The Muller report has been in the news a lot lately, and while I don’t want to wade into politics here, something on a recent cable news show caught my ear. Presidential historian Jon Meacham was talking about Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the way his report — and his speech on May 29 — were filled with words carefully chosen to convey just the right nuance. Then he said “It’s hard to diagram some of those sentences,” (here’s the video; it’s about 5 minutes in) and, well, challenge accepted, Mr. Meacham.
Interestingly enough, most of the sentences in Mr. Mueller’s speech were grammatically straightforward. Mueller, or one of his aides, clearly understood that when writing for the ear, as opposed to the eye, short, simple sentences are clearest. I’ve chosen two of the longer ones to diagram here.
For our fourth sentence, we’ll depart from movie quotes. This sentence is close to one I found myself writing in an email, and I realized that although it was perfectly clear (and grammatical — it IS acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition in English), it would make for a more complex diagram because of understood but omitted words.
Here’s the sentence: “Her research is something I have no clue about the topic of.”
For our third sentence to diagram, we’ll get more complicated with a sentence that uses layers of recursion. In language, recursion basically means that we can embed – and keep embedding – clauses or phrases within a sentence while still maintaining grammaticality and comprehensibility.
At the recent ACES: The Society for Editing conference, I gave a session on diagramming sentences. It was during the last session period of the conference, on a sunny Florida afternoon, and more than 100 people packed the room to learn, or refresh their memories, about sentence diagramming. (We’re talking about the classic “Reed-Kellogg” method here, not the tree diagrams of great utility to linguists.)
Diagramming has fallen out of favor as a pedagogical tool (it was of questionable effectiveness anyway), and it’s not necessarily something that will make you a better editor. However, it can be helpful to visualize a sentence’s structure, and the “puzzle” aspect of it makes it nerdy fun for many of us who love language. Plus, it’s really easy to spot a dangling participle when you’re diagramming.
The enthusiasm at the conference for diagramming was such that I thought it might be fun to continue the practice, with weekly (ish) “diagramming challenges.” This is the first, and we’ll start simple: