Diagramming sentences: what, after all, is it good for?
Well, for one thing, it’s obvious that it’s good for stirring up controversy. The more than 300 comments (and close to 100 personal e-mails) in response to my last post, “A Picture of Language,” ran the glorious gamut from “love it/taught me to write/thank you, Mrs. Wengler!” to “ridiculous waste of time/confusing/who needs it?” I was delighted to see that 400+ people can get passionate in print about the subject.
But questions remain. Once we have mastered the arcane skills diagramming requires (prepositions on slanted lines, gerunds on little staircases, etc.), are we better writers? What does diagramming sentences teach us besides how to diagram sentences?
I would answer: It teaches us a lot. First of all, it illuminates points of grammar. When constructing a diagram, we focus on the structures and patterns of language, and this can help us appreciate it as more than just a vehicle for expressing minimal ideas. (If language were good for only that, OMG, TMI, RUOK and their ilk would fill our needs.) When we unscrew a sentence, figure out what makes it tick and reassemble it, we interact with our old familiar language differently, more deeply, responding to the way its individual components fit together. Once we understand how sentences work (what’s going on? what action is taking place? who is doing it and to whom is it being done?), it’s harder to write an incorrect one.
Diagramming is basically a puzzle, and — as we all know in this age of Alzheimer’s awareness — puzzles keep our brains working. An attempt to tame a really complex sentence can oil your brain, twist it into a pretzel and make it do back flips. One reader of this series expressed a desire to see a diagram of a sentence — any sentence — from Henry James’s “The Golden Bowl.” The following example, which is from book one, chapter two, perhaps supports H.G. Wells’s crack about James’s style, comparing him to “a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost…upon picking up a pea…”:
The spectator of whom they would thus well have been worthy might have read meanings of his own into the intensity of their communion — or indeed, even without meanings, have found his account, aesthetically, in some gratified play of our modern sense of type, so scantly to be distinguished from our modern sense of beauty.
But even seemingly kinder, gentler sentences can be challenging. I had an email from a woman named Linda, who presented me with what I started to call the “No, that’s not it” sentence:
Here is where I laid the book.
When she was in high school, she said, her teacher wrote it on the blackboard and started to diagram it: “Then she stepped back, paused, and said, ‘No, that’s not it!’ She erased it and started again. She started and stopped a few times, lost in her own work, until the bell rang, so engrossed she didn’t give us any homework.”
Over the years, Linda presented the sentence to other teachers, all of whom confidently started to diagram it, then stopped, frowning, to say, “No, that’s not it!” I had exactly the same reaction, finally gave up, and submitted it to Gene Moutoux, my diagramming guru. Gene came through, as always, like the Louisville gentleman he is, with pennants flying:
The x’s denote the unexpressed but implied predicate nominative “the place.” (The x on the line denotes “place”; the x below is “the,” which modifies “place.”) If you tried it before Gene stepped in and rescued you, you probably increased your brain cells by, let’s say, at least 12 percent.
Everyone from George Orwell (in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”) to a couple of dozen blog commenters has pointed out that clarifying the way we use language makes us better thinkers. If we’re thinking logically ourselves, and if we understand the power of the words we’re using, we’re more wary of being bamboozled by muddy thinking. As Orwell put it, make sure your writing is simple and clear, so that “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”
Obviously, I recommend diagramming, but I do have a couple of caveats.
First of all, diagramming is not for everyone. I’m told by many teachers that the practice is helpful for people who need to visualize an idea in order to grasp it — for those who’d rather see a graph or a pie chart than listen to an explanation, however wonderfully worded. I’ve heard from artists, math geeks and spatial learners of all kinds who say they find diagramming especially useful. One e-mailer told me that for children in special education classes it often works wonders: “You can see the light bulb go on.”
But dozens of others have written to say that they consider diagramming anguish and drudgery. On a less emotional level, they point out that it involves mastering not one skill but two: the rules of grammar and syntax and the making of diagrams, which is something like baking a loaf of bread and cutting it into fancy shapes before you can make a sandwich. And the tougher the sentence, the more impenetrable the diagram. I suspect that a lot of us who “loved” diagramming in school (including me) would be defeated by the Henry James sentence.
Diagramming has other limitations, too. Even if it enlightens us about the parts of speech and how to use them, it teaches us nothing about punctuation, and it can’t help with spelling. You can diagram “The dog wagged it’s tail” perfectly, but you’ll remove that pesky apostrophe only if you already know the rules for apostrophes. As an editor who has seen too many “marital arts” movies and “singers” of the Declaration, I advise writers to polish and proofread everything before it goes out into the world, even if it’s just an e-mail or a text.
Probably the best way to learn the technicalities of language and usage is not to diagram but simply to read books that are full of good sentences. Our observant brains will soak up the rules. It is the surest route to becoming a better writer — as opposed to merely a grammatically correct writer. If your kids are having trouble with grammar, or their school is one of the many that no longer teach it, read to them, give them books for their birthdays, drive them to the library on Saturday mornings.
As for the verdict on diagramming? The wimpy judgment, but unfortunately the only one that makes sense, is that it is like broccoli: it’s good for you only if you can stomach it.