Diagramming Obama’s Sentences

I have never diagrammed a sentence in my life.  I was never taught this in school.  People often ask me how I gained my knowledge of grammar, and the answer is just that I’ve been an avid reader my whole life.  It’s hard not to learn sentence structure when you’re constantly reading.

I was, however, quite amused to find a diagrammed sentence spoken by our President at his first official press conference.

Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein asked President Obama (PRESIDENT OBAMA! PRESIDENT OBAMA! IT STILL THRILLS ME TO HEAR OR READ THAT!) whether he would consider investigating members of the Bush Administration, up to and including Bush himself.

The President’s response:

“My view is also that nobody’s above the law, and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.”

Wow.

Here’s what blogger Garth Risk Hallberg had to say:

First, the elegant balance of the central construction (My view is that x, and that y, but also that z) shows that Obama has a good memory for where he’s been, grammatically, and a strong sense of where he’s going. His tripartite analysis of the problem is clearly reflected in the structure of the sentence, and thus in the three main branches of the diagram. (Turn it on its side and it could be a mobile.) The third “that” – thrown in 29 words into a 43-word sentence – creates three parallel predicate nouns. And then there’s a little parallel flourish at the end: “I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back.”

I think I blacked out while reading that — but it’s still awesome.

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20 responses to “Diagramming Obama’s Sentences

  1. I am a conservative and, yet, I can appreciate the beauty of good sentence, even from a liberal. Plus, it is darn good answer to the question. I always cringed whenever Sara Palin opened her mouth. Ooh, ouch, oh, stop talking, please!!!

  2. You never had to diagram sentences??? You are so lucky! I HATED doing it in 7th grade English class.

  3. “I was, however, quite amused to find a diagrammed sentence spoken by our President at his first official press conference.”

    Don’t you really mean that you were amused to find that someone had diagrammed a sentence that was spoken by Obama? Obama doesn’t actually speak in diagrammed sentences. That would be funny, though.

  4. A joy to read and to see.

  5. Diagrammed or not, this is a run-on sentence. No good grammar here.

  6. During the campaign, someone diagrammed Sarah Palin’s sentences, but for some reason couldn’t exercise herself to diagram those of any other candidate. She claimed that a sentence with a wandering diagram was an indicator of a shallow mind.

    http://organicbabyfarm.blogspot.com/2008/10/worst-criticism-ever.html

    I wonder if she’s seen this sentence of Obama’s.

  7. Yet the content of Obama’s sentence remains a string of bromides and doesn’t really say anything.

    Who doesn’t agree that no one should be above the law or that people should not be prosecuted if there is clear evidence of wrongdoing? Who isn’t, generally speaking, for looking forward instead of looking backward? What does the latter have to do with the former?

    Is Obama saying that if it were more important to look forward, he would not be for the prosecution of a wrongdoer? Who knows? Who cares?

    But gosh it sounds impressive. And he is such an intelligent, articulate person, don’t you know.

  8. Notwithstanding the lovely punctuation in the written form, the sentence SOUNDS to me like a rambling run-on.

  9. [Coming by way of ModernGal]

    I remember diagramming from grade school (that shows you how long ago that was). The teacher’s favorite “hello world” sentence was “Oliver eats onions”.

    Since then, I’ve realized that this type of diagramming is a carryover from the Old Days. A diagram ought to explain, not obscure (as the example does).

    The way it should be done is as a tree diagram: main verb at the top, subject down to the left, object to the right, and qualifiers under each.

    Someone pointed out on ModernGal’s site that speaking is sufficiently different from writing that it may be pointless to diagram a spoken sentence – most of which are run-on (like this one) and backtracked.

    There’s not enough graphics here to tackle a tree diagram, but there’s a stop-gap measure. We can make a partial diagram like this:
    (there are lots of indents, which I hope come through – I’ll put leading dots just in case)

    My view is also that
    ….nobody’s above the law,

    and,

    if there are clear instances of wrongdoing,
    ….that people should be prosecuted
    ….just like any ordinary citizen,

    but that,

    generally speaking,
    ….I’m more interested in
    ….looking forward than I am in
    ….looking backwards.

    There are really 3 separate sentences:

    “My view is also that nobody’s above the law.

    If there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen.

    Generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.”

    Each of those decomposes nicely into either an Old Fashioned diagram or a tree.

    (Obama lets some of his class-consciousness through when he says that those he’s talking about are somehow different than the “ordinary citizen” – even though they should be prosecuted just the same.)

    I do not share Hallberg’s awe of the original convoluted sentence.

    The third sentence is a completely different topic, and is designed to distract attention from the previous subject (punishment for wrongdoing).

    alex: “Obama doesn’t actually speak in diagrammed sentences. ”

    I don’t think anybody does. A few good writers may write in diagrammed sentences, but those are few.

  10. I adore diagrammed sentences, and this one is spectacular! If you’d like to learn more about this subject, Kitty Burns Florey wrote Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, a fun book about the history of, and her experiences with, diagramming sentences. It’s a quick, enjoyable read, and you learn some things!

  11. It’s a needlessly wordy and complex sentence however beautiful you may find the structure. It is, in short, a sentence put together by a lawyer.

    The structure is backwards; it would be far more concise if he were to say that “Generally I’m more interested in looking forwards than backwards, but if there are clear instances of wrongdoing then the people involved should be prosecuted.” But because he’s a lawyer he makes the strong statement first (“Nobody’s above the law,”) and then layers it with caveats and codicils.

    A sentence only a lawyer could love. BTW, you have way too many commas in there as well. The only one needed is before the “but”.

    Not trying to be nasty here by any means; I’m just slightly amused at lawyer-speak being elevated to literary status.

    • Reversing the order changes the meaning. What he said amounts to “I’m not going to pursue [prosecuting the previous administration]“.
      The way you have it says he will. What follows the “but” usually over-rides what precedes it….

  12. His sentence may be long, but it’s not a run-on. It has all the appropriate conjunctions joining its independent clauses.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Run-on_sentence

  13. ZZMike — That was my point. It was Kate who said Obama spoke in diagrammed sentences when she wrote “I was, however, quite amused to find a diagrammed sentence spoken by our President at his first official press conference.”

  14. grahamrmcannix

    Can someone point out some good diagramming software that isn’t big enough to crash a rather elderly PC?

  15. I would actually suggest an edit. If you parse the sentence, you see that the third clause is “My view is that I’m more interested in looking forward…” Unnecessarily wordy, and I doubt that Obama would say that on its own. I think he meant “My view is that nobody is above the law and that, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, people should be prosecuted as ordinary citizen[or "just like any citizen would be"]. But generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backward.”

  16. (sorry, that should be “citizens”)

  17. We had to diagram in school, but I don’t remember any of it. Now I know why. It’s completely pointless.

  18. Once, in sixth grade, I undertook (on my own) to diagram both the Preamble to the Constitution and the first sentence of the Decl;aration of Independence.
    The former was comparatively easy: a five-fold modifier to the verb of a subject – predicate – object structure.
    But the latter was a hum-dinger! I remember needing to do a lot of digging just to identify the subject and predicate… But in the end, it all fit together nicely, as one would expect!

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