The rise and fall of sentence diagramming

by Grace

The sentence diagramming method once popular in American public schools was developed in the 1870s.

20140708.COCSentenceDiagramGeneric1

For a long time, sentence diagramming flourished throughout the American school system, and, despite being condemned as a useless waste of time in the 1970s, it still persists in many schools. Indeed, it spread well beyond the USA, and so a very similar system is taught in many European countries (though not, alas, in the United Kingdom). For example, schools in the Czech Republic teach sentence diagramming so successfully that researchers are investigating the possibility of including school children’s analyses in a working tree-bank of analyzed sentences.

I learned sentence diagramming when I attended Catholic elementary school, but I doubt any local schools are using it today.

Besides teaching grammar in a fun way (at least for some), diagramming sentences may offer the benefit of teaching how to pull clarity from the chaos”.

What Diagramming Teaches Us

When Joseph R. Mallon Jr. bumps up against a complex problem, he thinks back to a lesson he learned in high school from the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

The Philadelphia-area school’s Catholic nuns taught him the art of diagramming a sentence. Once all the parts of speech lined up, Mallon pulled clarity from the chaos. It’s a process he uses today to tackle tough issues as chief executive and chairman of Measurement Specialties Inc.

“Sit down quietly. Take (the issue) apart into its component parts. Make sure all the components fit together well. They’ve got to be well chosen, fit together and make sense. There are few (business) problems that can’t be solved that way, as dire as it might seem,” Mallon said. “Sentence diagramming is one of the best analytical techniques I ever learned.”

Investor’s Business Daily
17 October 2000

An online parser applied to one of my sentences generated this diagram:

20140708.COCSentenceDiagram1A

Even with my foggy understanding, I can see how diagramming helps in learning parts of speech and syntax.  The online tool is interactive, and provides parts of speech terminology for every word in the sentence.  It makes some mistakes, but it looks like a neat tool to use for reviewing sentence structure.  Unfortunately it does not accept pasted text.

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Richard Hudson, “A Brief History of Diagramming Sentences”, Slate, January 2, 2014.

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4 Comments to “The rise and fall of sentence diagramming”

  1. We did it, sometime around 1973 or so. I found it confusing – didn’t help me much. Many of the kids in the class couldn’t really read, so it went way over their heads.
    What helped me most in learning the parts of sentences was having to read in French. French writing uses a much more complex sentence structure than we do when writing in English.

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  2. So English grammar is a breeze once you’ve mastered French. It’s often been said that learning a foreign language helps in learning English grammar. I think part of the reason is that instruction in a foreign language often focuses heavily on fundamental grammar instruction, which is often glossed over in American schools.

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  3. It isn’t so much the grammar alone. Written formal French is heavy on the clauses, with many many commas in a sentence. Having to read that stuff teaches you to read really closely and carefully, and to make sure you know which clause applies to what.
    They taught us grammar in French, but I mainly had no idea what they were talking about. I don’t think I ever really “got” French until I had to use it, and then I figured out what to say by imitating everyone.
    I am a good writer and do not make grammatical mistakes (when I am writing for real that is, not when I am posting comments on a blog!). Yet I do not know the names of any of the weird tenses (what is future continuous, anyway?) or any of the other fancy parts of speech. The only thing I am worse at than grammar is phonics (to this day, I can’t recognize where words break into syllables, or where the stress is). Yet I did diagram sentences AND I took three foreign languages.

    My kids did a lot of grammar when they were in the early grades, although no sentence diagramming. I think it was probably good for them. At least, my oldest actually knows what future continuous means, and laughs at my lack of knowledge!

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  4. Many good writers don’t know grammar terminology, just as many math whizzes cannot explain their answers. They just “know” it.

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