Gas station without pumps

2010 November 10

Should high schools and colleges teach sentence diagramming?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:09
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Catherine Johnson posted praise for the book Sentence Diagramming: A Step-by-Step Approach to Learning Grammar Through Diagramming by Marye Hefty, Sallie Ortiz, and Sara Nelson, published in 2008.

Sentence diagramming has a long history in US education—Wikipedia claims it started with Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg’s 1877 book Higher Lessons in English. The Wikipedia article Sentence diagram has a fairly good, if rather brief, presentation of the Reed-Kellogg system.

Paul Kaiser praises the 1894 text A Key Containing Diagrams of the Sentences Given for Analysis in Reed and Kellogg’s Graded Lessons in English, and Higher Lessons in English, and sentence diagramming in general:

Not only does the schoolboy’s exercise of sentence diagramming act to slow down the rapid consumption of the sentence, which usually goes down much too smoothly, but it also puts it at a nice remove from the throat—that is, from the voice—pushing it back towards the mind. You start regarding the sentence not as an utterance but rather as a mechanism whose workings you can pick apart. You see it spatially rather than temporally.

I particularly liked the elegance and balance of one example that Kaiser scanned: “The mind is a goodly field, and to sow it with trifles is the worst husbandry in the world.”

The mind is a goodly field, and to sow it with trifles is the worst husbandry in the world.

I learned sentence diagramming in junior high, which would be the mid 1960s, about the time that Marye Hefty claims that sentence diagramming was phased out of American education.  I hope that it makes a comeback, as it provides an excellent way for those of us with analytic or spatial ways of thinking to learn grammar.  Given the very poor grammar of many of the engineering students whose work I have to read, finding or resurrecting an efficient way to teach them grammar would be valuable indeed.

There are several tutorials on the web, which I have not reviewed, because I have no particular desire to revisit my junior-high years:

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16 Comments »

  1. I learned a lot of grammar at school, which is quite unusual. But I never learned diagramming. I can definitely see it as a great way to break down complex sentences. It would serve both the purpose of teaching grammar and giving students a way to break down and understand complex text.

    Comment by FMA — 2010 November 10 @ 13:48 | Reply

  2. I think sentence diagramming should be seen as a vital grammar tool. I still use diagramming to check sentence structure.

    Comment by Stacia — 2010 November 10 @ 17:43 | Reply

  3. I learned sentence diagramming in 7th grade in the early 1980s. Clearly my teacher was really behind the times! To this day, I still revert to diagramming (usually in my head, but not always) when I hit a particularly tough spot.

    As a disclaimer, I’m a scientific/technical writer, so the analytical side of writing and language is my forte. What I like best about sentence diagramming is that you learn how the various words fit together to create the whole meaning. Understanding the relationship between the individual words and the ultimate sentence helps you craft better sentences beyond just the grammatical aspects.

    Of course, I’m also known for quickly taking complex scientific material and creating a flowchart or diagram to enhance understanding, so it is no secret that I find a visual approach to be helpful!

    Comment by MHA — 2010 November 10 @ 18:34 | Reply

  4. I learned sentence diagramming in elementary school. I don’t remember how to do it but I think it helped me to understand sentence structure. I hope the technique makes a comeback.

    Comment by Francesca — 2010 November 10 @ 19:26 | Reply

  5. I, too, learned diagramming in the early ’80s. While I remember enjoying it, I do not really remember how to do it. I feel it was a worthwhile endeavour, as I do it automatically as I hit tough spots while writing, like it has been ingrained. My dd, currently in middle school, has been taught sentence diagramming in her language arts classes, and I have seen the impact in the complexity of her writing.

    Comment by TJ — 2010 November 10 @ 19:49 | Reply

  6. One commenter sent e-mail saying

    Our son was obsessed with sentence diagramming! I sent him a link to your post this morning.

    One of his favorite books was Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky
    History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences
    :

    http://www.amazon.com/Sister-Bernadettes-Barking-Dog-Diagramming/dp/1933633107

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 November 10 @ 20:29 | Reply

  7. When I was working in MSR’s NLP group, one of the researchers had a 1-panel comic with a student and teacher at a blackboard. On the board was a big sentence diagram and the student is asking the teacher: “So, how much does a sentence-diagrammer make in a year anyway?”.

    The intent of the comic was to mock “useless” things we learn in school, but I found it particularly funny because most of the people in the group were making a decent living taking advantage of their advanced “sentence-diagramming” (computational linguistics) skills.

    Comment by garykac — 2010 November 14 @ 08:12 | Reply

  8. I loved diagramming sentences when I was in 5th grade in 1980. :) Grammar really needs to make a comeback in elementary schools. My son was writing sentences in kindergarten and then first grade and not teaching parts of speech until 3rd grade…what’s up with that?

    Comment by Monica — 2010 November 19 @ 18:02 | Reply

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  10. I spent a lot of time diagramming sentences in middle school in the mid 90’s . It became very useful later on for Syntax, Latin, and Greek classes in undergrad. I appreciate a view of understanding language that demonstrates how much structure is involved. The lack of grammar instruction in school mean I encounter a lot of people who seem to believe that language is random and chaotic. I think more people would be likely to try a second language if English instruction were more transparent.

    Comment by meep — 2011 February 13 @ 12:52 | Reply

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