Fun for Grammar Nerds

30 Apr

In my last graduate prose workshop, we’re doing some hardcore sentence diagramming. As I procrastinate my next and last set – diagramming all sorts of slippery complex sentences – I’ve looked back to our first more innocent-seeming exercise, one that is great fun, and comes from Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Take a three or four word sentence and expand it to at least fifty words while maintaining the original structure of doer-doing-done to. Then analyze the relationships between modifiers.

Here’s the original sentence we used: Carly baked the cake.

Here’s my sentence:

Knowing how to mesmerize with a flick of the whisk, Carly (that impudent strumpet), deftly and deliriously and, above all, viciously baked the illicit cake of mango and plum and angel food and acid on which we unknowingly gorged ourselves (foolish gluttons) and by which we lost at least one day. 

Give it a try – see what you come up with!


Here’s my analysis (the levels are somewhat indistinct as my days of doing sentence trees are long ago and far away):

Level 1

“Knowing how to mesmerize with a flick of the whisk” and “(that impudent strumpet)” modify Carly, extending her role in the sentence. The first phrase adds to her agency, putting special emphasis on the knowledge of her abilities in the kitchen while the parenthetical comments on her more nefarious intentions – all the while keeping a lighter tone (“impudent strumpet” is not to be taken too seriously) so that it isn’t yet clear whether what she has done is so bad.  “Deftly and deliriously and …viciously” define how Carly baked; these adjectives extend the idea of her skill as well as give a sense of her state of mind and manner of action; the last adjective continues the thread of blame begun with “impudent strumpet”.  “Illicit…mango and plum and angel food and acid” define the type of cake and extend the idea of something nefarious, with the final noun, acid, completing the idea. The last two clauses (“on which…” and “by which…”) also modify the illicit cake by showing its effect on the first person plural narrator and showing how Carly tricked them rather unethically.

Level 2 (modifiers of the modifiers)

“impudent” modifies strumpet, highlighting the blame, but not quite condemning her yet.

“above all” modifies viciously, highlights the blame more intentionally.

“unknowingly” modifies gorged, mitigating the speakers’ involvement in the cake-eating.

“(foolish gluttons)” modifies ourselves, defining the role of the speaker in the sentence.

“at least one” modifies day, extending the idea of the speaker not knowing – the exact loss of time is unclear (which perhaps puts into question what exactly happened).

Level 3 (last layer of modifiers – I am less sure of this layer)

“of the whisk” modifies flick, illustrating just what the flirtatious action is – how it is her kitchen tool that is an extension of her conniving hand.

”to mesmerize” modifies how, showing what Carly action knows.

“foolish” modifies gluttons, extending the idea that the gorging was ignorant of the illicitness of the cake.

One Response to “Fun for Grammar Nerds”


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