sentence diagramming

My good friend Steven Watson, who’s charted social networks for such historical scenes as Warhol’s Factory, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Beat Generation, knows me so well that when he returned to the city from a summer in Minnesota, he brought back the perfect book of diagrams for my collection:

A Key Containing Diagrams of the Sentences Given for Analysis in Reed and Kellogg’s Graded Lessons in English, and Higher Lessons in English (1898)

Leafing through the pages I was repeatedly struck by the beauty of sentence diagrams like these — which you’d do best to take a moment to work out for yourself before reading on:

Sentence diagrams

Diagramming a sentence is like putting it up on blocks to examine its engine from below — or: like dangling its counterbalanced parts like a mobile; — or: like dissecting its anatomy on the surgeon’s table.

Not only does the schoolboy’s exercise of sentence diagramming act to slow down the rapid consumption of the sentence, which usually goes down much too smoothly, but it also puts it at a nice remove from the throat — that is, from the voice — pushing it back towards the mind. You start regarding the sentence not as an utterance but rather as a mechanism whose workings you can pick apart. You see it spatially rather than temporally.

The whole procedure invites you to tinker with the sentence, to revise how it balances its parts. You start seeing other ways in which the thought might express itself — and also how it might be shifted (by choice or by stylistic pressure) into divergent variants or even oppositions.

moral instruction

The following example typifies the schoolmasterish tone of the 1894 book, which issues many opinionated enjoinders to proper conduct and thought:

Sentence diagram: Goodly mind

The underlying theme of mental hygiene speaks to the old notion that right thinking comes from expressing yourself in the right language, the truth always underpinned by correct grammar — a belief I wish I could share.

But in addition to all the muddled verbiage of bureaucrats and academics, the world also bulges with perfectly well-written cant — which incoherent truth (often curses or screams) rarely manages to puncture.

cape town

All this takes me back to 1969 — to a dark study hall in Cape Town, where I first had to try my hand at diagramming sentences (I can still almost feel my fountain pen scratching blue ink on white foolscap).

Having been plunked down for a year at St George’s Grammar School, I had to adjust to a system that did all it could to ape the bygone world of English boarding schools. Thus a uniform of jacket, tie, and straw boater; chapel services three times a day; and a strict code of conduct that when violated led to canings by the housemaster.

It was this same master who instructed us in English. He sermonized as forcefully to us in the classroom as did the minister in chapel, decrying Communists, hippies, and other drags on the venerable traditions of the west — a social order that he invoked as broadly as he could to clothe the diseased apartheid body of his particular time and place.

Curiously, sentence diagramming proved to be an odd solace to me there, I’m not sure why.

I’d lose myself in penciling apart the sentences not only of my homework, but also of the colonialist adventure books I found on the school’s bookshelves ( Lord Jim and King Solmon’s Mines).

degenerate english

These thoughts had me pull out an old storage box from which I retrieved a memoir I once tried writing about my boarding school experiences. At this point I could write a memoir about the memoir-writing, I suppose, for it was written when I was about 24 or 25 — in 1981 or 2, that is.

In any case, opening the small looseleaf notebook now, I see Degenerate English proclaimed on the title page, and then this promising start:

Degenerate English - page one

The writing went downhill after that, for I was trying to make something I’m still incapable of doing (fashioning a long continuous passage of prose), and I should have stopped while I was ahead.

What still interests me on this particular page is, among other things, the underlying struggle in tone and diction between American and South African English, a battle I fought ferociously within myself at the time, though not with complete success — on returning to the States, everyone remarked on my “English accent.”

back to the voice

After that failure of writing for the page, I returned to writing for the voice.

I’d first started tape recording my words in college when I painstakingly composed a piece about a summer I’d spent living with an extended Navajo family in Arizona. I titled the tape Talking my way about theirs, and it began like this:

Talking my way about theirs, first section

What drew me to this form is that by recording those sentences rather than printing them, I could slow down your path through my text considerably — especially compared to how I imagine you just took it in. Screens repel close reading in favor of fast skimming, and we only pretend that our browser is giving us “pages.”

But to return to my slightly meandering thread: after Degenerate English died about seventy pages in, I wrote a peculiar text for the tape recorder entitled Thoughts on erasing blank tape, a piece I partly circled back to twenty or so years later in Trace.

In none of these recorded works was I entirely satisfied, for like most people I disliked the sound of my own voice, and aside from that personal objection I found fault with the insistent stamp of personality that any voice carries with it.


But by then I’d become highly sensitive to the nuances of the spoken word, which no written sentence could fully capture. Certainly I thought punctuation marks were far too few in number, and even the line-breaks of poetry, while useful, were at best a small step in the right direction.

