Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Seeing the language's architecture

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philology, grammar

It is strange that a subject for which I once had the utmost horror became a figlio caro, that I might perpetrate it on my own offspring. Somehow, I did not...but I thought about it, time and again.

What is this fearful system? Sentence diagramming! I learned grammar readily enough, and I have also a mathematical mind, but this combination of parsing and geometry was wholly opaque to me. Having recently gone through—rather briskly, I admit—the sixty examples presented by Gene Moutoux, I think I now understand it better. Somehow, I've developed a fondness for diagramming, a paradoxical mellowing of my old phobia.

Let's be clear: I don't think "the good old days" were very good at all. But they did have their points...just, this wasn't one of them! Not then, anyway.

I could not resist snatching up Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog when I saw it. The full title adds ...:the quirky history and lost art of diagramming sentences. The author, Kitty Burns Florey, grew up loving grammar, sentence diagramming, and journaling. She's a writer and a professional copy editor. Now there's a picky-picky job for you! I ought to know; I am a pretty good proofreader, and I know how others react when I suddenly chase a grammatical rabbit like a Captain of the Grammar Police.

I can't resist showing a couple of examples. These are not from the book, which uses scanned handwritten examples, but a couple of GIFs cribbed from Gene Moutoux's site (linked above).

This first example shows both the diagram of the sentence "Several of her students speak with the confidence of Demosthenes," and an analysis of the parts of speech in each section of the diagram.

The second example shows how one handles a compound sentence. I believe the word order of this one is obvious.

So far as I know, diagramming is primarily an English language discipline. This must be because English amalgamates three major languages: Anglo-Saxon (a Germanic scion), Norman (pre-French), and Greek (primarily Byzantine); not only their words but their semantics and word order. Further, English borrows from dozens, perhaps hundreds of languages for even more ways to say things. It is the only major language that really needs a thesaurus.

Interestingly, diagramming began only in 1860, with S. W. Clark's system of balloon diagrams. These proved popular, but a bit confusing, and soon gave way to the system created in Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, in 1877. A craze truly began.

Sentence diagramming fell out of style, along with phonics, times tables, and other memory training, just about the time I finished High School. A few school systems are reviving the practice, but it is hard to find teachers who either know how or are willing to learn. Just like I haven't met a reading teacher since 1965 who knows genuine phonics; today "phonics" mainly means "sound out the first letter or two and guess the rest."

So, this discipline, and indeed discipline in general, is found mainly among home schoolers. See the Classical Christian Homeschooling site, for example (and enjoy the misspelling in their own page title).

I must admit, the aspect I enjoyed the most was the larger examples, including a few approaching (exceeding?) 100 words. The author mentions a poster, the diagram of a sentence some 950 words long. It takes a fanatic to puzzle through such a monster. But things could be worse.

I once helped a friend by proofreading some of his essays in linguisics. The diagrams now favored by that profession are more complete, but quite difficult to follow without great amounts of practice. They are very hard to produce.

Ms Florey admits that diagramming probably didn't help her become a better writer, and most friends that she asked agreed (a few thought it a detriment, some a minor benefit). Nothing can substitute for reading, reading, reading books, not always even the best books. I learn as much from struggling through a badly-written volume (or giving up partway through) as from enjoying the prose of master stylists. And I love a quote the author gained from Virginia Woolf:
"Style is a very simple matter: all rhythm. Once you get that you can't use the wrong words." (p. 151)
Kitty Florey certainly learned that principle quite well!

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