How Diagramming a Sentence Can Help You Pray
A few years ago, before I retired, I took over an advanced grammar course at OSU, a course that involved sentence diagramming. I’d never diagrammed a sentence in my life. Grammar was “a piano I played by ear,” as Joan Didion put it, and I’d done just fine. I’d written essays and poems and books.
But I was game, and I had a good book, Martha Kolln’s Understanding English Grammar, with all the answers in the back, and I found that I really loved sentence diagramming. I just loved it. I’d go down to the New Morning Bakery and have lunch and spend hours lost in the structures of sentences, trying to figure out how the pieces fit and checking my diagrams against the correct ones in the back. It was great fun. “Nothing is more exciting than a diagramming sentence,” Gertrude Stein said, and she was right.
In a way what I loved the most was that there were right answers. This is a rare thing for an English Professor. Grading an essay is a more subjective thing, and various interpretations of a piece of literature can be valid and worthwhile. But a verb is a verb. A noun is a noun. “I felt this was an infinitive phrase,” a student tells me after an exam. “Too bad,” I say, “it isn’t.”
I felt like a scientist! I had authority!
But I don’t think sentence diagramming really had any practical benefit, to be honest. Students sign up for a course like this—it’s very popular—because they want a magic bullet, they want a device they can use to produce good writing anytime they want, but that’s not how it works. Study after study has failed to show any correlation between knowledge of formal grammar and the ability to write well and without error. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true, and my own experience confirms it. Some of my best diagrammers couldn’t write a good sentence to save their lives, and some of my best writers couldn’t diagram sentences worth a darn.
For one thing, grammar isn’t the same as usage, and it’s usage people worry about. Grammar as Kolln defines it is descriptive, not prescriptive, and what it describes is the underlying structure of a sentence, its bare bones, not whether this or that word or phrase meets the superficial requirements of what’s called “Standard Written English.” Look at the two sentences in the picture above. “Brung” is the problem from one point of view, but as a verb it works just fine, and the sentence it’s in is exactly the same at the level of structure as the one with “brought.” Really, it’s hard to write a completely incoherent sentence at that level. Even Jabberwocky can be diagrammed.
The “grammar” of the “brung” sentence isn’t “bad,” and sentence diagramming doesn’t judge it in any event. It just diagrams it, and it can be diagrammed just fine.
For another thing, and again the studies show this, the only way to learn to write well and to write without error is to read a lot over years and to write a lot over years and to revise a lot, to revise all the time, and to take a few basic terms from formal grammar to help in the revising and proofreading of actual sentences in actual pieces of discourse, again, and again, and again.
But I still loved sentence diagramming and I still thought it was great and I still thought it should be taught, that it was a good thing, not because it gives us mastery over language but because it gives us the experience of its mystery. Not mastery. Mystery. We can all say really complicated things, from an early age. We all play the piano by ear, every day, and the sentences we produce have all kinds of branches and tributaries, and often when I was sitting at the New Morning Bakery trying to figure out a correct diagram I just marveled at that. How do we do it? How can we produce strings of words so subtle and intricate and wonderfully rich without evening know we are?
And it was still deeper, because what happened at the New Morning for me and what I think happened for some of my students at least is that we all spent an hour or so isolating a single sentence out of all the torrent of words we hear and read and produce each day and froze it, fixed on the page, and really looked at it, really studied it, really honored it. Its music. Its poetry. Its nuances. And in the course of studying it we lost ourselves for a while. We forgot ourselves for a while. We looked up after an hour or so and people were standing in line ordering a piece of pie and spoons were clattering and reality was going on, and had been the whole time. We’d just been somewhere else.
It’s in this sense that diagramming a sentence prepares us to pray and is even a form a prayer itself, as anything that takes us out of ourselves is prayer, quilting or cooking or gardening or shoeing a horse, anything that is real and objective and true and that we have to conform to, engage with, try to understand, try to get right—and the more objective, even the “dryer,” the better, as the great French philosopher Simon Weil put it.
“The development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost sole interest of studies,” she says, in a really fascinating essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” Most school tasks have “a certain intrinsic interest” as well, of course, but, Weil says, “such an interest is secondary”:
If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry, this does not mean that our faculty for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the contrary, it is almost an advantage. It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so.
If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer. . . .
What Latin or Geometry or sentence-diagramming do is teach us a certain “way of looking” and this way of looking is first of all “attentive.” The “soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he or she is, in all their truth,” and this self-emptying—which of course should call to mind St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and the “self-emptying “of Christ into the world, the “kenosis”—this self-emptying can even teach us or at least prepare us to pay attention to the needs of others, to be compassionate.
What Latin or Geometry or sentence-diagramming can do is teach us humility, “a far more precious treasure than all academic progress,” and so, in that way, and in their focus on what is real, and true, and outside of us, what is true regardless of what we think, true in a way above all our ego and self-centeredness and petty preoccupations—in this way, ordinary old-fashioned “school subjects” can prepare us to focus on the Truth that is truer than all other truths, the reality that saves us, the reality of God.
For me the best thing about sentence diagramming is that I wasn’t good at it. I kept failing. Joyously. Because even as I was failing, I was entering into the mystery, not just of language but of the Word itself, the Word Made Flesh, and it was entering into me.
In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it. There is a way of giving our attention to the data of a problem in geometry without trying to find the solution, or to the words of a Latin or Greek text without trying to arrive at the meaning, a way of waiting . . . .
Prayer isn’t just something we do in a church or a mountain top, and it isn’t something that makes us feel a certain way. Prayer is anything we do with integrity and anything we do with concentration and anything we do right, or fail to do right and know that we haven’t, anything that puts us into contact with what is intricate and beautiful and true. Because what is true, whatever is beautiful, if there is any excellence, that is God.
And if it’s tedious, as sometimes the mass is, if it’s exhausting, as sometimes prayer is, all praise. Because it’s not about us. It’s not about what God can give us, though he gives us everything. It’s about our hope and our love and our own insufficiency, and the great, the endless mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.