Back to Basics

Anybody remember what these are?

These are the basic forms used for diagramming the parts of speech in a sentence.

If you are a person of a certain age, and if you took middle school English before American education got all soft and wobbly, then you had to diagram sentences.

If you don't recognize these, then your education was rubbish and you are to be pitied, you poor, empty-headed, millennial hipster.

But I digress.

I have Mrs. Gee and her "old school" instruction to thank for my knowledge of this little tool. At the time, I thought she was nuts. "I'm never going to use this."

Boy, was I wrong. In preparing my paper and presentation for the "Exceptional Legal Writing" seminar, I discovered that the skills taught by Mrs. Gee are the ones that count. If you want to write and be understood, get a grasp of sentence diagrams.

After the jump, a hymn of praise to the sentence diagram.

This, dear reader, is Mrs. Gee, my seventh grade English teacher.

Ok, it's not really Mrs. Gee. It is Carol Burnett. Mrs. Gee was just a doppelganger for Carol Burnett's character, fake eyelashes, loud makeup, flaming red hair, and all.

Mrs. Gee had the thankless task of indoctrinating a generation of middle school students into the ways of The Force. She taught grammar, and she taught it by the discipline of sentence diagramming.

At the time I did not see the point. Being reasonably smart, and having spoken English from the crib, I had an ear for the parts of speech. My ear and intuition controlled my use of language.

But guess what? The judges and court staff receiving your brief have their own ears. And their ears are different than yours. If you want to get ideas from your brain into their brains, you cannot rely on your ears. You have to use language that makes sense at a structural level.

Writing clear and graceful prose is a structural exercise. It is little more than assigning the right words to the right parts of speech and then putting them in the right order to build clear sentences into comprehensible and cohesive paragraphs. For example:

  •  Figure out who are the main characters in your little legal drama--the parties, the courts, the rules of law.
  • Give these characters primary place as subjects of your sentences.
  • Give these characters things to do, and make their actions the verbs of your sentences.
  • Don't muck around changing from subject to predicate; put subject and verb close together and transition from one to the other early in the sentence.
  • Do you have an object that needs emphasis? Put it at the end.
  • Put like sentences together, and make them easy to digest; start with old information and end with new or complex ideas.

All this rearranging of the deck chairs allows the words to fulfill their highest and best use. And that is where sentence diagramming is key.

When you edit, you should be diagramming sentences on some level. Mrs. Gee's students, skilled as we are in the ways of The Force, can do this mostly in our heads now. I find myself doing it in the act of composition and surely when editing. If I cannot easily recognize the sentence's structure, the sentence fails. If I cannot easily recognize the paragraph's topic, the paragraph fails. If I cannot easily recognize the transitions between topics, the brief fails.

Work: there is no substitute.

Or you could just hope the readers do all the work.

They won't. Your brief is not the judge's hobby. Your writing is not as fun as fly fishing.

Much much more to come if you attend the Exceptional Legal Writing Seminar on April 26.

Until then, thank you, Mrs. Gee, wherever you are.

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Comments (2) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Kirsten Small - March 28, 2013 6:21 AM

The Chief Justice of the S.C. Supreme Court has been known to make lawyers diagram statutory sentences during oral arguments regarding statutory construction. Good times, especially when you're dealing with one-sentence, 240-word statute written in the 19th century.

Kendall - March 28, 2013 7:18 AM

Nice! I always knew I liked Chief Justice Toal.

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