These days, emoticons are a new form of punctuation; they try flagging what’s ordinarily conveyed far more intricately by tone of voice and facial expression.

Back then I started wondering whether a system of written notation could convey the meaningful stresses of intonation. I turned to books on phonetics to see how linguists transcribed these subtleties, and I remember being struck by a textbook example in which the same sentence has an opposite meaning depending on which word is stressed: > > I thought it was going to rain. [it did]
> I thought it was going to r a i n. [it didn’t]

Then I came upon a marvelous example of notation, which in this case rings five different changes on the simple declaration I love you:

from Phonetics by JD O'Connor (Pelican: 1973)

Intonation examples, pp 268-9

How much is conveyed in tone of voice, and how much is lost without it!

Eventually, however, after experimenting a bit with some decidedly eccentric notation systems of my own, I reluctantly abandoned the attempt as being too unwieldy.


predictive text

Texting on a cell phone’s numeric keypad makes your qwerty keyboard look by comparison like a model of efficiency.

alphanumeric keypad

Texting can be sped up considerably, however, by predictive text, which proposes the most likely guess for the word you are stringing together letter by letter. Even so, this method takes you through some very odd detours even when you’re spelling out a perfectly commonplace word — for example: 4:ghi → i

3:def → he

5:jkl → gel

5:jkl → hell

6:mno → hello

But if instead of hello you proceed to try writing hellish, hellhound, hellenic, or gelling, your little cellphone gives up and presents you (aptly enough) with: hell? And now you’re left to plod on with the older, slower multi-tap method.

No doubt many messages are shaped by the tight constraints of predictive text, since texting is something you do on the fly and in a hurry. I imagine that many of us start opting for the common rather than the uncommon word, and even for the templated message.

All in all, then, not an arrangement conducive to articulate writing.


But doesn’t rhymed poetry constrain you too?

rhyme scheme

The possible lines you can write within your chosen rhyming scheme are sharply limited by the rhymes available in English, which suggest themselves to you with something of the same restrictive inevitability as predictive text (making you wish you were writing in Spanish or Italian, where words pair off far more promiscuously).


And if you’re also setting your poem to a regular meter, then again your word choice is constricted by the accidents of syllabication and stress.

So much arbitrariness! How can you really say what you mean within arbitrary patterns like these?


But even within the seeming freedom of prose, we find ourselves still subject to well-worn patterns that have long since turned into ruts.

listing by threes

In Divisions , I remarked on my own peculiar predilection for listing by threes. Similar habits, tastes, and predilections guide my choices in vocabulary, sentence rhythm and syntax, and even metaphor within surprisingly tight bounds. (Case in point: I note that the previous sentence exemplifies my listing by threes habit without my having had the slightest idea I was succumbing to it again…)

Writing betrays its author at every step of the way, unmasking his or her identity like it or not, as was demonstrated several years ago in headline-grabbing fashion.


The journalist hiding behind “Anonymous,” author of the political roman-a-clef best-seller Primary Colors, was outed by purely formal means.

When a professor of English literature, Don Foster, compared the text of the novel to a range of other writing samples culled from the publications of some twenty-five-plus suspects, he soon established beyond any doubt that Anonymous was Joe Klein, despite Klein’s initial denials. (Foster’s account was first published in New York magazine, and then expanded as a chapter in the book Author Unknown: Tales of a Literary Detective.)

Klein’s quirks gave him up as surely as his fingerprints or dna would have. For example, such tendencies as these:

  • an enjoyment of adverbs made from y-adjectives: crazily, goofily, juicily, spottily;
  • a predilection for -ish words: darkish, dullish, puckish, smallish, ;
  • a taste for extravagant compounds: triple-back-over-somersault-and-pander-pirouette, Scare-Seniors-to-Death strategy;
  • a cute use of sort of: Howard was legendary himself, sort of; Fort Green is booming, sort of.

And many others. Foster also noted “internal biographical evidence” present in Klein’s writing that enabled a kind of profiling:

of an author who was white, middle-aged, male, but also ambivalent about women … perhaps a heterosexual male suffering from deep homophobic panic … [with a desire] to tutor blacks in what’s good for them.

Naturally these inferences ended up making Klein very uncomfortable, and when he eventually came clean, so to speak, he tried defending himself, but with no great success: for he was arguing against himself, against a range of concrete evidence culled from his own words.


Habits of mind, tastes, prejudices, predispositions, tics, range of knowledge, inner resources, outer resources — aren’t these the necessary basis for anyone’s style, in writing and otherwise — in life?

