diagramming sentences

Lazybrain has been reading Anne Tyler's Digging to America, and asked about the phrase diagramming a sentence:
I hadn't come across this term before, although in my 'progressive' education I missed out on being taught formal grammar so I wouldn't swear to the fact that it is not used in Britain.
Most American and British native English speakers who are younger than 50 missed out on the technicalities of English grammar in school because grammar teaching went out of fashion in the 1960s-70s. But if you're an American, you're more likely to be familiar with the phrase diagram a sentence for a few reasons: (a) the verb to diagram is 'chiefly' AmE, according to the OED, (b) there were pockets of resistance to the downgrading of grammar in the US (which would have been harder to maintain the the UK because of national standards, and later the introduction of a national curriculum), and (c) it was probably a more popular activity in the US even before the 1960s, because grammar study enjoyed more status there.

Dick Hudson (Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at University College London) has written a helpful concise history of grammar teaching in England and, with John Walmsley, a much longer academic paper on the subject (published in Journal of Linguistics (2005), 41:593-622; warning: link=PDF file). Before the dropping of grammar in the 1960s, the status of grammar as an area of study was a bit different in the US and UK. As Hudson and Walmsley write:
Up to the outbreak of war, it seems, little serious work on grammar was being pursued in Britain, still less on the grammar of English. The work which was published was produced primarily by free-lances or practising teachers and was orientated to the needs of schools, journalists or civil servants. But although there existed only the most rudimentary institutionalised framework for academic work on the grammar of contemporary English in Britain, and little motivation to produce anything outside such a framework, writing grammars only constitutes a small part of the country’s linguistic endeavour as a whole: the energies of the next generation were being absorbed by other tasks.

Outside the UK, by contrast, the first half of the twentieth century was a productive period for English grammars. Major works were published in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany - in English, but not by British authors. During the same period, other important grammars appeared in the United States (Curme 1935, and the first of Fries’s grammars - American English Grammar, Fries 1940). The latter is significant in that it is the first grammar of English to be based on a specified, limited corpus of material – 2,000 personal letters written to U.S. government departments, together with excerpts from 1,000 others.
After the war...
While work on the description of English proceeded apace on the mainland of Europe, it was not apparently seen as sufficiently prestigious, intellectually challenging or stimulating, to draw scholars in England into its sphere of influence. A perceived gap in scholarship can, though, act as a spur to filling it. The question that exercised some scholars’ minds was how to do this. In the United States, the new insights provided by structuralism were already beginning to work through into descriptive grammars.
Now, Hudson and Walmsley here are writing about academic work on grammar, but there seems to be some reflection on this in what as happening in schools. In his brief history, Hudson writes:
The early 20th century [i.e. pre-1960s] saw a steady decline in the quality of grammar teaching in English schools, and increasing calls for its abandonment. One reason for this decline was the complete lack of university-level research on English grammar, which led a government report in 1921 to conclude that [it is] “…impossible at the present juncture to teach English grammar in the schools for the simple reason that no one knows exactly what it is…”. Another reason was an energetic campaign on behalf of literature, presented as a liberal and liberating alternative to the the so-called 'grammar-grind'.
Meanwhile, in the US, (AmE) students/(BrE) pupils were learning to diagram sentences using the Reed-Kellogg system. Because I went to a Catholic school rather than a (AmE) public/(BrE) state school (and the Catholic schools, at least then, were less easily swayed by educational fashions), I did learn to diagram sentences--and I couldn't get enough of it. (Had I known then that I could get paid to do such things as a grown-up, I would have been a less awkward adolescent, I'm sure.) But I should note that 'diagramming sentences' is not the same thing as drawing sentence [or phrase structure] trees (i.e. what most syntacticians do nowadays), although sentence trees are indeed diagrams of sentence structure. 'Sentence diagram' generally refers to Reed-Kellogg diagrams, a different animal, and I'm thrilled to have an excuse to post this one from Capital Community College's grammar guide (which I read about on bOINGbOING yesterday). It shows the grammatical relations among the words and phrases of the preamble of the US constitution. (Hey, maybe the UK doesn't need sentence diagramming, since it has no written constitution. Any American my age can recite a modified version of this preamble [leaving out 'of the United States' in the subject], to a tune, because we learned it while watching Saturday morning cartoons.) The preamble goes:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
And it can be diagrammed like this:

Dick Hudson also has a web page addressing frequently-asked questions about grammar teaching, which includes:

Q. Wasn't there once a thing called 'sentence diagramming' that was part of grammar teaching?

A. Yes, and in many countries it's still a popular activity - e.g. in the USA, which is well provided with web sites explaining how to do it. The system that's widely used in the USA and parts of Europe was invented in the 19th century and is rather rigid, but it has its uses as a way of showing how a clause is built out of a verb and its subject, with various bits and pieces added to each of these and to each other. Modern linguists have devised much better ways of diagramming sentences which would be very useful in KS3 [ed: Key Stage 3] classrooms. For a good illustration of how they might be used for teaching syntactic structure, try the VISL web site in Denmark, which was built for school children; but there are plenty more to choose from (e.g. one for KS3 teachers on my web site).

