Schwa and Sasquatch, mystery revealed

The mystery of schwa ranks up there with Sasquatch. Let’s answer some questions I’ve been asked more than once:

Is schwa for real or did you make it up?
Yes, it’s real. It looks like this:





What about Sasquatch?
It depends on who you ask. Some people believe that there are some of these creatures living in North Carolina.

What is a schwa, exactly?
It is that vague, neutral-sounding vowel, like the “a” in “about.” It usually comes across as “uh” in a lot of words. Here’s a list of examples.

Where can I read about the history of the schwa?
There’s a complete article at Wikipedia. Or maybe a definition will be enough?

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!

Happy National Grammar Day!

National Grammar Day was a few days back, but in true Quaker fashion I’ll still be celebrating for days on end, because to me every day should be Grammar Day. Grammar is the ingredient in our writing that makes it easy to read and understand. Using the conventions of proper clause separation and spelling and such will ensure that your message gets read and understood. That’s what we want, right? I don’t buy into the school of thought that says that someone else can come behind you and edit, that just feel sloppy to me. Why not just learn the rules and write nice clean prose the first time?

Why indeed? Read Twyla Tharp‘s book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life In Chapter 9, “Skill”, she expands on the need for artists to master the basic skills of their craft. For writers, grammar is a basic skill. She encourages a high level of awareness of the skill set that you are working with, emphasizing the need for growth. No artist is above the need for practice in the basics.

If you are looking to brush up on your grammar, here are a few books that I think are great fun:

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey is a book that showcases the history of diagramming sentences.

look here for diagrams of common constructions.

For your own diagramming joy, use this site to see your sentences in diagram form.


For the basics of grammar and punctuation, the most fun books I’ve come across are Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s books The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed and The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed

Notice: the two books by Karen Elizabeth Gordon have some risque content, so depending on how you feel about that, you may want either to avoid them or read them aloud to your significant other, whatever floats your boat. But, the Kitty Burns Florey book totally has my squeaky-clean seal of approval.

Please share some of your favorites, there are a lot of good grammar books out there.