By KITTY BURNS FLOREY
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.