Why do we attach such importance to sentence diagramming? Because, as Ms. Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, explains, “diagramming a sentence provides insight into the mind of its perpetrator. The more the diagram is forced to wander around the page, loop back on itself, and generally stretch its capabilities, the more it reveals that the mind that created the sentence is either a richly educated one — with a Proustian grasp of language that pushes the limits of expression — such an impoverished one that it can produce only hot air, baloney, and twaddle.”
From the article,
One thing we can’t learn, of course, is whether [Sarah Palin’s] words are true or make sense. Part of the appeal of diagramming is the fact that just about any sentence can be diagrammed, even when it is gibberish. Cats chase mice and Mice chase cats present the same kind of entity to the diagrammer. So does Muffins bludgeon bookcases. If it’s a string of words containing a certain number of parts of speech arranged in reasonably coherent order, it can be hacked and beaten into a diagram.
Once we start diagramming political sentences, the diagram’s indifference to meaning can be especially striking. Stirring words like “I have a dream,” the magisterial Declaration of Independence (a staple of diagramming teachers), bald-faced lies (“I am not a crook”), and crafty shadings of the truth (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) can be diagrammed with equal ease. But some politicians—our current president included—offer meanderings in the higher realms of drivel that leave the diagrammer groping for the Tylenol (“Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream”) or the gin bottle (“I remember meeting a mother of a child who was abducted by the North Koreans right here in the Oval Office”).
Read the rest, including more diagramming, here.
And good news — Ms. Burns Florey has a new book coming out in the new year, Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, on January 23, National Handwriting Day and John Hancock’s birthday (there’s also a new novel). Which makes me very glad I decided over the summer to practice handwriting along with the kids, thanks to my own home educating purchase.