On the Joy of Sentence Diagramming


I recently finished Tim Russert’s memoir, Big Russ & Me.  It was moving and thought provoking, as it involved so many important events of recent history, and vividly captured the mundane but surprisingly fascinating aspects of typical American life in decades not too long gone by, but decidedly alien to today. 

One quote that particularly struck me was this:

What I especially disliked was an exercise that still makes me cringe when I think of it: diagramming sentences.  “I don’t know why we have to do this,” I used to mutter under my breath.  I also complained about it to Sister Lucille, but only in private.  “Nobody will ever ask us to diagram a sentence,” I assured her.  I had no idea what adult life held in store for me, but I was pretty sure that this particular activity was not included.  And yet I have to admit that diagramming sentences made me a better reader, and, I hope, a better writer.  (133, emphasis added)

There you have it!  Proof from a famous writer that this exercise has value.  I hear the same gripes from my own students, who hate it with a passion (you know it’s valuable, because they complain about it most bitterly, like that other great lost art that I expose them to: memorizing poetry).  Most teachers have completely given up trying to teach this, as it entails so much grammar, but I make sure they all get at least a little dose of it.  Even for those who never catch on, they’re getting exposed to a part of their intellectual heritage, as Russert demonstrates.

Russert even jokes a little later on: “I was flattered that my name had become both a noun and a verb.  My only worry was that Sister Lucille might put it all together and ask me to diagram the sentence.”  (279)

Which reminds me, inspired by a college professor of mine, I used to tell kids that I’d excuse them from a final exam if they could correctly diagram the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence.  I stopped after a few years because some kids worked so long on it, but it was so far beyond their ability (in all fairness, it’s beyond mine and about anybody else’s), that it became counterproductive; some involvement with this great tradition just wasn’t worth that much crushing discouragement for the students.

I’d think that diagramming would be more popular.  A lot of people complain that, in English classes, there are “no right answers,” which turns off boys from the subject, who might also complain that it’s a girly class, anyway.  But that’s where diagramming comes in!  It forces us to see language as a predictable system that can be pinned down according to clear rules. 

I like to explain to kids that language is perhaps best understood as a machine, with lots of different little parts that work together to make the whole thing move.  And a good sentence diagram is just a schematic of the machine’s many interlocking components, an engineering blueprint, if you will.  What could be more manly than that? 

Besides, aren’t we constantly told that everybody’s a “visual learner” these days, and that they need graphic representations of information to learn?  Why aren’t these old fashioned frames being held up as the answer to all our prayers?

Myself, I enjoy a good sentence diagram for all of these reasons, and simply because it appeals to the linguistic puzzler in me; figuring out what goes where is a treat.  That’s why I wrote my example diagram at the top of this entry–made with good old Microsoft Paint–about crossword puzzles.  Two of my favorite nerdy passions in one!

I made the subjects blue, the verbs red, and their objects green, not out of any grammatical necessity, but only to make it, as my daughter would say, more “prettiful.”  You should be able to click on that diagram and enlarge it.  Can you read the sentence as it would look in normal prose?  Here’s a hint: the first word would be “Appearing,” and the last word would be “extraordinaire.” 

Finally, I must thank Dr. Patricia Lamb, formerly of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who taught me the finer points of grammar, especially the joy of diagramming sentences.

9 comments on “On the Joy of Sentence Diagramming

  1. Yippie! Someone else that teaches diagramming! My kids think I’m nuts, but their standardized test scores and SATs say otherwise… Bravo!

  2. I homeschool my kids, and we diagram sentences! I always loved it in school, and it really helps them get the point of avoiding misplaced modifiers.

    So I’m glad I’m not alone!

  3. I’m still not convinced that sentence diagramming is profitable. If the goal it communication, why does the student have to know that what he is saying is a noun or verb, etc… If a student can properly write a sentence, why does he have to know all of the parts of that sentence?? I just don’t get it. I think Grammar is old school, and is taught because it always has been taught. We need to think outside the box, and open our mind to teaching important things in schools, not just busy work. He says it makes him a better reader and writer? How?? How can knowing sentence structure in that depth do that? I am an engineer and a teacher. I just have never understood it all.

  4. Dear Sentence Diagramming Gurus:

    I am a federal prosecutor (Assistant U.S. Attorney) in Anchorage, Alaska. I am prosecuting a man for the crime of traveling across a state line with intent to engage in a sexual act with a 5 year-old. Fortunately the five year-old was fictional. Defendant was caught in an agent sting, and never got near a child. Anyhow, defendant’s attorney has challenged my reading – and the common reading – of the statute under which I have charged him, 18 U.S.C. s. 2241(c). Here is the statute:

    (c) With children.–Whoever crosses a State line with intent to engage in a sexual act with a person who has not attained the age of 12 years, or in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States or in a Federal prison, or in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the head of any Federal department or agency, knowingly engages in a sexual act with another person who has not attained the age of 12 years, or knowingly engages in a sexual act under the circumstances described in subsections (a) and (b) with another person who has attained the age of 12 years but has not attained the age of 16 years (and is at least 4 years younger than the person so engaging), or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title and imprisoned for not less than 30 years or for life. If the defendant has previously been convicted of another Federal offense under this subsection, or of a State offense that would have been an offense under either such provision had the offense occurred in a Federal prison, unless the death penalty is imposed, the defendant shall be sentenced to life in prison.

    Defendant’s argument is that the only “grammatically correct” way to read the above is to “include as an essential element the knowing commission of sexual abuse of children.” In other words, he’s arguing that as a grammatical matter, crossing a state line with intent to engage in a sexual act with a person under 12 is not enough. He claims that as a grammatical matter that clause must – or at least may be – modified by the “knowingly engages in a sexual act with another person who has not attained the age of 12 years.” His argument: “The statute … cannot be read as having created a new offense that punishes mere crossing of state lines with the prohibited intent. If the new first clause created a stand-alone offense, where is the subject of the second clause? In addition, if the second clause is the only form of the offense for which a defendant must “knowingly engage[] in a sexual act,” why is that second clause separated from this element by a comma?”

    I’ll admit, just as a straightforward grammatical matter, I don’t get his argument. It offended me on many levels, including a grammatical one. How can he justify hoping, skipping and jumping around the admittedly bad sentence like that? I thought diagramming it might help, so I tried to recall what I learned from the nuns about sentence diagramming. However, that’s been a while so eventually I resorted to a Goggle search. Employing simple diagramming rules, I have come to the conclusion that the act can be violated in one of 4 ways: defendant (1) cross a state line with the requisite intent; (2) engages in sex with kid under 12 while in special or maritime jurisdiction; (3) engages in sexual abuse described in sections (a) & (B) of kid aged 12-15, also in the special or maritime jurisdiction; or (4) defendant attempts to do any of the above.

    Does anybody have any thoughts on this? Do you believe there is more than one gramatically correct way to interpret the statute? Anyone care to venture a diagram?

    Many thanks,
    Kim Sayers-Fay
    Assitant U.S. Attorney
    Anchorage, ALaska
    (907) 271-2157

  5. Kim –

    Very interesting. I would like to know how this case is resolved. I’m an attorney as well, but I specialize in taxation.

    The statute wouldn’t apply at all unless the defendant crossed a state line, correct? I believe that crossing the state line with requisite intent is an element of the offense. If it is a separate offense, wouldn’t that mean that the other “offenses” don’t require that the defendant crossed any state lines? As a matter of jurisdiction, the Feds couldn’t get involved unless state lines are crossed.

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