A Most Searching Examination



sentence diagrams

Image via Pop Chart Lab

Pop Chart Lab, whose laudable ambition is “to render all of human experience in chart form,” is offering a print consisting of twenty-nine first sentences from novels, including one of my favorites, from David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress: “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” Of course, a print comprised of nothing but text would be not much of a print at all, so Pop Chart Lab has done us the favor of diagramming every sentence according to the Reed-Kellogg System, color coded and all. Plotting out the beginning of Don Quixote is, as you can see, complicated.

As a pedagogical device, sentence diagrams have fallen out of fashion; I never had to draw them (if that’s even the right verb) in school, nor was I made to study any grammar beyond the rudimentary parts of speech. This makes me feel like a fraud whenever I pretend to be a grammarian, as I often do. In fact, before today, I’d never heard of the Reed-Kellogg System; it sounds to me like a proprietary method for processing and packaging cornflakes.

Actually, it dates back to 1877, when it was invented by two men with great names, Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg. Though the Don Quixote sample is intimidating, diagramming sentences turns out to be fairly intuitive. (“And fun!” adds a sad, sorry voice in my head.) You begin with the base, a horizontal line; write the subject on the left and the predicate on the right, separated by a vertical bar. Then separate the verb and its object with another mark—if you have a direct object, use a vertical line, and if you have a predicate noun (had to look that up) or an adjective (that one I knew), use a backslash. Modifiers of the subject, predicate, or object “dangle below the base.”

Nothing could be easier.

According to Wikipedia, in certain circles—perhaps not the circles one aspires to run in—the Reed-Kellogg System faced scrutiny for dividing up the order of speech. But fear not, Alonzo and Brainerd had a tart rejoinder for their critics:

The Objections to the Diagram. The fact that the pictorial diagram groups the parts of a sentence according to their offices and relations, and not in the order of speech, has been spoken of as a fault. It is, on the contrary, a merit, for it teaches the pupil to look through the literary order and discover the logical order. He thus learns what the literary order really is, and sees that this may be varied indefinitely, so long as the logical relations are kept clear.

The assertion that correct diagrams can be made mechanically is not borne out by the facts. It is easier to avoid precision in oral analysis than in written. The diagram drives the pupil to a most searching examination of the sentence, brings him face to face with every difficulty, and compels a decision on every point.