Monday, March 15, 2010

The Joy of Sentence Diagramming. That's Right, I Said It.

One of the core concepts of Grammaropolis is the visual representation of grammatical concepts. We can tell kids until we're blue in the face that an adverb modifies an adjective, but it might take actually seeing that concept in action for a young grammar learner to fully grasp it. Sentence diagramming is similarly exciting to me. Yes, I know that by admitting that I risk the cool kids not sitting with me at lunch, but I've finally learned to embrace my grammar geekdom. I love looking at a well-diagrammed sentence, seeing the connections between the words, experiencing the sentence as one might explore a new house: opening doors, descending stairs, poking through the attic. When I started teaching at Pinewood, I knew very little about diagramming, but the fact that my seventh graders could diagram noun clauses provided a certain motivation. Since then, I've come to see diagramming as a hobby of sorts.

Below is my diagram of this sentence from page 52 of Cormac McCarthy's astounding novel Blood Meridian:

"Already you could see through the dust on the ponies' hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones, and some among the company had begun to saw back on their mounts and some to mill in confusion when up from the offside of those ponies there rose a fabled horde of mounted lancers and archers bearing shields bedight with bits of broken mirrorglass that cast a thousand unpieced suns against the eyes of their enemies."

(I apologize for the blurred image - for some reason, it doesn't come out clear unless you click on the image itself.)

Experiencing a sentence as complex (and compound?) as this one in diagram form seems to unlock what makes McCarthy's prose so rich, precise, and hypnotic. I love the the litany of direct objects we "could see" in the first clause and the way the prepositional phrases in like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas cascade down from one another.

This diagram also shows the writer's craft, the attention to revision that McCarthy is famous for. We see the repetition of base clause structures embedded in the sentence: you could see... you could hear... some had begun... some (had begun). Without the diagram, the power and energy of everything else might prevent us from recognizing this repetition.

So yes, sentence diagramming is awesome.

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