Miss Lack, Noam Chomsky, autopsies

Preface: Noam Chomsky is not in need of a post mortem. He’s alive and well and will live (I hope) for many more productive years.

Yesterday at a short meeting, I ran into someone I know through the Girlchild. She mentioned to me that she was reading Homestead and really liking it, which of course is always lovely to hear. Then she said that she had come across a sentence that she couldn’t diagram.

My first reaction: sheer panic. Please, I said, tell me you’re not hoping I’ll remember the sentence.

Luckily that wasn’t what she was trying to get at. She meant that she thought the sentence worked, but didn’t understand its structure.

Pause here for a flashback to my fourth grade classroom, Miss Lack with her beehive hairdo, and the blackboard where we learned to diagram sentences the old fashioned way. I liked taking sentences apart to see how they work, and I was good at it. In fact, Miss Lack was the first teacher to give me the idea that I was good at writerly things.

Now forward in time to graduate school and Chomskyan syntax, where taking a scalpel to a sentence had a different purpose — and was interesting for more complex reasons.

And back again to the here and now.

When I’m writing a story, I never, ever diagram a sentence. I just don’t think that way. Storytelling glides along on another plane, and wants nothing to do with dissecting noun phrases and subordinate clauses. Thus: I would have been happy to let this conversation drift away to be forgotten, but then this friend did email the sentence in question.

Now I feel obliged to reply (Catholic schoolgirl automatic response no. 23). So I looked at it, the sentence in isolation. That is, here is the sentence, taken out of the warm nest of the story and pinned to the electronic autopsy table:

When she looked at the available men in Rosenau, Wainwright’s Katharina could see no promise in any of them but of children and farm work, things that interested her not in the least.

Against my better judgment, ignoring the voice in my head screaming PROCRASTINATION, I looked at this sentence, which really is composed of three sentences draped over and around each other in cozy comaraderie. For a moment I considered trying to locate the old software that allowed me to produce a classic tree diagram ala transformational grammar, but that way lies madness. Or at least OS X 9, a place I never go these days.

So instead, a completely ad hoc approach that would satisfy neither Miss Lack nor Professor Chomsky. The three sentences:

1. She ||looked || (at the available men) (in Rosenau).
(transform into a relative wh-clause)
2. WK || could see || no promise (in any ((of them)))
|| [promise of] (children*) (farm work*)
3. Things* interested her {negation strategy}.
(transform into subordinate clause)

After this I’ll I have to spend some time putting the poor thing back together and tucking it back into the story.