Sunday, July 13, 2008

Diagramming Sentences

Many of my generation are able to recall with varying degrees of fondness the ordeal of being called upon in class, bidden to confront the blackboard, then diagram sentences that ran from straightforward declarative to the more complex and orotund, enhanced perhaps by dependent and independent clauses.

At the time my only hesitation resided in the knowledge that my handwriting was a mass or competing styles and desires. I actually enjoyed diagramming sentences, approached the task with the same confidence I applied to being a smart ass. I knew such arcana as predicate nominative, condition contrary to fact, adverbial clause. Diagramming sentences was something I was good at; it felt good to be accomplished at something.

I am not a grammarian. I can repeat from memory the definitions of parts of speech, but this does not make me any more a grammarian than repeating a mantra makes a Buddhist or Hindu a Buddhist or Hindu; definitions are merely steps along the way. Even though I catch myself in my sentences sounding formal, I can often find a way in revision to cope with formality. Word choice. Timing. Length of sentence.

Putting sentences together is like setting up a model train, deciding where the layout goes, what degree of risk taking scratches like a cat wanting in or out, what the intent of the sentences is.

Sometimes, as a reviewer/critic, or as a teacher, I try to discover the intent of the writer--and count myself a dismal failure, thinking at times that it's best to slink off somewhere, a park, the beach, a coffee house, and read for the sheer pleasure of it in much the same manner as listening to music. Listening to music, I don't have to spend time discovering how I am led to feel. I already know. Then comes the question, as easily asked when I read through my own work as when I respond in a workshop or take an assignment from a literary agent or publisher: How does this make you feel? As with olives, cashew nuts, and grapes, you can't stop with one; so too with questions. Is what reading this text makes you feel congruent with the author's intent? (In the case of your own work, the question becomes Is this what you meant? )

The purpose of all the reading you need in order to access your own writing and to bring forth useful commentary in the class room or the editorial conference is to hone your senses to the inner music, the layout of the sentences. To return to an earlier metaphor: Is the caboose where it ought to be?

Timing. Design. Intent. Inner music.


Wild Iris said...

I am utterly averse to the mechanics of language, strangely enough. I understand it, obviously, but it seems such a natural thing to me, that trying to explain it is like trying to explain why water is wet. It just is.

I'm strange. That's all there is to it.

lowenkopf said...

No, not strange to do without thinking, to be instinct-driven as you approach something that means so much to you. Individual. But not strange.

Sara said...

This is so well put - I love the metaphor. It's something I've been paying close attention to in reading and in my own writing. I'm constantly rearranging my train cars, putting the engine up front and then switching it to the middle to see how it feels there.

There are trains that ran past my childhood summer house that were over 120 cars long. Some had three engines and five cabooses. Sometimes that's how my sentences look, and sometimes that's how I like them!

lowenkopf said...

Sara, that last paragraph has the energy of the beginning of an essay.