A few years ago, I took a photo of the live oak tree in our front yard every day in October. Today, I’m playing with the gallery feature in WordPress and so, here they all are in one batch. One of these wound up in the logo art for Gnarled Oak—my new project, an online literary journal, and the other serves as the header image for Gnarled Oak on Twitter and Facebook.
Like all forms of torture, diagramming should only be used when it is absolutely critical that you obtain a speedy confession from the sentence at hand and after all other attempts to determine a sentence’s meaning have failed.
1. Isolate the sentence from its peers and prepare a hard, flat line on which to work. Stainless steel is best because it is easy to clean.
2. Place the sentence on the line and sever the subject from the verb with a quick downstroke of your blade. Surgical scalpels, X-Acto knives, and machetes are all suitable for this procedure. This can be extremely painful for the subject as it will now have nothing to do or be, but with the two isolated, your work may end here if the sentence is especially simple.
3. Should you need to chop off a direct object, you’ll make another cut, but not as deep as the one used to sever subject from verb. Be aware that some verbs require direct objects and so you may find this takes a little extra effort. Use a saw if you must. Predicate adjectives are handled in a similar manner, but you’ll need to make an angled incision. Remember to cut with the grain and consider a reciprocating saw for this.
4. Indirect objects must be handled separately, and you’ll need a second line with a tether to the severed verb. You can use a hammer to break the indirect object away from the verb and then then pull it away from the main sentence onto a separate line. The value of this is primarily psychological as it allows the rest of the sentence to see itself stretched across the page in a most horrific way.
5. Prepositional phrases will be broken off like indirect objects, but you’ll use the preposition itself to create the tether between the main line and the line on which you place the object of the preposition. Again, the effect here is mainly psychological, but your sentence should be singing by now.
6. Adjectives and adverbs, like fingers and toes, are not truly necessary to a sentence’s survival, and they can be removed easily, a procedure that will sometimes help the sentence reveal its secrets. Use a bolt cutter to remove the modifiers one at a time and place them on angled lines slanting off from the words they once modified. Placing them on the angle will allow the lifeblood of the sentence to drain away with a minimum of effort of your part.
Once the sentence is taken apart, you should have your confession. Remember, it is not usually necessary to torture a sentence. If you find yourself doing this for fun, rather than of necessity, please seek help from a certified dark language arts teacher.
I heard that They say math is the language of nature and the way in which we explain everything, which is a pretty cool thing to think about. Math is probably the language of God despite the church’s old fondness for Latin. That’s part of why I like math, but it wasn’t always so. Math and I have not always been friends.
Math turned against me in second grade, which I otherwise loved. I think it was the regular timed tests. I could never get past subtraction even when the rest of the class had moved through multiplication and on to joyless division. It’s probably where my hatred of school began too. Eventually, I began to get things under control, but then those fiends threw letters into the mix so now I had to deal not just with numbers but sometimes x and even his diabolical buddy y. I always liked reading and writing, but now it seemed the whole treasonous alphabet was turning against me.
Sometimes I understood it, but it wasn’t until later that I took satisfaction in solving a problem or working a proof the way I did writing a good story. So there were ups and downs along the bumpy road to graduation: Algebra was a down, Geometry was an up—the first one in math since first grade, Algebra II was down, Trig was a giant up. This is where I started to actually enjoy it. I thought I was home free, but then came Calculus and… well, let’s just say it’s a good thing I didn’t need it to graduate. In college, I only needed to pass basic algebra, which I did, and then no more math forever, I thought. I celebrated by treating myself to a cheeseburger.
Flash forward twenty-some years, and my current teaching assignment involves helping students earn their GEDs. I had to relearn (learn, really, but the re- in front makes it sound better) all the algebra I swore I’d never need to know and that I’d never use in the “real world.” A funny thing happened, though, when I started FOIL-ing and throwing around slope-intercept and quadratic formulas. I liked it. I liked learning about it and getting a bit of a deeper glimpse at how the universe works.
To my surprise, I also found I like teaching a little math. We English teachers live in a world of ambiguity, debatable short answers and essay questions, endless discussion, and gray areas. (Or is it ‘grey’ and did I really need that comma before the ‘and’?) Part of the fun is helping students fumble their way to coherent arguments in support of their ideas and positions. But sometimes it’s nice to break up the day by teaching some math.
The road to the solution for any given problem is a journey and for those of us who find the greatest meaning in the journey (and, let’s be honest here, aren’t being graded on the problem), it can be an interesting journey to take. But I admit, a couple of times a day, it’s nice to be able to point to a number and say that this is the correct answer and there is no other choice. No debate. No argument. The answer is 42. Why? Because math said so, that’s why.
warm bands and blue roils