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Towards the beginning of Warbreaker, Vasher uses his shirt tassels by saying"Upon m call, be as my fingers and grip." Later though he adds the words "what they must" to the command, with a similar addition to the legs command. Why did he change them?

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Awakening requires specific wording for Commands, in addition to the right visualizations and sufficient focus.

It's not explicitly explained, but plausible possibilities include (in decreasing order of likelihood, per my personal feeling of plausibility based on the text):

  1. Vasher is still working to discover the best Command for this task
  2. Vasher wants subtly different behaviors from the tassels in each case, hence different Commands
  3. Vasher is managing his store of Breath (this seems less-than-likely to me, but I can't exclude it)

The importance of specific, precise wording comes up in lots of places in the novel, along with support for each of these.

One of Denth's early lectures to Vivenna on Awakening gives an example of specific, suitable (or perhaps, more efficient/effective) Commands needing to be figured out:

"That's part of it. That and the discovery-- again, by one of the Five Scholars, I forget which one-- of some new Commands. If you really want to be an Awakener, Princess, that's what you have to learn. The Commands. (Chapter 33)

From a subsequent part of that same lecture, we see a specific reference to Commands' wording being important (if not necessarily decisive). Note the use of the indefinite article in a good Command:

"Well," Denth said, "there are a lot of Commands. If you want to bring a rope to life-- like that one you tried to use back in the alleyway--a good Command is 'hold things.' Speak it with a clear voice, willing your Breath to act. If you do it right, the rope will grab whatever is closest. 'Protect me' is another good one, though it can be interpreted in fairly strange ways if you don't imagine exactly what you want." (Chapter 33)

An example of an appropriate (or sufficient, depending on how you want to think of it) Command being needed:

Awakeners could recover Breath they invested into objects; she'd been tutored on that. She just didn't know the Commands to do it. (Chapter 35)

A Command can still work, even if it's not the ideal wording:

"Type Two being Mindless Manifestations in a Deceased Host. They are cheap to make, even with awkward Commands." (Chapter 46)

Commands require varying amounts of Breath, and so it's conceivable that a specific Command might be chosen as a function of how much Breath the Awakener wants to bestow (though I don't think that's the case with Vasher's sleeve tassel Commands):

"Lifeless can be created at will, and require only a few Breaths to Awaken-- anywhere between one and hundreds, depending on the Commands used--and they feed off their own color when being Invested. (Chapter 46)

Complicated Commands are much more difficult to use than simple ones, suggesting that perhaps Vasher is still fine-tuning this one:

"Right," Vasher said. "As you've seen, most basic Commands work easily. If the Command is something the object could do, and you state it in a simple way, the Command will usually work."

"I tried some simple Commands,", she said. "On the rope. They didn't work."

"Those may have sounded simple, but they weren't. Simple Commands are only two words long. Grab something. Hold something. Move up. Move down. Twist around. Even some two-word Commands can be more complicated, and it takes practice visualizing--or, well, imagining." (Chapter 46)

And Vasher explicitly states that there are Commands that are not known, suggesting again that specificity in Commands really matters:

"This area is where you really begin to understand how little we know. There are probably thousands of Commands we don't know. The more words you add, the more complicated the mental component becomes, which is why discovery of a new Command can take years of study." (Chapter 46)

and

"It doesn't help that a lot of people who learn new, valuable Commands never share them, and probably die with the knowledge." (Chapter 46)

However, in favor of (3), see

The shirt quivered and a group of tassels curled up around his hand. Five of them, like fingers.

It was a difficult Command. It required far more Breath to Awaken than he would have liked--his remaining Breath barely allowed him the Second Heightening--and the visualization of the Command had taken practice to perfect. (Chapter 21)

So Breath rationing is plausible, since we know that Vasher would prefer not to use so much Breath on this Command. And, from some of the above excerpts, we can deduce that more awkward Commands require more Breath than better ones. But if we presume that the more precise Command is better (Breath-wise) then it would be odd for Vasher to prefer the "worse" one when he is explicitly concerned about how much Breath it requires.


In particular, note that Vasher's second Awakening of the sleeve tassels is more specific than the first one we see. This is why I find the first possibility most compelling. Vasher is a practiced researcher of Awakening, and as such refining the Commands he uses after seeing an earlier attempt in action seems very in-line with that.

Relatedly, Vasher is an extremely skilled Awakener. Sloppiness with phrasing his Commands seems difficult to accept, which is again why I prefer possibilities (1) or (2) from my list (I'm not sure how we'd differentiate between those two based on what's in the book alone).

Finally, while Vasher almost certainly has the knowledge, skill, and experience to do something like manage his store of Breath with a fair amount of precision (this is explained in an author's annotation describing the "Fetch keys" Command given while he is in prison in the prologue; but that is outside the scope for this question), we don't have any indication that he is stingy with Breath (and some suggestion of the opposite attitude).

So, based on the presented in-text evidence and Vasher's background, I think it extremely likely that Vasher is working to refine a new-ish, effective Command. It's also possible that he wanted differing behaviors in each instance, and so used slightly different Commands, but I find little active support for that possibility over (1), and so I prefer (1). And I cannot rule out Breath-rationing as the reason, but there is little direct evidence of it in this application and so I find the case for (3) to be unpersuasive.

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    Honestly, I have my doubts about 1) in this case. That seems like a pretty common use of awakening, and Vasher, being one of the 5 scholars, seems likely to have meticulous knowledge about such common commands. That just seems like the type of commands that the 5 scholars would have worked out in detail long before they awakened a sword.
    – JMac
    Jul 3, 2019 at 16:04
  • @JMac The evidence isn't conclusive, so I can't say you're definitely right or wrong. But I don't agree that this is a common use of Awakening. It's a pretty complicated Command (long, highly conditional, requires practice, and is explicitly described as difficult in Chapter 21). We have zero other examples of anyone using it without observing Vasher do it first (though the commonness of tassels on T'Telir might be derived from such an application). And Vasher is very clear that a huge number of Commands are not yet known. The simpler version is described as using a lot of Breath, though.
    – Upper_Case
    Jul 3, 2019 at 18:19
  • We actually have one very prominent example of someone else using a very similar technique, without Vasher, when Susebron gets his tongue back. It seems like a fairly intuitive awakening for highly invested awakeners, and we know Vasher used to have a very large store of breaths. He literally studied awakening for centuries, and had access to enough breath to have intuitive understanding for a lot of that time. It just seems really unlikely to me that he was still trying to streamline that process when he already knew things like awakening steel and making his phantoms.
    – JMac
    Jul 3, 2019 at 18:31
  • @JMac Susebron is a special case, being so powerfully Invested with Breaths, and that also gives leeway on Command precision. Vasher doesn't have those advantages in these instances. It is stated in the Ars Arcanum that at the Sixth Heightening and higher more difficult Commands are easier to master and to discover, and this is explicitly not a basic Command. It's definitely possible that Vasher discovered this one ages ago, but it's not like you learn everything in Command tier 1 before learning Commands in tier 2-- advanced knowledge doesn't mean knowing all "easier" knowledge.
    – Upper_Case
    Jul 3, 2019 at 18:41
  • But anyways, it's more a process of elimination than an active support for (1), since inference is all we've got to go on. I find (3) to be less than compelling, and (2) is plausible but has more issues than (1). So I land (tentatively) on (1), or else the answer is totally outside of what the text offers support for.
    – Upper_Case
    Jul 3, 2019 at 18:49

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