Late last week, I came back from a week’s vacation and was immediately thrust into the whirling dervish. There was a report that needed to go out and a colleague of mine was feverishly editing it. She brought it to me and said, “I can’t figure out this sentence. Is it ‘have’ or ‘has?'”
Oh, that age-old dilemma, I thought. Let’s see it. And then she handed me the most convoluted run-on sentence I have ever read. Note to alert readers: don’t let academics write things. They just can’t.
Anyhow, I said, “Well, let’s diagram it.” I got looked at like I was nuts.
The art of the sentence diagram is something that’s been all but dropped in American school curricula. In fact, I probably shouldn’t have learned it either, given the tenor of the times, but I was blessed with a few crusty old English teachers who drilled it into me. (By the way, “blessed” is NOT the word I would have used in the 8th grade! “Cursed” would probably be more accurate!)
“When you’re learning to write well, [diagramming] helps to understand what the sentence is doing and why it’s doing it and how you can improve it,” says Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences.
In a 2014 interview with NPR’s Juana Summers, Burns Florey declares that there are two kinds of people in the world: ones who loved diagramming and ones who hated it. I was mostly in the pro-diagramming camp, but I really didn’t appreciate it until I was older and could see the benefit to a writer/editor of being able to deconstruct sentences.
Who knows? Maybe I’m just weird. After all, I got A’s in Geometry, too!