In 1877, two professors at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, published a book entitled, Higher Lessons in English, wherein they offered an altogether new way of teaching students how to structure sentences. Termed sentence diagramming, this technique used a particular graphic layout to demonstrate the relationships between the various parts of speech. By configuring the individual parts of sentences in this visual array, Reed and Kellogg anticipated that students would better learn how to write sentences correctly.
Following its invention, sentence diagramming became an instant educational sensation. It experienced a kind of Golden Age within American classrooms and remained an instructional fixture therein for the next half-century. During the mid-1900s, however, the heyday of sentence diagramming was fading, and the once-commonplace approach began to garner criticism. Though some continue to teach it, sentence diagramming has now largely fallen out of favor in academic circles.
Theoretically speaking, sentence diagramming is a means for students to learn how to self-edit and become good writers. As Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, puts it: “When you’re learning to write well, it helps to understand what the sentence is doing and why it’s doing it and how you can improve it.” Once students understand how words and phrases relate to each other, they can more easily recognize and generate grammatically sound sentences. With this foundational knowledge in place, students would then hopefully be able to employ varied sentence structures throughout their writing. All told, these skills serve as the building blocks for more coherent and appealing writing.
However, when it comes to real-world application, the actual efficacy of this method has proven inconsistent. Much of the criticism leveled at sentence diagramming over the years has related to its polarizing effect in classrooms. For instance, for students who tend to be visual learners, it can be highly effective. And yet, because it is such a visual methodology, non-visual learners can find the process utterly mystifying. For these individuals, sentence diagramming is simply a confusing and overly complicated way of looking at a sentence.
So perhaps it’s for the best that this hit-or-miss technique goes into retirement. In my own experience, a comprehensive working knowledge of the different parts of speech—how to identify and use them properly—wasn’t reinforced during my schooling. My teachers never attempted to teach me sentence diagramming, so I can’t speak to whether it would have helped or not. The relative effectiveness of sentence diagramming in particular aside, its general goals do seem worthwhile. Even in today’s internet and text message world, where people are writing more than ever before, correct sentence structure can still be used. After all, LOLs are just interjections and totes is still an adverb, abbreviated or not. Who knows? Maybe diagramming tweets or blog posts will make us all better writers.
Did You Know?
Take a look, grammar and English-language enthusiasts. Can you figure out this sentence? A grammarian constructed it in the nineteenth century to explore how far one could go in assembling a grammatically correct, logical sentence using words that end in the ever-versatile –ing suffix.
This exceeding trifling witling, considering ranting criticizing concerning adopting fitting wording being exhibiting transcending learning, was displaying, notwithstanding ridiculing, surpassing boasting swelling reasoning, respecting correcting erring writing, and touching detecting deceiving arguing during debating.
For anyone who is up for an extra challenge, try creating a sentence diagram for this beauty. You may need to use paper larger than your standard 8.5-by-11 size . . .