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.

9 Replies to “Miss Lack, Noam Chomsky, autopsies”

  1. I love the sentence. You could put that on the back cover, and I’d want to read the book on that sentence alone.

  2. oh wow. i took a linguistics class last semester with a guy named tom roeper who is on a first name basis with chomsky. basically all we did was syntax and aquisition. i think Tom would have a field day with that sentence…while my first thought was, thank G-D he didnt put something like that on the final!!! i had enough problems with “that” and those cycles of transformations and things…nonetheless, i loved the class…

  3. Shaina —

    I loved doing this stuff when I was a student, and I liked teaching it in intro linguistics even more. Getting students to figure out how to analyze ambiguity was my favorite. “Grandmother of ten makes hole in one” — that headline kept us busy for a whole class period.

    While I haven’t run into Noam lately, I do know him. In my opinion: the smartest living human being, and the most thoughtful.

  4. This made me laugh–nothing like feeling pinned and under the magnifying glass!

    I’m another who never determines construction while constructing.

    I hated hated hated diagramming sentences back in junior high…and have said as much to my 8th-grader son. But I’ve forbidden him from going to his teacher and saying, “Look, my mom’s first novel is coming out soon, and she doesn’t even know for sure how to diagram some of this stuff.”

    I do get more out of studying sentence structure nowadays, especially when the sentence unintentionally connotes something ridiculous or wrong. My sentence construction rule: As long as it works, keep it.

  5. Gosh. I wonder where I was when they were holding these sorts of classes in grade school and high school. I know I didn’t pay to take the courses in university. So, diagramming for 9 yr olds, or 14 yr olds eh? How can I make sure my kids get this sort of treatment? Can one be called a writer if they never heard of diagramming a sentence? This sort of topic reminds me of the google chat boards surrounding LibraryThing – do I really need to know the history of Dewey to log my personal library on there? To hear some talk, you do. I’m glad you’re not a linguistics snob, Rosina. You’re opening my eyes.

  6. Subject: Katharina
    Predicate: could see
    Direct object: promise

    All the rest are modifiers, some individual words and some phrases with modifiers within modifiers. Well, the red flag has been waved at this bull(hah!), but I’ll try to resist further dissection. I hope I can resist, I hope.

    Then, beyond that, who says it’s a correctly phrased sentence. If it isn’t, it can’t be diagrammed correctly anyway.

  7. now listen here, asdfg… are you really Miss Lack, in disguise?

    Please note: my quick analysis is derived from a transformational model and not based on Reed-Kellogg.

  8. Who’s Miss Lack?
    What’s a transformational model?
    Who’s Reed-Kellogg?
    Did you insult me? Did I insult you? Geesh! Only the Epilogue to go. Good timing!

    Diagramming: I would have to pull out pencil, paper, and ERASER to do it. Mrs. Opal Dudney demanded of us 11th graders that we learn diagramming, conjugations, and declensions. She assigned a conjugation. Of course we smartie smartmouths thought she didn’t really meant it; so she said we’d do them every day until we got them right. No dummies we! We got it right the next day. See the above semicolon? One must put a semicolon before the so. Else God will strike one down. Or Mrs. Dudney. Or both.

    Umm, Rosina? She also taught us to capitalize the first letter of the first word of every sentence. Just saying.

  9. is my Italian showing?

    This is just a conversation we’re having — no effect at all on my very high good opinion of all the great stuff you’re doing on the forum with the book discussion.

    However, you are a bit of a grammar police-type (capitalization, anybody?), and thus I am obliged to rattle your cage now and then. They’d take away my advanced degrees in ling, otherwise.

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