Sentence diagram mobile!

I had the inspiration a while back to make a mobile out of a sentence diagram after reading this article by Garth Risk Hallberg about President Obama’s grammar. Tucked away in the article, about four paragraphs down, Hallberg says, “Turn it on its side and it could be a mobile.”

I immediately decided I’d do it, and here it is, finally finished two years later. I started working on this particular project in October 2010, with a friend. She picked a simple sentence (she’s smart that way), and I picked a long rambling masochistic one with delicious parallel structure:

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” Pablo Picasso

The long rambling sentence ended up in a jumbled heap on my office floor, it would have been a monstrosity of a mobile. So instead, I decided to use this much more practical and just as lovely sentence:

“A loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge.” Thomas Carlyle

This is the process we used:

1. Choose a sentence and diagram it. I have some diagramming resources here.

2. Print out your sentence on card stock, making two copies (one for the front and one for the back). Remember that when you hang this, you want the words to be visible as the mobile moves about. Leave plenty of space around each word.

3. Paint a big lot of narrow diameter wooden dowels with shiny black spray paint, outside on a tarp, on a windless day. I’d recommend doing this ahead of time.

4. Using a paper cutter, trim the words, leaving some space under the words so that there is room to glue them on to the dowels.

5. Using your sentence diagram, lay out the words on a large table. (I had to go out and buy a new dining room table for this project, but getting a new table is optional.)

6. Cut the dowel rods to the right length, angle the ends so that they fit together in the places where they will be glued (the prepositional phrases, the single word modifiers). Use a black marker to color the exposed wood.

7. Glue the words on to the cut dowel rods, along the bottom and the top of the word, on both sides of the dowel rod. We used Gorilla Glue.

8. Glue the angles together. Glue the vertical lines on there, separating subject, verb and direct object, etc. Glue single word modifiers at a slant from the horizontal line below the words they modify. I took a “more is more” approach and applied big globs of glue to hold these joints. Weigh it down where needed.

9. Wait for the glue to dry. Read a few chapters in your book, go plant some bulbs, do your grocery shopping, make some lists.

10. Use fishing line to make a loop out of your prepositional phrases. Then, find the center of gravity and tie another piece of line to that point. Hang all the modifying phrases and clauses this way. At this point, you need to experiment with hanging your modifiers until it all looks right and balances. A dab of white glue on the knots will keep them from sliding.

And voila! Click on the photo to see details.

Yes, indeed, a sentence is a work of art. I love the way the participle spins!

4 thoughts on “Sentence diagram mobile!

  1. Hey! Looks wonderful! Just gives one all kinds of good feelings to know that words and beauty and movement are peak experiences when they are connected!


  2. Thanks, Arran, the photo really doesn’t do it justice. The modifiers spin smoothly, and the observation was made that with this particular sentence, it can read forward and backwards. You can start with “beginning” or “heart” and it makes sense either way. Fun times, glad to work on this project with you.


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