Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Diagramming for Grammar

How many of you remember diagramming sentences in elementary school? Where you shuffled, with great trepidation, to the chalkboard to draw a straight line and bisect it to show the “subject” (noun) and “predicate” (verb). And then the diagonal line(s) underneath one or more of those words to show “modifiers.”
I have to make a confession—I liked diagramming. Although some have likened it to a mathematical equation, I see it more as putting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle (I’m not mathematically inclined, but I do like puzzles).
It is easy enough to figure out “The horse galloped” or “The cat hissed.” But what about “John’s horse galloped around the paddock and then ran into the woods.” Oh my. Now you’re getting into lines underneath the lines beneath the subject/predicate line. And where does “around the paddock” go? OK, maybe that’s easy enough (under the verb galloped seems logical). But where does the rest of it go? And why do we care? Do we need to know how an airplane is designed before we fly? Do we need to know the terms and parts of a sentence before we write?
Well, yes and no. You don’t need to know the terms “participle,” “gerund,” or “appositive” to write well. But sometimes you need to know the rules before you can venture into breaking them.
According to Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, diagramming was introduced in 1877 in the textbook, Higher Lessons in English, by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg to “reform the cold-blooded murder of the English language.”
Florey writes, “By promoting the beautifully logical rules of syntax, diagramming would root out evils like ‘him and me went’ and ‘I ain’t got none,’ until everyone wrote like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or at least James Fenimore Cooper.”
Florey also asks a teacher who is presently teaching diagramming to her seventh graders, why?
“‘It just makes grammatical ideas clearer,’ she says. ‘It’s a tool for teaching them how to construct a sentence correctly.’”

“Does it make them better writers?”

“She dismissed the idea. ‘Maybe it will make them better editors, but it does not improve their writing.’”
Aha. Maybe that’s why I’ve ended up as an editor! And as for making my writing better, maybe something subliminal in the back of my brain helps me draw upon my diagramming experience to decide questions like whether to use “he” or “him” as the object of “who.”
Who knows?
What are your experiences with diagramming and what did you learn from it?
Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog... is a fun and quirky read that brings back memories of grammar school and learning to piece together the language puzzle.
A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel published novel is Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series, and blogs.

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  1. I liked diagramming. But then, I also liked the symmetry and order of algebra and geometry. As a high school student in the late '60s, I was convinced I'd fail college English if I didn't know ALL about diagramming. My teacher smiled, taught a smattering, and focused on composition. My college professors never mentioned diagramming, so I passed. As an English teacher in the early '70s, I looked at my students' writing and put diagramming at the bottom of my to-do list. Imagine my surprise (and disgust) when the writer of the most imaginative, most graceful prose that ever came across my desk went to a small private college (on a football scholarship) and was relegated to a remedial English course because--he didn't know how to diagram sentences.

  2. I seem to recall diagramming sentences once or twice, though I don't think it was a big deal, and I can't really remember how to do it today. We did have to learn the names of the various parts of speech, and our essays were corrected. I suspect the lack isn't the major problem with my writing today.

  3. I have no memory of this - none! Could it have been taught differently in Canada (though I was in the states grade six,seven and eight)? I get nervous just thinking about it. Yikes. I'm going to stop thinking about it. Now.

  4. In high school (eons ago, Northeastern Colorado) we diagrammed sentences for years. I did not like doing it, but I must confess that it made sentence structure clearer and that to this day it helps me analyze my sentences.

  5. I used to like diagramming, but it's been years since I took apart a sentence. I do admire someone who loves diagramming, though.

    Straight From Hel

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  7. I loved to diagram sentences. I first learned how to in 7th grade at the American school I attended for one semester in Brazil.
    My teacher had very green eyes and red hair. I can't remember anything else about that English class except that every day when the teacher put the sentences on the blackboard that we were to diagram, I felt happy and excited.
    For several years afterwards, I diagrammed sentences just for fun. I now own the "Sister Bernadette" book and I consider it one of my special books.

  8. Thank you for this blog. I'm gonna put this book on my wish list.


  9. This is a fun subject. I liked it, NOT because I like math (I don't!) but because it's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. But I'm not sure I could diagram any more without a lot of study--especially long sentences with lots of modifying clauses, etc.


