1. NigeTheHat
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    NigeTheHat Contributing Member Contributor

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    Opening lines of famous novels

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by NigeTheHat, Feb 26, 2014.

    The 'show the brilliance' claim in the headline might be pushing it a bit, but I thought this was an interesting look at the structure of some great opening lines:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/famous-novels-opening-lines-2014-2
     
  2. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    When I went to school, we didn't diagram sentences. I'm still not really sure what it accomplishes. Do people diagram sentences in American schools? Does it help anybody understand them?

    This is an interesting exercise, though. I'll probably print all this and see if I can figure it out.
     
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  3. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    Diagramming pretty much is just an exercise in identifying the components of a sentence. Breaking it down to see where the subject, what the action is, the adjectives, etc. I didn't find it very useful past 5th grade... But it is interesting to see all those famous opening lines diagrammed.

    My favorite is "Call me Ishmael."

    So simple, but it seems like there is so much more wanting to be said behind those three words.
     
  4. NigeTheHat
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    NigeTheHat Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's not something I'd heard of prior to coming across this article. We never covered it in my British school. I thought it was interesting to see the structure behind the sentence, though.
     
  5. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    There is, and Ishmael went on for more than 600 pages saying it. ;)
     
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  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I was educated in Parochial schools in the 1960s. We diagrammed sentences incessantly in 3rd and 4th grade, but I don't recall anything about it after that. I didn't mind because I was good at it, but I never saw the point in it. Don't see any point in this exercise, either. Besides, some of my favorite opening lines were not included.
     
  7. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm afraid these schematics are lost on me. I usually go by ear. I too love 'Call me Ishmael' and also the opening to 'Anna Karenina'. Probably the best openings of all time. I guess Austen could join that group too :)
     
  8. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    Certainly a variety but I did notice that several, I really don't like. One in particular but yet I loved the book. Just as well I didn't throw up my head and give up before I'd given it a chance.

    And talking of heads, I was reading that article and I got sidetracked by a link on the same page to:

    9 Bizarre Sentences That Are Perfectly Accurate.

    I'm now guzzling paracetamol as I type. Ta for that! @NigeTheHat ;)
     
  9. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    I found diagramming very helpful because it made me see the grammatical structure of sentences. After learning to diagram, I was never confused about choices like these:

    There is enough room between Sam and (I, me) for you to sit.

    (Who, Whom) do you think won first prize?

    (Who, Whom) did you give the book to?

    We were tricked by a crook (who, whom) we thought was a policeman.

    Richard is the one (who, whom) I went sailing with last summer.

    Richard is the one (who, whom), I believe, owns the boat.

    And of course diagramming makes short work of this old chestnut:

    Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.
     
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2014
  10. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    True enough. But I still don't see the value in educated adults diagramming opening lines of novels. Or anything else.
     
  11. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    When I opened that link, I was expecting the author to argue that opening lines that follow a certain diagram are better. Glad to see I was wrong.

    I remember diagramming sentences in high school (don't remember doing it in elementary school or middle school). I hated it then, and I hate it now.
     
  12. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    I think the value is mainly aesthetic. I take it as a sort of artistic rendering of the lines, showing the shapes of the sentences.

    The ones that are unusually long reveal one of the main structural features of long sentences that are readable: "branching to the right." The idea is to get the reader from subject to verb fairly quickly, because those two elements orient the reader. Once we get to "Jack said ...." we know where we stand. From there, the sentence can build elaborately on what Jack said, on how he said it, why he said it, what reluctance he felt about saying it, what he remembered about the last time he said such a thing, and so on and so on. All that additional stuff would "branch to the right" of the subject/verb structure.

    The next to last sentence of that last paragraph is an example. "From there, the sentence can build elaborately on what Jack said ..." That much is clear enough. All the rest would be prepositional phrases or clauses that, when diagrammed, would "branch to the right" of the simple opening of the sentence.

    I think of the diagrams as pieces of abstract art that, properly viewed, reveal the elegant shape of an elegantly constructed long sentence. In his book Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams has a chapter titled, "Shape," and after that, one titled, "Elegance." He goes into much detail about this sort of thing.
     
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  13. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @David K. Thomasson, I'm glad to see someone else here who appreciates the art of prose. :)
     
  14. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Oh, hell yes. And remember that art comes in many forms. Take this poetic contrast of Egypt and Greece in Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way:

    Egypt is a fertile valley of rich river soil, low-lying, warm, monotonous, a slow-flowing river, and beyond the limitless desert. Greece is a country of sparse fertility and keen, cold winters, all hills and mountains sharp cut in stone, where strong men must work hard to get their bread. And while Egypt submitted and suffered and turned her face toward death, Greece resisted and rejoiced and turned full-face to life. For somewhere among those steep stone mountains, in little sheltered valleys where the great hills were ramparts to defend, and men could have security for peace and happy living, something quite new came into the world: the joy of life found expression. Perhaps it was born there, among the shepherds pasturing their flocks where the wild flowers made a glory on the hillside; among the sailors on a sapphire sea washing enchanted islands purple in a luminous air.

    Or this hilariously vivid little watercolor of Mr. Nolan, painted by George Eliot in Felix Holt the Radical:

    "Well, Mr. Nolan," said Rose, twinkling a self-complacent look over the red prominence of his cheeks, "have you been to give your vote yet?"
    "No, all in good time. I shall go presently."
    "Well, I wouldn't lose an hour, I wouldn't. I said to myself, if I've got to do gentlemen a favor, I'll do it at once. You see, I've got no landlord, Nolan — I'm in that position o' life that I can be independent."
    "Just so, my dear sir," said the wiry-faced Nolan, pinching his underlip between his thumb and finger, and giving one of those wonderful universal shrugs, by which he seemed to be recalling all his garments from a tendency to disperse themselves.

    Or this very nearly audible snippet from Dickens in Bleak House:

    When a waggon with a train of beautiful horses, furnished with red trappings and clear-sounding bells came by us with its music, I believe we could all three have sung to the bells, so cheerful were the influences around....
    We had stopped, and the waggon had stopped too. Its music changed as the horses came to a stand, and subsided to a gentle tinkling, except when a horse tossed his head, or shook himself, and sprinkled off a little shower of bellringing.
     
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  15. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i went to catholic grade school, too, but 2 decades earlier... and yes, we were taught to diagram sentences, which i found to be the most fun of all classroom exercises... my kids never learned the process, however, even though they also attended catholic schools from elementary through high school...

    i advise my mentees and clients to learn how to do it, since it's a valuable skill for new writers to have... it can show them how their sentences are structured and should be structured, but i can't see any benefit to be gained by diagramming famous first lines...
     
  16. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    How does diagramming sentences show how sentences should be structured? I'm serious here. I'm trying to figure out why diagramming sentences is a valuable skill.
     
  17. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    The man wore a wrinkled suit with blue eyes.

    The diagram would make it visually clear that the final prepositional phrase is a misplaced modifier.

    [​IMG]
     
  18. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    I don't think I did sentence diagrams. If I did, I've blocked it from my memory.
     
  19. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    thanks for answering that question visually, david!... i couldn't do as good a job with words only... which kind of proves my point, i guess!
     

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