Some years ago, during a writing workshop class I attended, a young student offered up a sentence in her classroom segment for the day that had us all frowning with perplexity. The professor stopped her and asked the rest of us how we might write the sentence in a way that could be more easily understood.
“Maybe diagramming the sentence would help,” offered an older classmate.
A bewildered look overcame the young student. “What’s diagramming a sentence mean?” she asked.
Someone offered to bring her an old textbook, and we moved on.
I hadn’t realized during my high school years that diagramming would prove valuable when I became a fully fledged writer. Nor did I realize during the time of this college class that diagramming was no longer taught. Diagramming won’t help much if you persist in warped and wacky syntax, and most of us speak in just that way, because at the point of speaking we haven’t thought the sentence through. Take for example the following garbled sentence:
The responsibilities sometimes of a beekeeper can be heavy, but the rewards are too great to list for raising bees.
What exactly was the writer trying to convey? That the beekeeper sometimes has such responsibilities and sometimes not? That the second clause changes the topic, conveying that bees having baby bees is very rewarding?
This sentence isn’t outright laughable, because it’s easy enough to parse meaning here. But it is ambiguous and could be written better.
To diagram the sentence, strip away the modifiers and stick for a moment with the first clause’s subject (noun), predicate (verb), and direct object (word that directly bears on the subject), predicate noun or predicate object (word that directly bears on the verb). Diagram the second clause in the same way. Then begin tacking on the modifiers. The lesson here is really where the adjective and adverb modifiers should be placed to cut out ambiguity. The more you scratch your head over such placement the more you’ll realize that these modifiers should generally be placed close to the words they modify.
So the sentence makes more sense if changed – by the following diagram – to read:
The responsibilities of a beekeeper can be heavy sometimes, but the rewards of raising bees are too great to list.
Okay, now it’s your turn. See if you understand how the following, more complex sentence can be better written. Its diagram follows.
The responsibilities, can be heavy sometimes of a beekeeper, which are too numerous to list.
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