  10. Memory lane. Any mention of diagramming sentences puts me back in the 9th grade classroom, watching Mrs. Green ridicule Rodney for being awkward and dropping his papers, for having no clue how to diagram a sentence. She had white hair and a pinched mouth. She knew all the answers. She knew Rodney wanted attention and did silly things to get it. So she belittled him for it, and invited us to laugh along. I didn't laugh. I knew she was wrong to treat any of us like that. But I didn't speak up to challenge the laughter because I thought she'd flatten me next. It wasn't fair. To even the score a little, I've never diagrammed another single sentence.

  11. Oh my, you bring it back. The nuns had us diagramming sentences in elementary and middle school [50's]. It never bothered me, but then I loved 8th grade algebra (I even used it to write programs for deals in the early 80's when main frames were still around and Lotus 123 hadn't arrived yet.) For as much as I like the concept of diagramming, I find I often return to my NYC roots and put sentences in backwards order. It must be the influence of immigrants whose sentence structure works differently - similar to an HP calculator that uses Reverse Polish Notation.

    I think another good thing about diagramming is it helped to train the mind to analyze and clarify - traits that may not be getting encouraged any more. (Unfortunately, diagramming didn't help me with commas.)

  12. I loved diagramming sentences; it was the only time I didn't hate being called to the board. I like puzzles too, and math. I guess my mind is rather compartmentalized.

  13. I liked diagramming sentences, too. I like puzzles, not a real whiz at math, and I sure can edit!

    Diagramming sentences was easy for me because I knew the basic parts of speech. However, when there were long sentences, with all those modifiers, as you say here, Heidi, it was challenging for me to put them under the right sections. And I love a challenge :)

    I am grateful that this junior high English exercise has remained with me all these years because it has helped my writing in so many ways.

    Do you think dangling modifiers is another subject?


  14. I haven't diagrammed a sentence since 7th grade, but I loved it, knowing exactly how and why my sentences worked.

  15. Wow, that was so long ago, I'm not sure I was even taught how to do it!
    But I wish it HAD been pounded into my head, because I'm sure I would be a better writer. I was always good at English, but most days, I look at grammar rules and wonder what on earth they mean!

  16. It's funny because I've forgotten many grammatical terms, but I seem to have a "built-in sense" for what they are and why they're used. So maybe some of that elementary school "drumming" did stick!

  17. I never learned how to diagram sentences! I understood grammar, but I was absent the day the teacher taught diagramming, and when I returned I was completely mystified by all the diagonal lines! Fortunately for me, once the initial lesson ended, we never had to do it again.

  18. I learned to diagram sentences in the 50s, and that taught me how words are used to make a sentence more effective. Then in the 80s, I worked as a theme reader for grades 4-12 in a King County (Washington) school district. The middle school youngsters whose papers I was reading had no clue how to tell an adjective from an adverb or a noun from a verb. I had the audacity to suggest to the teacher that she show them how to diagram sentences. She informed me that they didn't do that anymore because the students didn't understand it. Then I opened my big mouth and said, "That's funny. We understood it when I was in school." Needless to say, they didn't learn to diagram sentences. Nor did any future papers indicate a firmer grasp on the parts of speech. Is there a lesson here?

  19. I like diagramming in school. As I'm writing, I still occasionally think about how a sentence might be diagrammed. I know, I'm strange...

  20. Wow, this sure brings back memories, although more pleasant than the ones Jen had from reading this post. Isn't it amazing how one topic can create so many different reactions.

    I don't even remember if I was good at diagramming or not. I do have a vague memory that I kind of liked it, but I think all that did get imprinted somewhere on my brain. Like Heidi, I may not know all the exact terms relating to grammar, but I do have an instinct about how they should go together. It might just be a "writer" thing. :-)

  21. Heidi, I loved diagramming too. We learned it in the 8th grade in Kellogg, Idaho from a teacher named Miss Rainbolt. I'll never forget her. Neither will some of the students who had to repeat the 8th grade because they didn't pass her class! I taught literacy for many years to adults, and it is clear, they never had any classes where they learned parts of speech or how to construct a sentence or paragraph. I'm known as the "grammar cop" in my extended household. Thanks for the memories! And, like Mary, I think about how a sentence might be diagrammed too! Maybe it's a northwest idiosyncrasy. How about a column on Latin classes?

  22. I am a teacher who loves sentence diagramming so much that I created a website all about it!

    I have seen that diagramming can be very fun, and it is an effective way to learn grammar.

    It's a shame that more teachers don't use diagramming in the classroom. I'm trying to change that with my website.

    Check it out if you want some nostalgia... or if you're interested in learning how to diagram. It's called English Grammar Revolution.

    :) Best,
    Elizabeth O'Brien


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