For better or worse, diagramming sentences is not dead.
Dying, yes. But not quite killed off entirely.
I know this because my sister, who works at the middle level in a private girls’ school in Maryland, teaches her students about — or tortures them with, depending on how you look at it — sentence diagramming in her Romance Language class. She doesn’t do a lot of it but does introduce the concept to them.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, here are the basics: Sentence diagramming is a way of taking the words in a sentence and organizing them on a branch of lines to visually show the relationship of the various elements to each other. It shows, for example, how the verb relates to the subject and how certain nouns relate to prepositions as objects of those prepositions.
And this helps with … what? Presumably, it helps with writing skills.
Perhaps I’m not the best person to talk about the benefits of sentence diagramming, though, as I was singularly terrible at this skill in school. Fortunately, sentence diagramming was simply one part of English class. If we had a course just in sentence diagramming, I would have failed.
Being able to write well did not mean that I understood the relationship of each word in one of my sentences to the other words in that sentence. My brain just didn’t work that way at that time.
By the time I started teaching English, diagramming sentences just wasn’t a big thing. It certainly wasn’t a large part of the grammar books we used. In fact, I never did teach it because who can teach something they don’t really understand, much less value? I felt that I was benefiting my students more by teaching parts of speech and the finer points of grammar and writing separately.
Editing has made me evaluate other people’s sentence constructions and think about how the pieces of sometimes oddly constructed sentences fit together. I do understand now how diagramming could help a person figure out whether to use a singular or plural verb. And sentence diagramming might help someone understand how a gerund or infinitive can be the subject of a sentence. Still, I don’t need a sentence diagram to tell me how an adjective modifies a noun.
And for a long sentence, the diagramming is way more complex than the writing itself. If you haven’t seen a diagram of a complex sentence, let me tell you that it is a mess of lines and levels with the words of the sentence scattered here and there.
It looks like a person’s yard after a bad storm has decimated the branches of the trees. How can an activity designed to provide clarity to the writing process create such a muddled, confusing mess of words out of a single sentence?
Since it is the end of the school year, my sister posted an online evaluation form for her students, asking them to comment on each of the listed activities that she taught throughout the year.
For sentence diagramming, one student wrote, “I really liked this activity.” This amazed me because I didn’t realize that any student could actually feel so positively about what I perceived as “the dreaded sentence diagramming.”
But then, showing that we have some kinship of feeling after all, the student added, “However, I could not always remember the point of it.”
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