Sentence diagram

The diagrammed sentence above will delight grammarians, school teachers and wordies. A wordie is a logophile, a lover of words. It is similar to foodie, gastronome for the polysyllabic among us.

On the other hand, the sentence diagram will send shivers through those who suffered in elementary school English classes.

Sentence diagramming is a visual way to identify parts of speech and understand their function: subject, verb, object and all the little intricate bits like articles and prepositions. It dissects the sentence and lays it out on vertical and horizontal lines, slashes and pedestals. It illustrates grammar.

Some people diagram sentences as a way of doodling, just splashing around with syntax. Some people diagram sentences to exercise their language skills, equivalent to working a crossword puzzle.

Over lunch, my friend Ruth and I often diagram sentences in the air for fun. We were both happy to discover a book of postcards titled “Call me Ishmael: Sentence Diagrams of Great Literary Openers” from crownpublishing.com.

Each postcard diagrams an opening sentence from a famous work of fiction by Charlotte Bronte, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf (as seen above) and others. One of the most complicated is the five-level opening from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” One of the shortest is the three-word sentence “124 was spiteful” from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” We have given these postcards to all our friends and family who like sentence diagramming as much as we do. In fact, I have given three myself!

Granted, grammar for play is a special taste. Some people won’t write or email me (or talk to me) for fear I will correct their grammar. Which I do. I consider it my duty to the world, much like picking up litter. How can I hear a sentence butcher objective-case third-person pronouns and let it go unbandaged?

It is a mystery to me that native speakers who have spoken English since childhood never master pronouns. The hardest ones to grasp seem to be “me, myself, him and her.” Here’s the rule: These words are not to be subjects of sentences. They are objects. Yet, there seems to be a prevalent fear of using “me” in its rightful place as the object of verbs and prepositions. So, we hear to our recoiling ears, “Give the fish to Irene and I.” Or the more tortured, “The job was taken by myself.”

I watched an old rerun of “The Lone Ranger” as Tonto reported, “Me heard sheriff say ...” That is the way small children speak. I thought my stepdaughter would never outgrow saying, “Me and Stephanie went ...” And yet, recently I heard the grown, happy and prosperous son of a famous musician say merrily on a TV documentary,

“Me and him ain’t going to do that no more.”

With words like blunt objects, that tortured sentence slays several rules of grammar. I grieved when I heard it: shock, anger, sadness. And yet, his meaning was clear, even to us (not we) grammar snobs. Daily, in everyday conversation and on-the-air broadcasts, we (not us) fussy grammarians weep for our dying English language.

As if pronouns were not already vexatious, now there is a new complication. “They.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary added they as a singular, nonbinary pronoun for people who do not identify as either male or female. Then the dictionary bested itself and declared they to be the Word of the Year for 2019. This award is based on the number of times the word was looked up on merriam-webster.com and its prominence in news stories.

Those of us anxious they would lead us into a grammatical quicksand, compelling us to say things like “They is the guest of honor,” can breathe easily. The nonbinary pronoun takes a plural verb, even when referring to one person. It’s like the pronoun you, that way; we don’t say “You is my best friend.”

As Patricia T. O’Conner, the author of the grammar book “Woe is I” explains, “English is not a stay-put language.” 

Connie Cronley is the author of four books, commentator for public radio 89.5 FM and a columnist for TulsaPeople.

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