December 8, 2022
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Lori Falce: Diagramming, commas and politics

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You know how in school there are things you learn that seem utterly pointless and with no impact on your real life? Like how most people will never need to know anything about the Battle of Hastings. Or how most adults will agree they never used a quadratic equation after their last algebra test.

But then there are the things you learn that become background programming. You might not realize that they are there, helping you navigate the world, but they are so entrenched in what you are doing that you don’t realize you are using them every day.

In the past two weeks, I have had no fewer than six conversations with irate people who made me realize I had one of those core hard-drive operating systems — and that a lot of people don’t.

In sixth grade, Sister Winifred spent a lot of time teaching us to diagram sentences. It’s the kind of thing many schools have let fall by the wayside with cursive writing. But it clearly needs a comeback.

Diagramming lets you do more than read a sentence. It lets you understand it on a schematic level, the way an architect or a contractor reads a blueprint. It forces you to consider how this phrase modifies that word. It makes you identify the antecedents of pronouns. It gives you real appreciation for the role of a comma.

A blueprint lets you find the load-bearing beams. Understanding diagramming lets you do the same with the important parts of someone’s speech or writing. And like doing math in your head after you’ve become fluent in numbers, after you grasp diagramming, you don’t need a chalkboard to work out which prepositional phrase goes where.

I am frequently faced with readers or letter-writers who are incensed over a statement made by an official or by an article written by a reporter that has nothing to do with what was said or typed.

Likewise, many a candidate or elected official has created a furor because of a misplaced modifier or dangling participle.

Perhaps this smacks of me being the dreaded grammar Nazi. It shouldn’t. I mean, I am exactly the person who will correct your spelling in a social media post or silently red-pen people — like my sister — in the middle of a drawn-out story. But that doesn’t mean I am wrong.

How many Facebook wars or Twitter battles could be resolved if more people understood dangling modifiers or Oxford commas? How many times does a failure to understand what someone is saying lead to just throwing the baby out with the misunderstood bathwater?

Over the years, I often have decried the poor state of civics education in America. I’ve said high schools should absolutely prepare people to vote by leading up to the age of 18 with a better understanding of not only federal government but more grassroots information about how things work in their own states, counties and municipalities.

But I am increasingly being swayed toward a return to the most basic architecture of communication. I think diagramming needs to see a renaissance.

And I think Sister Winifred would agree with me.

Lori Falce is a Tribune-Review community engagement editor. You can contact Lori at lfalce@triblive.com.



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