AMERicAN EdUcATOR | SUMMER 2008
conveyed an actual event) and abstract (the spoken words wereinvisible, and their sounds vanished rom the air as soon as they were uttered). Te diagram was the bridge between a dog andthe description o a dog. It was a bit like art, a bit like mathemat-ics. It was much more than words uttered, or words written on apiece o paper: it was a picture o language.I was hooked. So, it seems, were many o my contemporaries. Among the myths that have attached themselves to memorieso being educated in the ’50s is the notion that activities like dia-gramming sentences (along with memorizing poems and addinglong columns o fgures without a calculator) were draggy andmonotonous. I thought diagramming was un, and most o my riends who were subjected to it look back with varying degreeso delight. Some o us were better at it than others, but it wasconsidered a kind o treat, a game that broke up the school day. You took a sentence, threw it against the wall, picked up thepieces, and put them together again, slotting each word into itspigeonhole. When you got it right, you made order and sense outo what we used all the time and took or granted: sentences.hose ephemeral words didn’t just ade away in the air butbecame chiseled in stone—yes, this is a sentence, this is what it’smade o, this is what it looks like, a chunk o English you can seeand grab onto. As we became more profcient, the tasks got harder. Tere wasgreat appeal in the Shaker-like simplicity o sentences like
Tedog chased the rabbit
(subject, predicate, direct object) with theirplain, no-nonsense diagrams:But there were also lovable subtleties, like the way the linethat set o a predicate adjective slanted back toward thesubject it reerred to, like a signpost or a pointing fnger:Or the thorny rosebush created by diagramming a preposi-tional phrase modiying another prepositional phrase:Or the elegant absence o the preposition with an indirectobject, indicated by a short road with no house on it:Te missing preposition—in this case
—could also be indi-cated by placing it on that road with parentheses around it, butthis always seemed to me a clumsy solution, right up there withexplaining a pun.Questions were a special case: or diagramming, they had tobe turned inside out, the way a sock has to be eased onto a oot:
What is the dog doing?
transormed into the more dramatic:
Tedog is doing what?
Mostly we diagrammed sentences out o a grammar book, butsometimes we were assigned the task o making up our own,taking pleasure in coming up with wild Proustian wanderingsthat—kicking and screaming—had to be corralled, harnessed,and made to trot in neat rows into the barn. We hung those sentences out like a wash, wrote them likelines o music, arranged them on a connecting web o veins andarteries until we understood every piece o them. We could seeor ourselves the dierence between
. We knew what an adverb was, and we knew where in a sentence it went,and why it went there. And we knew that gerunds looked like nouns but were really verbs because they could take a direct object:
Part o the un o diagramming sentences was that it didn’tmatter what they said. he dog could bark, chew gum, play chess—in the world o diagramming, sentences weren’t aboutmeaning so much as they were about subject, predicate, object,and their various dependents or modifers. All you had to do was