Opening Sentences From Great Novels, Diagrammed: Lolita, 1984 & More


I admit it: I still don’t under­stand sen­tence dia­gram­ming. Though as a mid­dle school­er I duti­ful­ly, if grudg­ing­ly, sub­mit­ted to that clas­sic Eng­lish class­room exer­cise, the prac­tice did­n’t stick, nor did what­ev­er habit of com­po­si­tion it meant to con­vey. Some of my teach­ers tried to make sen­tence dia­gram­ming inter­est­ing, but they could only do so much. They could only do so much, that is, with­out Pop Chart Lab’s “A Dia­gram­mat­i­cal Dis­ser­ta­tion on Open­ing Lines of Notable Nov­els,” a poster that “dia­grams 25 famous open­ing lines from revered works of fic­tion accord­ing to the dic­tates of the clas­sic Reed-Kel­logg sys­tem,” with each and every graph­ic “pars­ing clas­si­cal prose by parts of speech and offer­ing a par­ti­tioned, col­or-cod­ed pic­to-gram­mat­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of some of the most famous first words in lit­er­ary his­to­ry.”


At the top of the post, we have the poster’s dia­gram of Hum­bert Hum­bert’s famous first words, by way of Vladimir Nabokov, in Loli­ta: “Loli­ta, light of my life, fire of my loins.” That immor­tal sen­tence may always have struck you as incom­plete — does­n’t it need a verb? — but hey, it dia­grams, at least with the addi­tion of the implic­it (is) and a cou­ple implic­it (the)s. Fol­low the branch­es and you find the words’ con­cealed com­plex­i­ty visu­al­ly revealed. Just above, you’ll see dia­grammed a more tra­di­tion­al open­ing sen­tence from George Orwell, a much more plain­spo­ken writer. “It was a bright cold day in April,” goes the first line of 1984, “and the clocks were strik­ing thir­teen” — a more lin­guis­ti­cal­ly involved descrip­tion, as you can see, than it may at first seem. Fif­teen years after the specter of Reed-Kel­logg dark­ened my desk — in which time I’ve made writ­ing my career — I still can’t claim the abil­i­ty to pro­duce prop­er­ly dia­grammed sen­tences for myself. But I like to think that I can appre­ci­ate them, espe­cial­ly when they show me the work­ings of a suf­fi­cient­ly great sen­tence.

See more famous open­ing sen­tences from Pop Chart Lab’s poster (and pur­chase your own copy) here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell’s 1984: Free eBook, Audio Book & Study Resources

The His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Lan­guage in Ten Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

Learn Lan­guages for Free: Span­ish, Eng­lish, Chi­nese & 37 Oth­er Lan­guages

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Breaks Down Five Com­mon Word Usage Mis­takes in Eng­lish

Nabokov Reads Loli­ta, Names the Great Books of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, aes­thet­ics, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • BC says:

    I’d like to see the open­ing sen­tence from I, CLAUDIUS dia­grammed. That would be a com­pli­cat­ed mess:

    “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Ger­man­i­cus This-that-and-the-oth­er (for I shall not trou­ble you yet with all my titles), who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and rel­a­tives and asso­ciates as ‘Claudius the Idiot’, or ‘That Claudius’, or ‘Claudius the Stam­mer­er’, or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’, or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius’ [a mar­gin­al note here adds the date ‘A.D. 41’], am now about to write this strange his­to­ry of my life; start­ing from my ear­li­est child­hood and con­tin­u­ing year by year until I reach the fate­ful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I sud­den­ly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘gold­en predica­ment’ from which I have nev­er since become dis­en­tan­gled.”


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