According to “steveknows,” commenting on the Slate article “Help Us Diagram This Sentence by Donald Trump!” I have been punked. I don’t care. Gertrude Stein said there was nothing more exciting than diagramming sentences, and she wasn’t all that far from the truth. As with the claim that Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is the longest sentence in the English language, calling Donald Trump’s explosion of language a sentence stretches the meaning of the word sentence. Verbal speech contains no punctuation, so the decision to punctuate this particular string of words as a single sentence was Slate’s alone. I count seven completed main clauses or compound main clauses (e.g. joined by but, and, a semi-colon, etc.), including the command “Look.” There are also several phrases, like “having nuclear,” that connect to nothing. The rest are adverbial clauses, adjectival clauses, or noun clauses used as subjects or objects or appositionally.
Reed-Kellogg diagramming is mostly a parlor trick, these days. Plenty of arguments make the case that it’s inadequate as a means to set forth English syntax. It happens to be a trick I know, and rare is the time I don’t learn something from it. Is it possible to learn something from diagramming the Donald?
Yes, I concluded, it is. First, I’m surprised that so much of a speech that sounds like pure blather actually does form a few coherent sentences, albeit fractured and interrupted by other thoughts. Second, if you can locate the main clauses I’m talking about, you can see, graphically, how much weight they have to bear. Take what I’ve pegged as the third main clause, the one that begins “that’s.” Those two words (one of them elided) have to carry the burden of an adverbial clause followed by a prepositional phrase with a noun clause carrying five verbs as its object.
Rhetorically, that’s as ineffective as asking me to pick up and carry a five-drawer metal filing cabinet. Ditto the clause (the second part of a very long compound “sentence”) that begins “the thing is.” It carries a compound noun clause modified by an adverbial clause as its predicate; moreover, it drags along an adjectival clause that has no fewer than five sub-clauses hanging from it, just one of them carrying two noun clauses in the object position followed by a whole architecture of complex adverbial clauses.
This isn’t fancy syntactical footwork on Trump’s part. It’s just bad rhetoric. The nouns that serve as subjects for all these clauses are—with implied nouns in parentheses—(you), uncle, you, they, you, they, they, that, you, I, I, thing, it, we, that, it, lives, you, (I), it, I, I, it, it, you, you, what, they, it, it, they, it, women, men, Persians, Iranians, they, they, who, that, nuclear, uncle, what. The verbs of the main clauses are was, (had), know, try, is, know, (is), is, and would have thought. My point in listing these words is that, if nouns (especially nouns as subjects) and verbs are the backbones of sentences, fairly weak backbones are straining to carry all these modifiers. The effect on Trump’s audience isn’t achieved via argument or even syntax, but by the repetition of those suggestive words they and it.
Finally, although my initial reading of the chosen section from Trump’s speech concluded that it was pure stream of consciousness, diagramming it actually yielded a couple of intelligible points. You may not agree with them, but here (I think) they are: Trump believes he is smart, as his uncle was smart, and he possesses the credentials to back up that claim. If he were a liberal, he thinks, “they” — i.e., the biased liberal media — would give credence to his intelligence, and would trust his views on nuclear power. As it is, the Iranians (and the Persians, whoever they are) are out-negotiating us — a truth he can perceive because of his intelligence.
Go ahead. Correct my errors. Or tell me I’ve wasted my time. It was more fun, at least, than listening to the guy.
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