Poster exposes "A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines of Notable Novels"


Perhaps not terribly notable, but I’d like to see the diagram of this:

“All right, wifey, maybe I’m a big pain in the you-know-what but after I’ve given you a recitation of the troubles I had to go through to make good in America between 1935 and more or less now, 1967, and although I also know everybody in the world’s had his own troubles, you’ll understand that my particular form of anguish came from being too sensitive to all the lunkheads I had to deal with just so I could get to be a high school football star, a college student pouring coffee and washing dishes and scrimmaging till dark and reading Homer’s Iliad in three days all at the same time, and God help me, a WRITER whose very ‘success’, far from being a happy triumph as of old, was the sign of doom Himself.”

My mom taught English. I was her student in 6th grade. She taught sentence diagramming, not the most popular module in her class. Later, when assigned to write our own concrete poems (you remember, those ones that make shapes with the words), one kid diagrammed sentences like this:

I hate diagramming sentences

Grammar is annoying

I can’t remember if he diagrammed the sentences properly or not, but I thought it was so clever.


Poetry is dull
But if you must write something
Choose Haiku it’s short


Worse than any math class, diagraming sentences was one of those super-dull, will-never-do-it-in-real-life things that I was so glad to put behind me forever.

And I’ve been published since then.

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The 2,235 word-forms of one Finnish noun, generated automatically

I loved diagramming sentences. Before I learned to diagram sentences, I was convinced that English grammar was composed of 10% orderly rule-following and 90% exceptions and special cases.

Being able to draw out diagrams cast a whole new light on grammar for me. This technique drove home the idea that every word has a place. The rules were still complex and fraught with peril, but diagramming gave me a way to order them. This was the mental model by which I learned.

Most people don’t seem to care for this skill anymore, but it certainly helped me.


I’m another one who learned how to diagram sentences in junior high (Catholic school), and while it appears to have little to no function outside of torturing students, it gave me a thorough understanding of how grammar functions. When I went to a public high school, my ninth grade honors English teacher had a notorious test in which we had to write–word-for-word–textbook definitions of each of the parts of speech. A single error, and you got an F. She ran this test every week or so for a couple months until everyone passed with 100%. The thing was, having done all that diagramming in middle school, I could easily explain what a noun, preposition, or adverb was, so it was only the rote memorization of the definitions that took me a few tries. Meanwhile, most of the other students were encountering the concept of parts of speech for the first time.

The knowledge gained from diagramming is also helpful when learning foreign languages. If you already know grammar inside and out, you won’t be trying to figure out linguistic concepts at the same time you’re learning how another language handles them. There’s a reason there is a whole line of books on "English Grammar for Students of [other language].

UGH! I had a linguistics class last semester and this is giving me bad memories.

Those diagrams! They make me feel… all warm and fuzzy inside.

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