Friday, May 10, 2013

Excuse Me, Please, I Need a Diagram

After some revealing comments about parts of speech following a recent post, I pondered my early education and why it is that I rarely am stumped about the function of a word in a sentence. Answer: I learned sentence diagramming. When a sentence is deconstructed and then reconstructed within a framework of lines that clearly delineate word function, “many things are made clear that else lie hidden in darkness.” (Profound apologies to Longfellow and Evangeline for my repurposing this wonderful line.)

It seems, however, that not all people (even in my age group) were taught this occasionally challenging but definitely enlightening sentence-structure tool. In the 1980s, when I spent several years working in the language arts departments of five elementary, middle, and high schools, I found even teachers seemed to have little understanding of its practicality in helping students to recognize parts of speech. This puzzled me. Is not a picture worth a thousand words?

I decided to explore why the ability to diagram a sentence can be a valuable tool for both writers and editors. My first thought was to include examples. Unfortunately, my lack of expertise left me befuddled about how to create and incorporate the necessary graphics into this article and unsure whether copying and pasting them off the Internet might be an infringement of copyright. But don’t despair — I’ll make sure to give you appropriate links.

Sentences that work are essential elements of good writing. Knowing the parts of speech helps us use words most effectively to create sentences that touch our readers and pull them into our stories. This builds our fan base — as well as being beneficial if we are editing someone else’s work, especially when we need to teach them to create great sentences to make their work more marketable. Can that happen if we don’t know the difference between an adjective and an adverb? a conjunction and a preposition? Of course it can. On the other hand, knowing how and why language works is a distinct benefit, whether we use it in our own writing or to help someone else with his or hers, because it allows us to employ language in the best way possible to accomplish our purpose.

Here are some examples of building sentences to create more vivid word pictures. Different parts of speech have been added to create depth, tone, heart, and texture. Note that the original ambiguous mind picture has been developed into a sharp vision of a specific scene.

Children play.

Little children play.

Little children play in the dirt.

Little children play in the dirt at the city dump.

Little children dressed in rags play in the dirt at the city dump.

Diagramming each of these sentences would create a grammatical roadmap to help us understand how different parts of speech work to build more effective writing. Check out the links below and then tell me whether you believe that understanding sentence structure and word usage would help you improve your writing. The third link, from the New York Times, is particularly enlightening. Its complex example from a Henry James work is a great eye-opener for those of us who love to expound in long, complicated sentences.

Diagramming Sentences (Capital Community College Foundation)

Taming Sentences (New York Times Opinionator)

Retiring editor Linda Lane still enjoys working with writers to help them create great books. Please visit her team at or take a peak at her under-construction site at


  1. Thank you for this, Linda! I, too, learned to diagram sentences. Lord, I feel like we were part of the stone age. LOL. But it made a huge difference! And thanks for the links so I can brush up on it!

  2. Although the thought of diagraming sentences brings back sixth grade nightmares and gives me a huge case of the whim-whams ... you are mighty right, Linda ... ya gotta learn them rules.

  3. Thanks so much for this, Linda. I snagged the following from the NYTimes article as it made perfect sense, as well as provided a bit of a chuckle

    "When constructing a diagram, we focus on the structures and patterns of language, and this can help us appreciate it as more than just a vehicle for expressing minimal ideas. (If language were good for only that, OMG, TMI, RUOK and their ilk would fill our needs.)"

    I failed miserably at diagramming sentences, just as I failed miserably at algebra. I don't know if the fact that I am dyslexic has anything to do with that, but I just know I hardly got past, noun, verb, adjective and adverb. Oh, but I did learn not to end a sentence with a preposition. LOL

  4. I remember diagramming sentences in high school and thinking, "I'll never use this." Then I became a writer and needed to relearn it. I discovered the art of cumulative sentences which took the basic lesson further. I loved it so much, I devoted a chapter to it in Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers. Every time I edit a book, I go back and reread the section to keep it fresh in my mind.

  5. My goodness, Susan, I fear we are, indeed, from the stone age. I have to wonder if the deterioration in language usage (even in what is now grammatically acceptable) results from a lack of understanding the components of sentence structure.

  6. Yep, Christopher, we "gotta learn them rules." Oh, better watch out for those whim-whams. :-)

  7. Maryann, diagramming came very easy to me; in fact, I thought it was fun. Algebra was an entirely different story. I still shudder when I inadvertently stumble onto an equation, and I make a hasty exit from wherever it exists.

  8. Diana, when I was looking for good links to diagramming sites (because of my limited ability to navigate the programs that would have allowed me to create my own diagrams), I found myself once again appreciating what I learned half a century ago.

    An unexpected benefit from my long past diagramming lessons came much more recently when I began learning Spanish. My understanding of English structure has been a huge help in my efforts to learn how Spanish works. Even though the sentences are constructed differently, there are some surprising similarities.

  9. I tried to read a book recently that had so may sentence fragments in a row, I had trouble following it. I kept rereading the sentence to find the missing pieces. I put it into my "donate" pile after three chapters. Structure serves a very important function.

  10. Linda,

    I figured maybe I had learned how to "diagram" sentences but it had been called something else...until now. This does not look familiar at all!

    Once again, I thank my lucky stars to have been brought up in a household filled with educated, loquacious people, avid readers and natural storytellers all. Perhaps if you looked through an electron microscope into my DNA, you would see some of these diagrams imprinted there—but I haven't seen them.

  11. Deborah Turner HarrisMay 10, 2013 at 3:28 PM


  12. Vaguely remember learning to diagram in 7th grade. One of the few fun things that was enjoyable, especially for very long sentences with multiple phrases.
    Guess it is now a dead skill for the most part.

  13. Kathryn, I believe some people have a natural ability to use words well, whether or not they can identify them as nouns, verbs, etc., much like some people can play music without reading a note on the staff or create a beautiful painting without any coaching about colors, mediums, shading, blending, or whatever. Now about your DNA, hmmmmm...could be. :-)

  14. Thank you, Deborah.

    Anonymous, sometimes when I am editing a manuscript, I think this dead skill should be resuscitated.

  15. I have scary memories of trying to learn diagramming in 7th grade, with a brand new teacher who struggled to control the class. I do think if
    I had learned it better then, it would be helpful to me now.

  16. Fortunately, Liza, I have no such bad memories of diagramming — which may be a major reason it was a fun journey rather than a grammatical mountain I couldn't cross. If you have time and inclination to review the article's links that explain it, you might find them helpful in grasping the concept in an unintimidating way.

    I need to mention here that the majority of people with whom I've addressed this issue have nightmarish memories similar to yours. I wonder whether a significant portion of the fault lies with teachers who may not have been onboard with the value that learning this skill would bring to students in terms of later language understanding and usage — or who didn't understand it themselves. In either case, they shortchanged their students. And then later, it seems, teaching the skill fell out of favor because a lot of folks I work with never heard of it.

    Written communication extends far beyond writing and editing into numerous occupations and applications. Knowing how to use language to the best advantage serves all of us well. Whether this implies that learning the basics of diagramming sentences should still be pursued, however, is a personal decision.

    Thank you for your comment, Liza. You speak for many people. :-)


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