In my last job in the States, I really enjoyed teaching a grammar course for Education majors. (I taught it in the summer term [i.e. during vacation time], which meant that most of the students had already failed the course at least once and were re-taking it. Gotta love a challenge like that!) And these are the types of diagrams that that course required. I hadn't done such diagrams since I was 12 or 13, but I have to say I really enjoyed them--even if they're not the types of diagrams that come with academic-linguistic approval.


  1. I was taught to diagram (Am/E) in Catholic school, Detroit in the 70's. I hated it, and it was a marginal aspect of my English classes. I had a high school teacher who would try to teach it, and get herself confused with her own examples on the board.

  2. We had to do extensive sentence diagramming in 7th an 9th grades. I loved it!

  3. I had no exposure to diagraming except in "intro to linguistics" in college. I do remember liking the class, but reviewing the text ("Transformational Syntax," Radford, 1986 [printed in UK]") I find that this seems closer to the trees that you say are not diagrams.

    I want to add that while neither so-called Grammar school, nor High School, presented any formalized grammar, studying a foreign language necessitated a detailed understanding of both English and the other language's grammar. In other words, while I retain precious little from high school Latin, I did learn much about English grammar which survives.

  4. I'd second JHM's point that many Brits of a certain age would have got their grammar education from learning Latin. Of course much of the details are different, but it will teach you the different parts of speech and so on.

  5. But, of course, Latin teaching went out of fashion about the same time as grammar teaching, so today's school leavers tend not to know what a noun is. (Often even the ones who come to university to study Linguistics/English Language!)

    Grammar is becoming fashionable again, but now we have a generation of teachers (or a couple of generations of them) who were never exposed to grammar in school and who got the message that it's really hard and not worth doing anyhow...

  6. Oh, and by the way, Ginger Yellow, JHM is American!

    (Another reminder that one needs to repeat one's nationality in these comments, as not everyone will know! And in this discussion, saying when you went to school would be helpful too.)

  7. It isn't that I'm being recalcitrant by not constantly repeating my nationality. It just seems tedious to have to do so. I instead created a profile which provides this information (click the icon). This seems a better solution than wasting space at Google's server farm with repeated declarations. If more information on the profile page would be helpful, however, please let us know.

  8. Greetings. I have two American children now doing sentence diagramming at school. I never did this in England although consider myself as having received a pretty good education. My question though is "Where does the ever-present "like" fit in to any of these sentences?"

  9. I never learned about sentence diagramming, nor had I ever seen what it looked like (though I had heard the term) until I saw this very example last week sometime. My question is: what is the point?

    I was never formally taught anything about English grammar other than the names of the parts of speech and certain errors to avoid. I learned what I know about grammar from studying French. Later I also studied Latin.

  10. I was taught in the US in the 1980's to diagram sentences and I really loved it as well! I found that it was very useful to know English grammar before embarking on learning a foreign language. (I took Latin & German, so maybe it's also because these two seemed particularly grammar-centric that the English grammar background helped.)

  11. jhm--all that one needs to do is to type 'American' or 'AmE' in a comments when referring to personal experiences that are country-sensitive. It seems a greater buren to expect that readers should have to look at all of the commenters' profiles to get that info--there are often dozens of commenters and many of the profiles are dead-ends, so one learns not to waste a lot of time clicking on them.

    expatmum--The like you're referring to is a discourse particle (like oh, ah, well, y'know etc. In school grammar, they'd be called 'interjections'). These are analy{s/z}ed at a separate level from the sentence structure (i.e. the discourse structure), so are left out of sentence diagrams.

    canadian--Lots of reasons. Doing analytic work of any kind is good for the brain--helps students/pupils develop a certain type of mental discipline & an appreciation for the complexity of language, introduces concepts that will be helpful in learning other languages or in following prescriptivist rules in English. Dick Hudson has also written a piece on transferable skills one gets by studying linguistics (and using such analytic systems), which is here, if you're interested.