There’s no escaping much of this as given, either as you struggle to write or for that matter as you struggle to read someone else. Perfect style is the ingenious arrangement of all these things, not their annihilation.


During a painful month of my life about 20 years ago, I resorted to crowding all troubling thoughts out of my mind by concentrating completely on chess.

chess row

My chessboard and my opponent were provided on my Apple II screen by the Chessmaster program, which certainly did the trick: while matching my wits against the computer (and, it sometimes seemed, against the constricting universe of chess itself), all my worries were pushed aside.

I would have counted this a great success had I shown any concurrent improvement in my chess-playing abilities. But before long I had to face the fact of my utter mediocrity as a player, accepting the near-inevitability of my pieces being cornered and my king mated in pretty short order.

Just a few moves into the game, I would already feel my throat tightening as my options diminished. And yet I knew that mathematicians had calculated that after the first four moves in chess, your choice of possible positions has been “narrowed” to 71,852!


Clearly grandmasters (both human and digital) have no trouble finding new pathways through the vast search-space of chess. They create new ways to attack, to defend, and ultimately to win, and the game goes on being played because its possibilities are virtually infinite.

Perhaps the same thing is true of verse. Grandmasters like Shakespeare or Auden find no obstacle to expression as they navigate virtuosically through the search-space of language and its rules.

—To which the reluctant skeptic in me feels compelled to add: they find no obstacle to expressing whatever the language itself can express — but no more. (To which I can already hear, at the back of my mind, somebody-or-other’s rejoinder: there is no more, man. So get on with it.)



Much of one’s fieldwork is done in the pages of a book.

Several months ago I turned with relief to Henri Michaux’s Barbarian in Asia, a record of his Asian travels in the early 1930s. For once, a travel book that was not a first-person itinerary, with none of the usual one-foot-after-another chronology: “The next morning I…”

Michaux gives you minute observations and sweeping pronouncements, but never his diary.

The book came back to me recently as I kept watching my sentences write themselves, always favoring the same sorts of patterns and divisions. What particularly irked me was the way that any kind of list seemed to demand no more and no less than three items. Even in conversation I’d notice this pattern taking hold of me. I’d call someone up and say, I have three things to tell you — then hasten to figure out a division of my topic into three.

Michaux noticed a different pattern in Hindu culture.

We ourselves feel and understand by dividing by two, three, and four. The Hindu into sixty-four, thirty-two, rarely nine, almost always into numbers above twenty. He is extremely abundant. …

And if he does not possess the thirty-four elements for dividing a question, he will invent the ten or fifteen that he lacks.

How to let yourself go into such abundance, to take such pleasure in enumeration? My soul feels niggardly by comparison.



Many years ago I devoted myself to watching great films and to figuring out how to make one or two small ones of my own. With so many hours spent in darkened screening rooms, the basic filmic rhythm in which one shot succeeded the previous one at the moment of the anticipated cut began to bother me — not for intellectual reasons, but in my gut.


I found the same oppressive rhythm in the films of even the greatest filmmakers, who seemed to share no other formal property — Brakhage and Hawks, Rossellini and Preminger. Nothing was more certain than that the shot I was looking at would soon end in a cut, and the next one too, and the one after that.

This felt like an endless compound sentence: A and B and C and D and

There were films that dispensed with cutting entirely (Warhol, Snow, Gehr), but this was not what I was after. I dreamed of a film syntax that more closely resembled that of a complex sentence, in which each shot had a sharply different grammatical function. There were stabs at that in Kubelka and Eisenstein, though even their best films relapsed into the same familiar structure of one-shot-after-another.

I soon realized that the ideal form I had in mind could result only in very short films, consumed very quickly by the demands of differentiation. Very brief lives! Or, as it turned out for me, no life at all.

It also struck me that you could object in the same way to language. For after all most of our reading is not of one sentence alone but of many in succession. So it came down to the same thing: one sentence after another, all falling within fairly predictable lengths, and all ending with a period.

These long-forgotten thoughts came back to me recently when I was pondering a passage by William James in which he considers the stream of consciousness:

Like a bird’s life, it seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings. The rhythm of language expresses this, where every thought is expressed in a sentence, and every sentence closed by a period.

Later he remarks that we can’t sustain our attention for more than a few seconds at a time, that when we concentrate on a topic, ours is a “repetition of successive efforts” to bring it back to mind. Each time our mind comes to a tiny rest, we’re soon dislodged again and must flutter off to another branch (hopefully of the same tree!)

When I try to sit and think without distraction, I steady myself by considering the rise and fall of my breathing. The length and quality of each breath varies, but not the fact that one succeeds another.

When the day comes that it doesn’t, I won’t know it.