Grammar 101: Why We Diagram Things

Guess what? This post talks about grammar. I apologize, but it’s time we talk about it, rather than just pretend that we’re all okay with you thinking you suck at it and that you could never get better at it. Let’s see what we can do to change that.

Take a second to re-read the previous posts on grammar and sentence diagramming. Now let’s talk color basics:

  1. Subjects of sentences are red.
  2. Verbs are blue.
  3. Adjectives and modifiers are green.
  4. Any word that you can’t define as any of those stays black.

So, okay, we can all apply colors (or highlights) to words in our various writing programs. That’s lovely. But what’s the point? Why do it?

Because there’s not a lot of better ways to determine how someone writes. Understanding what the words are (what part of speech, what affiliation, what their function in the sentence is) is as important as understanding what the word is trying to do in the context of the paragraph. If you paint all the verbs red, then you should be able to go back and look at all the red text in your paragraph and look at each word and see if it’s the best verb for that part of the particular sentence, or if it’s a verb at all.

Also, understanding what words are what parts of speech can help you see how often someone (or you) sticks them into writing, which can often be a sign of boring construction or repetition, or a general sense of vagueness if a word get used again and again. Most often, that sort of abuse leads me to comment “This word isn’t doing what you think it does” because often a writer gets fixated on one word being the “perfect” word rather than a word of ideal utility – what you write is never going to be perfect, you can only write things that are clearest and accomplish the things you want them to.

Let’s look at a sample paragraph and color it so that we can draw some conclusions about the writer. I’m tempted to pull a famous paragraph from something, but that’s probably too on the nose. Let’s grab something from literature.

Here’s the first big  paragraph of Huxley’s Brave New World.

The enormous room on the ground floor faced towards the north. Cold for all the summer beyond the panes, for all the tropical heat of the room itself, a harsh thin light glared through the windows, hungrily seeking some draped lay figure, some pallid shape of academic goose-flesh, but finding only the glass and nickel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory. Wintriness responded to wintriness. The overalls of the workers were white, their hands gloved with a pale corpse-coloured rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost. Only from the yellow barrels of the microscopes did it borrow a certain rich and living substance, lying along the polished tubes like butter, streak after luscious streak in long recession down the work tables.

Now, this isn’t a perfect breakdown, because I highlighted the adjective/adverb phrases rather than the specific adjectives or adverbs, but you see my point, even in this simple breakdown, right?

  1. Aldous Huxley LOVES adjectives.
  2. The verbs are few and far between.
  3. The subject(s) of each sentence tries its best to be near a verb, but often, descriptors get between them.

Does this mean that Huxley is a bad writer, or that this is a bad paragraph? Nope. Don’t confuse “diagramming” as “proof of poor quality”. Diagramming doesn’t reveal quality, it reveals the components, then we have to take that additional step to determine what the words are doing in whatever place they’re in within each sentence.

Rather than call out every adjective, let’s grab just a couple:

  1. Why do we need to know the room is enormous? Because having that detail come before the others means that we can picture a big space, then fill it in with whatever’s talked about next.
  2. Does the light have to be harsh? Giving the light a descriptor helps us picture the shape of the light, and the way it’s falling all around the room.
  3. What’s up with the “academic”? By suggesting that the room COULD have an academic in it, we bring to our mental pictures whatever we think of when we talk about academics. The fact that we later find out that this is just an empty laboratory with metal and porcelain shifts the picture in our head, but doesn’t change it so radically that we’re now confused.
  4. Do the microscopes really need that much detail? The detail is about the light on the microscopes, because this paragraph is talking more about light and what light finds/falls on in the area. It’s sort of like describing a room based on what we see when we turn the lights on. By talking about what the light hits and how those things get hit by light, we can move that mental camera around this created room and get a sense of where things are.

All that, from a dude who LOVES adjectives.

Adjectives give us anchors to HOW we picture whatever’s getting described. They can move the psychic distance (that mental camera) by the order in which they are placed in the sentence, so that we can look at the order and see what’s important.

Verbs give us a sense of motion in text, carrying us from event to event because as one thing ends, the verb is our cue that another is beginning, and we should be taken there, along with the characters involved.  The order of the verbs is so often the order in which actions happen, and our sense of “rightness” can be easily upset by activities coming in an order we don’t expect (wait, why did he reload the gun before taking cover? and why did she just kick that guy in the face THEN talk to him?)

Put simply: We diagram so that we can check our own roadmap for our ideas. Don’t diagram for other people, they won’t benefit from it, unless this is school and this is an assignment. But breaking down your own work, even if you’re not wholly sure you’ve colored all the right words appropriately, can give you a sense even in the roughest of drafts of your writing habits. Maybe that kind of reflection will be good for you, and you’ll become aware that you skimp on adjectives, or you’re not clear on your verbs. Maybe though, that examination will go the other way, and you’ll freak yourself out and think your writing is worse, and then give up.

Know what to do when that happens? Get rid of the diagramming, not the writing. Whatever doesn’t serve you while you’re producing your work and honing your craft, jettison or hold off until a later stage. Edit after writing. Have people put eyes on things when you’ve got some ideas on the page, not just when they’re four bullet points on a napkin at Starbucks. If diagramming freaks you out, AFTER YOU’VE TRIED IT, don’t do it again. Yes, this is totally a case for “don’t knock it until you’ve tried it”.

So, try it. Diagram the hell out of things. Your favorite stories. Blog posts. Youtube comments. Captions on dirty photos on Tumblr. See if you can sharpen your sense of how you use the language to convey your imagination and ideas. It’s a tool, so practice with it. Then kick some ass with it.

Happy writing.

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