On sentence diagramming (no kidding!)

One of the things that used to be great about the web and that is currently great about blogs is you can stumble across all kinds of fun stuff without anyone even trying. For example, as I have recently posted over on my unofficial/life blog, there are a number of interesting web sites that make fun of and/or report conspiracies about the election (okay, okay, I just post the ones that make fun of Bush). This morning I found http://www.youforgotpoland.com/ Funny stuff.

But the thing I found this morning that fits here is this, “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, an essay by the writer Kitty Burns Florey about sentence diagramming that I came across while browsing through Erin “Critical Mass” O’Connor’s blog. Basically, Florey (who is the author of a couple of books I haven’t heard of) writes fondly in this essay of her memories of learning sentence diagramming, apparently while in Catholic school.

I think this is an interesting essay for a couple of reasons. First off, Florey actually explains sentence diagramming, and includes some images of sentence diagrams as she remembers it. I find this useful because when someone says– usually fondly– something like “remember sentence diagramming?” I find myself thinking but not saying “no, not really.” I kind of remember making sentence diagrams at one point, but I can’t tell you want grade I was in, and it didn’t have a lot of influence on me one way or the other. Florey’s illustrations remind me a bit.

Second, she points out what sentence diagramming really is: kind of an interesting language game, one that might sort of help a writer learn about some parts of speech, but not something that teaches anyone about how to write. Let me quote her at some length here:

Today, diagramming is not exactly dead, but for many years it has been on a steep slide into marginality. This is probably partly because diagramming sentences doubles the task of the student, who has to learn a whole new set of rules – where does that pesky line go, and which way does it slant? – in order to illustrate a set of rules that, in fact, has already been learned pretty thoroughly simply by immersion in the language from birth. It’s only the subtleties that are difficult – who vs. whom, adjective vs. adverb, it’s I vs. it’s me – and most of those come from the mostly doomed attempt, so beloved in the early days of English grammar, to stuff the unruliness of English into the well-made boxes of Latin and Greek, which is something like forcing a struggling cat into the carrier for a trip to the vet.

Another problem is that teachers – and certainly students – have become more willing to accept the idea that the sentences that can be popped into a diagram aren’t always sentences anyone wants to write. One writer friend of mine says that she disliked diagramming because it meant “forcing sentences into conformity.� And indeed language can be more supple and interesting than the patterns that perfect syntax forces on it. An attempt to diagram a sentence by James Joyce, or one by Henry James (whose style H. G. Wells described so memorably by as that of “a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost upon picking up a pea�), will quickly demonstrate the limitations of Sister Bernadette’s neatly bundled sentences. Diagramming may have taught us to write more correctly – maybe even to think more logically – but I don’t think anyone would claim that it taught us to write well. Soon after I got to college, one of my English professors spent an hour kindly explaining how I could make my writing less stiff and pompous – an hour that I can honestly say changed my life – and the years have shown me that Virginia Woolf’s comment on the subject is the simple truth: “Style is a very simple matter: all rhythm. Once you get that you can’t use the wrong words.�

Makes sense to me…

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