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Why We Made Language Complicated

The reason for overcomplication and undercomplication of language has several easily dismissible reasons, some having to do with generation gaps, some having to do with education, and then there are conspiracy theories.

Once a part of the early English language curriculum was the diagramming of sentences beginning with simple two word sentences in which a subject was on one side and a verb was on another. The diagram becomes more complicated as different ideas are added.

Consider this diagram from the Pop Chart Lab, who diagrammed the first lines of famous novels. There are several ways that this sentence could have been diagrammed, but this particular method was chosen. Don't worry about understanding what grammatical term goes where for now. "Gregor Samsa" is separated from "he," and though they are the same, each represents different ideas. First, we associate Samsa with waking, associating that with morning. The word, "one" was chosen to associate itself with morning rather than, for example, "that" morning (different connotations).

Then, "he" has "found," indicating discovery. He does not necessarily see himself as the vermin, he "found himself" that way. He's not just a vermin, but a "monstrous" vermin. Each branch and association marked in the diagram serves a purpose, mostly to mark a careful association between one word and another.

Steven Pinker might be revitalizing an old art when he devotes a chapter to the diagramming of sentences, but he includes it because it can be and has been a useful sentence by sentence understanding and planning tool. He states, "the reason that the task is so challenging is that the main resource that English syntax makes available to writers--left-to-right ordering on a page-- has to do two things at once. It's the code that the language uses to convey who did what to whom. But it also determines the sequence of early-to-late processing in the reader's mind" (Pinker, 2014). More simply, the diagram of the sentence isn't to complicate the sentence, but as a way to introduce alternatives to the mind such that the information in that sentence or thought can be handled appropriately.

There is, no matter what is written, a divide between the intention behind the writing of a sentence and the way that sentence will eventually be processed. A diagram, though it is not essential to all forms of writing, can display those alternatives. In addition, it's another way to understand grammar and the role that different types of words play.

No one necessarily has to understand what a subordinate clause is in order to write well, but it can help a writer to understand those terms so that they can diagnose different patterns of error at sentence level. It can help them to better understand their medium and process their thoughts into a structure that makes sense to those that they're supposed to make sense to.

There are ways to diagram sentences such as the method that Pop Chart Lab employs that are more traditional and other methods that have been adapted since then. Each serve to demonstrate how the mind subconsciously processes certain thoughts and in what order.

This is one of Steven Pinker's diagrams. It might be difficult to understand at first in image form. We have two nouns, "bridge" and "islands." "Islands" is also part of a prepositional phrase that shows the nature of the bridge. When using a plural noun like "islands," we would normally use the word "are." That's why it might sound wrong to say "islands is." In normal circumstances, it would be. However, we have a "bridge." "The bridge to the islands is..." is correct because the subject is "bridge" rather than "islands." It helps people who write to be more aware of why certain rules make sense, how to employ those rules, and serves as an effective model of how we think about language as native speakers.

What Pinker did not state is that a diagram could also show what, in a particular sentence, might be missing. This has more to do with expression. If a sentence is supposed to create a certain atmosphere and there is an association that needs to be made in order for that to happen, a diagram can show what has been done so far and a space can be added to that diagram to show what is needed. If too much is added, the message of the sentence could be confused or too "wordy."

To that end, a diagram can show how a sentence might be trying to accomplish too many objectives at once. There aren't always many tools that can help writers diagnose and fix these problems at the level of a sentence and take on new habits, but this one is both underused and [in my opinion] very interesting and worth experimenting with.

We made language more complicated because we needed a choice among ways to express things in order to be as accurate as possible. What de-complicates that is that a single human will only require some of those methods.


Thank you to everyone who has provided me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!

For anyone who wants to follow along with this conversation on The Sense of Style, I do suggest buying a copy. I do not go over all of the methods and examples that Pinker uses and analyzes, so if you are interested in any of the concepts outlined in these posts, I highly recommend reading the book!

If you are interested in reading more and engaging with Purposeful Prose, you can become a member and comment or post on the forum. If you want more content more often, follow the brand new LinkedIn page! There, you'll get to see Purposeful Prose picks, tips, and more besides.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century. Viking

Summers, J. (2014, August 22). A Picture Of Language: The Fading Art Of Diagramming Sentences. NPR.

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1 Comment

Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Dec 31, 2021

Many thanks for this topic and showing so clearly what an effective tool sentence diagramming can be when crafting sentences for some writers. While no one single process works for everyone, it can be a "way to understand grammar and the role that different types of words play. " So well said!!!!

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