  12. I am 22 years old. I grew up and went to school in California. I was homeschooled for my junior high years and learned how to diagram sentences then from my mother. When I went back to public school for high school I was the only student in my advanced English writing class who had ever diagramed a sentence. I think having that skill has helped me to understand better how sentences are constructed, which has made me a better writer.

  13. I went to school in the US during the 70's, when so many traditional teaching methods were abandoned. Yet, I did learn how to diagram a sentence and loved it. It's like solving a word puzzle!

    This Christmas I received a book on the subject: Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentence by Kitty Burns Florey . It was a fun little read in which the author discusses not only the value of diagramming, the history of diagramming and also lays out what some American authors thought of it. Gertude Stein seemed to love diagramming sentence -- though she seemed to abandon punctuation.

    I would recommend the book if you would like to know more -- it's not scholarly, but appears well researched and has an engaging style.

  14. This is fascinating, thank you. I am English and went to school in the U.S. for three years (ages 7-10). I learned more English grammar than I was ever taught on my return to English school (although my knowledge of sentence diagramming solely from reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels). Aged 11, I went to a grammar school where I was lucky enough to learn Latin. The English grammar I'd been taught in the U.S. was a big help. I went on to study modern languages at university and wished I knew more about my own language.

    I think I can see both sides of the coin. I think grammar is important and I would have liked to have had better English language teaching when I was at school in the U.K. But I also think that British English is flexible, evolving and very much alive. I think other modern languages (French, perhaps) where grammar is more prescriptive, suffer somewhat because of this.

  15. Does the US constitution really say "insure domestic tranquility"???

    Surely that should be "ensure"?? If they really mean "insure", how can I make a claim??

  16. I went to school in California in the '50's and '60's. We were introduced to diagramming sentences in, as I recall, seventh grade (age 12). We didn't do a lot of it, however. I haven't felt the need to do it since then, either.

  17. Yes, Traff, it's insure, and that was correct at the time. The spelling distinction between insure and ensure came later. (So, like inquire/enquire and some other in-/en- pairs, the spellings were fairly interchangeable.) Here's the OED's first definition for insure:

    1. trans. To make (a person) sure (of a thing); to give security to (a person) for the fulfilment of something: cf. ASSURE v. 9, ENSURE v. 1, 2. Obs.

  18. [Sig: Brit, in US 37 yrs]


    Seems to me the point got lost because diagramming concentrates not on the purpose of the exercise but on its shape. In my UK schooldays (class of 56) it was called parsing, and this act of identifying parts of speech inevitably results in some sort of diagram, whether on the blackboard or within the mind. But it’s the parsing that counts, not the resultant shape. When we were asked to parse a sentence, the concept of diagram never arose. I can still distinguish between gerund and gerundive, with no diagram in sight or mind.

    You raise another interesting point. What language should one learn first, in order best to learn others. To my mind, learning English grammar first, then French, then Latin, is bass-ackwards; but it doesn’t matter too much in the end, so long as you understand all. However, I’d choose Latin and Greek first, then Scandinavian and German. English, as a bastard language that mixes all of the above, comes last. English appears to have almost no structure or pronunciation rules at all. All I can say is, I’m glad I understand it quite well, but sympathize with those still struggling with it.

  19. I was taught to diagram sentences in 6-8 grade (Indiana). Most of my classmates found it tedious, while a friend and I instead spent most of our time trying to come up with sentences that would cause problems for our teachers. That would have been very good linguistics training, but would you believe we were punished for it?! OK, actually the punishments were for repeatedly using the word "balls" in the aforementioned problem sentences, but still....

  20. That reminds me of my third grade teacher, who had us play a game in which you had to challenge your classmates to think of a word that was spelled with a particular double letter. (If they failed, you had to prove it was a do-able problem by spelling such a word.) My first try was double-A. My teacher challenged me, and I said 'bazaar'. She said that wasn't fair. On my next try, I said double-I. She challenged me again, and I said 'skiing'. She (a Norwegian immigrant) said: "That's not an English word!" Had I been a little more linguistically sophisticated at age 8, I would have said: "Then how do you account for the '-ing' suffix?"

    But the moral of the story is: it doesn't pay to be a smart aleck in class. Unless you count the moral victory of embarrassing the teacher.

  21. What xcalibr39 wrote reminds me to ask if anyone has an opinion on a vague recollection that I once heard that since Latin (or perhaps a combination of Latin and Ancient Greek) grammar was used as a template for the study of English grammar, and that the two are different in meaningful ways, a situation was created wherein English grammar is (or was) usually taught in a less than a logically optimal way. I don't claim to know what these "meaningful" differences might be; and I don't recall much formal grammar from school in any event, but the idea doesn't sound all that far fetched.

