Diagramming Sentences

I have been a subscriber to The Vocabula Review for years now; in fact I have a lifetime subscription and have recommended the site to many people. The way I see it, the more you expose yourself to the details of language—syntax, grammar, etc.—the better you will be able to write and think … or is it the other way around? Who said, “That which is not well written is not well thought”?

When I was young and less opinionated (long, long ago and far, far away) I remember endless lessons in school for diagramming sentences. But by the time I grew into High School, sentence diagramming was losing favor. I understand that by the ’70s it was no longer supported by the institutions of learning but still secretly recommended by some rogue teachers. Don’t turn me in but I  still have a copy of a grammar book from the 1950s which includes a section dedicated to sentence diagramming.

I loved diagramming and even if it was often a confusing task, it taught me a lot about the structure of sentences, despite the current evidence to the contrary in this Weblog. My daughter now teaches at the university level and often laments the inability of her students to even write a correct sentence in English. It seems to me that the loss of diagramming may have something to do with the demise of good writing in this country.  And, notwithstanding the debate between smelly old ink and paper books and digital books, we still need someone to write them … grammar and syntax matter.


So today I open (digitally, of course) my Slate and there is an article by Richard Hudson titled: “A Brief History of Diagramming Sentences.” Go to Slate for the complete article or for more information visit the author’s site on School Grammar.

What tools does a grammarian need? A brain helps, and so does a computer, but surely one of our most essential tools is some kind of diagramming system. How can we think about a sentence’s structure, after all, without displaying it visually? Geographers have maps; mathematicians have equations; composers have musical notation; economists have graphs; and grammarians have trees. …

The UK … started a big international campaign against all grammar teaching (with or without diagrams) in the first half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, America followed and the disease spread throughout the English-speaking world and beyond.

As we struggle to rebound from the effects of that disaster, it’s worth honoring Stephen Watkins Clark and his bubbles! Nearly two centuries later, where would modern linguistics be without him? And even more importantly, where would those countless generations of bright school-kids (and teachers) have found their fun?

Now go forth and diagram a sentence. Use whatever system you prefer: lines, bubbles, columns, trees, flowcharts, colored tooth-picks. Jump right in and grab a challenging sentence or two, maybe Molly’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses or the sentences of Sarah Palin?

3 thoughts on “Diagramming Sentences

  1. My thoughts exactly about maths and literature! (and grinning widely here) I am still astounded (and spitting feathers often enough) at the so called ‘readability indices’ some computer applications spit at me. And you are reminding me of things I haven’t thought of for years! Yes, the fog index for Molly piece was something absolutely monstrous, and to all intents and purposes the whole thing should have been ripped and binned, and yet… Thing is, I always found it quite sad and at the same time compelling that, at the end of our degrees and being by then quite proficient in English language and literature and linguistics, Joyce (and ‘Ulysses’ most particularly) was sort of bypassing most of the final year students – “over their heads”, as we used to say back then – as was Saramago, and his ‘Memorial do Convento’, a Portuguese seminal stream of consciousness work which was translated to English (don’t even think fog index with this translation!!!) as ‘Balthasar and Blimunda’. I was not that deep into computers, computational linguistics or ‘code’ at the time, still am not as my life took other turns, though I was already an end user and mildly interested; but as far as linguistics and ‘grammar’ was concerned, I often reflected how it was quite a shame that only the linear and ‘fitting in the box’ language (or, in this case, along the straighter tree branches) would be truly accessible and enjoyable for so many students. I couldn’t help but thinking about how much, semantically, was being left behind, being lost.

    Mmmm. My little grey cells need to start spinning seriously again… Maybe I should consider going for a few joyrides with Oulipo or something…? We never got that far back then, don’t ask me why – maybe because, after all, Coimbra, as celebrated as it was as a centre of knowledge and excellence, was not that renowned for out-of-the-box, revolutionary thinking. It always made me feel that it was a bit of a catching-up-with-things work, rather than placing itself at the forefront. Calvino, for instance, was nowhere to be seen – something that has to be nearly akin to a crime, no…?


  2. Back in 1980 at Coimbra University, Chomsky’s generative grammar (oh, those trees!!!) were all the rage and could flunk you out of English Linguistics IV (and cost you your degree). I had an intense and unabated love-hate relationship with it, but I remember spending a whole afternoon doing just that to Molly’s soliloquy in the American Studies library, to an audience of most of the English Lit IV group – I did win the dare, but surprisingly I wasn’t very popular afterwards. Go figure certain things out…


    1. That was about the time we were using symbolic grammars to generate compilers for computers. What fun! I remember the hardest part, however, was getting the diagrams into some form of mechanical print (back then if you recall, the mighty IBM was doing their best to convince the world that all we needed were capital letters, even to do graphics!).

      I had an experience with Molly’s soliloquy too. They sent us to a writing seminar at work where we learned to avoid business gobble-d-gook and write concisely. That was where I learned about the Fog Factor to calculate the level of any writing. For extra credit I analyzed the soliloquy with the result that the single sentence generated an astronomical Fog Factor. I then compared it to an example with a more reasonable Fog Factor that was dry, boring, and easily forgotten.

      I guess I was suggesting that literature and mathematics shouldn’t be mixed. Of course, I later discovered OULIPO and my little gray cells are still spinning.


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