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.After the war...
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.
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:
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.
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).