  22. That's true of traditional grammar teaching, jhm--for example the claim that there are 8 parts of speech. Also some prescriptive rules (e.g. 'don't end a sentence with a preposition') are illogically based on what can/can't be done in Latin, rather than what English can/should do.

    I have to disagree w/ xcalibr39 re the bassackwardness of learning English grammar before learning a second language. After all, when teaching how to use, say, adverbs in French, the teacher usually has to relate it to what students know about adverbs in English. So, it'd be good to know what an adverb is before you start learning formal grammar in that way. (Of course, if you're learning the second language in a more natural way, say, through immersion, then there might not be any formal grammar teaching anyhow, so you'll never learn what an adverb is--at least not at a conscious level).

  23. In Denmark I've learned to analyse sentences.

    This involves marking the verb with an O, the subject with X, the (direct) object with a triangle, the indirect object with a square and prepositional phrases with a squiggly line. In Latin many many years later I was additionally taught to mark attributives with a 'v'.

    This mainly served the purpose of learning how to place commas in Danish - of course the system now is even more of a shambles than it was then, now that they're tried to 'simplify' it.

    Funnily enough I never enjoyed language classes - the only thing I found remotely interesting was grammar and we didn't do much of that, really. (Though by the time I was taught German, this certainly didn't hold my attention, either, so in all likelihood it's just me who's irreparably contrarian.)

  24. I attended a Catholic grammar school in the U.S. through fourth grade (mid-'80s). I learned sentence diagramming there, though probably not overly complex ones at that age. After that I switched to a public high school where it was never mentioned.

    In fact, very little actual grammar was taught in public school. I picked up some more almost by accident when I started studying French in high school. It's difficult to learn how to conjugate French verbs when you don't know the names of the tenses in English...

    I also took two years of Latin in high school (the most that was offered). I wish I could have studied more, actually. It was a great help learning English vocabulary and also tying together knowledge of French and other romance languages. It saddens me to think that these types of programs are disappearing now.

  25. 55 from upstate NY. We dissected a LOT, especially in 8th grade, which would have been 1966.

  26. I diagrammed many a sentence in a Catholic grammar school in NY from 4th to 6th grade in the early 80s. Sister Virgina. I'll never forget her. She had us memorize a huge list of prepositions (among other things)...about, above, after, against, along, among, around, at...it was a really solid education that has stuck with me to this day.

    I loved it. Someone mentioned earlier that it's great for building analytical skills, and I couldn't agree more. I've been applying frameworks like those diagrams to everyday problems ever since.

    As an American living in the UK--about to celebrate my 4th anniversary this month--I've had many a conversation with my English colleagues about sentence structure and the ways we were taught...just the other day, I threw out "independent clause" and "dangling modifier" (two things that I think are relatively straightforward) and they all looked at me like I was crazy.

  27. Yowsa, a topic close to my heart. I never diagrammed sentences, but I had two demanding English teachers (5th and 9th grade) in Texas that grilled us in grammar usage and identification. My kids (attending a UK local secondary school) don't know a direct object from an indirect one, or what a transitive verb is, etc. When they ask me to proofread their papers, we don't even have a common set of terms which I can use to explain why they've written a poor sentence. Being teenagers, they chuckle and dismiss my despair as a nerdy and obsessive. How I WISH the school would spend a little less time on multi-subject projects and more on good v. bad sentence structure. Bring sentence diagramming across the pond, I say! I wish I could say my kids' French studies had clarified matters, but there seems to be too much time spent memorizing lines for the exams, rather than actually studying the language. Sorry if I have insulted any Brit readers here. The science and math programmes (Br/E) have been outstanding, I should mention!

  28. I have a question for you. Can you tell me what language this word is. I have been talking to a friend on line and they end some of their sentences using the word "i'll". I know this is short for I will, but don't know where "i'll" originates from. Can you help me.

  29. I have a friend who uses the word "i'll" at the end of some of their sentence. I know it is abbrevated for I will. Can you tell me what language this originated from?

  30. So I'm a couple of months late here, but I felt like chirping in anyway. I graduated from a public high school in the US in 2005, and studied grammar quite a bit, especially in 7th grade when I was about 12. I loved diagramming sentences, and seeing the preamble to the constitution properly drawn up and diagrammed brought a smile to my face. I think the logicalness of diagramming appealed to me (I'm studying math now in college). So studying grammar isn't necessarily dying out these days.

