Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Diagram-O-Rama: Punching Up Your Sentences from Bryan Grubbs

Bryan Grubbs is our in-house professor of the new Grammar Etiquette blog series, posted once a month. He is an English teacher in Denton, TX.

I have resolved that diagramming a sentence was a ploy specifically engineered by literary scholarly types to be mind-numbingly dull, disinteresting, and monotonous. By this I of course mean that you can expect this blog to be completely professional and abstain from all things inappropriate, vulgar, eccentric or effing irrelevant.

So why map out sentences? I’d like to use this opportunity to compare writing a sentence to punching somebody in the face. It’s not as simplistic as it seems, much forethought goes into pummeling knuckles into flesh and bone. For instance, you would just as likely take a swing with somebody while you’re pinky’s hanging out as you would find a sentence to apply a dangling modifier to. You don’t swing a fist open handed. Most importantly, when you punch somebody, you want impact. You need the roll-of-quarters of well-placed articles, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions to add that extra weight and keep your knuckles straight. And that, my friends, is why you should diagram important sentences.

Reading a poorly constructed sentence is like having your cousin give you a sponge bath… it just feels wrong. Without my clever insight, you may never know why. First of all, there’s a blood relationship, and that’s just awkward. Second of all, something’s probably out of line.

Back to basics
All sentences consist of, at the bare minimum, a subject and a verb. The shortest sentence in the English language is, “I am.” ‘I’ is the subject and ‘am’ is the verb, suggesting a state of being. From there, things become more complex as we add a predicate. “I am happy” adds the adjective describing the subject of happy.
In the sentence, “I kick the ball,” ‘I’ is once again the subject, ‘kick’ is the verb, and ‘ball’ is the direct object because it’s what the subject is effecting with the verb. Or what the ‘I’ is verbing… Which leaves ‘the’. Words like ‘the’, ‘a’, and ‘some’ are called articles. Articles categorize nouns by separating a random from a specific or a part from a whole.

Just get to it already
What I’m getting at is that every word has a function. Finding out what that function is can be upsetting and frustrating, especially since you’re not used to thinking about it in a mathematical sense.
To diagram a sentence, arrange the sentence in an order like this:


Obviously if there is no direct object, it would simply be subject and verb. Once this is established, you begin placing adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and articles beneath the category that they represent.



\Articles______\______________\Articles_&_Articles of Prepositional Phrase

When Should I Use This?
If you intend to diagram each and every sentence in your story and novel, you might as well try to empty a pond by scooping out handfuls of water at a time. You know when a sentence doesn’t sound quite right, especially when your readers are getting confused at who is doing what to whom or what. The other exceptions are the big impact sentences. These often fall at the beginning or end of a chapter or in the middle of a major transition.
These bundles of words need to be more perfect than a purebred breeding *itch.


Bryan Grubbs is an English and Art teacher. He is also a member of Greater Ft Worth Writers and is an active member of the GFW Writers critique group. Members of the group will tell you he can pick out redundant words at forty feet and is quite willing to show what paragraphs or sentences are not compelling. He is a husband and father of three beautiful girls, enjoys writing science fiction/ urban fantasy/ horror, sketching, or playing video games in his free time.Have a question or comment? Let Bryan know by clicking on comments and leaving your question or comments.


Anonymous said...

You are a wealth of knowledge and I love your sense of humor. Thanks so much for making sentence structure so simple.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the awesome article! I'll never look at poorly constructed sentences the same way again hehe. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!


Ruby Johnson said...

I haven't diagramed a sentence since high school. At the time, I thought it was a lot of fun. You're right. If a sentence doesn't sound right, then the structure must be wrong. It's easy to recognize this in the writing of others, but not my own!

Anonymous said...

hi to all kfwwriters.blogspot.comers this is my frst post and thought i would say hello to you all -
thanks speak soon

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