Breathing is not just about word order

Psycholinguist Frank Smith wrote in Understanding Reading (2004):

  • The statements the man ate the fish and the fish ate the man comprise exactly the same words, yet they have quite different meanings.
  • A Maltese cross is not the same as a cross Maltese,
  • nor is a Venetian blind the same as a blind Venetian.

These (slightly) amusing examples illustrate the significance of word order. Putting words in order isn’t just about grammar; it’s crucial to convey your intended meaning, wouldn’t you agree? Not agree you would?

I recall another quote from Frank Smith, from his book Landmarks in Literacy (1995): “Dogs chase cats cannot replace cats are chased by dogs in any meaningful context. The first is a statement about dogs and the second about cats.”

But what about your body and breath? Is the difference between them as easy to observe as the difference between cats and dogs? The following instruction seems plenty ambiguous to me and could be interpreted in various ways:

(a) Lift your head and breathe in

Does this mean to lift the head and breathe in afterwards? Or should we breathe in while lifting the head, as in coordinating these two actions? What if we run out of leeway in lifting the head, and there’s still plenty of in-breath available? Should we stop the breathing short? And how should we deal with the disturbed breathing? Am I overthinking this? What are we supposed to do, exactly?

On the other hand, consider this instruction:

(b) On an inhalation lift your head

While the first example (a) might imply to breathe on purpose, the second example (b) suggests to wait for an inhalation to happen and then to lift the head together with the breath-in.

In my previous blog post I’ve used the image of a surfer waiting for a wave. The wave will come on its own, there’s nothing the surfer could or must do for the wave to arrive. He just need to be ready at the moment he starts to float onto the wave, in order to catch it.

If you like, the next time you’re resting on your belly, play with this idea of lifting your head, and wait for the next inhalation to happen. How does it feel like to let a breath deliberately go by, and how does it feel like to catch a breath and lift your head, to ride your breath like a surfer rides a wave? And how is that different to deliberately force a breath to happen when you lift your head? When would you lift your head anyways? Is it really completely arbitrary, that specific moment when you start lifting your head? See what interesting things you will discover!