    And I also learned the other style that Sili brought up, with the squiggly lines and boxes around certain parts of speech. I don't remember much, but I distinctly recall underlining the subject and double underlining the predicate, along with various other boxes and circles and such for other parts of speech.

    And having both the ability to diagram sentences and identify parts of speech only aided and abetted learning Spanish as a second language, which then created a sort of feedback loop into my understanding of English grammar.

  31. Simply fantastic! My Catholic elementary school was most certainly not on the cutting edge of the US education system, so I, too, waded through sentence diagramming in the 1980s. All those grammar and phonics classes obviously didn't help me much, as evidenced by this post, but it invariably comes up in conversation, particularly when discussing the nuances of the English language with non-native speakers.

  32. It's been 2 years since the last comment on this post but really wanted to comment on this subject. I learned to diagram sentences in the Washington DC public schools system during the late 50s and early 60s. I absolutely loved it! While I believe I was born with a natural talent for language arts (majored in linguistics and minored in French in college), diagramming sentences went a long way in helping me understand English grammar and write well. The fact that it, as well as grammar, are rarely taught these days may be one reason so many students come out of high school barely able to write grammatically correct sentences and why basic writing (formerly called "remedial English") courses abound at community colleges in this country.

  33. It's been 2 years since the last comment on this post, but I just had to post a comment. I learned to diagram sentences in the Washington DC public schools system during the late 50s and early 60s. I absolutely loved it! While I believe I was born with a natural talent for language arts (majored in linguistics and minored in French i college), diagramming sentences went a long way in helping me understand English grammar. The fact that it, as well as grammar, are rarely taught these days may be one reason so many students come out of school barely able to write grammatically correct sentences and why basic writing (formerly called "remedial English") courses abound at community colleges.

  34. i was diagraming sentences in elementary school in georgia in the early 80's - don't think this ever went out of style for teaching. It was always much more interesting in regards to holding my attention in class. I was always bored and wound up skipping a whole grade to counter my boredom all through school. Though I am now studying astrophysics-diagraming sentences left a mark on my memory. I certainly hope children today learn this tool for grammar though I believe in this modern world our language is doomed for texting and shorthand and poor communication skills. LOL

  35. I, too, did grammar and learned how to diagram sentences in my American Catholic grade school and high school. That would have been around the late 90s. I remember being surprised upon entering high school that many of my fellow students who had gone to a public grade school had not been taught any grammar before. I loved it. It reminds me of doing math, except with words! It has also been invaluable in learning foreign languages and with academic writing (knowing where to place the commas, not to split the infinitives, etc.).

  36. Under circumstances that even most British readers won't recognise I was coached for an exam in 1955 when I was ten. The teacher used the term predicate in what may or may not have been the sense that she had been taught. It's not how I would use the term now.

    I went on to a posh secondary school which was (a) traditional in many ways but (b) rich enough to employ bright young teachers who had no truck with traditional grammar. In one class — not mine — an old-established teacher taught what I think was a mixture of parsing and 'clause analysis'. It was syntax, anyway, and he made a game of it which he called 'tick-tock analysis'. A boy who later became a great friend was baffled and frustrated beyond endurance. He failed completely to understand this grammar teaching, and yet he was by a mile the finest prose stylist of our year.

    About fifteen years later I was doing 'observation' as a preparation to a teaching certificate. To assist in the class I was observing, I was talking to students (about 12 years old, I think) doing worksheets which might be called 'grammar-lite'. A boy was underlining the nouns to show understanding of the definition A noun is the name of a person, place or thing. I saw that he'd underlined yellow in a sentence about a yellow ball or something. I sought to put him straight by directing him to the definition, but he quite reasonably retorted"But it is a name! It's the name of a colour!"

    The people (in Britain) who trained English teachers in the post-war years took seriously the claimed link between grammar instruction and writing ability. So they did a statistical analysis and found no correlation.

    Such grammar teaching as lingered around was based on semantically defined parts of speech, oversimplified clause syntax and identification circularly defined subordinate clauses. This was bulked out with the teaching of shibboleths. In short, grammar teaching was rubbish. It was probably inevitable that it was abolished for a generation or so. Then we could start afresh with decent grammar teaching.

    Diagrams like yours are not unknown in Britain. They are one form of 'mind map' used to organise notes, essay plans etc.

  37. I graduated high school in Massachusetts in 2007.

    I never had any in depth training in grammar.

    I've picked up most of the rules of English grammar through continuous pleasure reading, but I mostly lack the meta-language to describe those rules.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)