Diagramming the first sentences of famous novels

For Christmas one of my sons gave me a wonderful present–a poster showing the grammatical diagrams of the opening sentences of some famous novels.  What a kid!

Here’s a column about this poster.titled “23 Sentence Diagrams That Show the Brilliance of Famous Novels’ Opening Lines”.  It’s nice that Business Insider thinks that grammar and literature are worth a column, but the diagrams show nothing of the sort.  Here, for example, is the first line of 1984:

This is a wonderful sentence, but its diagram doesn’t tell you why.  Substitute the word “twelve” for the word “thirteen” and you just have bland scene-setting.  The “thirteen” jars you–something is different here; something is off.  That’s where the brilliance comes in.

Similarly, here is one of my favorites:

What makes this sentence brliiant?  It’s the word “screaming,” of course.  Substitute the word “plane” or “bird” and the sentence loses everything.

And another favorite, Lolita:

Hey, that isn’t even a sentence!  You’ve gotta pretend it has a verb.  But anyway, would this sentence work if it read: “Ernie, fixer of my brakes, changer of my oil”?  Same diagram, but not quite the same effect.  The brilliance comes from the alliteration and the rhythm; it’s closer to poetry than to prose.

Some famous first sentences having nothing much to recommend them except that they begin famous novels.  Like:

This is a nice, short, punchy sentence, but there’s nothing special about the three words it contains.  It’s memorable because of what comes after it.

Anyway, the poster is great, my kid is great, and the sentences are great.  Let’s not oversell the concept, though.


Keep it short, except when it needs to be long

Here’s a New York Times op-ed that spends 800 words or so extolling the virtues of brevity when it comes to writing.  Except, of course, the author doesn’t really mean that.  It’s only towards the end that he quotes from Strunk and White, who say what he really means:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Got it.  Now, why did we need the other 700 words?

This comes to mind when reading this listicle from The American Scholar listing the “ten best sentences,” which presumably boils down to “ten sentences that the editors really like.”  Many of them are decidedly not short, like this one from Nicholas Nickleby:

There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.

But here is a brief beauty from Lolita:

There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.

And in the comments someone mentions one of my favorites — this classic from Ring Lardner:

“Shut up,” he explained.

Every word tells.