Friday, February 13, 2009


The books I buy these days are either $5 remainders or $1 used books (plus 3.95 shipping). The used books tend to be older and something that was once trendy, but is now out-of-fashion or forgotten. The remainders, presumably, are books that someone liked well enough to overestimate how well they would sell and therefore ordered too many copies to be printed. When Print on Demand becomes the rule of the day, remainders will disappear because books will be printed in the same numbers as customers demand.

My newest remainder was almost sure to be a remainder so I waited patiently. And I read it this morning with glee. It doesn’t take long since it is only 160 pages and much space is occupied by diagrams. Diagramming sentences is the subject, “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” is the example, and Sister Bernadette was Kitty Burns Florey’s English teacher -- the original source of her skill, which finally flowered into a career as a writer and editor.

I was one of those sentence diagramming monsters, competing closely with Art Schmidt in Mr. Jones’ class. (Mr. Jones was quite un-nunlike and got into trouble over the girls in his class. Nothing serious, just unseemly.) I was fascinated to learn that it is in grades 6-7-8 that students really get turned-on to what amounts to a game more complicated than hang-man. (We also played that interminably.) Kitty Florey suggests the appeal comes from needing order at that age of blooming brain and bosom. (We don’t mention what’s blooming in the boys’ pants.)

This is not a grammar book and it will not teach you to diagram sentences. Instead it is a kind of meditation or meta-grammar reflection about sentences which (or should it be “that”?) includes a lot of examples from such varied authors as Gertrude Stein, James, Proust, and Faulkner. She also contemplates such phenomena as usage that has changed over the years, jargon in ethnic groups, and (briefly, of course) texting.

Neither will this book help you write “better” -- because who is to say that James writes better than Proust or Stein writes better than Faulkner? But it might help you write more clearly or to think through the choices. She points out how often the style, the uniqueness, the “zoom” of sentences disappears when they are diagrammed in an excess of caution. But then if the sentence is NOT working, diagramming at least in part can reveal the cause.

It affects my attitude towards the book that the cover design features a Boston bull terrier, a little black and white animal with a pushed-in face that does seem like one of those determined nuns. My mother-in-law’s favorite dog was always a Boston bull and I’m here to say that the resemblance to a nun disappears when the dog is no longer on the page. They are undiagrammable dogs.

Towards the end of the book Florey sits in on a classroom of contemporary kids in a public school who seem as unruly as my mother-in-law’s terrier. They and their resilient teacher grasp something important: that grammar is negotiable. The hard part is getting the meaning clear -- then the diagram unfolds. These kids are not passive -- to the contrary, they are almost too active, arguing about what should go where. Of course, it’s all invented in the first place. All of English grammar, an exceptionally mongrel language, ends up lapping over the edges of the Latin categories. If one is Procrustean enough, like the French, to chop and stretch until everything is “proper,” the sentence is likely to die in the process.

The problem with diagramming -- and also an alternative using “balloons” that she accurately describes as looking like those dachshunds twisted out of balloons for guests at birthday parties -- is that it doesn’t indicate position in the sentence. In English one-word adjective descriptors immediately precede the noun they describe and the prepositional and participial modifying phrases go right afterwards. Adverb descriptors can go anywhere in the sentence.

Descriptors in the wrong place, so that they mislead the reader as to what the antecedent might be, are the single most common of my own errors to require reform. Adding to the difficulty, when the sentence is still hot and breathing one’s consciousness doesn’t have enough distance to see that the meaning is different from what was intended. The “house made of bricks on the road” is different from “the house on the road made of bricks” is different from “made of bricks, the house on the road” is different from “made of bricks on the road, the house”.

Juggling the prepositional phrases around or maybe changing them to a different kind of descriptor: from adjective to prepositional phrase to participial phrase, saying “the brick house” or “the house, brick,” also changes the feel of the sentence, the “style.” And then one has to think of how the reader is taking in the words: which does that person need to know first? What emphasis will it give the facts among themselves if the order of a list is changed? Is the brick more important than the road? If I say “bricks,” then what verb should I use? Should I take the articles out and say “is brick more important than road?” In this author's words, the reflections are witty.

Some people enjoy this sort of cat-and-mouse through the labyrinth of words. Florey says that she is much happier editing and polishing than producing a first draft, launching out into the blank outer space of ideas. (I wonder whether she is an outliner as well as a diagrammer. Does she web her ideas in balloons?) I sort of do both at once, breaking the rules if necessary to say what I mean. If it gets too snarly, I know to just start over after a little thinking time, but I’m happy to have raised issues I didn’t see beforehand, whether or not I choose to address them.

As time goes on, I try to be simpler, more direct, less flowery, to look for the noun or verb that has punch. This seems to be the preference of the times. An editor once described my style as “spare lyricism.” That made me happy.

That (subject) made (verb) me (direct object or indirect object??) happy (predicate adjective?) You can’t have an indirect object with a predicate adjective and no object can you? Maybe I could say “that in me created happiness!” or “that created happiness in me.” Hmmm. I prefer the vernacular. It DID make me happy! I think it would make Kitty happy as well.

No comments: