Sentences, Santa and Pynchon! Oh My!

Alison Morris - December 11, 2008

I have only the faintest memory of learning to diagram sentences in elementary school, no memory of what grade I was in at the time, and no recollection of just how to draw those branching pictures now. (I could never have written the book Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences.) But I do remember LIKING the sentence-diagramming process as a kid. I enjoyed the orderliness of drawing those twig-like lines sprouting one from the other, then filling them with words like birds come home to roost.

I was less keen on Venn diagrams when we learned to construct those, but I think maybe it’s just because we were never shown, in our classes, all the fun ways you could apply them to less didactic topics in your life. Jessica Hagy’s recent book Indexed is filled with entertaining diagrams (some Venn, some not) that are a lot more fun than anything I ever drew in school, as are the diagrams you’ll find on her blog Here’s a holiday-themed example:

Below is a snarky but rather entertaining Venn Diagram that I’ve seen on a few t-shirts of late. (If you like it you can order one of your own from Diesel Sweeties.)

Maybe it’s because I’m having a particularly stressful couple of weeks and my desk at work is a disaster, but right now I am VERY taken with the orderliness of diagrams like these, and I seem to be bumping into them with increasing frequency.

One of my favorite comics artists is Kevin Huizenga, whose book Curses occupies a place of honor on Gareth’s and my heavily-laden bookshelves. Kevin Huizenga is himself skilled at sentence diagramming. I know this because a small section of his recent mini-comic Or Else #5 is given over to this very subject. (You can see one frame of it here.) When I was perusing Kevin’s blog earlier this week, I read a short post he wrote about the diagrams writer Caleb Crain drew while reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. (See example below.)

I think I might lose my mind long before I completed such an exercise, but still…? The prospect is oddly appealing. Or at least, it might be if I were reading and diagramming any book BUT Gravity’s Rainbow, which I have not read but (based on what I know of it) I have no desire to. 

(One more Kevin Huizenga note: for a good laugh, get your hands on a copy of Untitled, which is his mini-comic featuring nothing but ideas for titles, which are in many cases hysterically funny, and WELL worth the $1.50 you’ll pay for the privilege of reading them.)

When Gareth is beginning to think through a story’s adaptation as a graphic novel, he fills sketchbook pages with thumbnails, imagining the flow of the story, the composition of the frames.  (You can see a few small examples on the book sketches page of his website — click on the images labeled as Beowulf Thumbnails.) There’s something very neat and clean about the appearance of all these little boxes, lined up on beside the other, with a collective story to tell.

I myself am a list-maker. It’s how I organize my day, my ideas, my responsibilities, my thoughts about things. The books I’m reading often contain makeshift bookmarks that are lists of my comments or thoughts or observations on my reading up to that page — these lists become helpful resources later when I’ve finished the book and attempt to write up an actual book review.

But how about you? Do you keep tracking of your reading, your writing, or any other verbal concepts in ways as visual as any of these? Do you have a favorite way of diagramming the world? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Or (better still) send me an example. (ShelfTalker AT Gmail DOT com.)

6 thoughts on “Sentences, Santa and Pynchon! Oh My!

  1. teacherninja

    Love lists, love Indexed, and really loved Gareth’s thumbnail sketches! Hate diagramming sentences and always tell kids that the only thing you learn from that is how to diagram sentences. Feh.

  2. Samantha

    I list my life. I made to-do lists, I make lists of books I want to read, books I’ve read, story ideas, plot ideas within a story. I’m a bit of a fanatic. I keep all my notes for certain books in a separate binder. Sometimes I wonder if I’m OCD. And Gareth is amazing! Very good sketches. It’s pretty cool that even the thumbnails are easily discernible.

  3. Donna Marie Merritt

    I loved diagramming as a kid. I know, the oddball, but I thought it was too cool. It’s like building things with words. How awesome is that?! Now I’m more of a list maker, but I think that’s just age creeping up on me. If I don’t write it down, I forget!

  4. Janet Lawler

    I do lists and doodle. The page of concept scribbles for my first picture book, If Kisses Were Colors, includes a weird stick figure on the left and a set of lips on the right. In between are stream of consciousness phrases that formed the beginning of this mother’s love poem. On school visits kids love to see this messy start to my writing process. I also doodle all over my calendar.

  5. Cathy C.

    Majorly loved diagramming when I was a kid! Sometimes, I find myself mentally diagramming when I’m trying to figure out the subject of my sentence so it agrees with my verb. I still like orderly organization, so now, I live in a nest of lists. They’re orderly lists, though.

  6. Judith H.

    I beg to differ with teacherninja, and think it’s unfair to bias kids against diagramming. Like outlining or biological classification or any other system, it’s a way of organizing parts. When I taught (and yes, I taught diagramming), I told kids exactly that — that even if they forgot how to diagram, the important lesson was how to break things down into parts and put them back together again, as well as how to differentiate between main points and embellishments. For fun and extra credit, they were invited to diagram the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address.


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