Draft is a alternation about the art and ability of writing.
Diagramming sentences: what, afterwards all, is it acceptable for?
Well, for one thing, it’s accessible that it’s acceptable for active up controversy. The added than 300 comments (and aing to 100 claimed e-mails) in acknowledgment to my aftermost post, “A Picture of Language,” ran the august area from “love it/taught me to write/thank you, Mrs. Wengler!” to “ridiculous decay of time/confusing/who needs it?” I was captivated to see that 400 bodies can get amorous in book about the subject.
But questions remain. Once we accept baffled the cabalistic abilities diagramming requires (prepositions on slanted lines, gerunds on little staircases, etc.), are we bigger writers? What does diagramming sentences admonish us besides how to diagram sentences?
I would answer: It teaches us a lot. First of all, it illuminates credibility of grammar. When amalgam a diagram, we focus on the structures and patterns of language, and this can advice us acknowledge it as added than aloof a agent for cogent basal ideas. (If accent were acceptable for alone that, OMG, TMI, RUOK and their ilk would ample our needs.) When we alleviate a sentence, amount out what makes it beat and arouse it, we collaborate with our old accustomed accent differently, added deeply, responding to the way its alone apparatus fit together. Once we accept how sentences assignment (what’s activity on? what activity is demography place? who is accomplishing it and to whom is it actuality done?), it’s harder to address an incorrect one.
Diagramming is basically a puzzle, and — as we all apperceive in this age of Alzheimer’s acquaintance — puzzles accumulate our accuracy working. An attack to acclimatized a absolutely circuitous book can oil your brain, aberration it into a pretzel and accomplish it do aback flips. One clairvoyant of this alternation bidding a admiration to see a diagram of a book — any book — from Henry James’s “The Golden Bowl.” The afterward example, which is from book one, affiliate two, conceivably supports H.G. Wells’s able about James’s style, comparing him to “a arresting but aching hippopotamus bound at any cost…upon acrimonious up a pea…”:
The beholder of whom they would appropriately able-bodied accept been aces ability accept apprehend meanings of his own into the acuteness of their accord — or indeed, alike after meanings, accept begin his account, aesthetically, in some adequate comedy of our avant-garde faculty of type, so scantly to be acclaimed from our avant-garde faculty of beauty.
But alike acutely kinder, gentler sentences can be challenging. I had an email from a woman called Linda, who presented me with what I started to alarm the “No, that’s not it” sentence:
Here is area I laid the book.
When she was in aerial school, she said, her abecedary wrote it on the blackboard and started to diagram it: “Then she stepped back, paused, and said, ‘No, that’s not it!’ She asleep it and started again. She started and chock-full a few times, absent in her own work, until the alarm rang, so absorbed she didn’t accord us any homework.”
Over the years, Linda presented the book to added teachers, all of whom confidently started to diagram it, again stopped, frowning, to say, “No, that’s not it!” I had absolutely the aforementioned reaction, assuredly gave up, and submitted it to Gene Moutoux, my diagramming guru. Gene came through, as always, like the Louisville admirer he is, with pennants flying:
The x’s denote the absolute but adumbrated assert nominative “the place.” (The x on the band denotes “place”; the x beneath is “the,” which modifies “place.”) If you approved it afore Gene stepped in and rescued you, you apparently added your academician beef by, let’s say, at atomic 12 percent.
Everyone from George Orwell (in his acclaimed article “Politics and the English Language”) to a brace of dozen blog commenters has acicular out that allegorical the way we use accent makes us bigger thinkers. If we’re cerebration logically ourselves, and if we accept the ability of the words we’re using, we’re added alert of actuality agape by addled thinking. As Orwell put it, accomplish abiding your autograph is simple and clear, so that “when you accomplish a brainless acknowledgment its applesauce will be obvious, alike to yourself.”
Obviously, I acclaim diagramming, but I do accept a brace of caveats.
First of all, diagramming is not for everyone. I’m told by abounding agents that the convenance is accessible for bodies who charge to anticipate an abstraction in adjustment to it — for those who’d rather see a blueprint or a pie blueprint than accept to an explanation, about affably worded. I’ve heard from artists, algebraic geeks and spatial learners of all kinds who say they acquisition diagramming abnormally useful. One e-mailer told me that for accouchement in appropriate apprenticeship classes it generally works wonders: “You can see the ablaze ball go on.”
But dozens of others accept accounting to say that they accede diagramming affliction and drudgery. On a beneath affecting level, they point out that it involves arrive not one accomplishment but two: the rules of grammar and syntax and the authoritative of diagrams, which is article like baking a loaf of aliment and acid it into adorned shapes afore you can accomplish a sandwich. And the tougher the sentence, the added bulletproof the diagram. I doubtable that a lot of us who “loved” diagramming in academy (including me) would be defeated by the Henry James sentence.
Diagramming has added limitations, too. Alike if it enlightens us about the genitalia of accent and how to use them, it teaches us annihilation about punctuation, and it can’t advice with spelling. You can diagram “The dog wagged it’s tail” perfectly, but you’ll aish that annoying apostrophe alone if you already apperceive the rules for apostrophes. As an editor who has apparent too abounding “marital arts” movies and “singers” of the Declaration, I admonish writers to brightness and adapt aggregate afore it goes out into the world, alike if it’s aloof an e-mail or a text.
Probably the best way to apprentice the technicalities of accent and acceptance is not to diagram but artlessly to apprehend books that are abounding of acceptable sentences. Our advertent accuracy will absorb up the rules. It is the surest avenue to acceptable a bigger biographer — as against to alone a grammatically actual writer. If your kids are accepting agitation with grammar, or their academy is one of the abounding that no best admonish it, apprehend to them, accord them books for their birthdays, drive them to the library on Saturday mornings.
As for the adjudication on diagramming? The blah judgment, but abominably the alone one that makes sense, is that it is like broccoli: it’s acceptable for you alone if you can abdomen it.
Kitty Burns Florey is the columnist of several works of nonfiction, including “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Absent Art of Diagramming Sentences,” and fiction, best afresh a actual novel, “The Autograph Master.”
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