Friday, October 03, 2008

Diagramming Sentences

Confession time: When we first heard about sentence diagramming, we tingled with excitement. Our anticipation soured, however, when we learned that sentence diagrams were not pictures that went along with the words. This sour feeling turned to out-and-out nausea when we actually took to the task of diagramming, which our teacher made us do with a ruler to ensure every line was straight.

We do not like sentence diagramming. Nor do we like fancy terms for parts of speech and constructions. Like raw oysters and roasted beets, those are fine things for people who like those things. We are not those people.

Nonetheless, we recommend this Slate article on diagramming Sarah Palin's sentences.

The author argues that sentence construction offers a window into the mind the person who spoke or wrote it. We tend to agree. Sarah Palin, alas, has uttered some sentences that are the equivalent of a window overlooking a scrap heap. Grammarians can't find much meaningful substance in a few of her more notorious squirts of prose.

We do take issue with one point in the Slate article--that a really complex, convoluted sentence can signal a "richly educated mind" with a "Proustian" grasp of language. That's crap. Truly finely tuned minds can take complicated ideas and express them so that people don't need to whip out a straightedge and Warriner's English Grammar and Composition to understand what's going on. It's an assault on the very notion of good writing to argue that such things should ever be needed to understand words on the page.

People who take pleasure in rat-nest constructions care more about impressing than communicating. They are the ones who write the textbooks that make students alternate between weeping and sleeping. They are the ones who write laws that confuse and alienate. They are the ones who write novels that are so inscrutable, very few people find actual pleasure in reading them--and instead have to settle for the satisfaction of completing them and the bragging rights they confer at cocktail parties with assorted cakesniffers.

Don't be cowed by this sort of thing. The difference between good writing and bad is the difference between steak and sawdust. You can chew on either, but no one who cares about you would feed you the latter.

No comments: