wouldn’t it be great to have a synonym for ‘unprecedented’?) and yet wanting more than ever to let the people we love know that we love them, it’s worth thinking about what lies behind the familiar, clichéd language of love. 

This approach to the language of love might just help us to get our heads and hearts around what’s going on.